Each Christmas season, l venture into downtown Chicago to experience all of the city’s holiday magic. And after 20 years of living just outside the Windy City, I can say without question that there’s quite a bit of wonder to behold this time of year. And what I love most about Chicago during the holidays, is that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to fully embrace and enjoy Christmas time in the city. In fact, there are plenty of festive things to do in the city on a budget and some of the best things to do are free!
Let’s take a look at some of my favorite free or inexpensive things to do in Chicago during the holidays.
View the Magnificent Mile Holiday Lights – Starting in mid-November, millions of lights begin to twinkle on the 200+ trees that line Michigan Ave (aka The Magnificent Mile), an event that officially signifies the start of the holiday shopping season in the city. As you walk down the street – which is one of the busiest shopping streets in the city – it’s hard not to get swept up in the holidays as you view the lights and festive decor all along the Mag Mile, while casually admiring the storefront holiday displays, listening to Christmas music and sipping your hot chocolate.
Wreathing of the Lions at the Art Institute of Chicago – In 2023, the Art Institute will celebrate 30 years of adorning their beloved and iconic bronze lions with beautiful holiday greenery, complete with large red bows. Located just outside the museum on Michigan Ave, the majestic lions flank either side of the large stone steps leading up to the entrance, making it not only free to view, but super easy to snap a few photos as you are walking past.
Maggie Daley Skating Ribbon – There are many free or inexpensive ice skating options all throughout the Chicago area. However, my favorite is the Maggie Daley Skating Ribbon, located in Maggie Daley Park on Randolph. Traditional, outdoor circle ice skating rinks are definitely fun, but the Maggie Daley skating venue makes you feel like you are literally skating on a ribbon of ice surrounded by trees and bushes – truly a scene reminiscent of classic Norman Rockwell paintings and old post cards from the baby boomer era. Entry to the skating ribbon can easily be free – if you go at certain times and have your own skates – otherwise, it’s a very low cost to enter – from $5-$20 a person (depending on skate rental).
Christmas Tree at Millennium Park – After you’re finished skating, take a few minutes to walk over to Millennium Park (near Michigan Ave and Washington) to view Chicago’s official Christmas tree. Each year, the city of Chicago holds a nomination period to find just the right tree – it must be at least 45-feet tall, preferably a Norway Spruce or Fir tree, and located with 50 miles of the Loop. In 2023, the city selected a 45-foot Colorado Blue Spruce for its 110th Christmas tree, donated by a family in Darien, IL.
Christkindl Market – Inspired by Christkindl Markets in Germany, the Chicago Christkindl Market celebrates German and European traditions by bringing together a host of holiday vendors in Daley Plaza that sell traditional German food, handmade gifts and decor, and lots of beer. This free event takes place over several weeks in November and December and is surely one of Chicago’s most favorite holiday traditions. Although this event is free, it’s extremely busy. It’s best to go during a weekday in the morning/early afternoon if possible. You could also opt to visit one of the satellite markets in Wrigleyville or south of Chicago in Aurora.
Macy’s Holiday Windows – Starting in 1897, Marshall Field’s on State Street (now known as Macy’s) created an elaborate toy display that quickly evolved into highly detailed window displays. More than 125 years later, Macy’s continues to depict nostalgic holiday scenes in its windows each year, with such magical themes such as Santa’s workshop, Christmas dreams, the Nutcracker and more.
Ciao and Happy Holidays!