The Most Dazzling Light Displays in Chicago This Holiday Season

The Windy City is currently a Winter Wonderland.

Photo by CZS, Courtesy of Brookfield Zoo
Photo by CZS, Courtesy of Brookfield Zoo

The holiday season in Chicago is that special, singular time of year when cold weather is something that’s warmly embraced—and paired with a mug of steaming Glühwein from Christkindlmarket. It’s that magical season when Chicagoans start getting weirdly territorial about parking spaces, when locals join tourists on the downtown ice rinks, and when the CTA gets a literal glow up via holiday decor and music. But you needn’t go out of your way to partake in the merriment, as holiday light displays can be found all over Chicagoland, lending luster to a season of color and joy.

One of the best and brightest cities to experience the holidays, light displays cast a jolly glow on parks, neighborhoods, homes, and businesses all over town. And while certain homemakers might bring their A-game with intimidatingly complex light displays, they can’t hold a candle to the particularly extravagant illuminations found at the city’s museums, botanical gardens, and zoos. Festive fun for the whole family, from a trip on a Santa-clad CTA train to a nighttime walk through a luminous zoo, here’s where to see some of the best and brightest holiday lights in Chicago this year.

3-9 pm on Holiday Magic dates
Brookfield Zoo, $29.95 for non-member adults, $20.95 for kids 3-11, $24.95 for seniors over 65
The longest-running holiday lights festival in all of Chicagoland has been in the game for more than 40 years—and like a fine wine, it’s only gotten better with age. Now, more than 40 years in, the Brookfield Zoo’s Holiday Magic has more than 2 million sparkling lights strewn throughout its entire grounds, along with a luminous 300-foot tunnel, holiday music aplenty, LED-lit animal sculptures, and all manner of snacks and sips. There’s also a 16-foot-tall gingerbread house and a 41-foot tree, while entertainment includes letter-writing to Santa, juggling elves, a carousel, and ice-carving at the Nature Center. Holiday Magic runs on weekends in December, as well as the rest of the week after Christmas.

Chicago Botanic Garden

Open after dark, until 11 pm each night
Chicago Botanic Garden, $34 for adults ($30 for members), $19 for children, free for kids under two
Less like a typical holiday light display and more like an extravagant, immersive art experience, Lightscape is a show-stopping experience at the Chicago Botanic Garden that’s sure to provide plenty of oohs and ahhs. Back in action for the 2023 holiday season and running through January 7, 2024, the labyrinthine outdoor display features roving pathways illuminated by glowing stars, shimmering trees, and a Winter Cathedral, along with whimsical features like super-sized flower sculptures, neon-lit branches, and flickering torches, all of which provide a certain Alice in Wonderland-style energy.

Phil Parcellano / Lincoln Park Zoo

4:30 to 9:30 pm Sunday-Thursday, 4:30 - 10 pm Friday-Saturday, 4:30 - 10 pm December 31, 4:30-9 pm January 1-7
Lincoln Park Zoo, $7 on weeknights, and $10 on weekends (free on Mondays)
The Lincoln Park Zoo is a fun—and free!—go-to year round for all kinds of wild, family-friendly fun, but there’s just something extra special about seeing it lit up with tens of thousands of Christmas lights this time of year. The annual ZooLights runs through January 4, 2024, transforming the park into a veritable North Pole with a light maze, a Candyland-themed light show, carolers, ice carvings, visits with Santa, cookie decorating with Mrs. Claus, a holiday pop-up bar with s’mores, warm drinks, and a 65-foot Ferris wheel that provides panoramic views of all the magic. This being a zoo, there’s emphasis on sustainability and conservation, with 100% of the lights being energy-saving, wind-powered LEDS. While the zoo is normally free, tickets to ZooLights support the organization’s animal care and conservation efforts.

Train through December 20, bus routes through December 23 (check here for the full schedule)
Regular fares are $2.50 for the L train and $2.25 for buses
Anyone who uses public transit in Chicago will tell you that the city’s trains and buses are no sleigh ride, but for a brief, beautiful moment in time each year, you can forget about strangers falling asleep on you and instead just revel in the magic of the season—as long as you’re on the CTA Holiday Train and not, say, a regular route, in which case strangers will surely continue to use your shoulder as a pillow. Each year, select CTA train and bus routes take turns as a makeshift Polar Express, temporarily transforming standard vehicles into full-blown Santa regalia. Per the CTA schedule, train cars and buses are periodically bedecked in twinkling lights and holiday music through December 23, complete with reindeer and Santa waving at passersby. And for the first time since 2019, passengers will be able to get photos with Santa as well.

The Morton Arboretum

Nightly, 4:30 - 8:30 pm
The Morton Arboretum,$13.40-$35.20 for members and $16.75-$44 for guests
For Christmas lights with a bit of pomp and circumstance, it makes sense to visit the Lollapalooza of trees in Chicago: The Morton Arboretum. Each year, the sprawling botanical wonderland puts on a stunning showcase of interactive holiday light displays set to sound and music. This year’s Illumination, running until January 6, 2024, sees 50 acres of trees and pathways bedazzled with all manner of lights, glowing gardens, and laser shows. The crux of the spectacle is a one-mile paved walking trail that traipses through luminous tunnels and under trees that glow when you hug them, interspersed with concession tents and fire pits for marshmallow roasting. Back for a second year is a late-night, adults-only series called Electric Illumination, held December 15, 22, and 29 from 9:30-11 pm, that features clubby music set to light shows.

All holiday season
Millennium Park, Free
As the most popular tourist attraction in the entire Midwest, Millennium Park is an apt locale for the City of Chicago’s official Christmas tree. This year’s behemoth is a 45-foot Colorado Blue Spruce that marks the city’s 110th Christmas tree, holding down the fort near the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Washington Street in the heart of the park. Until January 7, 2024, the tree casts a gorgeous glow over one of Chicago’s busiest thoroughfares, and provides a picture-perfect backdrop for folk ice skating on the McCormick Tribune Skating Rink.

Navy Pier

Through December 20, hours are Monday-Thursday 3-9 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-10 pm, and Sunday 11 am-7 pm; December 21-January 7, hours are 11 am-7 pm (see holiday hours)
Navy Pier, $27 for adults, $17 for kids ages 3 - 12, free for kids under 3
In case you’d like to experience holiday lights without exposing your skin to frostbite, Navy Pier has the win-win solution with the return of its annual Light Up The Lake. Held through December 31, 2023, the lavish indoor/outdoor showcase—held in and around the Festival Hall—boasts interactive light displays, an ice skating rink, an artisan market, fire pits with s’mores, live music on weekends, Santa visits, and for those looking to relieve a little holiday stress, axe-throwing. Altogether, there are more than 600,000 lights, plus recurring fireworks shows on Saturdays.

J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

Daily, 9:30 am - 4 pm
Museum of Science and Industry,$25.95 for adults (free for members), $14.95 for kids ages 3 - 11, free for kids under three
There’s a whole world of holiday lights to ogle at the Museum of Science and Industry, which has steadily grown its annual “Christmas Around the World” tradition to feature a globe-trotting spree of special decor. Through January 7, 2024, the Hyde Park museum features a central four-story behemoth of a Christmas tree in the main rotunda, surrounded by a series of 50+ smaller trees and lights inspired by cultural holiday traditions around the world, from Korea and Colombia to Latvia and Egypt. Additionally, Santa is on-hand to pose with kids in his photo studio, and be sure to check out the Science of Snow exhibit, featuring highly detailed photography of actual snowflakes captured by physics professor Ken Libbrecht.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He's the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Follow him on Instagram.