It’s not for nothing that people often sing of Christmastime in the city. Between the festive window displays (we’re looking at you, Macy’s on State Street), the hustle and bustle of holiday shoppers and the snow falling softly down, Christmas is a special time of year in the Toddlin’ Town and its surrounding neighborhoods—especially if you know where to find the best Christmas lights near Chicago. Whether you want to take the family on a whimsical hike through a forest rigged with automated lights or stay in the car and admire some truly stellar illumination patterns from afar, you’ll undoubtedly be enchanted by these 16 spots for holiday bulb viewing.
Yelp Rating: 2.5 stars
Drive Time: 40 minutes
Photos don’t quite do this one justice. Now in its tenth year, “Illumination” sees 50 of the Morton Arboretum’s 1,700-acre space getting a special holiday makeover. Rather than hanging standard corded string lights around its trees, the arboretum has colorful light displays that splash against them, making you feel like you’re in an enchanted forest of blues, pinks, greens and purples. Rainbow orbs flash on the ground at your feet, while accompanying sounds immerse you even further into the experience. The mile-long walk also includes a mesmerizing stroll along the grounds' lakes, which reflect the lights more beautifully than we can even describe. On November 17 and 18, craft brews will also be available to partake in along the way (otherwise, there’s the usual s’mores and fire pits), and on December 16, 23 and 30, adults can groove out to a “curated mix of trance and progressive house music,” too. It does tend to pack out, however, so head in early to avoid the crowds.
From $19, November 19 to January 7, 4100-IL 53, Lisle, IL, 60532; mortonarb.org
Lincoln Park Zoo
Yelp Rating: 4.5 stars
The only thing better than Christmas lights? Christmas lights and animals! Known to most Chicagoans, ZooLights is an annual visual feast for the eyes put on by local energy company ComEd and set inside the Lincoln Park Zoo. While you’ll have to pay $5 this year for a ticket most nights (Mondays are still free), we think it’s worth it for the copious attractions (think a blinking light tunnel and an illuminated show set to Christmas classics). For an extra $4, you’ll also be privy to special attractions, like the light maze and ferris wheel. You can take the kids on a weeknight, but we highly recommend marking December 15 on your calendar for date night: It’s Adults Night Out, allowing couples to avoid the crowds of strollers and screaming babies. (Read: sheer bliss.)
Free to $5, November 19 to January 1, 2001 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL, 60614, lpzoo.org
Most Impressive Lights
Drive Time: 35 minutes
Making its debut in a new 400,000 square-foot spot in Tinley Park is the Amaze Light Festival. Hosted by two storybook characters named Zing and Sparky with their own backstory, this fest will take you and your family on a journey of what the organizers claim are “a million twinkling lights” that you can explore at your own pace. And let us be clear: These aren’t just strings you’d find in your grandma’s basement. These are about as pro as it gets, with giant Christmas light sculptures to marvel over, lit-up tunnels and passageways and lighted trees galore. In addition to the endless lights, there’s also a stage show put on by the characters every two hours, a market with handmade, artisan goods, a sweets shop, a toy shop, a tubing “thrill hill” ($5) and an arctic train ride ($10).
From $30, November 18 to January 8, 19111 Oak Park Ave., Tinley Park, IL, 60477, amazelightsfestival.com
Chicago Botanical Garden
Driving Time: 30 minutes
The Chicago Botanical Garden is a magical place to wander through on a regular day, what with its Alice in Wonderland-like rose bushes and zen Japanese gardens, so as you can imagine, its lit-up trails make for quite the icing on the cake. This year, not only will guests be able to snap a shot for the ‘Gram under the beloved Winter Cathedral (a church-like steeple structure of clear lights) and marvel at the torches that make up the “fire garden,” they can take in new exhibits, including one from French artist Pitaya entitled “Spark Ballet” that features “dancing” flickering lights in lanterns throughout the trees and on the grounds. “Starscape” by Australia’s Mandylights, meanwhile, which features more than 700 handmade acrylic stars flashing in color along a 130-foot tunnel, is also new for 2022. A word to the wise? This one always sells out, so you’ll want to secure your tickets early!
From $14, Through January 8, 1000 Lake Cook Rd., Glencoe, IL, 60022, chicagobotanic.org
Navy Pier undoubtedly offers one of the best views of the lake from the city, and Christmastime is no exception. The day after Thanksgiving, the pier will be decorated with 600,000 twinklers, all of which can be taken in from indoors (so you won’t freeze your tushies off), a huge light garden and a decked-out ice skating rink, which you can test out should you so choose. There are train rides for children and visits with Santa, plus a holiday beer garden for the adults. While you’re there, if you’re feeling brave, you can also take a spin on the pier’s famed enclosed Navy Pier Centennial Wheel (from $18), which stands nearly 200 feet tall, to peep the lights from a different angle.
From $17, November 25 to January 7, 600 E. Grand Ave., Chicago, IL, 60611; navypier.org
New York may have the tree of all trees with its Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, but we think the Millennium Park Christmas tree in Chicago runs a close second. On November 18 at 6:30 p.m. CST sharp, you can watch as this 55-foot Colorado blue spruce stunner makes its illuminated debut to the tune of an electric violinist, with fireworks shooting off overhead. Once it’s lit, its soft, blue lights can be viewed all season long as you hit up the Bean, do a little skating or grab at bite on Michigan Avenue.
Free, November 18 to January 9, Near Michigan Ave. and Washington St., Chicago, 60602; chicago.gov
Drive Time: 40 minutes
The Brookfield Zoo hauls out more than the holly come Christmastime—the facility is decorated with two million (yes, you read that right) lights spanning more than two miles known as the “Sea of Lights.” There’s also a 600-foot illuminated tunnel to explore (pictured above), which is cheerfully synchronized to holiday hits. Your mini-mes will adore finding the 27 gnomes hidden throughout the display, and they can even drop off their carefully crafted letters to Santa. For $7, they can also hit up the zoo’s 40-foot by 80-foot skating rink.
From $18, November 25 to December 31, 8400 W. 31st St., Brookfield, IL, 60513; czs.org
This one’s more than a walk-through: It’s an entire light-filled immersive experience. Inside, you’ll find a frozen forest, a winter wonderland backdrop and a North Pole simulation—all set in a magical environment that features roughly a million sparkling bulbs (give or take) all around you. Along the way, there are plenty of interactive activities to partake in, whether you want to write a letter to the big guy in red with your child or take them on the free Holly Trolly. An additional $22 will also nab them unlimited tube rides down “Alpine Slide.”
From $20, November 23 to January 1, Impact Field, 9850 Balmoral Ave., Rosemont, IL, 60018; sparklerosemont.com
Best for the Family
Kohl Children's Museum
Driving Time: 1 hour
Sure, this one’s technically for kids, but we’d be willing to bet you’ll have just as much fun exploring its charms as your child. True to the museum's core, the colors and hues you see here are meant to be played with and touched. There are rides (check out that Twinkle Train!), a giant snow globe and a polar bear cave (decorated with a sleeping polar bear’s art, natch) that’s sure to be a hit. This one’s selling out at lightning speeds, however, so you’ll want to book your time slot sooner rather than later.
From $20, November 25 to December 29, kohlschildrensmuseum.org
Best Free Show
Drive Time: 2 hours
If you’ve already been to Chicago’s Botanic Garden show (or maybe it got sold out from underneath you—again), there are other options for those with wheels. The Nicholas Conservatory in Rockford, for instance, puts on its own annual light show, aptly titled “All Aglow,” which will have you feeling, well, aglow in the bask of its impressive span of 300,000 lights and 50 handmade jumbo lighted candy canes. Oh. And did we mention this one’s totally free?
Free, November 26 to January 8, 1354 N. 2nd St., Rockford, IL, 61107; nicholasconservatory.org
11. Shine Light Show
Best for a Snowy Day
Otto Rascon Photography/Shine Light Show
Yelp Rating: 3 stars
Drive Time: 54 minutes to 1 hour, 7 minutes
With locations in both Northbrook and Schaumburg, the Shine Light Show drive-through experience gives you the perfect excuse for a family road trip. Once you pull up, you’ll be directed to turn your radio station to one that’s been pre-programmed to offer a bit of Christmas cheer and enhance your experience, as it the lights are timed to match the tunes. From there, you’ll drive through verrrrrrry slowly (like 3 miles per hour slowly), to take in all the splendor around you, be it overhead (the blinking light tunnels are a favorite) or two cars in front of you. Better yet, it runs rain or shine while you stay nice and dry.
From $33, November 18 to January 1, 1515 Lake Cook Rd., Northbrook, IL, 60062, Wintrust Field, 1999 S. Springinsguth Rd., Schaumburg, IL, 60193, shinelightshow.com
Santa's Rockin' Lights/Facebook
Drive Time: 1 hour, 22 minutes
The beauty of Santa’s Rockin’ Lights in Grayslake is that you don’t have to choose between a nice, warm ride through the lights in your car or a more interactive experience—you can choose to do both. With the drive-through (from $30), you’ll get access to one mile of lights, including an enormous glowing dinosaur and nearly 1,000 feet of twinkling tunnels. When the ride’s over, you can head over to the pop-up village (open on select dates in December, from $16), you can stretch your legs as your wander through, snapping photos next to the displays (including a freebie with Santa), sip your free hot cocoa, get your kid’s face painted completely gratis and participate in fun activities, like stuffed animal and ornament making. If they’re not worn out after all of that, well, just don’t know what will do it.
From $16, November 18 to January 1, Lake County Fairgrounds, 1060 E. Peterson Rd., Grayslake, IL, 60030, santasrocknlights.com
Best for a Santa Sighting
Drive Time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Running from the Webster Street bridge to Main Street, NaperLights is a free yearly community event that sees the area being lit up with 150,000 lights, many of which are synced to music. Easily observable by car or foot and complemented by a growing collection of light-up sculptures, 2022 promises to be the event’s biggest year yet. There will be dancing skaters at the Plaza Fountain. Your new social media backdrop can be found at the gorgeous and colorful display at Foyo Plaza. And who knows? You might even see Santa and his reindeer dropping by the Marquette building—we highly recommend looking up. (Psst: If you don't catch him there, he'll be wandering the grounds near the Great Tree on Friday and Saturday nights.)
Free, November 24 to December 30, 120 Water St., Naperville, IL, 60540; naperlights.com
Best Crowd Control
Willow Hill Lights
Drive Time: 1 hour, 14 minutes
More than one million LED lights populate the 1.6-mile drive-through setup at Willow Hill Golf Course. Having launched in 2021, it’s back for its second year with “bigger and better” displays, including not one, not two, but three light tunnels, a 30-foot Christmas tree for the kids to marvel at and familiar glowing figures, such as Rudolph, Frosty and the gang. Unlike other drive-through light shows, which may require that you speed it up or slow it down, depending on the pace of the cars around you, tickets here are timed, so you can thoroughly enjoy the experience without lines getting obscene.
$40, November 19 to January 1, 1350 Willow Rd. Northbrook, IL, 60062; willowhilllights.com
Best for Pets
Winter Lights at Central Park
Drive Time: 45 minutes
If you’re tight on cash, this is another great free event you can get to in less than an hour. While it’s slightly less sophisticated than some of the bigger shows on this list, this radiant walk through Central Park will be a charming one thanks to the addition of what the city describes as “dancing trees, inspirational signs, colorful rainbow arches, cascading snowflakes and musical hearts.” Another thing that sets this one apart is the fact that Fido can come along, since no tickets are required. (After all, pets are family, too!)
Free, November 24 to January 8, 1510 Forest Gate Rd., Oak Brook, IL, 60523; obparks.org
16. The Home Alone House
If you’re the type who simply likes to drive around checking out lights come this time of year, the neighborhood the Home Alone house is in—Winnetka—definitely won’t disappoint. The residents here go all out with their decorations. The piéce de rèsistance, however, is, of course the fictional façade of the McAllister family home. Only the home’s exterior, living room and foyer grand staircase actually made it to film (much of the interior was actually shot on a set down the street), and the décor here is kept minimalist at best, but it still gives us a warm, fuzzy feeling to see it lit up in person around the holidays.
Free, 671 Lincoln Avenue, Winnetka, Illinois, 60093
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