click to enlarge The Museum of Science and Industry features Christmas Around the World.
The Museum of Science and Industry features Christmas Around the World.
The Museum of Science and Industry features Christmas Around the World. PHOTO COURTESY J.B. Spector, Museum of Science and Industry.
When Santa comes to town, Chicago takes on a special glow. Sparkling trees, dazzling lights and festive song and dance performances at area celebrations create holiday magic for visitors of all ages. For a merry winter break, visit the city’s best attractions.

One of the brightest holiday displays is Illumination at the Morton Arboretum in suburban Lisle. The spectacular light show transforms acres of trees into a living painting of color and light from now through Jan. 3. Trees light up when you hug them or change colors as you sing. New this year is seasonal music supplied by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that synchronizes with the trees’ dancing lights.

You can warm up with hot drinks and snacks, listen to live entertainment and go on a scavenger hunt in the woods. Illumination runs each night from 5 to 9:30 p.m., with the last entry at 8:30 p.m. Depending on the date you visit, admission costs from $17 to $20 for adults, and $11 to $13 for children. Advance purchase is recommended.  This year, the popular Enchanted Railroad exhibit runs from Jan. 17 through Feb. 22.

Trains take center stage at the Wonderland Express, the annual holiday celebration at the Chicago Botanic Garden in suburban Glencoe, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from now to Jan. 4. After viewing the lovely outdoor lights and gardens, head to the Regenstein Center, where garden-scale trains chug past miniature replicas of Chicago area landmarks, such as Wrigley Field, the John Hancock Building and the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park. Children have fun spotting the trains, while adults enjoy the holiday plants and the buildings created from moss, leaves, bark and other natural materials. Admission is free but parking costs $20.

click to enlarge Trains take center stage at Chicago Botanic Garden.
Trains take center stage at Chicago Botanic Garden.
Trains take center stage at Chicago Botanic Garden. PHOTO COURTESY Chicago Botanic Garden.
Brookfield Zoo in the western suburbs hosts one of the oldest and largest holiday celebrations, from 4 to 9 p.m. on December weekends, and from Dec. 26 to 31. Holiday Magic features nightly entertainment, ice carving, singing to the animals, viewing animals in the indoor exhibits, as well as magic shows, a model railroad display and a 38-foot Talking Tree. Regular admission is $16.95 for adults, $11.95 for children 3 to 11 and for seniors 65 and older. Parking costs $10.

Another holiday tradition is the Museum of Science and Industry’s Christmas Around the World, introduced during World War II. This year’s celebration runs through Jan. 4 and features a Disney theme, with more than 50 trees and displays decorated by volunteers from Chicago’s ethnic communities. Admission is $18 for adults and $11 for children, but some special exhibits cost more. The museum is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (5:30 p.m. on weekends) but is closed on Christmas.

If you’re in Chicago to see A Christmas Carol at the Goodman Theater, the Joffrey Ballet’s Nutcracker, a holiday concert at Orchestra Hall or the Michigan Avenue window displays, several free attractions offer extra fun.

Christkindlmarket, near Chicago’s Christmas tree in Daley Plaza, provides old German charm from now to Dec. 24. The open-air market offers seasonal gifts, German beer and food, hot chocolate, children’s activities, brass bands and a warming tent and house to avoid the chill.

click to enlarge The Morton Arboretum in Lisle offers a spectacular light show.
The Morton Arboretum in Lisle offers a spectacular light show.
The Morton Arboretum in Lisle offers a spectacular light show. PHOTO COURTESY Morton Arboretum.
To enjoy the lights of the city and get some exercise, there’s no better place than Millennium Park, just off Michigan Avenue. The McCormick Tribune Ice Rink is free and open to skaters through March 8. Bring your own skates or rent them for $12. On Fridays in December, include a caroling stop at Cloud Gate, best known as the Bean, from 6 to 7 p.m., when Chicago-area choral groups provide free entertainment.

Both children and adults enjoy Zoo Lights at the Lincoln Park Zoo, on the city’s north side. The free holiday event features luminous displays and activities every night from 5 to 9 p.m. until Jan. 4, except on Dec. 24 and 25. You can watch ice carvers at work, ice skate at the Farm-in-the-Zoo and visit Santa. Next door is the Lincoln Park Conservatory, where you can escape the cold and view the Winter Flower and Train Show, which features a miniature village and model trains every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

Other special holiday programs take place at the Chicago Children’s Museum, Navy Pier, the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. The pier’s Ferris Wheel stays open in the winter, as do all the museums, so your plans can include the new year.

For information about Chicago’s tourist attractions, visit:

Mary C. Galligan is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago. A former editorial writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and former Midwest correspondent for U.S. News & World Report magazine, she alternates writing the monthly IT travel column with Mary Bohlen of Springfield.

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