Chicago

The Most Festive Events in Chicago This Holiday Season

Brighten up your winter.

Courtesy of Jack Frost Winter Village
Courtesy of Jack Frost Winter Village
Courtesy of Jack Frost Winter Village

With traditional drunken holiday parties from Santacon to TBOX cancelled for 2020, it’s time to discover a slightly more low-key way to celebrate the holidays. And if that involves drive-in holiday movies, virtual concerts, and over-the-top light displays, we’ll take it. So be grateful for what you have, wear a festive holiday mask, and celebrate the end of 2020 at these top holiday events around Chicago.

Courtesy of Frontier Chicago
Courtesy of Frontier Chicago
Courtesy of Frontier Chicago

Cater your small holiday gathering with Frontier’s Holiday Meats & Catering Menu

Now through December 24
Frontier
Frontier’s special meat-centric holiday menu featuring smoked prime rib, tenderloin, whole smoked turkey, and more is available the entire month of December-including Christmas Eve-so there’s no excuse for a frozen pizza Christmas.
Cost: Pricing varies
 

Wave to the CTA Holiday Train

Now through December 21
Various locations
Public transit doesn’t have to be a drag, as the CTA is once again dressing up its trains and buses in full holiday cheer for 2020. The CTA Holiday Train includes a six-car display decked out with festive holiday scenes, thousands of lights, and bright LED signage displays. You can’t board the train or bus this year, but you can at least wave and take photos as it goes by.
Cost: Varies
 

Book a virtual hang session with Kris Kringle at Santa the Experience

Now through December 24
Virtual
This 10-12 minute virtual experience will guide you and your crew through five holiday scenes guided by “Elf Pickles” before culminating in a personal 5-minute video chat with Santa Claus himself. Don’t blow it.
Cost: $35-$55
 

Get your fill of holiday classics at a local drive-in movie theatre

Now through December 26
Various locations
One positive byproduct of this endless pandemic is the preponderance of drive-in movie locations across the city, several of which are open for the holidays for your drive-in holiday movie pleasure. Hit up Chi-Town Movies, the Drive-In at Lincoln Yards, and SeatGeek Stadium for a range of seasonal classics from Elf to Die Hard. There are also two new pop-up holiday drive-in movie experiences from the folks at Replay including the Miracle on West Madison downtown and the Holly Jolly Drive-In in Lincoln Park.
Cost: Varies

Courtesy of Aurora Festival of Lights
Courtesy of Aurora Festival of Lights
Courtesy of Aurora Festival of Lights

Hit a massive drive-through light display at the Aurora Festival of Lights

Now through December 27
Phillips Park, Aurora
One of the largest free outdoor holiday drive-through holiday light displays in northern Illinois returns to Aurora, with more than one mile of lights and holiday displays providing fun for the whole family.
Cost: Free (donations accepted)
 

Get a jump on your holiday shopping at the Christkindlmarket Virtual Christmas Market

Now through December 31
Virtual
One of Chicago’s most iconic holiday events goes virtual this year with 47 Christkindlmarket vendors hawking their beloved holiday-centric wares online as part of its first-ever “Home for the Holidays” virtual market.
Cost: Depends on what you buy
 

See The Nutcracker screened on the side of a giant building at Art on theMART

Now through December 31
Merchandise Mart
The Joffrey Ballet’s presentation of The Nutcracker will be screened on the 2.5-acre river façade of the Merchandise Mart set to music nightly at 7 pm as part of this year’s Art on theMART digital projection series, best viewed from the Chicago Riverwalk between Wells and Franklin.
Cost: Free
 

Stream an audio version of A Christmas Carol from the Goodman Theatre

Now through December 31
Virtual
The Goodman Theatre presents this free audio streaming version of the Charles Dickens classic for housebound revelers in 2020.
Cost: Free (donations accepted)

Courtesy of The Morton Arboretum
Courtesy of The Morton Arboretum
Courtesy of The Morton Arboretum

Get lost in a sea of lights and trees at Illumination at Morton Arboretum

Now through January 3
Morton Arboretum
One of the most beautiful locations in the Chicago metro area becomes even more enticing over the holidays as this year’s Illumination: Tree Lights at Morton Arboretum is reimagined for 2020 as a 30-40 minute driving experience.
Cost: $29-$64
 

Enjoy a classic Chicago holiday tradition at ZooLights

Now through January 3
Lincoln Park Zoo
It wouldn’t be the holidays in Chicago without the annual ZooLights illuminated display at Lincoln Park Zoo, a massive spectacle featuring a light maze, hundreds of large-scale displays, a holiday pop-up, and socially distanced photos with Santa.
Cost: $5
 

Light up the night at Chicago Botanic Garden’s Lightscape

Now through January 3
Chicago Botanic Garden
Is there any better date night than a romantic stroll on this illuminated trail through the Chicago Botanic Garden after dark? Rhetorical question.
Cost: $24-$28
 

Wander an urban tree farm at the Jack Frost Winter Walk & Christmas Tree Farm

Now through January 10
1467 N. Elston
Set in the same 2+-acre Goose Island location as the Jack’s Pumpkin Halloween pop-up, the Jack Frost Winter Walk & Christmas Tree Farm includes trees for purchase in an evergreen forest popping up in the middle of the city. There will be no food/drink on site, and visits are limited to 1.5 hours.
Cost: $21 – $120 

Courtesy of The Dawson
Courtesy of The Dawson
Courtesy of The Dawson

Grab some booze and seasonal snacks at The Dawson Winter Market

Every Saturday
The Dawson
Stop by The Dawson every Saturday from 11 am – 3 pm this winter for to-go cocktails, wine packs, seasonal pastries, steaks, chops, bacon, sausages, and Christmas trees and wreaths. In other words, everything you need to start the party at home.
Cost: No cover
 

Go on a local “treat stroll” at the Lakeview East Holiday Extravaganza

Saturday, December 5
Various locations
Support local business and sample holiday treats at the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce’s annual Holiday Treat Stroll, with purchase necessary to prevent crowding. There is also an online component, with one-day 25% off discounts available from more than 185 local businesses.
Cost: Free
 

Take your shopping below deck at the Underground Art Market 2020

Starts Sunday, December 6
Virtual
This DIY market that started in 2010 goes virtual for 2020 with an array of indie vendors hawking wares that focus on unique creations in the themes of recycled art, wellness, green initiatives, functional art, and more.
Cost: Free
 

Stream The Lawrence Arms’ annual War on X-Mas Holiday Special

Friday, December 11
Virtual
Legendary Chicago punk rockers The Lawrence Arms host their annual War on X-Mas show in virtual format for 2020, with special guest appearances and plenty of “holiday weirdness” to benefit the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
Cost: $11
 

Move around and do some good at the Virtual Jingle Bell Run

Friday, December 11 – Sunday, December 13
Virtual
With large-scale events like Chicago’s annual Jingle Jog cancelled for 2020, this virtual run still allows you to run your own route (or treadmill) as you raise money for the Arthritis Foundation. And yes, you still get a T-shirt.
Cost: $30-$35

Courtesy of Let It Shine
Courtesy of Let It Shine
Courtesy of Let It Shine

Cruise through Christmas at the Let It Shine Lightshow

Now through January 9
1515 Lake Cook Road, Northbrook
The North Shore’s largest drive-through holiday light display features synchronized lights, glowing snowmen, sparkling candy canes, and a Santa’s bag of holiday cheer from a safe distance.
Cost: $30-$55
 

Hit up a Very Virtual Hanukkah

Sunday, December 13
Virtual
Chicago singer/songwriter Alisa Rosenthal hosts this virtual musical livestreamed Hanukkah gathering with Hanukkah songs, stories, an ugly sweater contest and more.
Cost: $10-$15
 

Rock out to Glass Animals and Cold War Kids at 101.1 WKQX’s Virtual Stole

Wednesday, December 23
Virtual
101.1 WKQX’s annual Night We Stole Christmas concert series goes virtual for 2020 with livestreamed performances from Glass Animals, Cold War Kids, and Wallows, all happening on December 23 (aka Festivus.)
Cost: $17.50
 

Say good riddance to 2020 at the New Year’s Eve Virtual 5K

Saturday, December 26 – Sunday, January 3
Virtual
Chicago Sport & Social’s annual New Year’s Eve 5K takes to the interwebs for 2020 with a weeklong virtual 5K to benefit Direct Relief.
Cost: $40
 

Party in your car at House Party at the Drive-In New Year’s Eve Bash

Thursday, December 31
SeatGeek Stadium
What better way to close out this weird year than a New Year’s Eve party from the comfort of your car? Stop by SeatGeek Stadium for a full lineup of live house music performances with food/drink and a fireworks show. Masks and social distancing required, obviously.
Cost: $50-$225Sign up here for our daily Chicago email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.

Jay Gentile is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in travel, food & drink, culture, events and entertainment stories. In addition to Thrillist, you can find his work in The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN Travel, Chicago Tribune, Lonely Planet, VICE, Outside Magazine and more. Follow @thejaygentile
 

Chicago

A Food Expert's Guide to Chicago's Chinatown

Just in time for Lunar New Year.

Courtesy of Ninja Bar Chicago Instagram
Courtesy of Ninja Bar Chicago Instagram
Courtesy of Ninja Bar Chicago Instagram

Chicago’s Chinatown, a triangular slice of the Near South Side loosely bordered by Cermak Road, Wentworth Avenue, and a northbound-snaking branch of the Chicago river, has been fueling Grace Wong’s culinary cravings long before she cut her teeth dishing on the city’s vibrant restaurant scene for the Chicago Tribune

“Both my parents are from Shanghai and they immigrated to Naperville, which is about 40 minutes outside of the city,” says the esteemed former dining reporter, recalling her suburban upbringing. “When I was growing up, we’d make this semi-monthly pilgrimage into Chicago, especially Chinatown and the Argyle area, to get supplies because there was no real Asian population where we lived. There were maybe two small Asian grocery stores at the time; when we got an H Mart, it was literally the biggest news of my life. My mom was so hype about it.”

“It was always just a huge deal, piling into the van,” she continues. “We would go for dim sum in the morning and then the entire afternoon we’d be following my mom around to all these different specialty grocery stores so she could get the ingredients she needed to make dishes from her homeland. I remember being a kid and carrying giant plastic buckets around because we would pick up live crabs and live fish, stuff like that.”

Wong now lives on the North Side and although both the pandemic and her recent departure from the Tribune and their centrally located office has made travelling down to Chinatown a bit less convenient, she still manages to pay her favorite establishments a visit every now and then.

“I haven’t gone much since the virus hit but I have made the trip a few times, mostly when I’m just like, ‘I need my Boba fix!'” she says with a laugh. “And then once I get down there I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I need barbecue pork from BBQ King House. And I need my roast duck. And I might as well go to Park To Shop because I’m out of like, I don’t know, oyster sauce or whatever.’ It always ends up being an extended time.”

Courtesy of Grace Wong Instagram
Courtesy of Grace Wong Instagram
Courtesy of Grace Wong Instagram

Getting the lay of the land

It might look like one cohesive cityscape at first glance, but according to Wong, Chicago’s Chinatown is actually composed of two distinct, nuanced districts.

“So, there’s new Chinatown and there’s old Chinatown,” Wong explains. “The big plaza with all the Zodiac animals next to it-that’s considered, at least to my parents, new Chinatown. And then old Chinatown is down Wentworth Avenue, south of Cermak. If you look at a map, there’s a little triangle where Archer, Clark, and Cermak meet. Everything south of Archer is more old Chinatown and everything north of Archer is more new Chinatown.”

“Growing up, we spent a lot of time at old Chinatown, mostly because there are a bunch of bakeries there and we would bring home pastries to eat for weeks and weeks,” she says. “As I got older, we started going to new Chinatown more. You’ll see a younger demographic in new Chinatown, trendy places like Bonchon and Mango Mango-that’s more of the vibe. And it’s more touristy in the sense that the people who go into new Chinatown to walk around and spend their day there, they might not necessarily live there. Whereas with old Chinatown, you’re bumping past the old ladies that have lived in that neighborhood forever.”

What makes the neighborhood stand out?

After high school, Wong moved to California to pursue a degree in journalism at USC. And while she enjoyed the years she spent on the (much, much) sunnier West Coast, her experience in Los Angeles only further cemented her devotion to Chicago’s Chinatown.

“I think a lot of Chinatown’s across the country are kind of going away,” she says. I was in LA for like six and a half, seven years, and the actual designated “Chinatown” there is maybe one city block. Here, you can bump into people who straight up just arrived from China or Taiwan one minute then turn around and talk to someone who has lived in the area for generations the next, that’s all they know. I think that’s really cool.”

“Another important thing to note is that Chinatown is not only for the people who live there but also for all the Asian-Americans who in the surrounding suburbs, of which there are so many,” Wong adds. “To be able to go to a place where my parents can just chit chat with whoever without any worries about language, or where I can tell someone my very specific boba order and they’ll get it exactly right without asking me all these questions-I don’t know, it’s just a really special place for everybody.”
 

Grace’s list of can’t-miss Chinatown spots:

Courtesy of Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings
Courtesy of Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings
Courtesy of Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings

Qing Xiang Yuan

“One of my favorite places to get dumplings is Qing Xiang Yuan. They also have a location in the Loop. They do a lot of different styles, all handmade, which is really awesome. They’re really playful with the fillings and you can customize if you want them boiled or fried. And they have these really amazing takeout boxes that they designed for themselves-yes, I’m here for that packaging. They’re also pretty new and modern. I don’t know if my parents would love it, per se, because they’d be like, ‘This is a fancy restaurant.’ But it’s just dumplings! Go there and you’ll have a really great time.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Elitea

“Just south of QXY is the entrance to the Richland Center, which is basically a glorified food court. It’s one of the few places where you can get really regional cuisine and it’s also home to Elitea, one my favorite places to get boba. They have this fire brown sugar boba that is just, I mean, incredible.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

 

Hing Kee

“For soup dumplings, I like to go to Hing Kee. Back in the day there were always, like, aunties making dumplings in the window-I loved that. Every now and then I’d go for some other kind of snack, but their soup dumplings are the best.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Hello Jasmine
Courtesy of Hello Jasmine
Courtesy of Hello Jasmine

Hello Jasmine 

“Hello Jasmine on Clark Street is really good for Taiwanese snacks and boba. I usually get their roasted oolong, popcorn chicken, and maybe some sausage skewers. They also have this fried chicken sandwich that’s unreal. It was definitely a spur of the moment decision to get it, but it was so good I posted about it on Instagram.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

 

Laojiumen

“For hotpot, there’s this new place called Laojiumen. They basically do ‘fancy hotpot’ and I honestly can’t wait to go there when I feel like it’s safe to do so.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Bingo Tea

“Bingo Tea has the best cheese tea. They were one of the first and the biggest to do it. You know how cheesecake is cheese but not really? Like how it’s sweet but has a touch of like salt to it? Imagine that but whipped. There’s a fruit or loose-leaf tea on the bottom and on top there’s this foam-like latte foam but thicker. The name might be a little bit of a marketing issue, but don’t knock it until you try it!”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Lao Sze Chuan

“Lao Sze Chuan is a classic for Sichuan food across the board. It might be an unpopular opinion, but I love their dry chili chicken. People say it’s for tourists, but it’s actually so good!”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Minghin Cuisine
Courtesy of Minghin Cuisine
Courtesy of Minghin Cuisine

MingHin

“Right next to Lao Sze Chuan is MingHin. I’m telling you, no dim sum trip is complete without a stop there.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Slurp Slurp Noodles
Courtesy of Slurp Slurp Noodles
Courtesy of Slurp Slurp Noodles

Slurp Slurp Noodles

“Slurp Slurp Noodles is in the old Chinatown area and their hand-shaved noodles are some of my all-time favorites. They’re super bouncy and springy and served in this delicious sauce. And they’re not soupy noodles-more like the dry, tossed-in-a-wok kind. They also make their own mustard greens, which are fire. It’s a solid spot.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

BBQ King

“BBQ King is the absolute go-to for all your barbecue needs. And they’re for sure doing takeout right now, I know that from experience.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

MCCB

“MCCB, they do ridiculous, mouth-numbingly spicy food and it’s fantastic. Their grilled whole fish, it’s just swimming in chilies, and you’re like, ‘I’m going to die and I’m going to enjoy every moment of it.’ I love it there.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Chef Xiong
Courtesy of Chef Xiong
Courtesy of Chef Xiong

Chef Xiong

“Another good place for spicy Sichuan-style food is Chef Xiong. They have a really cute logo with a Panda on it. I don’t know if I have a favorite dish, but I would say just go, sit down, and whatever they tell you to eat, do that. You won’t regret it.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Dolo Restaurant and Bar

“If you want to feel like you’re at a club but also eating Chinese food, Dolo is the spot for you. They also do cocktails and their food is definitely good, but it’s just like, ‘I’m here with my parents in this dark room with this loud music… I don’t know what to say.'” 
How to order: Click here to order online.

Feida Bakery

“Barbecue pork buns? Obviously great. Ham and egg buns? Obviously great. Cream horns? Obviously great. Am I missing anything?”
How to order: Call 312-808-1113 to order.

Park To Shop

“You have to check out a grocery store because grocery stores are the best. We love going to Park To Shop-there are two big locations in Chinatown. One is on Archer and one is farther south but both are great.” 
How to order: Click here to order online.

Xi’an Cuisine

“Xi’an Cuisine, they do what people call Chinese hamburgers. I kind of hate that name because it’s a bun that’s been pan fried and stuffed with cumin-spiced meats-to me, that’s not really a hamburger, but I understand the desire to assign it a name you’re familiar with. Either way, they taste great.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Aji Ichiban

“Up near the Richmond Center there’s this little candy specialty store called Aji Ichiban. I love going in there for sweets-they have Japanese candies, Korean candies, Chinese candies, all the candies.”
How to order: Click here to order online. 

Nine Bar

“More recently, there have been a few pop-ups coming from second generation Chinatown kids like this one out of Moon Palace. Pop-ups are such a big COVID thing. I would be remiss not to mention them.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Meet Fresh Chicago
Courtesy of Meet Fresh Chicago
Courtesy of Meet Fresh Chicago

Meet Fresh

“Another place for dessert is Meet Fresh-it’s so good. And you will definitely be shell-shocked by a tiny, 90-pound Asian girl eating an entire mountain of ice cream on her own because, yeah, that’s a normal occurrence there. It’s happened to me twice now and I’m shocked every time. I’m talking a mountain of shaved ice and pudding and taro balls-delicious, but you’d need at least four people to eat it. It’s amazing.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Meredith Heil is originally from St. Louis, now lives in Chicago, and in between has been to all 50 states (that’s feet on the ground, none of that airport BS). She enjoys reading about, thinking about, talking about, writing about, putting on events about and drinking about craft beer.

Related