There are many reasons to visit the Windy City during the Christmas season. From ice skating at Millennium Park to seeing “Christmas Carol” at the Goodman Theatre, catching a riveting performance of “The Nutcracker” by the Joffrey Ballet, or enjoying a holiday meal at The Walnut Room inside Macy’s, you will find lots of ways to get into the holiday spirit in Chicago. But we think one of the most compelling reasons to visit Chicago during the Christmas season is to experience Chicago’s Christkindlmarket. Once only accessible on a European vacation, Christmas markets modeled after their German counterparts are now very popular in many places throughout North America, including Chicago.
The Allure of the German Christmas Market
Christmas markets began in Germany in the 1400s as a way to bring joy to a cold, dark season by selling crafts, gifts, and Christmas treats. Their popularity has spread all over the world and millions of people visit these beautiful markets every year. Indeed, Christmas markets have become a global symbol of Christmas traditions. There’s no better way to get in the Christmas spirit than visiting a quintessential Christmas Market, and we are lucky to have one of the top Christmas markets in the world in the middle of the US Midwest!
History of the Chicago Christkindlmarket
Inspired by the traditional Christkindlmarkt in Nuremberg, Germany, the Chicago Christkindlmarket started in 1996, making it one of the first and most well-known Christmas markets in the country. It has played a significant role in popularizing the concept of Christmas markets in the United States and continues to capture the spirit of the holiday season with its festive atmosphere and authentic German-inspired offerings. The German-American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest has done a great job planning Chicago’s Christkindlmarkets for more than 25 years.
Locations and Dates
You’ll find the Chicago Christkindlmarket at three different locations: Downtown Daley Plaza, Wrigleyville, and RiverEdge Park in Aurora. The market is slightly different at each location, but they all feature the same candy cane-striped booths, the same food, and many of the same vendors.
Not surprisingly, the Daley Plaza location is the most iconic and also the busiest, but all locations are busiest in the evenings and on the weekends. The Daley Plaza and Aurora markets run from November 17 through December 24. The Wrigleyville location runs from November 17 through December 31. Hours are typically Sunday through Thursday 11 am to 8 pm and Friday through Saturday 11 am to 9 pm. Hours do vary by location, so make sure to get up-to-date information before you go.
Practical Tips for Visiting
Bring your appetite and wear your warmest winter clothes when you visit one of the Chicago Christkindlmarkets. To avoid crowds, we recommend a daytime visit on weekdays. If you can’t make that time work, be prepared for large crowds and set expectations accordingly. New for 2023 is the ability to buy a Fast Entry Pass. For $25 a ticket, a Fast Entry Pass gets you a 30-minute slot to enter the market through a dedicated entrance on Saturdays and Sundays without having to wait in line. You’ll also get the annual souvenir mug as part of the Fast Entry Pass ticket price.
Other tips for visiting the Chicago Christkindlmarket include bringing cash and credit cards. Most vendors accept credit cards, but you might need cash for some old-fashioned holdouts. Also make sure you have a parking plan, especially at Daley Plaza and Wrigleyville. Take public transportation as available or use SpotHero to find discounted parking.
What to Expect When You Visit the Chicago Christkindlmarket
In addition to live music like polka bands and carolers, you’ll find so many delicious German-inspired food and drinks! Make a list so you try everything you want including bratwursts, potato pancakes, stollen, lebkuchen, the famous Glühwein (mulled wine), beer, and ice wine! We also loved other European favorites like the Raclette sandwich, French crepes, and Swiss hot chocolate. You definitely won’t go hungry when you visit!
Be prepared for large crowds. My husband and I visited in the middle of the day the second weekend of December and were overwhelmed by the number of people. To get into the market we had to walk in line around the entire city block. We were surprised by how fast the line moved; we rarely stopped walking, but we walked in line for about half an hour. By the time we got inside the market, there were so many people that it was hard to move. Honestly, the large crowd and long lines made it a little unenjoyable and we didn’t stay long. Had we visited during the week, or reserved a Stammtisch in the heated tent, it would have been much better.
To have a less crowded experience, a girlfriend and I went to the Aurora market the next week on a weekday. This market had very few people in attendance and was so much fun! We didn’t have to wait in line for anything and we were able to warm up inside a heated tent, a lovely convenience given the brutally cold weather. Parking was also very easy and close to the market.
If you’re wondering what you can buy at the Christkindlmarket, you’re in for a treat! From German goodies like nutcrackers, incense smokers, Christmas pyramids, chocolates, candy, and ornaments, to children’s puzzles, jewelry, and fair-trade textiles, we came home loaded with German chocolates, homemade gifts, and treats. Each location also has a different souvenir mug available for purchase and they do sell out, so make sure you get yours!
The other thing we really love about this iconic holiday tradition is the opportunity for children to learn about German culture. Families can take their kids to Aurora for the Children’s Lantern Parade, “Kinder-Laternenlauf” in German. This popular German tradition happens every November or December and involves children parading through town at night carrying twinkly handmade lanterns. In Germany, the parade is led by St. Martin or St. Nikolaus, but in Aurora, the parade will be led by Christkind. During this special ticketed event, children learn the story of St. Martin, practice singing traditional German songs, and then parade through the Christkind market with lanterns. I have fond memories of the Laternenlauf when I was a kid in Germany and I know young kids will have a great time!
With so many fun things to do and eat at the Chicago Christkindlmarkets, it’s no wonder it has become such a popular event. You won’t want to miss this time-honored tradition, where the spirit of Christmas comes alive in the heart of the Windy City.