Do you travel Midwest for the Holidays? While some prefer a cup of hot cocoa and a TV on the winter day, it is so worth it to leave home – Midwest has a lot to offer to tourists for the holidays. Once you discover your options, you will be planning your family holiday vacation in no time. Ready to get started?
The Ultimate Cheat Sheet to Midwest Holiday Travel
Booking a family getaway during the holidays is such a great way to make your holiday even more special. These midwest holiday trips are going to make your next holiday vacation even better than ever!
Chicago, Illinois offers several ways to celebrate the Holidays with your family.
Daley Plaza offers a huge decorated tree to enjoy complete with an inauguration.
The Museum of Science and Industry presents their annual Christmas Around the World Exhibit which runs until the first weekend in January. Each Christmas tree is decorated to represent a country and my kids absolutely loved discovering what kind of decorations kids in other countries find on their trees! There is even a Waffle Tree – want to guess what country it represents?
Starting in late November the Chicago Trolley System offers a two and a half hour customized ride to enjoy some of the best light displays in Chicago. This Holiday light tour runs through early January.
Brookfield Zoo offers an impressive light display, carolers, a laser light show and more.
Navy Pier offers Winter Wonderfest which is a very exciting event too.
Lights Festival is another incredible reason to make your way to the city and see the magic happen by the BMO Harris Bank Magnificent Mile.
An hour away from Chicago, Rockford starts their holiday season on November 30th this year. Their Stroll on State runs 2-9 pm and is a fun winter event with a variety of activities around the city. This free community event attracted more than 82,500+ guests last year. It starts with wagon rides, special Christmas theater performances, and indoor ice skating, but really kicks it into high gear with a Stroll on State’s Merry & Bright Holiday Parade.
Our favorite is Randy Finch Ice Brigades live ice sculpting is back this year. If you wanted to witness first hand the art of ice sculpting, this is the place to go to. Another highlight of this event is two Fire & Ice displays along with the S’mores stations. There will be fun activities and show on three different stages around the area. Also, don’t leave the event until you see City of Rockford Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony and the Sky Lights Fireworks Show right after. It will absolutely be worth the drive.
Take a stroll through Strollville – the largest, new attraction that includes real elf houses for children to play in. There will be plenty to see, touch and take photos with, including a larger-than-life Elf parade balloon.
Quad Cities, Illinois/Iowa
The gardens at the Quad City Botanical Center in the Quad Cities are in winter bloom again with thousands of glowing lights during the third annual Winter Nights Winter Lights on December 4 -January 4. Bundle up, stroll the gardens in Rock Island at night then warm up inside at the hot chocolate bar. Bring the kids for crafts or plan your visit on one of the special event nights. There are also special appearances by musicians and singers. Open Wednesday-Sunday as well as on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and the night of New Year’s Day.
For 11 days in November (starting Nov 23rd this year), the 30,000 square foot River Center complex in downtown Davenport, Iowa, is completely transformed into a winter wonderland – Kwik Star Festival of Trees featuring over 150 designer displays with trees, holiday rooms, wreaths, decorated fireplace mantles, and gingerbread village creations. This treasured holiday tradition also consists of several ticketed special events held throughout the 11-day spectacle.
Fort Wayne, Indiana
Fort Wayne kicks off the holiday season with a 90-year-old tradition of the annual Night of Lights celebration – countdown the lighting of the Santa and His Reindeer display and the Merry Christmas Wreath, plus there are 8 other events and lightings making the perfect magical celebration to kick off the season.
- Kick-off your holiday celebration with the annual Night of Lights in downtown Fort Wayne on Wednesday held on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. If you can’t make the lighting ceremonies, most displays will be up through January 3.
- Fort Wayne also hosts the HolidayFest season including classic festivals like the Festival of Trees and Festival of Gingerbread, and shopping during Holly Shopping.
If you plan to attend Night of Lights, we suggest warming up in between lightings at Fortezza coffee (right between the Santa and His Reindeer lighting and the Merry Christmas Tree lighting) or warm your toes in the Grand Wayne Convention Center and see Mrs. Claus! Plus, if you want to get a bite to eat before or after the lightings in downtown Fort Wayne make sure you make a reservation. For the perfect time to enjoy Fort Wayne’s holiday displays come after November 21 and enjoy a carriage ride through downtown Fort Wayne!
It just wouldn’t be the holidays without catching a holiday movie at The Historic Artcraft Theatre in Franklin, IN, one of the communities of Festival Country Indiana. This is a classic one-screen theatre that serves Indiana popcorn and has a staff that does fun, interactive games and often dresses up as the movie’s characters. This holiday season, the Artcraft is showing these holiday favorites during the weekends leading up to Christmas.: The Polar Express, Elf, A Christmas Story, White Christmas, Christmas in Connecticut, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Festival Country Indiana Director of Tourism Kenneth Kosky shares this advice about enjoying the Artcraft experience: “Arrive early to dine at the great downtown restaurants near the theatre and because half of the fun is experiencing the fun interaction with the staff before the movie. And be sure to get some popcorn, since many people say it’s the best movie theatre popcorn they’ve ever had. To avoid the crowds, consider a matinee.”
Check out many other holiday events that happen in Festival Country, Indiana.
Visit Downtown Monument Circle on November 9 to see the Shining a Light, a seasonally-themed light show and a nightly Signature Salute. The show begins at 6:30 pm and is synchronized with an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra original score that pays tribute to the iconic Monument. Join more than 100,000 on November 29 for Indy’s ultimate tradition, Circle of Lights.
Winterlights at Newfields – With more lights (1.5M), a new winter market, an enhanced Lilly House and an elaborate grand finale, this year’s interactive experience will shine even brighter than the last. 70,000 people came to take in the synchronized light show last year, hovering Christmas trees, larger than life sculptures, warm cocktails, snacks, and soft music.
If you’ve ever dreamed of driving your car on the famed oval and across the Yard of Bricks at the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway, this is the only time throughout the year the public can do so. Lights at the Brickyard is back once again with more than 3M holiday lights spread out across 2+ mile portion of the track. Feel free to pretend you’re racing in the Indy 500, just 200 mph slower – truly a bucket-list experience.
Also, check out Christmas at the Zoo in Indianapolis Zoo and Jingle Rails at the Eiteljorg Museum which will take you on a journey through the American West via nine working model trains.
Follow the trains at the Haan Museum of Indiana Art November 29 through December 29 as they travel through closets and bedrooms, where you’ll find Lafayette landmarks. Visit 19 historic American landmarks as a large train passes the Empire State Building, Independence Hall, Wrigley Field, the Golden Gate Bridge, and other famous buildings. Visit London as two trains meander past the Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey, Kensington Palace.
Christmas Parade takes place on December 7th and it is the largest holiday parade in Indiana! Local bands, local floats, clowns, fire engines, police, postal workers and, of course, Santa is all a lot of fun. According to Jo Wade, “Nighttime of the parade lets you enjoy all the lights of the floats, as well as downtown Lafayette, lit up. I’ve been there as a float rider, seated street side and inside a restaurant; all are wonderful and the expressions on the children’s faces are as magical as the floats and bands.”
You will not want to miss the nationally acclaimed annual Purdue Christmas Show on the first weekend of December in the grand Elliott Hall of Music. Enjoy dance, glitz and toe-tapping holiday tunes, plus traditional Christmas hymns with the cathedral-like reverence of the season.
Every year, Santa stops by Wolf Park to deliver treats to all the good little canids here. Join the fun on December 14 and help decorate a tree with edible ornaments for the wolves. After that, stop by the conference center for some drinks and crafts, and to tell Santa what you want for Christmas. In the past, Santa has arrived by dog sled, on horseback, by convertible, and in a helicopter! Be sure to visit and see how Santa will come to Wolf Park this year!
Santa Claus, Indiana
Santa Claus Indiana is the host of the Santa letter post office. Every year volunteers gather together to make sure that every letter that is received gets a letter from Santa back. The whole town of Santa Claus is Christmas themed down to the road names. During the annual Christmas Celebration, you can get up close and personal with how genuine this little town really is when it comes to the Holiday season.
Branson Missouri hosts the Ozark Mountain Christmas. For more than a quarter-century, Branson has made its holiday lineup of events a treasured tradition. Celebrations run from the beginning of November through New Year’s Day. Here you will experience live shows, and old-time Christmas, shopping, and lights. All of these things are fantastic but, the most looked forward to the event is definitely the Polar Express.
Kansas City, Missouri
With a single strand of 16 colored lights hung over a doorway back in 1925, a Midwestern holiday tradition was born. More lights were added each year, and today 15 city blocks of Kansas City are illuminated with the glow from 280,000 rainbow-colored bulbs during the holidays. Beginning at 6:54 pm on Thanksgiving evening, more than 80 miles of holiday lights outline every window and tower of the Country Club Plaza, a Seville-inspired upscale outdoor shopping district. While traveling to Kansas City, consider these options:
- Attend the annual lighting ceremony and watch the night sky light up with color for the first time of the season
- Complete your holiday shopping in one of the most beautifully decorated places in the Midwest by visiting the Plaza between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve
- Extend the holiday season by visiting the Plaza after Christmas, but before the lights are extinguished for another year in mid-January
Twenty year Kansas City resident, Sage Scott, the Everyday Wanderer, shares this advice about seeing the Plaza lights. “If you want to attend the lighting ceremony, eat your Thanksgiving dinner at one of the restaurants on the Plaza. You’ll have more time to enjoy the live music and other festivities. The streets are closed to traffic for the lighting ceremony, so there is the added enjoyment of the Plaza as a pedestrian-only zone.” For folks who prefer to avoid crowds, Sage recommends, “One of the best secrets is that the lights stay on until mid-January. If you don’t like crowds, visit the Plaza after the holidays to take in the lights and take advantage of the post-Christmas sales.”
In downtown Appleton, Wisconsin you will find the biggest Christmas themed nighttime parade. The parade is complete with bands, floats, and a one-mile run.
Egg Harbor, Wisconsin
Egg Harbor hosts it’s Holly Days. During the Holly Days festival your family can enjoy breakfast with Santa, an Elf hunt, a mistle dough contest, horse-drawn carriage rides, caroling, cookie decorating and much more.
Just in time for the holiday, this place in the Door County transforms into a holiday central on November 29-30 with nearly twenty separate events planned
Christmas in the Ward in Milwaukee boasts horse-drawn carriages, dancers, Santa, a tree lighting, and fireworks. Not to mention the wonderful shopping and fantastic dining experiences in the area.
- Holiday Lights Festival: Downtown celebrates the holidays with light displays, events with Santa, hot cocoa, and more.
- Christkindlmarket: This new holiday market had previously only been in Chicago, but now it has come to Milwaukee and set up in the new plaza outside the still-new Fiserv Forum. It’s a traditional western European holiday marketing with all the fixings.
- Holiday decorations at the Pabst Mansion: This amazing attraction gets even better during the holidays when each ornate room becomes even more so when decorated for the holidays. They even offer twilight tours so that visitors can get the full effect.
- Milwaukee Public Museum’s Streets of Old Milwaukee get decked out with festive flair
- Scrooooge Holiday Floral Show at The Domes: Locals and visitors alike can escape cold temps in the Domes and take in flora and fauna from The Christmas Carol.
What started as one person’s front yard has not evolved into a huge display of lights known as Bentleyville Tour of Lights. You will find the gorgeous display along the shoreline of Lake Superior. You can catch this display anytime between late November all the way through late December.
Bismarck, North Dakota
Bismarck, North Dakota lights up during the Holiday season and transforms for the Dickens Village Festival that takes place for three weekends following Thanksgiving. You can shop at the craft fair, catch the lighted parade, house tours and see ‘A Christmas Story’.
Silver Bells in the City is a very anticipated event during the year. Whether you are local or traveling for the event, you won’t be disappointed. Complete with a light parade, lighting of the tree, and of course fireworks.
Christkindlmarket is a German Aarts and Craft Fair held around the Holidays. There are quite a few Christkindlmarkets between Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota. They pop up in November and December depending on where you plan to attend.
The most popular one is in Chicago, Illinois. Other Christkindlmarkets can be found in Kewaunee, Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Excelsior, Minnesota, Monroe, Wisconsin, Quad Cities, Black River Falls, Wisconsin, and Naperville, Illinois.
Great Wolf Lodge
The Great Wolf Lodge has seven locations throughout the Midwest so it should be easy to find a location near you to enjoy their Snowland.
Your family is sure to enjoy themselves anytime but, the Holiday Season is the best time to visit. Life-sized gingerbread houses, caroling, writing letters to Santa and other Holiday events are sure to make the trip a great memory builder for your family (not to mention the unlimited water park access).
Canadian Pacific Holiday Train
Two different trains depart their station in Canada and one of them travels through the Midwest. The Holiday Trains brings the Holiday celebration with it. You can check their schedule to see when they are stopping in a town near you here.
Whether you are from the Midwest or just visiting during the Holiday seasons, you will find some many wonderful celebrations. The Midwest is the best place to experience the Holiday season. Do you have any favorite places in the Midwest to celebrate the Holiday Season?