2023 Magnificent Mile Lights Festival

Everything you need to know about the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, the unofficial kickoff to the holidays in Chicago.

The Wintrust Magnificent Mile Lights Festival is an annual event that’s filled with holiday activities.

Considered the unofficial kick-off of the Chicago holiday season, the fest features family fun, shopping, a lighting parade, visits with Santa Claus, live concerts, and special offers at Michigan Avenue shops.

The Magnificent Mile in Chicago is beautiful year-round, but it is particularly magnificent during the winter and the holiday season.

Each November, two hundred trees are festooned with one million lights, creating a winter wonderland in the city’s most famous shopping district.

The season kicks off Saturday before Thanksgiving, attracting millions of visitors and culminating in a parade that’s broadcast worldwide.

Here’s everything you need to know about the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, one of Chicago’s most cherished Christmas traditions.

Water Tower looking south on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago
Photo courtesy of Choose Chicago

History of the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival

This Chicago festival of lights began simply, with a single tree erected in Water Tower Park in 1949 by the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association (GNMAA). It was a 50-foot tree and the association decorated it with 1,500 lights.

The stretch of Michigan Avenue from the Chicago River to Oak Street had just gained its now-famous “Magnificent Mile” nickname two years previously when real estate magnate Arthur Rubloff coined the phrase.

One of the anchor stores of The Magnificent Mile was Saks Fifth Avenue. Opened in 1929, it was the first branch of the New York department store to operate year-round. In 1959, the store made an indelible mark on Chicago by decorating the trees in front of the store with tiny white lights. 

Trees strewn with white lights along Michigan Avenue Chicago
Clayton Hauck for Choose Chicago

Over the years, more and more stores followed suit until it became an official event in 1992, when Walt Disney and company joined in the festivities.

The company became an official sponsor, and the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival parade was born.

More sponsors participated over the years, and while it is now known as the Wintrust Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse lead the parade each year.

Micky Mouse and Minnie Mouse are Grand Marshals of the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival parade in Chicago
Photo courtesy of Choose Chicago

Related: Find more free things to do in Chicago

Things to do at the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival

Magnificent Mile lit up for the holidays in Chicago
Clayton Hauck for Choose Chicago

The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival is more than just a parade. It’s two days of fun!

Events begin on Friday evening with a tree lighting at the Wrigley Building and culminate with the parade and fireworks on Saturday night.

Pioneer Court, located at the base of the Chicago Tribune Tower, becomes Lights Festival Lane, a magical place where children can get their photos taken with Santa and of all ages can indulge in Chicago favorites, including Eli’s Cheesecake and Garrett’s Popcorn.

There’s also a stage with live performances. Previous performers include The Caroling Connection, Dickensian-garbed a capella performers who truly bring the spirit of the season.

The Caroling Connection at the 2016 Magnificent Mile Lights Festival
The Caroling Connection at the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival

The Magnificent Mile Parade begins on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. on Oak Street, and for an hour and a half spectators are delighted by dozens of participants, including local sports teams, giant helium-filled balloons, marching bands, and Walt Disney World characters.

The parade ends at Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive, just south of the river.

The Grand Finale of the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival is the Fireworks Spectacular. The show begins at 7 p.m. and the fireworks are launched over the Chicago River. It’s truly a sight to see.

Magnificent Mile Lights Festival Schedule 2023

Snowman float in the Magnificent Mile Lights Parade
Photo courtesy Choose Chicago

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Experience a vibrant lane bustling with booths and complimentary family activities, including enjoy free coffee tastings courtesy of Dunkin’ and capture holiday memories with Santa photos, provided by Wintrust.

More Lights Festival Lane fun:

11:00AM – 4:00PM 

Explore an interactive wonderland of holiday-themed activities at Lights Festival Lane in Pioneer Court (401 N. Michigan Avenue).

Santa Claus is always ready to greet guests, alongside lots of holiday-themed activities.

Lights Festival Lane hosts a variety of family-friendly activities including special appearances by Enjoy Illinois’ Big Lincoln, complimentary cheesecake with Eli’s Cheesecake Company, the Museum of Ice Cream’s sprinkle pool, the Dunkin’ Community Cruiser and pop-up musical and special performances.

  • Explore the Illinois Lottery’s display! With any lottery ticket purchase from their truck, you could snag a special giveaway. Plus, seize the chance to snap a festive photo, available for immediate print or social sharing. Offer valid while prizes last, for individuals 18+ only.
  • Embrace holiday cheer with a healthy twist: savor a gratis sample of Lifeway Kefir, a delightful treat for your digestive system.
  • As the nation’s railway nexus, CN Railway takes pride in its Chicago roots. Visit their spot to spin the “Rail Safety Prize Wheel,” putting your train safety smarts to the test for a shot at winning exciting prizes, and meet “Milo” the dog for a memorable photo op.
  • Swing by Eli’s tent for a scrumptious slice of cheesecake on the house. Decorate your treat with an assortment of sauces and candies alongside Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences students (one per person, subject to availability). Plus, with an on-site donation to the Greater Chicago Food Depository (credit card transactions only), you’ll receive a complimentary cheesecake to enjoy at home.
  • Get a pulse-racing experience at the NASCAR booth with their Racing Simulator. Take control and navigate the virtual Chicago Street Course like a pro. Afterwards, don’t miss out on the opportunity to pose with the official NASCAR Chicago promotional pace vehicle!

As early as 3:30PM: DuSable Bridge (formerly Michigan Avenue Bridge) closes to pedestrian traffic.

4:00PM: North Michigan Avenue closes to vehicular traffic between Oak Street and Wacker Drive.

5:30-7:00PM:  The Wintrust Magnificent Mile Lights Festival tree-lighting parade steps onto North Michigan Avenue at Oak Street.

Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse are the Grand Marshals, and they’re joined by friends from the Walt Disney World® Resort in Florida.

The parade also includes celebrity performances from

  • Sister Sledge, bringing love in a family dose
  • The Funky Bunch bringing some “Good Vibrations!” 
  • The Sugar Hill Gang celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop
  • American Idol favorite, Colin Stough

You wont want to miss the marching bands from Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Alabama. 

Witness Santa Claus soar down the route on the grand finale float presented by Wintrust to officially signal the start of the holiday season. 

The parade route travels down North Michigan Avenue to Wacker Drive, lighting one million lights as they go.

The procession features fun floats, giant helium-filled balloons, marching bands, and top musical performers.

7PM: Fireworks spectacular over the Chicago River at North Michigan Avenue.

Tips for attending the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival

Get the most out of the festival of lights with these tips:

  • The temperatures will drop as soon as the sun goes down, so remember to bring extra clothing.
  • You’ll also want to bring a camera to record your experiences.
  • Since you’re going to be in the shopping mecca of the Midwest, bringing your holiday shopping list is a must!
  • Bring a portable battery charger for your cell phone.
  • Bookmark this page so you can reference it for the day’s activities!

Magnificent Mile Lights Festival By The Numbers

  • Over 1.2 million people travel to Chicago for the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival.
  • It takes an entire year to plan the festival with the help of 600 volunteers.
  • Each year the festival closes with a fireworks show featuring 10,000 shells exploding over the Chicago River.

Getting to the Festival of Lights

Because there are so many people coming to the festival you’ll want to allow plenty of time.

If you plan on enjoying the festivities in Pioneer Plaza you can take the Red Line to Grand Station or you can take any of the other lines into the Loop and walk across the river.

If you drive, there are several parking garages in the area. Use a service like Spothero to purchase your parking ahead of time. Not only will it be less stressful than trying to find a spot, reserving a space can also save you money.

To find discounted parking with Spothero, click on “Edit” below and enter the date(s) you’ll be attending the fest:

Hotels near the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival

Hotel Intercontinental
Hotel Intercontinental

ACME Hotel Company – fun and affordable boutique hotel | Check rates

Doubletree by Hilton Magnificent Mile – get a warm cookie at check-in! | Check rates

Hyatt Regency Chicago – one of Chicago’s largest hotels | Check rates

Intercontinental Hotel Chicago – an historic hotel on the Magnificent Mile | Check rates

Loews Chicago Hotel – closest hotel to Navy Pier | Check rates

Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel – located in one of the most distinctive buildings in Chicago | Check rates

Find more hotels near the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival

The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival is one of the most anticipated events of the year. It delights children of all ages and heralds the beginning of the holiday season in Chicago.