Raise a collectable mug of cheer — Chicago’s annual Christkindlmarket returns Friday. Those tidy rows of red-and-white striped wooden booths in Daley Plaza, Wrigleyville and now Aurora are a telltale sign the holiday season is upon us.
The main attraction, the free outdoor market downtown, attracted 1.5 million visitors last year. That location opens at 11 a.m. Friday, Nov. 18 and continues daily through Christmas Eve. Billed as the “most authentic” holiday market outside of Europe, the German-themed Christkindlmarket is back for the 26th year with its mugs, warm wine and sauerkraut.
“I think what people love about the market in general is that they have made it a family tradition or a tradition with their friends to come out and collect those items, get into the holiday joy and enjoy drinking a beverage, whether it’s a hot chocolate or the mulled wine that’s imported from Germany,” said Leila Schmidt with German American Events, which puts on the market.
Whether the market is a yearly tradition for your family or you’re checking it out for the first time, here’s what you need to know.
When is this holiday fun happening? The downtown market in Daley Plaza is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. On Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve the market will close at 4 p.m. Hours for the Wrigleyville location, which will stay open until New Year’s Eve, can be found here. And hours for the inaugural Aurora market, which will only be open Thursdays-Sundays, are here.
There are multiple locations? Yes. The market spread to Wrigleyville five years ago and is back in the suburbs for the first time since 2018. There have been previous Christkindlmarket locations in Naperville and Oak Brook, and Schmidt said there have been a lot of requests to bring back a suburban location, Schmidt.
What do vendors sell? Short answer: Lots of food and holiday gifts. The wooden booths, which are imported from Europe, feature offerings from nearly 60 vendors selling everything from classic German foods like bratwurst, schnitzel and pretzels to hand crafted toys and seasonal decorations. One option: Try some pickled herring like they’re serving at booth No. 4, wash it down with some hot spiced wine from booth No. 29 and head for some roasted nuts and German chocolates at the Sweet Castle — AKA booth No. 54.
If German fare isn’t your thing, there will also be food trucks lined up on Washington Street on the weekends.
If you’re there to shop for presents, vendors will be selling hand-crafted scarves, ornaments, stuffed animals, puzzles, jewelry and a whole lot more. Here’s your map to navigating the vendors.
What’s the best way to get there? If you don’t want the headache of finding a parking spot downtown, taking the Blue Line to the Washington station will take you right there.
But if you’re planning to drive, the market organizers point visitors to the Government Center garage on Clark. The market also has some parking deals available on its website, including up to 50% off a SpotHero reservation.
When should I go to avoid the crowds? If you can swing it, weekdays are your best bet, Schmidt said.
“We know on the weekends it can get a little bustling, so definitely weekdays try to come as early as possible,” she said. “I would say between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.”
You can also check out the other locations in Wrigleyville or Aurora, where crowds tend to be thinner than downtown.
What’s the collectable mug look like this year? The traditional German-style mugs, which feature a new design every year, have become a must-have collector’s item for many Chicagoans. This year’s mug features people dancing around a winter city scene — a nod to the city’s “Year of Chicago Dance” programming.
“The dancing shape and elements reflect what we all are grateful for: Finally being able to enjoy happy, cheerful moments and events in person again — with the people we love,” Maren Biester Priebe, CEO of German American Events, said in a press release.
There’s also the non-alcoholic beverage mug adorned with a penguin in a dirndl — a traditional German dress. Both mugs are available at all the locations while supplies last. They can be purchased empty at the information booths for $8 or filled with a drink from various vendors. You can also skip the crowds all together and order a mug in the online store.
What’s new at the Christkindlmarket this year?
The Aurora location is the biggest addition to this year’s festive programming.
The Wrigleyville location has also expanded this year to include 35 vendors. In Wrigleyville, the market partners with the nearby Winterland at Gallagher Way, which offers activities like ice skating and an ice slide inside Wrigley Field. The Christkindlmarket is free to attend, but you’ll have to pay to go inside the ballpark.
If you’re loyal to the downtown location, a full calendar of special events happening this year can be found here in case you want to plan your visit to catch carolling or a glimpse of The Christkind — the event’s fairy-like mascot who wears white-and-gold robes and a crown. (For parents of young Frozen fans: The Christkind has a bit of an Elsa-esque vibe that may make her a hit among your kids).
You can also host a private party for up to 100 people inside the alpine-decorated Timber Tent. Information here.
How did this market start in Chicago?
Inspired by the Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg, Germany, which dates back to the 16th century, the initial purpose for the Chicago market was to “further bilateral trade between Germany and the U.S.,” Schmidt said.
The event’s founders invited companies from Germany to participate in the inaugural market in 1996. That year, there were 13 vendors at Pioneer Court. The next year, it moved to Daley Plaza — with a special invite from Mayor Richard M. Daley, as Schmidt tells it — where the market and its famous mugs have been every year since.
Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers.