Lake Forest, Illinois, sits on the shores of Lake Michigan, 30 miles north of downtown Chicago. This idyllic community of 20,000 is typically tranquil and reserved, but when the holiday season rolls around, everything shifts into high gear.
1. Lake Forest Tree Lighting Ceremony
The festivities kick off in earnest the day after Thanksgiving when the city hosts its annual Tree Lighting Ceremony. Starting in the late afternoon, families, friends, and their holiday guests gather in the town’s historic Market Square to soak up the holiday fun. There are sweet treats and hot chocolate, activities for kids, and live music. Santa even makes an appearance so families can capture impromptu holiday photos.
Every year offers something different. There have been ice sculptors, live reindeer, and chestnuts roasting, but one thing remains the same — the feeling of camaraderie between neighbors and strangers.
The evening starts winding down when the high school choir begins to sing traditional Christmas carols and a hush falls over the crowd. It only lasts for a moment, until everyone decides to join in, creating a scene that is straight out of a Rockwell painting. Joyous voices raise everyone’s spirits as people are no longer individuals, but a community celebrating together.
Once the caroling and performances come to an end, the Lake Forest Dance Academy puts on a performance that rivals the Rockettes. Then it’s time for the big show. Everyone counts backward from 10 (and I mean everyone) until the switch is flipped and the tree shines bright for all to see. This is amplified by the trees that surround the square, also decked out in white lights and illuminating faces in the crowd.
Pro Tip: Parking can be difficult during this event, so we recommend parking at the train station and walking to the square, or taking the train to the east Lake Forest stop. This drops you off right in front of Market Square and all of the festivities.
As I said, that is only the beginning of the holiday festivities in Lake Forest. Here are some of the other fun events not to be missed in the community.
2. Gorton Community Center
Gorton Community Center is the heart of Lake Forest, offering holiday events and celebrations all season long. There are holiday-themed cooking, sewing, and painting classes, concerts with the Lake Forest Civic Orchestra, Nutcracker performances, and even a mother-daughter holiday tea.
Every Christmas season, Gorton has the FA-LA-LA Film Fest in the John and Nancy Hughes Theater (yes, that John Hughes). This year will be Home Alone, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Elf, and A Christmas Story.
3. Deer Path Inn
The Deer Path Inn is styled after a 15th-century English manor house and has become the gem of Lake Forest through the years. It is known for its exemplary customer service and fabulous dining experiences in both its pub and traditional restaurants. For the last 4 years, it has been at the top of Travel & Leisure’s 10 Best Resorts in the Midwest list.
During the holiday season, the Deer Path Inn offers the ultimate holiday experience. Their Toy Suite package will elevate any stay by adding vintage toys to your accommodations. There’s everything from Rubik’s Cubes to Light Brites to a large floor piano (a la the film Big) and Care Bears.
The package also includes treats from the local candy shop, Sweet’s, in-room snacks like boozy milkshakes and gourmet popcorn, and complimentary transportation via Range Rover to the Lightscape event at Chicago Botanic Garden. At the end of their stay, guests will have the opportunity to purchase one of the toys, donating to the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center.
4. Market Square
Market Square is the main shopping center in town, and this holiday season they’re having Joy & Wonder in the Square, an afternoon event everyone can enjoy. There will be sleigh rides, live performances, ice sculpting, and even a live nativity scene. The event is free and it’s a great opportunity to support small businesses and finish your holiday shopping.
Pro Tip: When you’ve finished shopping, grab a bite to eat at one of the local restaurants. We recommend Francesca’s Intimo for Italian cuisine or The Gallery featuring a menu based on the artwork in a local gallery.
5. West Park Ice Rink
Every winter when the temperature drops below freezing, the city of Lake Forest floods part of West Park and creates an outdoor public ice skating rink. Anyone can join in the fun, just be sure to bring your skates!
6. Lake Forest Parks And Recreation
Lake Forest has an outstanding parks and recreation department that goes all in when it comes to the holidays. They have their French Market Holiday Boutique with hundreds of vendors that attracts thousands of shoppers from the northern Chicago area.
They also organize a Letters from Santa program where families drop off their requests and staff members respond to each letter individually. Additionally, there’s a drive-thru meet-and-greet with Santa and his elves.
7. The Second Annual Saturday Market
Market Square isn’t the only place to shop for holiday gifts! The West Lake Forest Train Station will host its second annual Saturday market with hand-crafted gifts, holiday treats, and an opportunity to check off your to-do list!
8. Lake Forest Bookstore
One local gem that shouldn’t be overlooked is the Lake Forest Bookstore. This independent bookseller has quite a history as it was originally opened in 1949 by 12 local women. Since then, it has been female owned and operated and a constant source of literature for townspeople and visitors alike.
During the holiday season, the bookstore hosts local book clubs after hours so folks can meet and shop with friends. They will also arrange personalized shopping sessions during the month of December. Lake Forest Bookstore has wonderful employees always willing to help you find the perfect book for yourself or someone special.
Pro Tip: The bookstore also has fun hostess gifts, games, and stationery. They will gift wrap any of your purchases for free and they have several types of wrapping paper to choose from. It’s a one-stop shop!
Lake Forest is one of those Midwestern towns where community is everything. Its focus is quite evident during the holiday season and we think you’ll agree that this charming winter destination has it all!
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