Oh sure, hunkering down at home in your PJs all winter sounds tempting, but there’s lots to see and do around town. So much so, you’ll want to slip into those winder duds and get outside STAT. From light shows to sledding and sleigh rides (and some indoor fun, too), there’s a winter adventure awaiting. Read on for events, exhibits and activities to add to your winter playlist.
1. Brighten your winter with Tree Lights at Morton Arboretum
Illumination dazzled us with lights, sights and sounds transformed a Chicago-area wintertime walk in the woods into a colorful, inspiring experience like no other. Lights went out January 1, but no worries, they’ll be back this November.
2. Guten tag, Santa! Christkindlmarkt Chicago is a must-do!
Bundle up for this outdoor market that brings the cherished tradition of the Christkindlmarkt in Germany to Chicago and Naperville, and adds a heap of local charm. You’ll see the market’s signature wooden cabins topped with festive red-and-white-striped canopies, each packed with handmade gifts, food and drinks from around the world. Shop, eat, enjoy free entertainment, repeat. This gem warms our hearts late November-Christmas Eve every year.
3. Skate a figure eight
Chicago Park District’s outdoor ice skating rinks are located all around the city, welcoming both beginning and advanced ice skaters. Rent a pair of double-bladed skates for newbies, or bring a pair of your own. Skating season runs through the end of February at most outdoor rinks, weather permitting. For more options, check out our story 9 Awesome Outdoor Ice Skating Rinks.
4. Take to the the skies for a very special view
Buckle up and take your holiday lights enjoyment to all new heights with a birds-eye view from 1,200 feet above the crowd with Chicago Helicopter Experience. The pilot gives a guided tour of the lights at Lincoln Park Zoo, Navy Pier, Millennium Park and the Chicago skyline, which is breathtaking no matter the time of year but exponentially so during the holidays. Once the holiday lights go out for the year, you can still float above the lights that illuminate our beautiful city every night of the year.
5. Do Little Playtimes at LEGOLAND
Escape the chill by taking the littles to LEGOLAND Discovery Center’s Little Playtimes. Every Tuesday, 10 a.m.-noon, the Center opens early on the second floor exclusively for toddlers and their parents, offering engaging educational programs perfect for the youngest LEGO® enthusiasts.
6. Razzle and dazzle at Lincoln Park Zoo’s annual ZooLights
One of the nation’s only free-admission zoos flips the holiday switch with ZooLights. With the light displays throughout the grounds, your fam can stroll through the twinkling winter wonderland created by over 2 million lights, take photos with Santa, enjoy food and drinks, watch ice carving demos, partake in carousel rides and go-’rounds on the Lionel Train Adventure.
7. Escape to the tropics in the city
It’s 80 degrees and balmy year ’round at Garfield Park Conservatory, where a slide and plenty of space to roam give Chicagoans a welcome (and free!) respite from the winter. If a visit here leaves you craving the heat, check out our story The Heat Is On! Local Hot Spots Where Winter Doesn’t Exist.
photo: Goodman Theatre’s A Christmas Carol
8. Get into the holiday spirit with A Christmas Carol
There are always a few versions of Marley’s thought-provoking caper across town during the holidays. The one that’s everlasting (and truly tear-jerking) is at The Goodman Theatre, which was first staged there more than 35 years ago. There is something about this timeless story, combined with the world-class actors of The Goodman, that keeps the “bah-humbug”s away. While you’re at it, explore other delightful shows using our story Holiday Shows That Will Dazzle the Whole Family as a guide.
9. Be delighted with the creativity at That’s Weird Grandma
Kids say (and write) the darnedest things, right? The imaginations of children are celebrated in the That’s Weird Grandma variety show of short sketches and songs adapted from stories written by students in Barrel of Monkeys’ arts education programs. Now in its 17th year, the show runs the gamut from clever and funny to touching and poignant.
10. Visit an Illinois newcomer
Howlin’ good times are within reach as Great Wolf Lodge brought their signature brand of fun to Gurnee. After more than a year of renovations on a pre-existing structure, they’re here to show Chicago we can have Wisconsin-Dells-level adventures in our own back yard. If one visit to an indoor waterpark isn’t enough, hit up another using our story Indoor Water Parks That Will Save Your Winter.
11. Take a winter hike in the middle of the city.
The North Park Village Nature Center offers a short hiking path, perfect for nature-loving little ones. Trek in the snow and see if you can spot the many deer that roam this winter wonderland. Be sure to check their events calendar for scheduled activities the whole family can enjoy.
12. Unleash your family’s creativity
Lillstreet Art Center offers winter-themed family workshops throughout the season: create a new ornament with the whole gang and make memories along the way.
photo: Anne CN via flickr
13. Go sledding!
There are plenty of great sledding hills in Chicago and beyond. The Forest Preserve District of Cook County has a great guide for sledding in the city. One of the best is Caldwell Woods, near the corner of Devon and Milwaukee. Afterward, head over to Superdawg, home of Chicago’s best hot dogs, located just around the corner. Since it offers old-fashioned window service, you can keep your winter gear on and enjoy a delicious dog from the comfort of your car. For other powder-chasing ideas, check out our story Super Slopes! Where to Go Sledding in Chicago & Beyond.
14. Strike a yoga pose
Bloom Yoga Studio offers drop-in family yoga classes throughout the winter, for families looking to stretch away the winter blues. Bloom not convenient for you? Our story Namaste, Little One: Chicago’s Top Yoga Spots for Yogis of All Ages will help you find your zen spot.
15. Learn to cook seasonal favorites together
At The Kids’ Table, families work side-by-side to make a delicious, warm, season-inspired meal and then enjoy it together. For ages 2 & up.
16. Get your winter thrill fill at Navy Pier
Get your thrill fill at Navy Pier’s Winter WonderFest, which has rides for all ages. Being Chicago’s biggest and best indoor winter playground, it features 170,000 square feet filled with rides, giant slides, Chicago Blackhawks indoor ice skating rink and holiday decor that is sure to get you into the holiday spirit.
17. It’s an absolute must . . . ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas
You know the story, right? The date was December 24, aka the night before Christmas, and per the usual, not a creature was stirring . . . not even the teeny-tiniest mouse. But not all is good up north because Santa’s List has disappeared. It’s up to a pair of dancing mice, a spunky girl and an Elf-B-I agent to save the day. Kick off your family’s yuletide season with this comic take on the classic poem.
18. Let the city dazzle during a holiday lights tour
The coolest way to watch the winking and blinking of holiday lights is by trolley. Hook up with Chicago Trolley Co. for its annual lightly narrated Holiday Lights Tour that covers all the best spots to light up the cold winter nights.
19. Experience The Nutcracker, with a twist
The House Theatre of Chicago’s creative reinvention of The Nutcracker has an original spin: It focuses on Clara’s journey to save her family, reeling from the wartime death of her brother, from the Rat King. Both funny and heartwarming, it will remind everyone in your family about the real reason for the season.
20. Wonderland Express at Chicago Botanic Garden
The Wonderland Express will transport your fam into a garden paradise filled with 750,000 outdoor lights. Enjoy this annual holiday extravaganza featuring model trains, magic and glittering snow and meticulously crafted miniature Chicago landmarks.
21. Explore what’s happening under the ice
Throughout winter, the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center in Willow Springs offers excellent family programming focused on how animals survive the winter in the Chicago area. Learn how fish, reptiles and amphibians live underneath frozen waters during the winter months, how raptors catch their dinner on the go, and more.
22. See eagles at Starved Rock State Park
Winter, spring, summer or fall, all you have to do is haul your crew to Starved Rock State Park for hiking with a stellar view. Starting in mid-January, thousands of eagles migrate to Starved Rock State Park and stay through March. They’re easy to spot as they soar through the sky or perch on the treetops. Bring binoculars!
23. Experience the lit magic at Brookfield Zoo
Chicagoland’s largest lights festival, Holiday Magic at Brookfield Zoo features over one million LED lights. Not only will indoor exhibits remain open for animal sightings, but guests can take part in singing to animals and special zoo chats with the experts.
24. Ski the slopes of the western ‘burbs
Board in the ‘burbs at Four Lakes, where snowboarding and skiing is located smack-dab in Lisle, making for an easy “mountain” getaway without the headache of road trippin’. Affordable season passes, a smaller terrain, and private and group ski or snowboarding instruction make it an ideal winter recreation spot for families or first timers.
25. Put 2019 to bed with Blue Man Group
Look ahead to capping off a pretty great 2019 with a kid-loved performance with the men in blue. Kiddos will be transformed into members of the blue crew with pre-show face painting and will party like it’s 1999 with a pretend midnight countdown after the show, complete with party hats, noisemakers and a special performance of “Auld Lang Syne”.
— Maria Chambers & Amy Bizzarri