Oh sure, hunkering down at home in your PJs all winter sounds tempting, but there’s loads 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: Tree Lights at Morton Arboretum dazzles us with lights, sights and sounds to transformed a Chicago-area wintertime walk in the woods into a colorful, inspiring experience like no other. Lights stay on through Jan. 5
2. Guten tag, Santa! Christkindlmarkt Chicago is a must-do!
Bundle up for this outdoor market that brings the cherished tradition of the Christkindlmarket in Germany to Chicago, 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 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. Lit up through Jan. 5.
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.
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, A Christmas Carol. The one that’s everlasting (and truly tear-jerking) is at The Goodman Theatre, Nov. 16-Dec. 29, 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.
9. It’s an absolute must . . . Corduroy
A small bear’s quest for a missing button leads to the friendship of a lifetime. The department store comes to life with circus elements and physical comedy as Corduroy must stay a step ahead of the Night Watchman to be ready for Lisa when she returns to the store. Kids will learn the importance of empathy and unconditional love alongside a young girl and her mother in this sweet adaptation, Nov. 9-Jan. 5.
10. 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 PlayMakers Laboratory’s arts education programs. The show runs the gamut from clever and funny to touching and poignant. That’s Weird Grandma: Travels Through Time will run select Sundays in Jan. and Feb.
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. For this and more hiking ideas, read our story Hit the Trails! Best Hikes with Kids No Matter the Season.
12. It’s cold outside, but swim anyway!
Howlin’ good times are within reach as Great Wolf Lodge brought their signature brand of fun to Gurnee. After renovations on a pre-existing structure, they set out last year 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.
13. See the Toys “R” Us Adventure Pop-Up
Escape to the Toys “R” Us Adventure Pop-Up, a land where imaginations run free, toys are larger than life and even the adultiest adults can unleash their inner child. This vast indoor wonderland celebrates all the whimsy, silly and FUN of toys and play! Through Jan. 26, explore over eight mind-blowing rooms featuring brands you know and love.
photo: Anne CN via flickr
14. 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.
15. 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.
16. Introduce the kids to Andy Warhol
Take the kids for a bit of culture at the Art Museum of Chicago to see Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again, the first major retrospective to be organized by a US institution in 30 years. More than 400 works offer a new view of the beloved and iconic American Pop artist. On display through Jan. 26.
17. Get your winter thrill fill at Navy Pier
Get your thrill fill at Navy Pier’s Winter WonderFest, Dec. 6-Jan. 12, 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.
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, Nov. 8-Dec. 29, 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. Have a bug encounter at The Field Museum
Don’t get too creeped out, but all around us, bugs have built an amazing world that we rarely notice. They can camouflage themselves as flowers, communicate with flashing lights, and even perform “brain surgery” to turn their prey into zombies. At the Fantastic Bug Encounters exhibit, visitors will discover how bugs’ incredible adaptations are changing the world through interactives, larger-than-life models and a bug zoo where visitors will be able to see (and even hold) live bugs from all over the planet.
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. Soak up the genius that is Mo Willems
The Pigeon Comes to Chicago! A Mo Willems Exhibit is Chicago Children’s Museum’s exhibition inspired by the art and characters of the beloved children’s book author and illustrator, Mo Willems. Activities give visitors the opportunity to make art inspired by Mo Willems and to learn about the rich social and emotional lives of the author’s characters. Flys out of town Jan. 12.
23. 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!
24. Ski the slopes of Wilmot
Chicago’s terrain is flat as far as the eye can see, making it tricky to make use of that ski gear collecting dust in the basement. But, in a little over an hour, you can ski, snowboard and tube mountainous slopes, with your family in tow, at one of the area’s best ski destinations, Wilmot Mountain in Wisconsin.
25. Bask in 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.
26. 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”.
27. Have hair-raising fun at Trolls LIVE!
Poppy, Branch and their friends come to life on stage in Trolls LIVE!, their first-ever live tour. The journey begins Jan. 11 & 12 when the Trolls’ Hug Time is unexpectedly put at risk. Knowing that the only way to save it is by doing what Trolls do best, Poppy hosts a toe-tapping, Trolls-tastic show, jam-packed with all the epic music, glitter, humor and happiness only the Trolls can create.
28. Remedy cabin fever at Chicago Children’s Museum’s newest permanent exhibit
The concept behind the 30-ton, 37-foot-tall steel dreamscape is to celebrate adventure and risk-taking, qualities that are inherent to childhood. From every vantage point and with every ascent, Cloud Buster helps provide children the opportunity to develop the grit and determination necessary to lifelong success.
29. Pretend it’s summer at the Chicago Boat, RV & Sail Show
If lakeside beach-y fun sounds good right about now, the 90th Annual Chicago Boat, RV & Sail Show is the show for you. Held Jan. 8-12, cast a line in the Huck Finn Trout Pond, where pros teach catch and release techniques with live trout, participate in paddle sports, compete in remote control sailboat racing, and much more!
30. Glamp at Hotel Zachary
Through late February, visitors to Camp Zachary can relax on comfy couches and enjoy cozy festive décor with hot toddy’s and fire cauldrons to stay warm. Camp Zachary will be the Instagrammable moment not to be missed this winter. For other staycation hotel ideas, read our story Staycation Spotlight: Hotels with Amazing Kid Amenities.
31. LEGO with your kids at LEGOLAND Discovery on their sensory-friendly days
LEGOLAND Discovery Center Chicago and Austim Speaks teamed up to provide a sensory-friendly LEGO experience the first Saturday of every month. Special accommodations will be made during Play Well Days including reduction of sound and lights, quiet spaces, a reduced center capacity, staff training by Autism Speaks and earplugs are provided, if requested.
32. Build epic cardboard forts with your kids
Through Mar. 1, enter a world of play and creation as Filament Theatre transforms into a playspace, Forts: Build Your Own Adventure, for children and parents to build new worlds. Using cardboard boxes, sheets, clotheslines and more, families build adventures of their own devising. With theatrical design elements of sound and lights working together to support creative play, families are swept away in the adventure!
33. Shop Green City Market’s indoor market
Shop local and sustainable year-round at Green City Market’s indoor market on select Saturdays at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum through Apr.
34. Visit Adler Planetarium for FREE
Countless galaxies, unfathomable distances, exploding stars, diamond planets, black holes, there’s no way around it, space is freaking awesome! Learn more at the Adler Planetarium during Illinois Resident Discount Days—where Illinois residents receive FREE museum entry. Visit the link to see all the free days.
35. Shop the Pilsen Community Market
Pilsen Community Market invites families to shop during the Winter 2019 season every other Sunday, Nov. 24-Apr. 26. Taking place indoors at Honky Tonk BBQ in the heart of the neighborhood, the Pilsen Community Winter Market presents Chicago’s widest variety of local Latino-owned businesses and entertainment under one cozy roof.
36. Attend Chicago Architecture Center’s Engineering Fest
Learn how cities move and groove during CAC’s annual Engineering Fest, Feb. 23 & 24. Build and learn, view exhibits, meet engineers and discover systems that move us around Chicago. Participate in numerous stations and activities, including youth tours, a photo station, an expert station, building and testing an elevator, building and testing train tracks, and book readings.
37. Hejsan at Swedish American Museum
Join Swedish American Museum at the Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration for story and craft time on the third Friday of each month. The theme for the 2019-2020 school year is animals.
38. Explore Neighborhood Parents Network’s Summer Camp Fair
Kids and parents can learn about summer camp options and test drive camp activities at NPN’s first-ever Summer Camp Fair. Your family will enjoy sample camp activities for kids, brought to you by exhibiting camps, free raffles to win a free week of summer camp (you can win more than once) and valuable information you need to know about each exhibiting camp such as dates, fees, hours, ages, before and aftercare, activities, and more!
— Maria Chambers & Amy Bizzarri