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Holiday in Chicago

There’s an excitement in the air in a city bedecked and sparkling for the season. With its world-class shopping, dining, architecture, parks, museums, performances, and special events, it would be hard to top the holiday spirit of the Jewel of the Lakes, the Gem of the Prairie– CHICAGO.

I adore Chicago. It is the pulse of America. Sarah Bernhardt

Promotional hotel rates and discounted flights abound. The newly renovated Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile is in the heart of the upscale shops, attractions, and restaurants of North Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile–ideal for dropping off those shopping bags before heading out for more. There’s even an onsite FedEx for shipping your packages.

Concierge level rooms include access to the lounge for the included bountiful breakfast buffet prepared by Ventuso Restaurant, revitalizing afternoon hors d’oeuvres, evening desserts and refreshing beverages all day long. Senior discounts and a variety of packages are offered that include museum admissions, shopping gift certificates, or, for fans of the American Girl dolls, an ultimate girls’ getaway including a bed for your doll and tea or theater at nearby American Girl Place.

Navy Pier Trolley in the Thanksgiving Day Parade
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Navy Pier Trolley in the Thanksgiving Day Parade

Most of the city’s major sights are within walking distance, and the city’s free trolley service connects to the museum districts and Navy Pier.

The Tourist Information Center is a good first stop for city maps, guidebooks, and discount coupon booklets. These are located at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, on the corner of Randolph, and Chicago Water Works, 163 E. Pearson.

The holiday fun begins with November’s Magnificent Mile Lights Festival. The week is topped off with the renowned State Street Thanksgiving Day Parade and a spectacular fireworks show along the Chicago River.

e Street Miss Illinois, Thanksgiving Day Parade
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Miss Illinois, Street Thanksgiving Day Parade

State Street Thanksgiving Day Parade
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State Street Thanksgiving Day Parade

snowman in Thanksgiving Day Parade, Chicago
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snowman in Thanksgiving Day Parade, Chicago

gingerbread men in Thanksgiving Day Parade in Chicago
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gingerbread men in Thanksgiving Day Parade in Chicago

Thanksgiving Day Parade, Chicago
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Thanksgiving Day Parade, Chicago

Special holiday events at the renowned Art Institute of Chicago, home to such treasures as American Gothic, begin the morning after Thanksgiving with the Wreathing of the Lions, when the famous bronze statues were ceremoniously adorned with wreaths and ribbons.

wreathed lions at the Art Institute of Chicago
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wreathed lions at the Art Institute of Chicago

Carolers entertain and the mayor lights the tree Annual Holiday Tree Lighting Ceremony at Daley Plaza. Christkindl, the Christmas Fairy, proclaims the opening of Christkindlmarket Chicago.

Pretzel House at Christkindlmarket
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Pretzel House at Christkindlmarket

Inspired by the Christmas Market in Nuremburg, it runs from Thanksgiving Day to Christmas Eve, and is now the best known holiday market in the USA.

There are over 70 vendors in original timber booths and cabins with high quality handcrafted imports, music, entertainment, live demonstrations, and traditional food like bratwurst and beer, gingerbread, giant pretzels, and other German treats, including Glühwein, a warm spiced wine.

Admission is free. While at Daley Plaza, stop by Santa’s House.

Beyond the upscale shopping experience of Oak Street and the Magnificent Mile, traditional landmark State Street department stores like the former Marshall Field’s, now Macy’s, with its Tiffany ceiling, and Carson Pirie Scott, known for its ornate grillwork, beckon. The cuisine, crystal chandeliers, and Russian wood paneling of Macy’s legendary 7th floor Walnut Room draw a crowd year-round, but during the holidays people come to see the lavish 45 foot tall Christmas tree. Not hungry? Take the escalator up one floor to the special tree viewing platform.

You can meet a dinosaur named Sue, step inside a real German submarine, take a virtual space journey, see the world’s largest indoor aquarium and one of best Impressionist and post-Impressionist collections in the world, AND view the city from the Chicago’s highest open-air skywalk—1000 feet above the Magnificent Mile.

If visiting three or more of these world-class attractions, consider a City Pass (under $50). Purchase it at the first one you visit for admission to all the rest, or in advance at www.citypass.com. You’ll be able to skip lines and will save money, too. The pass includes the Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum, Shedd Aquarium, Art Institute of Chicago, and the Hancock Observatory.

There’s no better time to visit these treasures. The Museum of Science and Industry, for example, features Christmas Around the World through January 2 with special performances and over 50 trees decorated by volunteers from Chicago’s ethnic communities.

Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
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Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

Head for the 15-story Ferris wheel and you’ll find the 50 acre family entertainment center and historic landmark, Navy Pier. Chicago’s most visited attraction, with over 8 million visitors annually, includes shops, restaurants, a stained glass museum, children’s museum, exhibits, an IMAX theater and more.

Visit Winter WonderFest, a family-oriented indoor display of lights, holiday trees and decorations, Santa and elves, ice skating, inflatable games, a carousel and other rides.

Free trolley service connects with the city center. New Year’s Eve means a gala ballroom celebration, midnight fireworks, Odyssey cruises, and a giant Ferris wheel countdown.

The award-winning Chicago Shakespeare Theater is a treasure of Navy Pier. It is modeled after the Swan, in Renaissance courtyard style. In addition to its flagship Subscription and Family Series, it brings in leading international theater companies with its World’s Stage Series.

A requisite holiday indulgence is traditional afternoon tea and our choice is the area’s Palm Court at the Drake Hotel—a heavenly oasis replete with live harp music every day between 1 and 5 pm. Wheat-free or vegetarian selections may be requested in advance, and innovative new menu options are about to be revealed.

afternoon tea at the Drake Hotel’s Palm Court
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afternoon tea at the Drake Hotel’s Palm Court

Cultural center of the Midwest, Chicago is known for theater, jazz, ballet, comedy, music, and so much more. The Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol, and Radio City Rockettes, Philharmonic Concerts, a Viennese Pops New Year’s celebration, are but a few holiday performances.

Chicago was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1871, and became the birthplace of the modern building, with unique and innovative designs. Don’t miss the landmark buildings of this corporate and financial powerhouse– the Wrigley Building, Tribune Tower, Sears Tower, and First National Bank, the tallest bank in world, to name a few—all decked out for the season.

Stop at the Chicago Architecture Foundation and buy a ticket for a walking tour of Chicago’s historic districts or modern skyscrapers. http://www.architecture.org. In December, special tours of seasonal decorations in significant downtown buildings are offered. Call 321-922-3432 for details.

Popular Millennium Park, a 25 acre recreational and cultural space in the center of the city, is another architectural wonder. Join people waving at their distorted reflections in Cloud Gate, the 66 foot shiny kidney-bean shaped sculpture weighing 110 tons, designed by Anish Kapoor to reflect the skyline and people around it. Rent skates and enjoy the McCormick-Tribune ice rink, free and open to the public.

Ready for a break? The rink is surrounded by restaurants and cafes. Crown Fountain features two 50 foot high glass block towers on either side, dramatically displaying over 1000 different faces of Chicago. Holiday Music from around the World is featured this month at the park’s Harris Theater.

Frank Lloyd Wright fans will want to see his masterpiece of Prairie architecture, Robie House, in Hyde Park. Known for its horizontal lines, art glass, and open and cantilevered design, it was designated by the AIA as one of the 20th century’s most significant structures. There are also Victorian Christmas Tours of the influential architect’s Oak Park home.

Want to venture outside the touristy part of the city? Chicago Neighborhood Tours will help you discover the diversity that enlivens this city. There are a variety of holiday traditions and celebrations, and perhaps you’ll find some unique Christmas gifts.

Just outside the city, Wonderland Express displays including miniature trains, holiday trees, and 750,000 white lights set the holiday mood at the Chicago Botanical Garden, beginning with Reindog Parade with colorfully costumed canines led by Santa.

Chicago Greeter is a complimentary service. Local volunteers escort visitors and newcomers, sharing their knowledge of their city and favorite places. See the world’s largest Tiffany stained-glass dome on the free tour, or enjoy concerts and other performances at the Chicago Cultural Center, the nation’s first free municipal cultural center.

Much of the best of what Chicago has to offer can be enjoyed at little or no cost, especially during the holidays. Stroll the streets, window shop, and enjoy this city brightly decorated by day and illuminated at night.

Chicago’s seasonal free trolley system runs between the major cultural, shopping, and entertainment destinations. Heading outside the city? Purchase a CTA Visitor Pass for $20 for a week of unlimited access to the CTA’s buses and trains, including airport transportation.

Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the nation’s last free zoos, offers Zoolights, a holiday lighting display featuring entertainment and animal designs, a water laser show, Santa’s workshop, and ice carvings.

detail from “Fairy tale of the Snowgirl”, with Father Winter at the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows at Navy Pier, Chicago
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detail from “Fairy tale of the Snowgirl”, with Father Winter at the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows at Navy Pier, Chicago

There are free museum days, the Chicago Tribune newspaper tours, Newberry Library (lectures, seminars, concerts, exhibits, special events), Chicago public library (free tours), U Chicago, site of the Manhattan Project and a nuclear energy sculpture, the University of Illinois at Chicago campus tour, Oriental Institute, Rockefeller Chapel, and Jane Addams (1st American woman to win Nobel peace prize) Hull House Museum. There’s the Smith Museum of Stained Glass at Navy Pier and don’t forget Chicago’s sculpture, like Chagall’s mosaic “The Four Seasons” at the First National Bank, Alexander Calder’s “Flamingo” at Chicago Federal Center, and the unnamed Picasso sculpture at Daley Plaza.

Whatever your budget or interests, plan a visit. You’ll find Chicago is your kind of town.

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