Beyond

Winter Wonderland – 7 Great Chicago Holiday Adventures Outdoors

 

Two steeples downtown. One of a tree, one of a church. Photo by Matt Maldre.

I’m of the opinion that we don’t appreciate winter enough here in Chicago. On the face of it, there doesn’t seem like much to appreciate- snow makes traffic even more hellish, parking harder, and even impedes us on foot. It’s cold and windy and altogether unpleasant at times. But it’s also serene and a little softer and quieter. It takes hard corners and rounds them off, turns the lake to glass and gives us the chance to see things in a new light. If you’re willing to bundle up a little bit, you’ll find our area full of Christmas adventure and beautiful sights. Here’s a few of our favorite ways to get outside for Christmas and enjoy the natural (and, we’ll admit, unnatural) beauty of the season. 

Ornaments at Christkindlmarket. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

If you’re not so sure about this whole “outdoor Christmas” thing, one of the best places to start won’t come as a surprise. It’s not far away, and there’s even some heated tents to retreat into if you’re feeling the cold. Christkindlmarket is a classic because it’s fantastic. It’s central, it’s full of beautiful baubles, there’s yearly souvenirs, and its tenets are ones we can all agree on: eat, drink and be merry. Grab some Bavarian favorites, get your hands on some beautiful ornaments for the tree, stay warm with gluhwein or cider and get a little taste of what Christmas is like in Germany. It’s like a kinder, gentler Oktoberfest and I can hardly imagine Christmas in Chicago without it. 

Another trip to take if you’re not in a bundling mood but still want to get some green in your life is the Garfield Park Conservatory. This beautiful collection of plant life from all over the world is protected from the elements, has gorgeous views of the skyline, and features a fantastic Christmas show each year. This year’s theme was ‘Fire and Ice’ and is a veritable explosion of poinsettias, chiles and lush greens that’ll make you forget the greyer landscapes just outside the door.  It’s also completely free, which is a godsend in a season of spending. 

Wonderland Express. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

If you’re willing to take a little trip outside city limits, check out the Chicago Botanic Garden. Their indoor show, Wonderland Express, is a tradition and a favorite for kids and adults alike. It transforms the Regenstein Center into a mini Chicagoland, replete with model trains, indoor snow and beautiful plant life. There’s plenty more to explore this time of year though, with the gorgeous greenhouses just around the corner from Wonderland. If boots and a camera ready to go though, our favorite winter sight at the garden is the Japanese gardens right after it snows.  

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Morton Arboretum’s Illumination show. Photo by John McCloy.

Once it’s dark, even more opportunities present themselves. The Morton Arboretum puts on a beautiful show with Illumination, when the entire place is alive with lights from treetop to ground level. You’ll walk a mile-long path through this award-winning show, and though entry is timed, once you’re in you can stay as long as you like and warm yourself up by the fire pits or in the warming tents. Morton might be a bit of a drive, but it’s certainly worth it for this display. 

ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo. Photo Courtesy Lincoln Park Zoo.

If you’d like to add the whole animal kingdom to your Christmas journey, then it’ll be a matter of choosing zoos. Both Lincoln Park Zoo and Brookfield Zoo offer fantastic holiday festivities that are great for all ages. ZooLights at the Lincoln Park Zoo is a must-see each year, and since it runs from Thanksgiving to the end of January, you can likely make room for it in your holiday calendar. Aside from the beautiful light display, you’ll find spiced wine and cider, gift shopping, Santa himself and of course, the critters you come to visit all year round. It’s also worth your time to check their calendar of special events during ZooLights, though those are likely to be more crowded times to attend. 

Holiday Magic at Brookfield Zoo. Photo courtesy Brookfield Zoo.

Brookfield Zoo offers a great Christmas celebration, too, with Holiday Magic. These happen every weekend in December, beginning at around 4 pm each day, and feature the lighting of their 41 foot tree as well as a walk through Christmas orb that’s 20 feet tall, giant animal displays, live music, costumed characters and 600 lit and decorated trees outside by the fountain. Their Holiday Magic celebration will continue this weekend with appearances by Santa himself and celebrate its final weekend the week of Christmas. 

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Old Orchard Mall in Skokie, IL. Photo by Mary Ellen Bledeen.

Our final suggestion is for procrastinators like me. If you’ve still got holiday shopping to do, you might not feel like you have time to play outside. That’s why Old Orchard Mall is such a fantastic idea, and one I often take advantage of. It’s always full of holiday lights and décor with a fantastic array of stores to shop that will help check items off your shopping list. There’s also some great food stops like Shake Shack if you get hungry while you’re shopping.

We hope this will help you see the world of Christmas fun that’s outside your doors and help you enjoy winter and the holiday season in new ways. Have a fantastic holiday season, and keep watching this space for more holiday fun. 

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