Visiting Chicago in the winter? This quick and informative guide has everything you need to know!
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Don’t let the cold weather scare you! Winter is a wonderful time to visit The Windy City. There’s less crowds and a ton of family-friendly holiday activites that are only available in the winter. Christmas lights, anyone? 😃
This quick and informative guide will tell you everything you need to know about visiting Chicago in the winter. It’s divided into 3 sections: Where to Go, Holiday Events & Attractions, and How to Stay Warm. Where to Go covers some of Chicago’s top attractions with tips for visiting them in the wintertime. Holiday Events & Attractions highlights special holiday activities in Chicago. How to Stay Warm (the most important section!) will give you all the best tricks for staying warm in the Chicago cold.
Feel free to post any comments or questions below. Happy holidays and enjoy your trip!
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Where to Go
1. 360 Chicago
360 Chicago is a must-do any time of the year, but particularly in the winter. I can just hear you thinking, “But, Alyssa. What about the Willis Tower?” Yes, the Willis Tower is an awesome attraction too. If you have time, do both! But if you can only do one, I recommend 360 Chicago for several reasons:
1) It’s less crowded. Oftentimes in the winter, there’s a 5 minute wait or less.
2) The incredible view!! 360 Chicago is located on Michigan Avenue right near the lake, which offers water views on two sides and Chicago views on the other sides. Absolutely breathtaking!
3) The TILT, dubbed “Chicago’s highest thrill ride”, literally tilts visitors for a downward view of Michigan Avenue 😮 (Note: this attraction costs extra)
4) You can SEE the Willis Tower from 360 Chicago which is kind of cool. And, if you’re lucky, the Willis Tower antennas will be decorated in green and red for Christmas like in the photo above (located in the top right corner).
2. Navy Pier
Believe it or not, Navy Pier is a great place to visit during the day in the wintertime. This 3,300 foot pier located on the Chicago shoreline of Lake Michigan is Chicago’s number one tourist attraction for good reason. It has everything from shopping to restaurants to a 200-foot-tall ferris wheel. And yes, the Centennial (ferris) Wheel is open year-round and the gondola seats are heated!
Even though many Navy Pier attractions are closed in the winter, including the Beer Garden, the climbing walls, and many outdoor food stands, it’s still a great time to visit Navy Pier for many reasons: 1) it’s WAY less crowded 2) there’s many indoor parts to Navy Pier that remain open, such as the shopping mall, restaurants, and atrium and 3) they have a 170,000 square feet indoor winter wonderfest! If you’re visiting Chicago in the winter, Navy Pier is the place to be!
3. Adler Planetarium
Adler Planetarium is a favorite for all ages! It’s completely indoors, which makes it a great attraction even on the coldest days. Adler is complete with several planetariums (including Chicago’s oldest planetarium, the Atwood Sphere, dating back to 1913) and tons of space-related exhibits! Be sure to catch Planet Nine, if it’s playing! It’s a crowd favorite. 😃
4. Chicago Cultural Center
The Chicago Cultural Center is a great attraction anytime of the year, but similar to Adler, it’s particularly awesome when you’re visiting Chicago in the winter because it’s entirely indoors. The gorgeous building across from Millenium Park houses free art exhibits, programs, and more! They even have a few holiday events, including a Dance-Along Nutcracker show! Be sure to visit the top floor and marvel at the largest Tiffany-stained glass dome in the world (pictured below).
Holiday Events & Attractions
1. The Christkindlmarket
If you’re spending Christmas in Chicago, the Christkindlmarket should be top on your list! This beautiful market located in a non-descript alley next to Daley Plaza will immediately transport you into a land of European holiday charm. The market is packed with stalls filled with enchanting and enticing holidays wares. You can find anything from holiday ornaments to handmade accessories to the yummiest German potato panckes you’ll ever taste (and they’re gluten free!) No Christmas in Chicago is complete without a visit to the Christkindlmarket for a healthy dose of holiday cheer!
The Lincoln Park Zoo has been celebrating the holidays for the past 24 years with their iconic ZooLights display. It boasts 2.5 million lights and it’s completely free (although there are some special ticketed events). Don’t miss out on this unique Christmas in Chicago attraction. It’s fun for all ages!
3. Christmas Tree, Ice Skating, and Holiday market at Millenium Park
This is a Christmas in Chicago classic. First off, look at this gorgeous Christmas tree! Don’t you want to see that in person? You know you do! 😉
But the holidays in Millenium Park doesn’t end there! They have a wonderful skating rink, as well as, holidays events, including a free art market in November. They even light up the Millenium Monument (located near the intersection of East Randolph and North Michigan) in green and red!
Also, don’t miss out on the famous “Bean” (officially known as Cloud Gate). Whether you’re visiting Chicago in the winter or another time of the year, Millenium Park should be top on your list!
4. Macy’s Holiday Windows
The holidays in Chicago aren’t complete without a visit to Macy’s State Street for a quick peek at their holiday window displays. You can also pop up to the 7th floor while you’re there and check out the beautiful Christmas tree located in the Narcissus Room. Macy’s also has various holiday events, including breakfast with Santa. And as a bonus, you can get some holiday shopping done! Need I say more?
How to Stay Warm
1. Dress in Layers
As you can probably guess, winters in Chicago are COLD with lows averaging in the 20s. I’ve found that the best thing to do is dress in layers. This isn’t the most groundbreaking advice I can give you, but definitely the most useful. Don’t forget gloves, hats, and scarves!
Also, cashmere and wool are your friends! If you have sweaters or scarves made of these warm materials, be sure to bring them. And a down (or faux down) coat never hurts either! Visiting Chicago in the winter makes breaking out allll your winter gear.
These amazing finds are guaranteed to keep you warm when visiting Chicago in the winter!
2. Use the Pedway
The Pedway is a unique pedestrian walkway system that expands through downtown Chicago. The system consists of underground tunnels and overhead bridges to help keep pedestrians warm and safe, especially in thw winter. Check out the Pedway map here.
3. Explore Indoor Attractions
Many of the attractions on this list are entirely indoors! If it’s really frigid out, Chicago has a whole slew of other amazing indoor attractions, such as, Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
4. Warm drinks!
Warm drinks always help when it’s really cold and windy! Chicago has many unique tea spots located around the city (check out this list here). A personal favorite of mine is Argo Tea, a chain of tea cafes that started in Chicago. They have a location on W Randolph less than 2 minutes away from the Macy’s holiday window display if you need to warm up! Try their pumpkin spice black tea… yum!
If coffee is more your cup of… um tea… (haha 😉) then check out this list of awesome coffee houses here.
And if it’s super SUPER cold…
As a health blogger, I usually encourage my readers to walk as much as possible on vacation to get fresh air and a nice calorie burn. Visiting Chicago in the winter could definitely be the exception to that rule. If you’ve dressed warmly enough, you should be able to walk most of the time (especially if you can use the Pedway, see above); however, if it gets super frigid– don’t be a martyr! Take a taxi or hop on the L, Chicago’s easy-to-navigate subway system.
I hope you enjoyed this guide! Visiting Chicago in the winter allows you to explore the city in a different way with less crowds and more holiday cheer! Whether you’re spending Christmas in Chicago or you’re there for a long weekend in January, this guide gives you everything you need to travel with confidence! ❄️
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