Chicago locals bundle up and head out in winter, savoring the city’s restaurants, microbreweries, and packed clubs. There’s no reason you can’t do the same if you visit Chicago in the winter.
In winter, Chicagoans go out. Never mind the chilly gusts blowing off Lake Michigan, temperatures below freezing or the snow. Locals bundle up and savor their city, a Midwestern gem with trendy restaurants, popular microbreweries, packed blues and jazz clubs, plus world-class museums.
Dining, Drinks, Desserts
Nothing melts the cold like good food and drink. With some 40 James Beard award-winning chefs and 26 Michelin-starred restaurants, plus additional creative tables, Chicago rates as one of the nation’s best food destinations.
Even the city’s cheap eats come with a distinctive flare. Served in a poppy seed bun, the classic Chicago hot dog is “dragged through the garden,” a reference to the multiple toppings: yellow mustard – not ketchup – relish, white onions, chili peppers, tomato slices and a pickle spear. Deep dish pizza, long associated with Chicago, is readily available. Popular places include Lou Malnati’s and Giordano’s. Among the myriad stops for thin-crust fans are Piece Brewery and Pizzeria, as well as Parlor Pizza Bar.
Good dining thrives in the Fulton Market/West Loop neighborhoods. Condé Nast Traveler names Au Cheval as serving one of America’s best burgers. Casual and friendly, The Loyalist also gains fame for its burgers while its upstairs sister Smyth serves prix fixe fine dining. Chef Sarah Grueneberg’s flavorful pastas won Monteverde a spot on Bon Appétit’s finalist list of America’s Best New Restaurants 2016. Aficionados point to the former “Top Chef” contestant’s ragu alla Napoletana and the wok-fried strangozzi noodles as entrees not to miss.
Another “Top Chef” star, Stephanie Izard, works culinary magic at her trio of popular restaurants. Little Goat Diner, also a bakery and a bar, dishes out clever takes on comfort food all day long. Lunch “Sammiches” include Tonkatsu, breaded pork cutlet and Asian barbecue sauce, as well as an array of burgers, including Goat Almighty. For supper, munch on chicken pot pie, fried chicken and pork belly ramen. Leave room for imaginative milkshakes such as sweet potato pecan, and smoked pork and toffee crunch.
At Girl & The Goat, Izard mixes atypical ingredients – goat meatballs with escargot – for flavorful dishes. Izard’s newest restaurant, Duck Duck Goat, serves Sichuan-influenced fare.
You can sweeten the evening with everything chocolate at the Peninsula Chicago’s Chocolate Bar. On Friday and Saturday evenings, The Lobby café serves mini-chocolate cakes, puddings, mille-feuilles, and even a chocolate martini.
At Grant Achatz’s The Aviary and at Alinea, Chicago’s only restaurant with three Michelin stars, Chef Achatz and his staff employ molecular techniques and performance art to present imaginative creations. At Alinea when broth pours over sheets of dehydrated scallops, they morph into a noodle-like state. Inhale an edible helium-filled balloon to discover it’s a green apple taffy dessert.
At The Aviary, mixologists manipulate the ingredients’ states of matter to create new textures and flavors, plus visual surprises. The cocktails arrive frozen into spheres, turned into jelly cubes, oozing foam or billowing smoke.
Along with downing craft cocktails, Chicagoans warm up at microbreweries and trendy taverns. Kaiser Tiger draws fans with some 20 craft beers on tap plus, in winter, an outdoor patio that morphs into an ice curling rink. Other popular brewpubs, including DryHop Brewers and Revolution Brewing, host live music on select evenings.
At Fremont in the River North neighborhood, the downstairs restaurant serves salads, sandwiches, and flatbreads, and upstairs, DJs lead the dancing.
For more music, take advantage of Chicago’s long tradition of nurturing blues and jazz artists. Listen to the soul-reaching rhythm of blues at Chicago B.L.U.E.S Bar, Rosa’s Lounge, and Kingston Mines. Find toe-tapping jazz at Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, Andy’s Jazz Club and Jazz Showcase.
Laugh at the comedy sketches performed by The Second City, whose legendary alumni include Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert. The troupe stages two shows: timely riffs of “The Winner of Our Discontent,” and top sketches in “The Best of The Second City.”
Less visited by tourists but loved by locals, the Gene Siskel Film Center screens art films, international movies, and documentaries as well as explores genres and themes. Among the center’s February programs is “New Sensory Cinema,” movies that aim to create feelings of devotion, entrapment and ecstasy in viewers.
Architecture, Museums, Shopping
After the 1871 fire that destroyed much of the city, Chicago rebuilt. Among the noted architects constructing their visions were Frank Lloyd Wright (Robie House, Hyde Park, 1909, Prairie Style); Daniel H. Burnham (Art Institute of Chicago,1893 Beaux Arts,) and William Le Baron Jenney (Home Insurance Building, 1885). Although no longer standing, Jenny’s 10-story structure earned bragging rights as America’s first skyscraper.
If you can brave the cold, sign up for the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Historic Skyscraper tour, two-hours of a walk and talk covering the city’s iconic structures. Spring through fall, the Chicago Architecture Foundation operates informative river cruises.
To stay warm and get thrilled by the city views, lean into Tilt!, a glass panel on the 94th floor of the John Hancock Tower that moves, angling observers out over the city’s Magnificent Mile, the upscale, downtown shopping district. At the Ledge at Skydeck, Willis Tower, (formerly the Sears Tower), the bold stand on a clear platform that projects from the 103rd floor, giving viewers the sensation of floating above the city.
Another city icon, the Art Institute of Chicago, houses the country’s third largest art collection. Highlights include the large collections of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art that feature works by Renoir, Seurat, van Gogh and Monet as well as the comprehensive contemporary collection that showcase works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons and others.
Near the Art Institute, Millennium Park, a 25-acre urban landscape of gardens and greenery in summer, serves year-round as a showcase for outdoor sculpture. It has become a Chicago tradition to take a selfie in front of “Cloud Gate,” aka “the Bean,” the park’s elliptical, stainless steel structure that reflects the city’s skyline and the sky above. Another tradition: ice skating at the park’s McCormick Tribune Ice Rink.
At the Field Museum, an impressive natural history facility, meet “SUE,” the largest – 40.5 feet long – and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex ever found. Feel like a bug as you walk through worm tunnels and soil chambers. And at the Grainger Science Hub, opened November 2016, learn about some of the Field’s research, including how scientists use minerals to re-think Earth’s history and how experts employ DNA to discover other species. Talk with the researchers at select times.
The Shedd Aquarium’s 32,000 animals inhabit freshwater, marine, land and air environments. Sharks, octopi, stingrays, sea lions, sea otters, penguins, river turtles, frogs and monkeys from the Amazon live at the Shedd. Book special experiences to get even closer to some critters. With behind the scenes at the shark tank, find out how each toothy predator is trained to respond to its own cue for food so that feeding frenzies don’t occur. On other adventures, meet a penguin or a beluga whale.
You can observe monkeys, zebras, jaguars, wolves, snow leopards and more critters at the free, 35-acre Lincoln Park Zoo, a Chicago landmark since 1868. Through Feb. 26, enjoy ice skating on select days at the zoo’s rink (fee required).
Whether you like zoos or not, Lincoln Park, just north of downtown, is worth exploring. The trendy lakefront neighborhood is home to the aforementioned Kingston Mines and B.L.U.E.S clubs as well as Alinea.
While Lincoln Park has its big box and big name chain stores, the neighborhood hosts enough boutiques to make shopping less predictable than the high-end stores along downtown’s Magnificent Mile. Among the browse-worthy are Bevello for casual, women’s dresses, jeans and tops and Art Effect for its mix of watches, jewelry, scarves, tops and dresses.