Chicago’s main tourist season takes place from May to October with significantly less visitors coming to the city during the cold winter months. The city’s location along the shores of Lake Michigan means it experiences “lake effect” weather; the cold air off the lake and the high winds in the city can make a day of 20 degrees feel more like 2…or even less. It’s not uncommon to experience days that dip into the negative digits with the wind-chill factor, which can take the temperature down another 10-15 degrees. It’s easy to see why there are far fewer tourists in Chicago during the winter months than summer, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid Chicago from December to March. In fact, for some people, this can be one of the better times to visit as you’ll find fewer crowds and lower off-season prices. You’ll also see that there is still plenty to do, see, eat and experience in Chicago in the winter.
You don’t have to worry about the cold when you are spending time in one of Chicago’s many great museums. And, in the months of January and February, many of them are even free. Museums like the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, Art Institute and Museum of Science and Industry offer many free days throughout winter; check each museum’s website for details.
Free Ice-skating in Millennium Park
The McCormick Tribune ice rink at Millennium Park offers free ice-skating (rental, however, is $10 if you don’t have your own) from late-November through mid-March. The rink is open daily from at least noon to 8pm, with additional hours on the weekends. Spend some time on the ice to warm up and then take a stroll through Millennium Park, stopping to get the typical funny-face photos in the Bean sculpture.
For those who want to experience the best of Chicago’s restaurants without spending a fortune, February is a great time to visit. The city’s annual Restaurant Week takes place every year towards the end of the month. Top restaurants from around the city design special three-course lunch and dinner menus priced at $22 for lunch and $32 for dinner, allowing guests to sample a variety of the establishment’s best offerings on a smaller budget. It’s the perfect time to splurge on a place you might otherwise not be able to afford, or to try a new spot with little risk.
Chicago Winter Dance goes on throughout February and offers free ice-skating lessons on Saturdays and Sundays and free dance parties on Fridays and Saturdays from 7pm to 11pm. Before each dance party, professional dancers will be on hand to conduct lessons in dance styles ranging from Latin, Cajun and Tango to Swing and Ballroom styles. The full schedule of lessons can be found online.
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Many of Chicago’s sightseeing tours operate year round, including the hop-on/hop-off buses, and specialized tours like the Chicago Film Tour. The hop on/hop off buses will quickly transport you to destinations around the city while keeping you warm, while other tours like the Film Tour take place entirely within a heated bus, so the weather is of little consequence.
The Lincoln Park Zoo, the largest free zoo in the US, is open year round, and from late November to early January, hosts Zoo Lights, a festival of light and color. On select dates the zoo is open late (from 5pm to 9pm) and decorated with beautiful light displays.
Theatre and shows
Who cares what the temperatures are outside when you’re immersed in the plot of a play inside? Winter visits are perfect for taking in Chicago’s vibrant theatre scene. Whether you prefer musicals, the classics, independent productions, stand-up comedy, improv, ballet, opera, or even performances on horseback at the Noble Horse Theatre, you’ll find a show for your tastes.
A carriage ride on Michigan Avenue
Strolling down the Magnificent Mile is on many tourists’ must-do list, but in the winter that walk can be a little less enticing due to the cold. Instead, hop into a horse-drawn carriage and cuddle up under a warm blanket as you roll down Michigan Avenue and through the Gold Coast. Rides take place all year round, in anything but extreme cold, heat, snow or rain and can last from 30-60 minutes and cost $45-$100 for up to four people. Just look for the carriages that stop around Michigan Ave. and Chicago Ave.