Winter in Chicago can be cold and downright brutal, but it doesn't have to be a dreary experience. There are plenty of reasons to leave your house and explore Chicago attractions during the tourist off-season—many are even more fun (and probably less crowded) when there's snow on the ground. Tear yourself away from your favorite bar or restaurant fireplace, bundle up and plan an outing to one of these warm, inviting local destinations. From movie theaters to cocktail bars to plant-filled conservatories, we've assembled 10 Chicago attractions that are even better in the winter.
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10 Chicago attractions that are even better in the winter
This park just to the north of Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion is a gem of a public space no matter the season, but it's probably best known for its winter activities. When the temperature drops, a track surrounding the park's climbing walls is covered is turned into a quarter-mile ice skating ribbon, allowing visitors to slide through a serpentine circuit while admiring the surrounding Chicago skyline. It's free to use if you bring your own skates, but you can also rent a pair nearby for $13–$15.
When Chicago's streets are covered in slush and the mercury refuses to rise above freezing, there's no shame in coveting an escape to a tropical island. Thankfully, ordering a couple of colorfully garnished drinks at Logan Square's ever-popular tiki bar is much more affordable than a flight to Hawaii. Snag a seat, admire the palm frond wallpaper and let Lost Lake's staff remind you that slush can be good—as long as it's the variety that's made with rum and served with a banana dolphin.
January in Chicago is Buddy Guy season, when the legendary bluesman picks up his polka-dot guitar and takes the stage for a series of shows at the South Loop blues club that bears his name. The annual month-long residency pairs Guy with a different supporting act on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, including young Mississippi guitarist Kingfish and CTA bus driver Toronzo Cannon. Tickets usually move quickly (it's fairly intimate venue, after all), so you should probably plan ahead.
If you need to pretend that you've escaped to a desert or a tropical landscape for a few minutes, you can always stop by the Garfield Park Conservatory, which offers free admission 365 days a year. With two acres of indoor displays to explore, you can stop by throughout the season to warm up while walking throught the Fern Room (which provides an approximation of Chicago's prehistoric plantlife) or the Aroid House (where you'll find plants that don't need much sunlight to thrive).
If you want to dominate your office's Oscar pool this year, you need to stay up-to-date on the latest and greatest films. There's no better place to catch up than at the Music Box, where the latest art-house releases and documentaries are usually screening, even after the December 31st cutoff for Academy Award eligibility. Keep an eye out for the theater's annual screening of every Oscar-nominated documentary short—if you attend, you'll be among the few people who can actually make an informed prediction about who will win the often-overlooked category.
There's no wrong time of the year to go plant shopping, but when the weather is frigid and the trees outside have lost their leaves, you could probably use a bit of greenery in your life. Sprout's West Town shop is a veritable jungle, filled plants of all shapes and sizes, as well as everything you need to keep your photosynthesizing friends thriving through the winter. Stop by to enjoy the lush surroundings, talk to an employee about proper watering schedules or participate in a terrarium workshop.
For several decades, the Original Rainbow Cone has closed its doors for winter and reopened in March. This year, the Beverly institution will keep serving scoops of chocolate, strawberry, Palmer House (vanilla with cherries and walnuts), pistachio and orange sherbet through the winter, with hours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. This just goes to prove a fact we've known all along: It's never too cold for ice cream.
You're always likely to see something interesting during a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago, but this winter is an especially good time to visit the beloved museum. Stop by before January 27 to see gorgeous paintings of Japanese courtesans, geisha and kabuki theater actors in the “Painting the Floating World” exhibition. And from Feburary 15 through 17, the Art Institute will host Midwinter, a new event curated by Pitchfork that features performances by artists like Kamasi Washington, Tortoise and Zola Jesus that will take place in locations throughout the museum.
Few things feel better than a warm bath after a long commute in freezing temperatures, which is why a trip to this luxurious River West spa should keep you rejuvenated until spring arrives. There are six different thermal baths housed in Air Ancient Baths, and you can switch between them as you please during your visit (you'll probably gravitate to the warm and hot baths). It might feel strange to put on your swimsuit in the dead of winter, but once you dip your toes in a steaming pool, you'll temporarily forget about the drifts of snow outside.
No matter how chilly it is outside, it's perpetually springtime inside the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. The 2,700-square-foot Judy Istock Butterfly Haven is especially attractive during the frosty months, as it offers a dreamy (and warm) reprieve from the harsh elements where you can observe 1,000 butterflies. The rest of the museum is fantastic, too—kids will love the interactive displays in exhibitions devoted to wildlife and conservation.