Chateau carbide's outdoor area
Photograph: Meghan Beierle

15 things to do outdoors this winter in Chicago

Don't let the cold weather keep you cooped up! Here's how you can enjoy the outdoors during the winter in Chicago.

Zach LongJeffy Mai
Contributor: Jeffy Mai
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Winter in Chicago can quickly devolve into a barrage of frigid temperatures, slushy streets and icy sidewalks—but that doesn't mean giving up on things to do outside in Chicago. Throw on some boots and a heavy coat and find things to do outdoors this winter, such as a chilly visit to a Chicago park, a day on the ice rink in Millennium Park or a trip to Pilsen to see the 16th Street murals dusted in snow. If you're craving an escape from the city, you can find a spot for winter hiking, go skiing on a nearby hill or do some winter ziplining at a suburban adventure park. You don't need to stay cooped up until spring arrives—here's where you can find things to do outdoors during the winter in Chicago.

RECOMMENDED: Discover more things to do this winter in Chicago

Things to do outdoors in the winter

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One of winter's most popular pastimes, ice skating can be done all over town. Head to Maggie Daley Park to do laps around the skating ribbon, zoom across the sizable rink at Midway Plaisance Park or take your skates to Wrigley Field for a one-of-a-kind experience. Skate rentals are available at many rinks, but you can often skate for free if you bring your own.

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The Midwest is hardly a ski and snowboarding mecca, but you'll still find ample opportunities to hit the slopes within a few hours' drive of Chicago. Travel just outside of the city to check out local options or head north to Wisconsin for resorts in the hilly Driftless Area; you'll also find chic options in Michigan with cushy lodgings to make for a perfect winter weekend getaway.

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The Forge: Lemont Quarries adventure park doesn't let winter weather stop it from welcoming guests to a 300-acre outdoor space just 20 miles from downtown Chicago. Attractions like ziplines, climbing walls, laser tag and towering ropes courses will be open as weather allows (though you'll probably need to bundle up). Plus, The Forge also offers a huge ice skating rink.

  • Kids

Don't let Chicago's overall flatness fool you—there are great sledding hills to be found in tons of the city's neighborhoods. Folks looking for a rush should check out the 200-foot slope tucked inside the Dan Ryan Woods nature preserve, which is lit and staffed by county employees when conditions are right (call head of time to make sure). On less snowy days, a hill located outside of Soldier Field is supplemented with machine-made snow. And if you've got little ones, you'll also find a variety of bunny hills perfect for beginners.

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  • South Shore

The 18-mile path that hugs the shores of Lake Michigan is pretty sparsely populated during the winter months, save for the dedicated runners and cyclists that take advantage of the decrease in traffic. If you're willing to put on some layers (there's usually a bit more wind by the lake), you can't beat the sights along the Lakefront Trail, whether you're gazing north from Promontory Point or south from North Avenue Beach. Keep moving to stay warm—and maybe bring along a thermos of cocoa and some handwarmers.

6. Give curling a try

You've seen it playing during the Winter Olympics, so why not give this slippery sport a try? Several different venues in Chicago offer the opporunity to play this variation of shuffleboard on ice, including the Gwen Hotel, which rents out a rink on its rooftop terrace ($40/person). You can also reserve a rink on the back patio of Kaiser Tiger or atop Lakeshore Sport & Fitness.

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  • Lincoln Park

Although there's never a bad time to visit the zoo, you'll have more room to yourself if you come in the winter (provided it's not during ZooLights). Wander the park and see some 1,100 animals from around the world, including favorites like African penguins and polar bears. Lincoln Park Zoo's 35 acres offer plenty to do, but if you're looking for more wildlife adventure, take a short trip out to Brookfield Zoo.

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You certainly won't find any flowers blooming in the Chicago Botanic Garden during the winter, but the outdoor attraction maintains its regular hours during the winter. Swing by during the day to explore the garden grounds and make sure to see the Orchid Show, which returns to the greenhouse from February 10 through March 24.

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  • Museum Campus

This 119-acre peninsula and park out on the lakefront provides a serene escape from the bustle of city life, and when conditions are right, you can hike across the snow-covered fields. The Chicago Park District also hosts Polar Adventure Days each year, offering visitors a chance to explore the island, encounter birds of prey and much more.

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  • North Park

Cold weather shouldn't stop you from taking advantage of one of the city's best paved trails. Beginning in Gompers Park and stretching all the way to the Skokie Lagoons, the North Branch Trail remains open from sunrise to sunset year-round, meaning that you can walk, jog or bike on it as long as conditions are favorable. Visit the Sidney Yates Flatwoods or take the trail all the way to the Chicago Botanic Garden.

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Don't let the chilly weather keep you out of the city's public parks this winter. Even when there's not snow on the ground, the various green spaces (which are a bit more brown, at the moment) that make up the Chicago Park District are beautiful places to get some fresh air. Go see the Statue of the Republic in Jackson Park, climb to the top of "Mount Bridgeport" in Palmisano Park, do a lap around the lagoon in Douglas Park or make a playlist and pretend you're attending a self-curated edition of Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park.

While most dining goes back indoors during winter, there are a few spots throughout Chicago that offer igloos and other outdoor spaces. You can enjoy views of the skyline in private igloos at I|O Godfrey, roast marshmallows over a fire pit at Park & Field or hang out on a winter rooftop that's set up with heaters and tents to ward off the cold weather.

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  • Suburbs

Not into sliding down slopes on your skis? You can do some cross-country skiing at the Morton Arboretum, where guests can bring their own skis and enjoy some of the trails that wind through the greenspace. From January through March, skis and snowshoes are available to rent, but only when there is more than four inches of snow on the ground. Remember that timed-entry admission is still required for all Morton Arboretum guests—you can make a reservation online.

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Chicago's best public art doesn't go indoors when the conditions outside take a turn for the frigid. If you dress for the weather, you can treat the city's various public displays like an open-air museum, stopping by the Picasso and Calder sculptures in the Loop or checking out the murals lining 16th Street in Pilsen. You may need to trudge through some snow, but the city's walkable art gallery is 100 percent free.

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Throw on some layers and head to state parks and forest preserves surrounding the city, most of which welcome visitors throughout the winter. You can travel to Starved Rock and admire the frozen waterfalls, gaze out at the icy Lake Michigan from the Indiana Dunes or visit the bison at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Make sure to double check the operating hours wherever you're visiting—some parks and preserves make adjustments during December, January and February.

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