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Chicago at Christmas

During the holidays, this glittering, festive town becomes the City of Broad Smiles.

Gingerbread hearts at Christkindlmarket.

© Beth Gauper

Thick, heart-shaped gingerbread cookies read "Merry Christmas'' and "Frohe Weihnacht.''

Visiting Chicago during the holidays, I'm always bowled over by how merry everyone is.

Can it be . . . Chicago Nice? It's either that or pixie dust.

Chicago is an exciting place to be any time, but at Christmas, it pulls out the stops. The Magnificent Mile sparkles. Ice skaters do pirouettes in Millennium Park. There are free concerts everywhere.

The first year I went, I headed for the Museum of Science and Industry and its "Christmas Around the World’’ exhibit of 50 trees, each decorated by a different Chicago cultural group.

The Scots had used gold-wrapped crackers, the Slovenes glazed bread hearts, and the Swedes had covered their tree with straw stars; each tree was a window into the soul of a country.

Dusk was falling as I arrived at the Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza. I expected it to be only a pale copy of the open-air Christ-child fairs held in German squares for 500 years, but it turned out to be lifted wholesale from the old country.

There were 35 timber lodges, many manned by German vendors with German wares, right down to the fresh stollen and sausages made locally from recipes and ingredients brought from Germany, where people know how to celebrate Christmas.

I walked from kiosk to kiosk, looking at glass ornaments from Lauscha and hand-carved nutcrackers and toys from the Erzgebirge, inhaling the aroma of warm sugared almonds sold in cones.

I watched the steady stream of people at the Glühwein stand and asked proprietor Marian Zeh if Americans liked the hot spiced wine.

"No, most people don’t like it, it’s too salt and pepper,’’ she said. Highly spiced? "Yes, and too alkoholisch, ’’ she said. I bought one anyway, along with its ceramic mug; it was delicious.

One Berlin-born Chicagoan, Eva Esposito, was buying an armful of multi-layered Baumkuchen, "like pound cake, only better.’’

"This is really beautiful,’’ she said. "It brings back memories, after being here 40 years. And it’s nice to speak German for a change.’’

Eating potato pancakes at Christkindlmarket.

© Beth Gauper

At Christkindlmarket, shoppers gobble hot potato pancakes with applesauce and sour cream.

The next day, I walked through the Gold Coast and up Oak Street, with its  boutiques: Hermes. Prada. Jimmy Choo and Wolford, where I splurged on a pair of black-and-gold Austrian hose, perfect for holiday parties.

At the end of Oak, Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile began. I walked past the stone Gothic Fourth Presbyterian, a beautiful church that offers free noontime concerts every Friday, to the castellated Water Tower, circled by horse-drawn carriages and red trolley buses.

Outside FAO Schwarz, a life-size toy soldier was swinging three fuzzy plush rats by the tail and joshing with passersby.

"I do this year-round, and it’s the best job in the world,’’ said soldier Nick James. "I get to play with any toy I want to.’’ Inside, people were twirling hula hoops in the aisles and rubbing their cheeks on stuffed animals as cherubic voices sang "Welcome to Our World.’’

The next time I visited Chicago over Christmas, I read on the plane about the Apollo Chorus, which has been performing Handel's "Messiah'' in Chicago since 1879.

As soon as we arrived at our hotel, I went online and saw it would be performing that afternoon a few blocks away, in the Fabergé-egg Orchestra Hall on Michigan Avenue. What luck!

We bought tickets and settled in, but were puzzled when we saw the tiny orchestra and read in the program that the soprano was . . . a student? But then the huge chorus stood up with a whoosh, as if jet-propelled, and suddenly we were hearing "Messiah'' in gorgeous surround-sound.

Young soprano Amanda Majeski had a huge voice, muscular yet demure, and the impassioned chorus filled every molecule of that hall with soaring music. So much for the grumbling.

It was the most emotional rendering we'd ever heard; every "Messiah'' should make you cry, and this one certainly did.

Then we made the rounds of our favorite museums, the Shedd Aquarium and the Art Institute. At Water Tower Place, we ate at our favorite restaurant, foodlife, a  maze of kiosks that each sell a different kind of food. 

The Christkindlmarket was much more crowded than I'd remembered, and more expensive. The Stillwater, Minn., branch of Rothenburg's famous Kãthe Wohlfahrt has a permanent shop there, filled with baskets of glittering glass ornaments, but the prices were too steep for me.

Instead, I went to a vendor from Rossdorf, Germany, and bought a hand-painted pewter ornament, a bargain at $9. My husband bought $40 worth of German chocolates, cookies and hard candies, long-lost childhood favorites, at the Sweet Castle lodge.

Skating in Millennium Park.

© Beth Gauper

In Millennium Park, ice skaters glide as spectators watch next to the beloved Cloud Gate sculpture.

We had just enough time before our plane left on Monday to run to the Leonidas shop, where we bought many ribboned boxes of pralines shipped in from Belgium.

At Christmas, Chicago is a sweet place. I can't wait to restock — not just the goodies, but also the memories.

Trip Tips: Chicago at Christmas

Getting there: If your town is served by a low-cost airline, it's easiest to fly into Midway Airport and take the Orange train downtown. Amtrak and the Megabus also are good options.

Spending money: For tips, see Cheap Chicago.

Taking children: For tips, see Chicago with kids.

Holiday events in 2014: Nov. 22, Magnificent Mile Lights Festival. Nov. 27-Dec. 24, Christkindlmarket, Daley Plaza (Washington and Dearborn).

Shopping: Hard-core shoppers should hit town the first weekend in December for the annual One of a Kind fine-arts sale at the Merchandise Mart.

The big retailers — Bloomingdale's, Neiman Marcus, Saks, Tiffany, Pottery Barn — are on the Magnificent Mile. For more exclusive designer goods, shop on Oak Street.

Try to get to the Christkindlmarket early in the day; it can get uncomfortably crowded, especially on weekends.

The Art Institute on Michigan Avenue has an excellent gift shop. Across the street, the gift shop of the Chicago Architecture Foundation has a huge selection of beautifully designed gifts.

Millennium Park: Ice-skating is free; skate rental is $10. At Cloud Gate, there's caroling on Fridays at 6 p.m.

Handel's "Messiah'': The Apollo Chorus performs at Symphony Center on Michigan Avenue and at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park.

"Dance-Along Nutcracker'': This free annual event is at the Chicago Cultural Center, across from Millennium Park. There's always something going on at this 1897 neoclassical former library, which has two spectacular stained-glass domes and is known as The People's Palace.

Other performances: "A Christmas Carol’’ at the Goodman Theatre and Joffrey Ballet’s "Nutcracker’’ at the Auditorium Theatre.

Museum of Science and Industry: The beloved "Christmas Around the World'' exhibit celebrates 81 years in 2014. On weekends, ethnic ensembles perform all day.

Leonidas Pralines: The downtown shop is at Chicago Avenue and Rush Street, two blocks west of Michigan Avenue. The delightful little pieces, filled with impossibly light creme fraiche and laced with fine liqueurs, are imported from Belgium, where praline-making is high art.

A kiosk at Christkindlmarket.

© Beth Gauper

At Christkindlmarket, glass-blown ornaments hang from a timber kiosk wrapped in evergreens.

Go for the fresh creams, which are hard to find in this country (eat within two weeks).

Accommodations: Rooms always are very expensive the week after Thanksgiving, when 60,000 members of the Radiological Society of North America are in town.

The week before Christmas, when all the business people are at home, is an excellent time to visit if you want a hotel deal.

To get a quick sense of what hotel prices will be, go to Hot Rooms. Hot Rooms may give you a good deal, but check around first.

During slow times, Priceline can get you good rooms for as little as $55. For more, see Happy deals.

I like to stay in the Loop, near the river, Millennium Park and the Chicago Cultural Center. My favorite hotel, the Club Quarters on Wacker, is half a block off Michigan overlooking the Chicago River.

It can be a great deal on holiday weekends and the week before Christmas because it caters to business people. Try to get a room up in the 1928 art-deco Mather Tower; they're small, but you'll have a spectacular view.

The high-rise Hotel 71 is next door. The Hotel Monaco is just around the corner on Wabash; it's stylish and has very comfy beds, but it's close to the El, where trains squeak as they make a turn, so stay in one of the upper floors.

I've also stayed at the Club Quarters in the Loop, and it can be a good deal, but it has half the charm and location.

If you have a bit more money to spend, stay at the boutique Hotel Burnham at Washington and State in the Loop, a block from the Christkindlmarket.

Macy's in Chicago.

© Beth Gauper

Chicagoans aren't happy the Marshall Field flagship store on State Street now is a Macy's, but they still come to see the animated windows and, of course, to shop.

The building was designed by Daniel Burnham of "Make no small plans'' fame, and the rooms are beautifully appointed.

Two historic and recently renovated hotels are a little farther south in the Loop. The Palmer House Hilton is on Monroe between Wabash and State, and the 1910 Blackstone is on Michigan, three blocks south of the Art Institute.

If you're planning to shop on Oak Street and the Magnificent Mile, try the European-style Raffaello (formerly the Raphael) a block east of Water Tower Place in a quieter neighborhood.

For budget lodgings, try the friendly and comfortable Hostelling International family hostel at Wabash and Congress in the South Loop, voted Best Large Hostel Worldwide in 2006 and 2007. On weekends, volunteer locals lead forays around town. Rooms are $28-$34 per person, including coffee and muffins.

B&Bs can be the best value. The first time I went to Chicago at Christmas, I stayed at the Gold Coast Guest House in a quiet neighborhood near Rush Street. It has four very attractive rooms, one with twin beds, in an 1873 brick townhouse, 312-337-0361.

The Illinois Bed and Breakfast Association lists six Chicago B&Bs, including another one in the Gold Coast, the Flemish House.

Dining: The Gage, a popular and convivial restaurant and pub, is on Michigan Avenue between Orchestra Hall and the Cultural Center; reserve in advance, 312-372-4243.

There are many inexpensive but good spots on Michigan between the Art Institute and the river, including Caffe Baci, Cosi and the Corner Bakery.

Of course, there's also good German food at Christkindlmarket: potato pancakes, brats and strudel.

Information: Chicago tourism, 877-244-2246. The Cultural Center, on Michigan Avenue across from Millennium Park, has the latest information and makes a good first stop.


Last updated on September 16, 2014
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