Need a reason to skip out on staying at your in-laws'? Be a winter tourist in your own town by checking out these schmaltzy holiday haunts.
IF YOU HAVE ONE HOUR…
Lincoln Park Conservatory
For the holidays, a model train makes its way through a tiny city set in a field of poinsettias. 2391 N Stockton Dr at Fullerton Pkwy (312-742-7736). Daily 9am–5pm.
Tip for locals You not only feel warmhearted here, you feel, well, warm. The beautiful 1895 Conservatory is kept at 75 degrees. So make some time to sit in the orchid room and relax.
This German market’s Loop location is the perfect excuse for braving the crisp temps and stealing an outdoor lunch break. Daley Plaza, Washington and Dearborn Sts (312-744-3315). Through Dec 24, Sun–Thu 11am–8pm; Fri, Sat 11am–9pm.
Tip for locals Book it to the überaffordable glühwein and kraut stands. Then watch the cuckoo clocks while slightly blitzed and perfectly warm.
IF YOU HAVE TWO HOURS…
Hancock Center’s Winter Wonderland
The view-laden Observatory gets dolled up with decor and the city’s tallest Christmas tree (in the building’s plaza). 875 N Michigan Ave (312-751-3681, hancock-observatory.com). 9am–11pm; $15, seniors $13, kids free in November and December.
Tip for locals On weekends, the Observatory organizes kids’ activities—face painting, cookie making—and visits from Santa. If you’re leery of rug rats, go on a weekday, relax and sip espresso in the 94th floor Café.
The Nutcracker on Horseback
This horse show is pure equine insanity. The classic story of the Nutcracker rolls out atop galloping horses. Noble Horse Theatre, 1410 N Orleans St (312-266-7878). Times vary, $18–$48.
Tip for locals We’ve known Noble Horse Theatre to be wildly inconsistent with showtimes. Confirm by calling on the day of the show.
Chicago Botanic Garden’s “Wonderland Express”
The cheese-tastic 10,000-square-foot exhibition of miniature trains includes a flower-filled landscape and 80 tiny replicas of Chicago landmarks. 1000 Lake-Cook Rd, Glencoe (847-835-5440, chicagobotanic.org). Parking per car $20, seniors on Tue $7; $10 exhibit admission, kids ages 3–12 and seniors $8; free for everyone Tuesdays through Dec 22.
Tip for locals When you add the $20 parking, the trek to the Gardens becomes wallet gouging. Instead of driving, take Metra’s Union Pacific North line to the Braeside train station and walk about a mile west on Lake-Cook Road.
Millennium Park ice-skating
The skyline, the smiles, the Christmas tunes blaring over the PA system—what more could you want while gliding over the ice? Michigan Ave at Madison St (312-742-1168, millenniumpark.org). Mon–Thu noon–8pm; Fri noon–10pm; Sat, 10am–10pm; free, rentals $10.
Tip for locals BYO ice skates and get in free. Try Rainbo Sports (1440 Paddock Dr, Northbrook; 847-998-1000). Used skates cost $30 and up, and the nice staff will find you the right fit.
IF YOU HAVE THREE HOURS…
Lincoln Park Zoo’s ZooLights
Millions of environmentally friendly LED lights sparkle against the backdrop of animal exhibits.
Tip for locals Stop at a food stand for spiced wine or hot chocolate, and make sure you nab a pair of those comp 3-D glasses (childish look be damned—they’re actually really cool!). Lincoln Park Zoo, 2200 N Cannon Dr (312-742-2000). Through Jan 3, 5–9pm; free.
Historic Long Grove Village
The hokey, old-timey tourist town oozes quaintness. Meander through the village and experience how the area looked in the 1800s (yeah, in our sugar-plum-filled Christmas dreams). Rte 53 and Rte 83 (847-634-0888, longgroveonline.com). Mon–Sat 10am–5pm; Sun 11am–5pm.
Tip for locals Some things tip toward the grandma side (potpourri and “accent” furniture), but the Long Grove Confectionery Co.’s Chocolate Factory Tour straddles the line.
Soldier Field sledding
Chicago might be flat as a pancake, but Soldier Field’s official sledding hill (on the stadium’s southeast side) makes up for that. If the week’s forecast dips below 35 degrees, Park District staff ensures good sledding by creating artificial snow when needed. 1410 S Museum Campus Dr (312-235-7000). 6am–11pm, free.
Tip for locals Kids crowd the area after school and on holidays and weekends—but at any other time, consider yourself king of the hill.