12/08/2011 02:10 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2012

Cold Climate Christmas: Exploring Exciting Chicago (PHOTOS)

It's Christmas time so in my family that means visions of Chicago start dancing in our heads.

A few years ago my in-laws and I started a Chicago Christmas tradition, which we found to be a truly enjoyable way to spend the holiday season. No one has to cook, clean the house or buy presents. We spend our time and our money in this great city and enjoy the high cultural experiences it offers in the way of museums, theatre, restaurants and shopping.

Christmas week is down time for hotels and the bargains they offer are too good to pass up. Sometimes reservations come with upgrades to fancy rooms complete with bathrobes and a snack bar. Lobbies are beautifully decorated in reds and greens, and staff is especially cheerful during this festive time.

Our Christmas adventure begins with a two-hour Amtrak ride from Kalamazoo to Union Station in the Loop and thus we avoided heavy traffic and parking hassles. As the train traces the southern shore of Lake Michigan, it provides a majestic view of the Chicago skyline and whets our appetite for some great fun.

If we stay at the majestic Palmer House or the smaller Wyndham Blake, we usually walk the six blocks from the station. Lately, we've enjoyed staying on the Magnificent Mile north of the river so we pick up a cab to the Sheraton (it has a pool) or the Hilton Garden Inn.

We usually go to at least one museum during the holiday. The five most popular ones are the Art Institute of Chicago, Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium and Museum of Science and Industry. General admission varies from $8 to $18 with separate ticket fees for special exhibits.

However, since the museums are a popular family destination and very crowded, we've learned to go to one museum per day first thing in the morning. It's less crowded and not much of a wait to enter.

For a truly unique and living history experience, the walking tours at the Chicago Architecture Foundation are a truly interesting excursion. We've taken the two-hour historical skyscraper tour and the art deco tour but the CAF offers over 100 tours throughout the downtown and city neighborhoods.

Volunteer docents proudly discuss various topics about the city's architectural legacy that began with the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, a symbol of the city's comeback after the 1871 fire destroyed nearly all of downtown's four square miles.

Tours vary in price and topic. The CAF is located at 224 S. Michigan Avenue directly across from the Art Institute and tickets may be purchased in advance or on the day of the tour. The reception area sells books and media on architecture, cityscape Legos and puzzles and Institute-named merchandise.

Further north on Michigan Avenue is Millennium Park, now a Chicago landmark. Completed in July 2004, construction began in the late 1990s over what was once an unused rail yard and an eyesore.

The park features the Anish Kapoor's Cloudgate sculpture, a.k.a. "the Bean," which is so crazy a thing in the way it bends and reflects images. I'm not necessarily one for kooky modern art but this one works for me.

The Crown Fountain doesn't run during the winter, so this is a good reason to return to the city during warmer weather and see the different faces that appear on this funky art piece.

In winter, an ice rink just below "The Bean" brings out local ice skaters who glide gracefully to Christmas tunes and rock 'n roll. From time to time the Zamboni comes out to resurface the ice as skaters and onlookers allow themselves to be mesmerized by it.

The restaurants of Chicago offer everything from hot dogs and pizza to gourmet ethnic fare.

Among my favorites is Russian Tea Time around the corner from the Palmer House and half a block away from the Art Institute on West Adams. The décor is rich in elegant reds, and the slightly-dimmed lights and soft balalaika music create an intimate atmosphere.

Russian wait staff with names like Natasha and Dimitri provide attentive service with traditional Russian, Ukranian and Jewish dishes of wild game, poultry, specialty meat dishes as well as vegetarian fare. If we can't decide which dish to choose, we order the combination plates.

Appetizers include potato piroshki (mini turnovers), blinchiki (crepes), latkes (potato pancakes), vareniky (potato, pumpkin or asparagus dumplings) and caviar. It's important to eat slowly because the food tends to be a little heavy.

Entrees come with the flavorful Tashkent carrot salad seasoned with coriander and garlic vinaigrette and the borscht is unbelievably good.

Then there's the vodka, which constitutes a very special, if not hallowed, ceremony. The waiter teaches guests the bona fide way of drinking vodka, a good ritual to take home to dazzle friends with -- and keep warm in the winter. Nastroviah!

Russian Tea Time also features a full and an a la carte afternoon tea service of oolong, green and black teas with raisin scones -- with whipping cream and marmalade, of course -- tea sandwiches and "mini-sweets" of Napoleons, cookies and apple pie.

Actually, afternoon tea is a favorite Chicagoan thing to do. There are several places all over the city that offer it; just Google "afternoon tea in Chicago." We've enjoyed tea at the Drake and the Peninsula best.

We have stopped for lunch at The Berghoff further down West Adams but recent changes haven't measured up to the food and service it had prior to February 2006 when it closed after 107 years. However, so strong were Chicagoans' sentiments for this fine tradition of good German food and beer -- complete with an old-fashioned saloon at lunch -- that the fourth generation of founder Herman Joseph Berghoff re-opened the place and made it into a casual dining and catering operation.

The turn-of-the-20th-century décor with its bold woodwork, stained glass, checkered floors and brass light fixtures are a treat to behold but I miss the brisk waiters, some of whom had been working there for 30 years. The Berghoff is housed in one of Chicago's oldest buildings, erected after the 1871 fire. It's well worth a visit to this food icon.

For steak, Morton's can't be beat. The waiter rolls out a cart with various cuts of meat designed to satisfy the size of any appetite. Jumbo baked Idaho potatoes are served with a choice of appetizers, soups, salads, side dishes and yummy desserts. Morton's has seafood, too.

We prefer the original basement restaurant at State and Rush Street with its rich wood and grotto-like feel, a place where celebrities have come over the years. A more modern version of Morton's is near the river at 65 East Wacker Place.

Another great steak place is Stetson's Lounge at the Hyatt Regency on the river. Its smaller portions and more hip ambience go well with the evening music of a single piano player or jazz combo that is loud enough to hear but soft enough to talk to table mates.

Last year we discovered an enchanting place that transported us to the tropical city of Saigon of the 1920s: The Colonial at 937 N. Rush Street.

The dining room's louvered shutters, tiled floors, crudely painted walls, ceiling fans and rattan chairs amid a lush selection of potted palm and banana trees creates an ambience that leaves no doubt in your mind about why The Colonial has been rated one of Chicago's most romantic restaurants.

The food complements the décor with authentic French Vietnamese cuisine of delicately prepared fish, shrimp, pork, filet mignon and vegetarian dishes with those marvelous peanut sauce, ginger, coconut and lemongrass flavorings.

We have our Christmas dinner at the Star of Siam at 11 E. Illinois Street. We stumbled on this fantastic Thai restaurant during our first Christmas in Chicago -- and what a find! We were looking for a place to eat and it was the only place open. (Most restaurants are closed so workers can enjoy the holiday with their families.)

The urban warehouse setting of open space, wood floor, red brick and exposed pipes go well with red cushions and artistic Thai wall hangings. The menu provides all the traditional Thai foods but the Star does it with gourmet style and flare.

With all this gourmet food, we find it necessary to pace ourselves so we usually start out with a simple breakfast at the Corner Bakery. They are everywhere and they offer hot oatmeal, eggs, croissants and as well as sweet things, savory panini, fresh fruits and salads and hearty bowls of soups and pasta. The lemon pumpkin pound cake and cinnamon crème cake are simple treats to die for.

Chicago has all kinds of theatre in various venues. The website provides the most comprehensive listing with dates, times and ticket information.

One of our special pleasures is the Joffrey Ballet. The company performs "The Nutcracker" during most of December at the incredible Auditorium Theatre. Constructed by famed architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, the theatre has been a mainstay of Chicago architecture and theatre since 1889, and it is known internationally for its perfect acoustics, innovative architecture and stunning design.

We do take a break from our more serious outings for an evening with Second City. Young comedians perform sketch comedy and improv with shows every night of the week. They leave us laughing with short scenes, songs and improvised comedy sketches. Cocktails and food are available throughout the show in this dinner-theatre venue.

Chicago is famous for its blues music but long before the blues, it was famous for its jazz. Music clubs abound in the city to suit all tastes and the Internet provides several blogs and reviews of each.

One tradition Chicagoans and out-of-towners alike enjoy is a stop at the Christmas display windows at Macy's (formerly Marshall Field's until August 2005) on State Street. This is one of the oldest and largest department stores of America, and it arouses a bit of nostalgia for the good old days when downtown department stores were king.

A big part of the nostalgia is breakfast or lunch at the Walnut Room restaurant on the seventh floor. Opened in 1907, it is one of Chicago's most beloved landmarks. It has a 17-foot marble fountain amid the original Circassian walnut paneling and Austrian chandeliers. Potpies are the house specialty made from Mrs. Hering's original recipe. (Don't miss the Great Tree right outside the restaurant.)

After-Christmas sales flourish throughout the retail district, but the variety and quality of the stores makes their bargains much sweeter buys. How many cities can boast an impressive array of stores such as Bloomingdales, Nieman Marcus, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Ann Taylor as well as Macy's, Filene's Basement, Eddie Bauer, Patagonia, Ralph Lauren, The Disney Store, Apple, Best Buy, Crate & Barrel, American Girl, The Lego Store and The Body Shop -- all in one place?

There is so much to do in Chicago, but sometimes we just relax and spend time together in our hotel room and watch movies. Fox & Obel around the corner of the Sheraton provides us with a great snack fare of crackers, cheese, nuts and cheesecake with a little wine and/or soda. It has been recognized as the best gourmet food market in Chicago, and sometimes we pick up treats at Whole Foods, too.

It may be cold in Chicago, but we've found that spending Christmas there warms our hearts and stimulates our minds to wonderful memories and experiences in this great city.

Christmas In Chicago
Christmas In Chicago