6 Ways Illinois Ups its Game in Winter

Jan 10, 2020

Chalk it up to the Frozen (and now Frozen II) phenomenon. Or maybe our ongoing obsession with hygge. Whatever the case, winter’s undergone some serious re-branding of late, arguably emerging as the year’s it season—a time to celebrate, rather than hibernate. To which Illinois says, well of course! 

This is, after all, a state whose coolest pursuits—and hottest hotel deals—often happen on the coldest of days. For six of our favorite cases in point, read on. 

Be an eagle scout

Amazingly, Illinois’s wintertime bald eagle population is second only to Alaska’s. To catch our national birds in action, head to Alton and hop on board a 45-minute shuttle ride that’ll take you to several of the prime spotting stops along the Mississippi River: Maple Island, Heron Pond, Ellis Island and the Audubon Center. Or head directly to Rock Island in the Upper-Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, whose 12-story clock tower is a particularly good eagle-watching vantage point. Guided tours take place Jan. 14, 18, and 25, and Feb. 1 and 8. Space is limited, so call 309-794-5338 to make a reservation. 

To go all in, you may want to sync your visit to the Great River Eagles Days (Jan. 25-26) in Quincy, which include everything from eagle viewings (naturally), to  Native American foods and crafts to the annual Blessing of the Eagle ceremony. If you're feeling ambitious, double up that weekend and hit the Jan. 26 Bald Eagle Festival in Grafton's Pere Marquette State Park. But even if you don't make the festival itself, Pere Marquette hosts Bald Eagle Days (driving tours are paired with lectures and video presentations) through March 6. Call 217-577-1930 for more information. And for a complete list of eagle-watching ops, go here.

Eat like a food critic

Chicago has always been a great food town. But in the past decade or so, it's emerged as a culinary destination on par with (and some would say surpassing) the likes of New York, San Francisco and, yes, even Paris. To doubters, Chicago would ask  whether the name Rick Bayless rings a bell. How about Grant Achatz? Stephanie Izard? Sarah Gruenberg? Or the dozens of Chicago chefs who've received coveted James Beard Awards in recent years? Little wonder James Beard recently relocated the so-called Oscars of the food world (the Foundation's annual awards ceremony) from New York to Chicago. To get a taste of these epic food city for yourself,  be there for Restaurant Week—the largest in the nation. This year’s extravaganza takes place  Jan. 24-Feb. 9. And no, you're not doing the math wrong: You'll have 12 bonus days beyond a traditional week to tuck into the 400(!) participating restaurants. 

If you want help whittling down your choices (if not your waistline), we think you should try for some ‘nduja arancini and polenta gratinata at Top Chef finalist and 2017 James Beard winner Sarah Gruenberg’s Monteverde; some albacore tuna ceviche and carne asada at Rick Bayless now classic Mexican spot Topolobampo—and a hot corned-beef sandwich or bratwurst at the iconic Berghoff Restaurant (opened in 1898 and deemed a James Beard America’s Classic about a century later). Each participating restaurant will offer a multi-course meal that’ll run $24 for lunch or brunch, and $36 or $48 for dinner.

Binge-watch the very best

Chicago's restaurateurs aren't the only ones staging a stellar week this winter—emphasis on staging: Chicago Theatre Week (Feb. 13-23) offers a rare opportunity to see some of the city’s hottest shows at the deeply discounted prices of $15 or $30 dollars. Lovers of classic American theater can catch George and Ira Gershwin’s masterpiece An American in Paris, at the Drury Lane Theatre; the literati can swoon over Paul Gordon’s musical adaptation of the classic Jane Austin novel, Emma, at the Chicago Shakespeare Festival; whodunnit fans can puzzle over Agatha Christie’s beloved The Mousetrap at Court Theatre. And if you're in the mood for something edgier, there’s the Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of Tony-Award-winning playwright Tracy Letts' Bug—"one of the most intense theatrical experiences you're likely to have," according to Time Out Chicago.

Meanwhile, in the suburb of Glencoe, Writers Theatre—hailed as the country’s top theater by the Wall Street Journal—you can catch Stick Fly, a family comedy-drama that touches on themes of sibling rivalry, parental expectations, class and race. For updated information on tickets, and newly added shows, subscribe to the Theatre Week email list, or follow @chicagoPlays. 

Catch 'em while you can

If you want to go for a cultural trifecta in Chicago this winter—and why wouldn't you?—consider the amazing exhibits that will go away well before the snows do. Start with Andy Warhol—from A to B and Back Again at the hallowed Art Institute of Chicago (through Jan. 26), where you can see masterpieces from the Edis Neeson Collection (think Twelve Jackies; Mao, and Marilyn Monroe). Then head to the Museum of Contemporary Photography for the riveting and oh-so-2020 exhibit In Real Life, an exploration of the effects of computer vision, from data collection to the racial biases of facial recognition technology (through March 29).

Or head to the equivalent of a winter sculpture garden in Rockford, where you'll find the Illinois Snow Sculpting Competition at Sinnissippi Park (Jan. 23-25). What started in 1986 as a display of three commissioned ice sculptures is now destination event where teams from around the state have at it with ice picks and axes (no power tools allowed) for a chance to represent Illinois in the 2020 U.S. National Snow Sculpting Competition.

Soak up small-town charm

The main reason people visit Galena—a beautifully preserved 19th-century city center that's listed on the National Register of Historic Places—is, granted, timeless. But if you go in winter, you'll have any number of festivals to choose from while you're taking in the considerable quaintness.

The Galena LitFest runs through Jan. 19, with readings, writing workshops and author receptions; Jan 25 brings Galena Whiskey Tasting Weekend, when historic Turner Hall serves up nearly 200 distinct offerings; Feb. 14-17 is Winter Carnival Weekend, all bonfires, sledding and snow games; and Feb 21-22 will see the town go big for the Mardi Gras Weekend Celebration (and yes, there's even bead-throwing on Main Street). Between bouts of revelry, shop the town's many indie boutiques—and kick back in one of the many B & Bs (some of the best in the Midwest are here).

Take a hike

Illinois is a wonderland for winter hikers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers—and one of the most popular places for all  three is the Garden of the Gods in the Shawnee National Forest, the onetime floor of a sea that dried up some 300 million years ago. You can also trek through the 3,400 creek-laced, hill-studded acres of Glacial Park Nature Preserve—or the backwaters of the Mississippi on the Galena River Trail. (If you go for the latter, stay at the lovely Inn at Irish Hollow, where you'll find English-style cottages, gourmet dinners and post-hike massages.) 

Not that you need to stray far from Chicago for good hiking: Morton Arboretum, in the western suburb of Lisle, offers sixteen miles of trails through 1,700 acres of trees, including an evergreen forest. And while your own tracks will soon disappear, not so the imprint that this winter wonderland leaves on you (or, for that matter, on your newly jealous Insta followers).  

Ready to go? Start planning your winter getaway to Illinois with a free digital copy of the Travel Illinois magazine for travel stories, stunning photography and more ideas of how to enjoy Illinois.

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