WITH its splendid setting on the shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago tempts tourists with beaches and boat cruises — at least from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

But many hardy travelers relish the notion of the Windy City in winter, a bracing time when they're more likely to get frostbite than a suntan.

When the weather outside is frightful, smart cold-weather warriors spend time browsing and buying in enclosed atrium malls along the fashionable 14-block stretch of North Michigan Avenue known as the Magnificent Mile.

Many stay cocooned in hotels attached to these toasty retail arcades and avoid the outdoors altogether. Others throng the city's museums and theaters. From the Christmas holidays and beyond, all embrace Chicago's cozy season.

Dorothy Coyle, director of the Chicago Office of Tourism, said, "It's probably not a surprise that the first quarter is a challenge for us."

To entice visitors in January and February, America's third-largest city rolls out the red carpet, offering an annual Winter Delights program aimed at out-of-towners. The 2006 centerpiece, "Chicago's Great Hotel Extravaganza," features themed weekend packages wrapped around activities ranging from ballroom dancing at the elegant Drake Hotel to circus performances and workshops for families at the Chicago City Centre Holiday Inn. Other hotel plans revolve around Mozart, jazz, Irish food and fun, and cars (during the Chicago Auto Show in February).


Advertisement

As part of the winter celebration, a million tiny lights illuminate trees along the Mag Mile, lighted sculptures enhance its winter gardens and buildings are bathed in color. Almost as an act of defiance against Old Man Winter, there's a fireworks display every Saturday night at the Chicago River.

The 10th annual Christkindlmarket Chicago, fashioned after open-air Christmas markets in Germany, will brings Old World charm to Daley Plaza in the heart of the Loop, the downtown business district. For four weeks starting Thanksgiving Day, more than 65 timber booths and walk-in cottages purvey wares from Germany and other countries.

Vendors sell items such as wooden toys and nutcrackers, beer steins and cuckoo clocks. In heated tents, visitors wash down bratwurst, potato pancakes and schnitzel with Gluhwein (hot, spiced red wine). Choirs and German brass "oom-pah" bands perform.

Steps away from the German village are the stores of State Street, including the flagship Marshall Field's, the department store famed for its Frango mints, dark-green shopping bags, ornamental clocks above the sidewalk and animated holiday window displays. (Alas, new ownership means this block-size landmark will change its name to Macy's in 2006.) Yuletide pilgrims flock to the seventh floor to dine around the towering Great Tree in the historic Walnut Room restaurant. Try the signature chicken pot pie.

In new Millennium Park, two blocks east of Field's, skaters glide, twirl and go splat at McCormick Tribune Ice Rink alongside Michigan Avenue. Diners can watch the action through the Park Grill's floor-to-ceiling window wall.

It's never too cold for a horse carriage ride ($35 a half hour) through the streets off the Magnificent Mile — blankets are provided. Carriages depart from the iconic Water Tower.

Facing the vestpocket park that surrounds the Water Tower is the new Hershey's Chicago, where patrons can enjoy hot chocolate, brownies, cupcakes and their favorite Hershey candy. Souvenirs include elongated Twizzlers and Reese's pillows and other logo merchandise.

Also fronting Water Tower Park are the new Loyola University Museum of Art, Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop and Soda Fountain, and American Girl Place, a slice of heaven for girls and their dolls. Shopping for American Girl brand doll accessories, catching a musical show and dining in the cafe fills a morning or afternoon for many a Midwestern family. Water Tower Place is the Mile's most popular vertical mall.

Navy Pier, the city's most visited attraction, abounds with indoor fun all year. Its giant Ferris wheel offers rides, even in the dead of winter. The annual Winter Wonderfest (Dec. 9-Jan. 1) in Festival Hall features an ice skating rink, games and a mountaintop perch for Santa Claus and his elves.

Other Navy Pier crowd-pleasers include the Chicago Children's Museum, IMAX theater and Crystal Gardens, a glass-enclosed palm court with fountains and leafy vegetation.

The city's five major museums, especially inviting on dreary winter days, also are year-round magnets. Three of these heavyweights are clustered on the downtown lakefront's Museum Campus.

One easily could spend a whole day prowling the Field Museum, a great limestone temple filled with everything from mummies and dinosaurs to gemstones and Native American artifacts. Through March 26, "Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption" tells how thousands perished in A.D. 79 when Italy's Mount Vesuvius blew its top, burying Pompeii and other cities along the Bay of Naples.

At the neighboring Shedd Aquarium, entertaining presentations of dolphin and whale behaviors top the agenda at the Oceanarium, the world's largest marine mammal pavilion. Nearby is the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum.

In the Loop, the Art Institute of Chicago dazzles gallery-goers with its collection of impressionist and post-impressionist works by European masters.

The Museum of Science and Industry, south of downtown, is a family favorite loaded with hands-on displays that keep children engaged for hours.

Chicago's lively theater scene plays a leading role in helping folks cope with the winter doldrums. The blockbuster Broadway musical "Wicked," a tale of how two unlikely friends grow up to become the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch, has taken up residence in an open-ended run at the Loop's ornate Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theatre.

Holiday play-goers can see Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol" during its annual five-week engagement at the Goodman Theatre. Another December tradition is the Joffrey Ballet production of "The Nutcracker" at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, an architectural jewel.

From now through mid-April, sports fans can catch Chicago Blackhawks hockey or Chicago Bulls basketball at the United Center.

If you go

-Weather. Winter visitors can expect daily highs between 20 and 40 degrees, but winds off Lake Michigan can make downtown seem much colder.

-Personal touch. The Chicago Greeter program matches an individual or small group with a local volunteer of similar interests for a free, two- to four-hour insider's tour of Chicago. Call (312) 744-8000 or register online at http://www.chicagogreeter.com.

-CityPass. Museum-goers can save money with CityPass, a booklet with discount tickets to six major attractions: Field Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Science and Industry, Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium and Hancock Observatory. The adult pass is $49.50 (a $98.80 value if admission tickets are purchased separately). Booklets, valid for nine days, are available at the attractions or through http://www.citypass.com.

-Information. Chicago Office of Tourism, (877) CHICAGO or http://www.877chicago.com.