December 2021: Chicago’s holiday lights

Okay, so by December of 2021, it had been a full two years since Dave and I had really gone anywhere together that wasn’t to visit friends or family. Chicago is in the Midwest, sure, but it’s a big city and we stayed in a big-city hotel and ate all our meals in great restaurants. It was going to be such a treat!

We originally scheduled the trip for the first weekend in December to coincide with the pre-Broadway run of the musical “Paradise Square.” We love seeing these shows with the original casts before they ever open on Broadway. (A few years ago, we saw “Tootsie” in Chicago; other years we caught “Frozen” in Denver and “The Scottsboro Boys” in Minneapolis.)

Once we chose Saturday, Dec. 4 as the date of the show, we started to build the trip. I desperately wanted to see the holiday light display at the Chicago Botanic Garden, but I didn’t know much about the logistics. When I started doing research, it seemed unlikely that we could fit both activities in one weekend. The garden is considerably north of the city – a daunting drive and too far to Uber. And we waited too late to get tickets for that weekend anyway, so the distance was a moot point.

I whined around a bit but started thinking about seeing lights along Michigan Avenue and in Millennium Park, visiting the Christkindlmarket, and shopping. We could make this work! But still…I was sad about not getting tickets to the Chicago Botanic Garden Lightscape.

But then we had a brilliant idea: Drive to Chicago on Thursday instead of Friday (tickets were available that night!), spend Thursday night in Glencoe, Ill., near the garden, and then head into the city on Friday morning. With our theatre tickets set for Saturday, that would give us plenty of time to explore.

A scary setback, but there was literally light at the end of the tunnel

I was super excited about this trip. And then, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I tested positive for Covid. That scuttled our Thanksgiving plans, and had I not been double-vaccinated and boosted, the virus probably would have destroyed our Chicago plans as well. But by Dec. 2 I’d been isolating for 10 days and I felt well enough to travel, so off we went, with our fingers crossed that I didn’t have a relapse.

The drive from Ames to Glencoe, located about 25 miles north of downtown Chicago, was marvelously uneventful. We checked into our hotel and did a little shopping at a suburban Crate & Barrel before bundling up and heading to the Chicago Botanic Garden. We arrived just before sunset, and our timed tickets allowed us to enter the gardens under a beautiful, dusky-blue sky (above).

I’d seen photos of this Lightscape event (it started in 2019) in some tourism publications – there’s the famous one of the cathedral of white lights you can walk through (see our selfie above) – but beyond that, I will admit I didn’t know what to expect. Well, the whole thing absolutely knocked our socks off! The evening was cold enough to feel like Christmas, but not too cold.

We walked through one display after another, each one unique and artistically designed. From the mile-long lighted walkway… to soaring floral displays… to choreographed lights with music… to a reimagined Japanese garden of light…the whole thing was just spectacular. We could not have been happier.

After our walk, we were hungry. I hadn’t had much of an appetite the previous couple of weeks, and I hadn’t had a single beer or glass of wine, so I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt when we got a warm, cozy table for two at a happy, crowded, old-school Italian restaurant just down the street from our hotel. I drank wine and ate bread and pasta, and we chatted up the table next to ours (starting with an honest-to-god “I’ll have what she’s having” moment when their food came out).

What a glorious day! The rest of the weekend was great, but I’d have to say that first taste of travel freedom was probably the best…even though we wore masks everywhere we went (along with everyone else in Illinois).

In Chicago, we stayed at a downtown Hilton Garden Inn just south of the river, and it was close to pretty much everything we wanted to do. Our first goal was to stroll through the Christkindlmarket at Daley Plaza, hoping it would spark memories of the markets we visited during the 2019 holidays on our wonderful Rhine cruise. But this may have been the biggest disappointment of the weekend. Yes, we enjoyed the warm, spiced glühwein, and we brought home the souvenir mugs (above) to add to our collection. But food? Meh. And shopping? Not great. And atmosphere? Well, the market is in a too-small space, surrounded by city streets and tall buildings. And too many people, even on a Friday afternoon. Not exactly the ambience we experienced in Heidelberg.

No biggie. We shopped at Macy’s on State, strolling past the holiday window displays.

We walked the length of the Magnificent Mile, stopping to be overwhelmed by the variety of dolls and accessories in the American Girl store (I still adore that store, even though my own girls are all grown up). As the sky grew darker, all the lights along Michigan Avenue came on, illuminating trees and buildings – total holiday magic.

We watched the ice skaters in Millennium Park, ate good food, and pooped out way too early that night, tired but happy.

On Saturday, we went to the Art Institute of Chicago. When an art museum is this good, it doesn’t matter how many times you visit – and we have been here a LOT. You’ll always see new things, and it’s always comforting to visit your favorite art. I was mesmerized by Barbara Kruger’s larger-than-life, career-spanning exhibition titled “THINKING OF YOU. I MEAN ME. I MEAN YOU.” And, of course, the wonderful collection of Impressionist and American art.

Then, later that night, we went to “Paradise Square,” a powerful musical with incredible choreography and fine original-cast performances all around. (The musical, now on Broadway, was nominated for 10 Tony awards, including best musical. Its star, Joaquina Kalukango, won for best performance by an actress in a leading role, and gave a standing-ovation-inducing performance at the Tony Award show last weekend.)

All in all, it was a terrific long weekend and got us in the holiday spirit for the rest of the month. Here’s one last parting shot:

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