It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of a big-city holiday season. As I’ve noted in the past, I grew up visiting Rockefeller Center, watching the skaters, ogling toys I’d never own at FAO Schwartz, oohing and aahing at the amazing window displays on 5th Avenue ... all to the sound of Christmas carols and the scent of roasting chestnuts.
Getting to New York each year isn’t in our budget, so we aim for Chicago during the holiday season, and it is never a letdown. The holiday spirit, like the poinsettias, is in full bloom in the Windy City, and it’s not too late to drink in some of it – along with a warm beverage in a Christkindl Market mug.
This year, we set up camp at the new London House Hotel, 85 Upper Wacker Dr., right in the heart of it all on Michigan and Wacker. With a view out over the river, we could watch as the snowflakes slowly transformed the city into a winter wonderland.
The hotel opened in spring and occupies a beautifully renovated London Guarantee Building – fans of TV’s "Perfect Strangers" would recognize it as the building where Cousin Larry and Balky worked – as well as a 22-story all-glass addition next door.
The lobby is modern and comfortable, with views out over the Chicago River, and the 21st floor is home to bar and restaurant LH21, which also has a 22nd-floor rooftop dining patio that must be seen to be believed. The centerpiece is the cupola that caps the building, which can be reserved for special occasions and parties. Even on a cold snowy night it’s worth checking out.
When you head back inside, try and grab a table near the fireplace for dinner at LH21, and then order the salmon, which is perfectly seared, or one of the burgers that are hearty and delicious.
The business suites are perfect for a family, with a pull-out sofa bed that means the adults don't have to call it a night when the kids do. Like the lobby, the rooms are contemporary and comfortable, classy but casual.
I especially loved the fact that the front desk team used texting to communicate, which was fast, easy, very responsive and, best of all, friendly and conversational.
We hit the city – checking out the decorations and lights along State Street, the lovely tree and the skaters at Millennium Park, the striking blue Walnut Room tree (pictured below) at Macy’s (tip: you can also see it from the store’s eighth floor) and the wreathed lions that stand guard outside the Art Institute.
Inside this world-class institution, the holidays are everywhere. We bee-lined for the Neapolitan creche (upstairs in gallery 209), which is a marvel of sculpture, painting and textile work.
The large scene, which dates to the middle of the 18th century and depicts the birth of Christ, is packed full of angels, kings, well-wishers, animals and more. It's fashioned from painted terra cotta, wood, wire and hemp, as well as silk, cotton and leather, along with coral, pearls, ivory, bone, paper and on and on.
This marvel is only on display briefly each year, during the holidays. On the lower level, the amazing Thorne Miniature Rooms are always open, but they get gussied up for the season. A Mexican room gets paper lanterns, an Art Deco 1940 California scene is adorned with a menorah and others get Christmas trees.
The most elaborately decorated for the holidays is the Victorian English drawing room.
Just across the street in an awe-inspiring Venetian Gothic building at 12 S. Michigan Ave., that is home to the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, we cozied up to not one but two fireplaces in the Drawing Room on Sunday morning at 10 for a free family storytelling event.
Angela James sang holiday songs and read books to the kids, who then took a break to make a little art project before wrapping up with a little more music. There were cookies and milk available for kids and a "special warm libation" for adults. Plus, we could nose around in the heavily ornamented 1890s building with its former pool area, a billiards room and more. The final installment of the holiday storytelling is this week.
(PHOTO: Christkindl Market)
Afterward, we strolled over to the Christkindl German Market, which has become an extremely popular tradition in Chicago since it began in 1995. The outdoor market is packed with folks – most carrying mugs of "warm libations" – day and night, perusing clothing, gifts, holiday ornaments and decorations, and a variety of German foods, including brats, potato pancakes, pretzels and more. The vibe is a little more festive at night, but it’s easier to keep an eye on the kids in daylight.
We wrapped up our visit with a relaxing brunch before heading back to Union Station to catch Amtrak’s Hiawatha back to Brew City.
We rode the Red Line a couple stops up to the eye-catching Godfrey Hotel, 127 W. Huron St., where we dined at Dolce Italian, which opened about a year ago adjacent to the lobby. The bright space gets a dash of color from comfortable orange chairs and is run by a friendly team of folks.
The brunch menu offers a mix of traditional American breakfast items (waffles, pancakes, etc.) alongside a selection of pizzas, pastas, panini, salads and starters.
The kids opted for breakfast, but the adults went Italian and were not disappointed. The beef carpaccio (pictured below) was a highlight, with thin strips of beef topped with greens, a drizzle of earthy truffle aioli, olives and shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The fettucine al pesto is also a gem, with al dente housemade pasta tossed with a velvety pesto, halved cherry tomatoes and gulf shrimp.
What we really needed before the long trek home was a glass of wine, and Dolce has a nice list from which to choose. The options are currently in transition, so what we had might not be available when you get there, but there will surely be something to suit your tastes.
Afterward, we popped upstairs to the fourth floor of the hotel to check out IO Godfrey, a rooftop lounge that embraces winter. There are space heaters that look like giant lamps, fireplaces and heated igloos. Covered in fresh snow, this patio was the perfect reminder that an amazing winter wonderland is a mere 90 minutes from Milwaukee.
More holiday fun in Chicago:
- Visit Lincoln Park Zoo (free!) when the sun goes down for the festive Zoo Lights display. The entire grounds are dotted with fabulous displays through Jan. 1. The zoo's buildings are also open for you to warm up and visit the resident animals. While you're there, stop in at the adjacent Lincoln Park Conservatory (also free!) to check out the Winter Flower & Train Show, which runs through Jan. 8.
- In addition to the great Sky Rink rooftop skating, The Peninsula is offering a "Hamilton Nights" VIP package that includes a pair of premier orchestra seats for "Hamilton" at the Private Bank Theatre, plus a themed welcome amenity, breakfast for two and overnight parking ... and just about the best room in town, too, of course.
- The Art Institute hosts Holly Days, Dec. 27-30, from 10:30 a.m. until 3 p.m., in the Ryan Learning Center. The entire family can, in the words of the museum, "celebrate the season of light by making mixed-media artworks in the studio, inspired by light-filled works throughout the museum's collection.
- The free Chi-Town Rising returns for the second year with indoor and outdoor events downtown, including a morning 5K, a family New Year's Eve countdown at Millennium Park and the big NYE celebration along both sides of the Chicago River, which features the 360-foot ascension of the Rising Star to the top of Hyatt Regency Chicago's West Tower. Complete details can be found at the link above.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.