Chicago goes through a sort of metamorphosis as winter takes a firm grip over the city, bringing cold weather and incredibly short days. But don’t feel bad making runs to the local convenience store in sweatpants and slippers — during the coldest winter days, it takes a lot of motivation and sheer willpower just to leave the house. When not hibernating, Chicago residents can be seen digging their vehicles out from snow drifts and ice, meeting up at corner bars, or even jumping into a frozen Lake Michigan.
With winter officially here, we thought it was only fitting to highlight a few noteworthy Chicago traditions that mark the season. Keep reading and let us know your favorite winter traditions in the comments.
Try to picture hundreds of people clad only in bathing suits running and fully submerging themselves into a frigid Lake Michigan during the coldest period in Chicago. Sound like fun? That’s basically what the Polar Plunge is. Each year towards the end of winter, the event takes place to great fanfare — even sometimes featuring surprise celebrity guests (think Jimmy Fallon and Lady Gaga). And it’s all for a good cause, as proceeds from participant entry dues and their funds raised go to support Special Olympics Chicago.
There’s no local tradition more polarizing than parking dibs. For the uninitiated, the idea is simple: residents claim, or call “dibs” on a street parking space for a few days to upwards of a week (or sometimes longer) after clearing that spot out after a heavy snowfall. When not parked in that space, the dibs participant will place a chair, a traffic cone, or some other item in the spot to signal to others that it has been claimed. Let’s just say some people get particularly creative with the items they use to claim their territory.
One of the greatest things about the holiday season is the wonderment of lighting displays throughout the city’s neighborhoods and cultural attractions. In particular, the ZooLights installation at the Lincoln Park Zoo is a dazzling experience that excites the senses for people of all ages. For over 25 years, the recurring event has been free to the public, showcasing 2.5 million lights throughout the zoo.
Getting into a neighborly spirit
While the jury may be perpetually out on parking dibs, one theme that can be identified as a positive force is that of neighborly camaraderie and unity during cold snaps. We look out for each other during storms and dreaded polar vortex periods. Checking in on neighbors, helping shovel neighbor’s sidewalks, and generally being affable and available towards friends and neighbors is something Chicagoans do. It’s not only a point of pride, but one more reason why Chicago is a great place to call home.
With roots tracing back to Chicago’s earliest years, Lincoln Park has always played a leading role in the city’s entertainment, higher education, and civic institutions. Its stretch of lakefront, which prominently features its namesake park, includes many attractions such as the Lincoln Park Zoo and Lincoln Park Conservatory, among many others, and is as bustling as the busy retail and commercial corridors that cross through the neighborhood.
But there’s also a balance, with an emphasis placed on nature and the outdoors at many of Lincoln Park’s best known attractions and amenities. And for lovers of all things Chicago, there’s a plethora of cheap dives and high-end dining to explore all flavors of the city. Home to thousands of college students as well as long-established, multi-generational families, Lincoln Park is not only a North Side anchor, but a place that people from all walks of life call home. Here are just a few things that we love about Lincoln Park.
Lincoln Park Zoo
With free entry every single day of the year, including holidays, the 35-acre Lincoln Park Zoo shows unwavering dedication to its mission to educate and entertain Illinois residents. And having been in operation for more than 150 years, the attraction is noted as being the second oldest zoo in the country (New York’s Central Park Zoo opened just four years prior in 1864). With over 1,000 animals from around the world, there is enough to see and do for an entire day. And it’s not all just for kids — the Adults Night Out events, winter ZooLights lighting display, and Zoo Year’s Eve celebration are popular draws for grownups. The honeycomb-shaped nature boardwalk designed by Chicago’s Studio Gang is also a must-see.
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and Lincoln Park Conservatory
Further bolstering the neighborhood’s naturalist credentials are the Lincoln Park Conservatory and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, which are both located due north of the Lincoln Park Zoo. For a small admission fee, visitors to the Peggy Notebaert can learn about the Chicago area’s natural history and get an up close and personal look at hundreds of live butterflies in the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven. And for those looking to get a breath of fresh air or study flora from around the world, the Victorian-era Lincoln Park Conservatory greenhouse is free to the public.
Alfred Caldwell Lily Pond
Located directly off busy Fullerton Parkway and near the even busier Lake Shore Drive, this small three-acre pocket offers a serene escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. It’s also a destination of significant architectural merit, with a listing on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and official Chicago Landmark designation. The Prairie School era pavilion and rock features are a perfect spot to relax, but have also become a popular site for weddings and engagement photo shoots. Operated by the Lincoln Park Conservatory, this small retreat draws on an appreciation for both the natural and manmade world and blends them world into one.
Fullerton Beach and Lakefront Trail
One thing that many first-time visitors to Chicago often note is just how truly massive Lake Michigan is. To some, it’s hard to believe that it’s a freshwater body and not an ocean (hence Chicago’s “third coast” moniker). But similar to our coastal peers, Chicago has sprawling sandy beaches that residents crowd in on during the hot and humid summer months. One of the larger public beaches on the North Side, this popular stretch (which is technically a part of the broader North Avenue Beach) became even bigger after the recent completion of a massive civil engineering effort which reclaimed nearly six acres of new park space from Lake Michigan.
Passersby with a keen eye will notice sculptures located around the park’s edge of some familiar characters: there’s the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and of course, Dorothy and Toto. Yes, this park is named after that “Oz,” the one imagined by noted Chicago reporter and author L. Frank Baum. But it’s the 13-acre park’s recreation offerings — including an athletic field, tennis courts, basketball courts, and the aptly dubbed “Dorothy’s Playlot” children’s playground — that draws in nearby residents.
With an undergraduate enrollment of nearly 15,000 students, DePaul is the largest private, not-for-profit university in the Midwest. This growth has been expressed through a steady expansion of its Lincoln Park campus and the construction of architecturally notable new buildings for its theater and music schools. Known for its highly diverse student body, the university adds a feeling of vibrancy and youthful enthusiasm to the already prestigious Lincoln Park neighborhood.
Music and Theater Venues
During the ‘80s and ‘90s, Lincoln Park’s Halsted Street played an important role in the reinvention and revitalization of Blues in popular music. The legendary Kingston Mines and B.L.U.E.S. venues remain, but in more recent years, the renovation of the Biograph Theater for stage productions and the old Three Penny Cinema’s rebirth as Lincoln Hall has brought new life and energy to the once sleepy stretch of Lincoln Avenue. Further south on Halsted is the highly influential Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which has long served as a launching pad for acclaimed stage and film actors.
Dining and Nightlife
From dingy dive bars to Michelin-star dining and everything in between, Lincoln Park is known for its eclectic variety of food and nightlife options. Established cheap eats such as Pequod’s Pizza and The Wiener’s Circle are popular with the late night crowds and DePaul students, while the farm-to-table North Pond and chef-driven Alinea attract dedicated (and deep-pocketed) foodies. Expect sports bars and Irish pubs to be packed during Cubs games.
Sheffield Historic District
Lincoln Park’s reputation as a high-end neighborhood isn’t a coincidence. With a close proximity to Chicago’s tony Gold Coast, Lincoln Park transformed into a pricey lakefront pocket during the early decades of the twentieth century. Much of this early residential architecture, including stately Victorian-era mansions and limestone-clad multi-family flats, can be seen today in the Sheffield Historic District.
Chicago History Museum
Take a deeper look into Chicago’s past at the Chicago History Museum, located on the southern edge of Lincoln Park near the lakefront. From early relics from Chicago’s industrial roots to highlighting the narratives of Chicago’s immigrant communities, this institution not only collects and catalogs historic items, but seeks to tell the story of our fascinating city within context. Engaging permanent exhibitions such as The Fifth Star Challenge and Chicago: Crosswords of America provide interactive fun and education.
As the holidays approach, giving back is a great way to kick off the season. Whether you’re looking to give back in the form of time or monetary donations, there are many organizations across the Chicagoland area that could benefit from extra support. Read on to learn the ways you can start a new tradition, while lending support to those in need.
Blessings in a Backpack
This organization provides food on the weekends to elementary school children across America who might otherwise go hungry. While these children are fed during the school week, Blessings in a Backpack is dedicated to ensuring they receive nutritional meals over the weekend, too.
How to give:
- Through a one-time gift ($130 will feed one child on the weekends for one 38-week school year).
- Make a donation to a specific school.
- Make a monthly donation.
- Donate new backpacks or drawstring bags.
Cradles to Crayons Chicago
Cradles to Crayons provides homeless or low-income children, from birth through age 12, with the essential items they need to thrive – at home, at school and at play.
How to give:
- Make a monetary donation ($33 helps provide a child with the everyday essentials they need).
- Donate high-quality and like-new items, such as coats, clothing, diapers, baby gear, toys, bedding, etc.
- Create a KidPack (make a monetary donation or purchase items off an Amazon Wish List).
- Host a drive in your community.
One Warm Coat
This organization provides a free, warm coat to anyone in need. One Warm Coat also provides individuals and groups with the resources to hold a successful coat drive. The coats are then distributed in the communities where they were collected.
How to give:
- Donate a coat at a participating location.
- Make a monetary donation (every dollar donated warms one person).
- Host your own coat drive.
The Honeycomb Project
With a focus on family volunteering, the Honeycomb Project’s mission is to engage and inspire kids and their families to strengthen Chicago’s communities. Volunteering opportunities are centered around creating meaningful experiences and include events such as helping with conservation efforts in a forest preserve, working at a food pantry, sewing quilts for pediatric patients at hospitals and much more.
How to give:
- Register to volunteer for a project (registration opens the 15th of the month prior to the event).
- Donate your professional skills (in the areas of fundraising, events, photography, research or marketing).
Cara is a workplace re-entry program that helps people affected by poverty obtain and keep quality jobs. Most importantly, it helps these individuals rebuild hope, self-esteem and opportunity.
How to give:
- Donate professional attire for men and women.
- Make a monetary donation.
Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly
This non-profit is dedicated to relieving isolation and loneliness among those faced with aging alone. The organization provides friendship, conversation and connection to thousands of elders who no longer have relatives or friends to rely on.
How to donate:
- Visit an elder you’re matched with based on shared hobbies and interests by spending an extra hour a few times a month.
- Provide holiday help for the organization’s three big celebrations across the city on Thanksgiving, Christmas and in the spring. You can volunteer as a holiday driver, or for pre-holiday prep, event set-up, hospitality or cooking.
Ronald McDonald House Charities
Since 1977, Ronald McDonald House Charities has kept families together with their hospitalized children across Chicagoland. Every night, the organization keeps families close to the care and resources they need at five area Ronald McDonald Houses and three Ronald McDonald Family Rooms. Helping families stay close to their hospitalized child supports the child’s health and well-being, while saving families more than $10 million in annual hotel and food costs.
How to donate:
- Volunteer your time in the form of cooking, cleaning or comforting.
- Cook a home-cooked meal for those at the Houses and Family Rooms, through Meals from the Heart, which saves them from the stress of cooking and expense of dining out.
- Bake cookies through Cookies from the Heart, which provides homemade treats to help them feel comforted and at home.
- Purchase new, unused items from the wish list, such as unwrapped snacks, cleaning supplies, laundry detergent, gift cards, postage stamps and more. Supplies can also be ordered through Amazon Smile.