Over the years, I have gotten a decent amount of emails from people that go like this:
Hi Aunt Peaches! We are coming to Chicago for a weekend adventure; can you tell us some fun things to do?
These emails warm my heart, because, if there is one thing I love talking about, it is Chicago. I am like Chicago’s biggest, fatest, loudest, sparkliest, cheerleader. Ask me anything about this place. I won’t claim to be an expert, but if I don’t know the answer, I’ll know somebody who does, or I’ll know a guy who can get it. This mostly comes from the fact that I did not grow up here, and thereby, because nothing here ever seemed familiar, I spent most of my 20’s getting familiar. The fact that I don’t own a car helps too – you learn a lot more about a city when you spend fifteen years watching it from the window of a bus or train. Collecting tid-bits of information on places I want to visit isn’t so much a habit as it is a way of life. This doesn’t come up on the blog much because I assume most of you do not live here. However, Ye Olde Google Analytics tells me a lot of you live near here. And with that in mind, I’m writing this post for my locals. Hay!
Everyone else, come back later tonight and I’ll post a crafty whatsit, I promise.
Anyway! These emails I get. They pick up quite a bit around December as people in the Midwest make a great tradition of going “into the city” for a holiday shopping excursion. The routine usually consists of one long day spent shopping in the loop and/or Michigan Avenue, capped off with tea at The Walnut Room and/or The Drake. Which is nice. But! There is so much Christmas fun in Chicago that has nothing to with “downtown.” If you are coming to the city, I would urge you to break the tradition, get out of the loop and see something new. There are about a hundred things, but as I want to get this post out before the shopping season is through, let me rattle off some ideas…
Museum of Science and Industry: Christmas Around the World
As if this museum wasn’t rad enough to begin with, come holiday time, they fill it with 50+ trees, each decorated to reflect a specific country. The concept is a little imperialistic, but the results are gorgeous. There is a giant tree in the central hall which is usually themed something crazy (like Kermit the Frog). This year it’s Mickey Mouse, which is kinda horrifying, but I’ll get over it. It’s still awesome. And there is there is a fairy castle dollhouse in the basement. Squee! This museum is equally fun for adults and kids. Plus, it’s in Hyde Park. You can poke around the bookshops on 57th street, have lunch at the Medici, then stop by and visit President Obama’s house. He serves really good gingersnaps, I hear.
Imagine 358 Tubas packed in a single room playing Christmas carols. It looks something like this.
There are several of these concerts scattered around Illinois, but the one downtown is the biggest. It takes place at the Palmer House (in the loop) Saturday, December 21. If you are not there on the 21st, you should stop in and have a drink in the Palmer House lobby. It is a sight to be seen.
The Music Box
The Music Box is an old fashioned movie palace. Not theater — PALACE. You need to see it in person. They play It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas throughout the month of December (and sometimes they do it sing-a-long style). There are a number of charming shops and restaurants along that stretch of Lincoln Ave. An easy way to spend a wintery afternoon.
The music of Handel’s Messiah performed by a chorus of thousands. Including you! December 19 and December 20 at the Harris Theater. Tickets sell quick, so if you miss it, mark this down for next year. You don’t need to be able to read music, but if you like to sing LOUD, you probably should. Don’t go just to gawk though, participation is required.
As close to an old fashioned European Christmas market as you will find in America. I wrote about it a couple years ago. For being a tourist trap, the merchants, the goods, and the vibe are surprisingly authentic. Not as big as the markets in Nuremberg or Basel, but it’ll keep you occupied for hours if you are into this sort of thing. It’s kid friendly and 100% free, but be sure to dress warmly and keep your wallet in your inside pocket.
This is what I call an anti-gift shop. You go here thinking you are going to get a gift for someone else, but really, you can’t walk out of here without buying something for yourself. They do greeting cards and custom framing like you have never seen before. Giant apothecary jars of letters and puzzle pieces loving salvaged from flea market board games. Vintage flash cards. Delicious gift wrap. A car-sized canvas print of Barbra Streisand. If you are one of those people who likes to go to Anthropologie to gawk at the display work, you need to go to Foursided.
Bonus: Fourisided is right next door to Sonja’s, a first-generation beauty salon that offers the best $8 eyebrow threading in America. No, really. It hurts but you will thank me for it.
If Santa Claus was a gay man in 1965, Brimfield would be his country club. It’s three floors of gloriously assembled vintage treasures, but don’t think of it as a vintage/antiquey store. It’s an experience. If Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom had an official store – this would be it. The look. The smell. The plaid! A whole wall of old Hudson Bay blankets. A canoe suspended mid-air. An old fishing basket turned into a chandelier. Crystal punch cups strung up like party streamers. It’s masculine but very girl-friendly. They offer upholstery services and sell racks of garments made from vintage woolen textiles. You can visit and not buy anything, but you cannot emerge from this store and not wish you owned more plaid. Just go there.
Bonus: The upstairs can now be booked for private parties, and they now have a sister location in SW Michigan. Huzzah!
Double Bonus: Brimfield on Clark is in the heart of Andersonville and is within walking distance of a number of my favorite shops, including (but not limited to); Foursided (see above), Windy Knitty, Scout, Brownstone Antiques (actually an awesome junk shop), Toys Etc , Room Service,…and plenty more! It would be very easy to make a day of Christmas shopping exclusively in independent stores around Andersonville. Stop for lunch at Hamburher Mary’s, or grab a snack at The Swedish Bakery, or a drink at The Hopleaf. It’s a good time.
How do I describe Uncle Fun? A joke store? A magic shop? A retro kitch stocking stuffer emporium? It’s all those things and then some. Funny gadgets and used books. Postcards of Ronald Reagan eating pickles. It’s as weird as it is wonderful. It’s small, a bit cramped, and there might be a limit to the number of kids allowed in the store at the same time (and if there isn’t, there should be). One of the few places you can walk in with a $5 bill and come out with something splendid. Love this place.
Update: Sadly, Uncle Fun closed in early 2014. Wahh!
Gethsemane Garden Center
Also in Andersonville (What can I say? Swedes know how to retail!), Gethsemane is not so much a store as it is a neighborhood institution. They sell, hands down, the best quality Christmas trees in the city, if not the Midwewst. One year I came here to buy a tiny Christmas tree the first week of December – it didn’t drop a single needle until New Years, so I kept it up through Valentines. That’s how fresh the trees are at Gethsemane. No car – no problem. They deliver! More importantly, the gift shop will knock your socks off. Mostly handmade, artisan goods – everything from soaps and bubble bath to cutting boards and kitchen accoutrements. Moms love it. This is what I would call an “established” store. Not cutesy or crafty, but if you are looking for that special Christmas ornament or that one-of-a-kind item they won’t find anywhere else, this is where you come to find it.
Bonus: Come back in the spring for your garden. These people are mostly horticulturalists and master gardeners – they know their stuff.
Also worth mentioning…
The Mexican Shop
Not actually Mexican. Accessories aplenty. Jewelry, leather goods, gorgeous stuff at great prices. In my neighborhood – Evanston. It’s been there for decades and is now the anchor a clump recent stores of popping up on Dempster. Worth the trek! Across the strew from some other cute shops and a great antique store.
This isn’t an independent retailer, but they have great taste. Always a fun place to wander. Stationary and calendars are my two go-to all-occasion lady gifts, and Paper Source carries these in spades.
In the Ukrainian Village. Looks like a New Orleans apothecary, smells like a bookstore, but I have never walked out without some sort of under $20 piece of jewelry. Modern stuff. Funky stuff. A store with a sense of humor. The fellas who work there are a treat to chat with and the display wok is always gawk-worthy. Someone told me they had a store cat but I have never seen (I love a good store cat!).
Museum of Contemporary Art Gift Shop
It has a separate entrance if you don’t want to pay admission for the museum. This place is steps off Michigan avenue is rarely, if ever, crowded. If you are shopping for a design or architecture buff, you’ll find something fun here. Awesome kid stuff too. Hat tip to their book buyers – you won’t find these books in any regular bookstore. Thirty minutes in the book section, alone, is worth the trip. The Art Institute’s gift shop has improved drastically in recent years, but I don’t know that you can visit without admission. Anyone?
The Art Institute (in general…not sure about the gift shop. It’s been a while.)
Okay, I have mixed emotions about the current state of the Art Institute, and I get it, blah blah blah, everyone comes to Chicago to go to The Art Institute (including me – it’s my alma mater) but if you go at Christmas, YOU NEED TO GO IN THE BASEMENT. Go and see the Thorne rooms dressed up for Christmas. It drives me nuts that nobody ever goes in the basement but school kids. They don’t even know what they are missing.
Chicago Architecture Foundation Store
Speaking of the Art Institute, this place is just south of the Art Institute on Michigan Ave. Not unlike the MCA gift shop, but they also have a decent selection of non-tacky Chicago souvenirs. Not that I mind tacky, but, you know, not everyone needs a 1985 Superbowl Shuffle beer mug. This place has fun items for men, women and kids. Easy to spend $5 or $500 and come out equally happy.
Okay. That’s all I can think of for now, but I’m sure there will be Chicago folks reading this who have more ideas – feel free to pitch in the comments!