Winter Wonderland Awaits in Downtown Chicago by Emma Krasov

Photography by Yuri Krasov

Traveling to Chicago in winter, however silly it sounds from a Californian point of view, has its perks. It’s a real snow wonderland out there, not glittered cotton puffs in a surfboard store window. The most ambitious downtown in the nation, where the greatest architects’ competition, started in 1885, still continues, looks especially majestic on a starry night, all clad in white (rhymes unintended) with a City Hall Christmas tree, shimmering like a colorful childhood dream.
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A cup of latte after skating in Millennium Park tastes like an elixir of life and restores the body exposed to icy rain, snowstorm, and freezing drizzle—all in 15 minutes time. As they say there, You don’t like Chicago weather? Wait 15 minutes, it’ll change. Comparing to the tanned children of eternal spring, Chicagoans are naturally pasty, but they get those rosy cheeks and that special Midwestern warmth from negative temps combined with layers of The North Face wear.

For a Bay Area softy, racing from Macy’s (formerly Marshall Field’s—still traditionally decorated) to Water Tower Place for some after-holiday shopping in a blizzard is like climbing Everest. Public buildings lure a weary traveler to jump inside and hug the closest radiator.

Of those public buildings, Chicago Cultural Center (1897) is a place to start your journey. The first free municipal cultural center in the nation, it’s a living museum of decorative arts with the world’s largest stained glass Tiffany dome, gilded staircase, and marble mosaic atrium. It houses Chicago Office of Tourism, which provides current city brochures, trip-planning advice, hotel reservations, and a free visitor service, Chicago Greeter, with over 40 special interest areas and 25 neighborhoods to explore.
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Winter Wonderland Awaits in Downtown Chicago
©2009 Emma Krasov, Photos by Yuri Krasov
Traveling to Chicago in winter, however silly it sounds from a Californian point of view, has its perks. It’s a real snow wonderland out there, not glittered cotton puffs in a surfboard store window. The most ambitious downtown in the nation, where the greatest architects’ competition, started in 1885, still continues, looks especially majestic on a starry night, all clad in white (rhymes unintended) with a City Hall Christmas tree, shimmering like a colorful childhood dream.

A cup of latte after skating in Millennium Park tastes like an elixir of life and restores the body exposed to icy rain, snowstorm, and freezing drizzle—all in 15 minutes time. As they say there, You don’t like Chicago weather? Wait 15 minutes, it’ll change. Comparing to the tanned children of eternal spring, Chicagoans are naturally pasty, but they get those rosy cheeks and that special Midwestern warmth from negative temps combined with layers of The North Face wear.

For a Bay Area softy, racing from Macy’s (formerly Marshall Field’s—still traditionally decorated) to Water Tower Place for some after-holiday shopping in a blizzard is like climbing Everest. Public buildings lure a weary traveler to jump inside and hug the closest radiator.

Of those public buildings, Chicago Cultural Center (1897) is a place to start your journey. The first free municipal cultural center in the nation, it’s a living museum of decorative arts with the world’s largest stained glass Tiffany dome, gilded staircase, and marble mosaic atrium. It houses Chicago Office of Tourism, which provides current city brochures, trip-planning advice, hotel reservations, and a free visitor service, Chicago Greeter, with over 40 special interest areas and 25 neighborhoods to explore.

“Our greeters are all volunteers,” said Kristin Unger, who works for the Office of Tourism. “Tours are offered in 20 languages, and are based on particular visitors’ interests. It can be architecture, food or shopping tour, or a tour of Downtown or Ukrainian Village… a greeter is matched with visitors, so it’s like meeting with an old friend.”

There is also a unique InstaGreeter program that does not require an advance reservation. In a friendly city of Chicago, among the things not to be missed there are three of the world’s tallest buildings—Sears Tower, AON Center, and John Hancock Center; world-famous blues and jazz nightclubs; Charlie Trotter and a host of five-diamond restaurant chefs in addition to hundreds of ethnic mom and pop cozy joints [Italian beef sandwich and deep-dish pizza—a must]; the Art Institute of Chicago with the largest collection of Impressionist art outside Musee d’Orsay; Sue—the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex specimen—in the Field Museum, and so much more. Oh yes, do you know that they dye Chicago River green every St. Patrick’s Day?

Let’s not digress from our winter theme, though. On a recent visit, we were lucky to stay in a couple of outstanding hotels in Downtown Chicago—each with its own unique features, class, and charm.
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You enter Chicago Sofitel, designed by Jean-Paul Viguier, proceed to the bar of Café des Architectes, and… shed your American identity. Now, voyager, you are a French film heroine on a date with a mysterious stranger (so what if you two have been married for ages). A glass of Bordeaux and a board of briede meaux, longres, and crottin maitre seguin will round up the impression of being transported elsewhere while feeling completely at home. Such is the power of this crystalline polished space with flickering lights, reflective surfaces, and winter décor for the nobly restrained holiday season.
“Some say, Sofitel is like a white bride to John Hancock Center in black, and they are kissing in the air,” said Lisa Adelman, who works for Sofitel Chicago Water Tower.
Built “around an invisible cone” by Adelman’s description, a 32-story hotel extends 52 feet over the street level, creating a fashion-forward look with its simple clean lines.
Ample atrium with a grand staircase and a grand ballroom on the third floor provide plenty of room for events big and small.

An interior decorator comes in every week to update the tasteful look of the lobby. No wonder bridal parties, weddings, and glamorous holiday outings are crowding the event schedule at the hotel, named after the only historical landmark that survived the great Chicago fire, and built in 2002 on a patch of prime downtown land next to its namesake.
“We took chances with colors,” said Adelman. “They are muted, but red, purple, and black—no beige. The presidential suite is in royal blue, black, and cream, with a rotating entertainment center, bathtub with a view, and a suitcase space big enough for Louis Vuitton luggage… Hallways are designed the way that rooms are not straight across from each other,” so if you open your door to pick up a morning paper, there is no danger of giving your neighbor an unintended eyeful. In other words, attention to detail and sincere appreciation for life’s little luxuries makes Sofitel a place to stay with plaisir.

On another snowy and windy night, Amalfi Hotel greeted us with a wine reception complete with antipasti and a special to the house Amalfitini cocktail. Next morning, after a relaxing sleep in a cozy bed with 315-thread linens, we were treated to a continental breakfast (served on every floor) that attracted disheveled guests in terry cloth robes and slippers, adding to the home away from home feel.

Named after the sunny coast of Italy, a family-owned Amalfi is in River North District—a walking distance from the Magnificent Mile, great theaters and fabulous restaurants of Chicago Downtown. Opened in 2004, this luxury boutique hotel caters to business (70%) and leisure travelers with its many amenities and conveniences. “Distinctively pet friendly,” it offers a fitness center, free Internet and iPod station in every room, Wi-Fi in all public areas, and a number of meeting spaces. Small enough to feel cozy, yet large enough to maintain the anonymity of its guests, a six-story Amalfi has 215 rooms with large-screen television sets, DVD players, minibars, and coffee makers.

“We don’t nickel and dime you,” said Jose Angulo, Director of Business Development. “Our business and fitness centers are complimentary, opened 24 hours. We have four computers, four printers for the guests’ use; local calls are free. On average, people stay with us 2.7 nights, and we have many repeat customers.” Looking at happy faces during the daily wine reception and watching people make fast friends and chatting merrily over their amalfitinis, it was easy to believe that. To remember this hospitable place better, I asked for a recipe to try it at home, and here it is: Amalfitini. 1 ¼ oz Skyy Vodka, ¾ oz Carevella Limoncello, ½ oz Peachtree Schnapps, ¾ oz Triple Sec, 1 ½ oz White Cranberry Juice. Shaken and served in a chilled martini glass garnished with a fresh peach in season or lemon wedge.