Vacationers are finding Chicago during the winter

Sunday, January 27, 2008

CHICAGO -- Paul Morrison and Chicago are a perfect match. To him, winter is supposed to be cold, and in Chicago it is.

So maybe it's not surprising that the psychiatrist from Edinburgh, Scotland, was strolling around Millennium Park -- a heavy jacket on his back and what looked like a sleeping muskrat on his head -- taking in the sights the other day. And happy about it.

"You know, when it was really cold and snowing, we went for a walk through Lincoln Park and that was just magical," he said.

What may be surprising, though, is all the people around him. Tourists may not be flocking to Chicago like they do when Wrigley Field's walls are covered with ivy and not snow. But the average occupancy rates for the city's hotels between November and February is a respectable 61 percent, and many visitors think it's a good time to come because there are deals to be had and fewer crowds.

"You can get a seat in a restaurant and the streets are a little less crowded and the shops are a little less crowded," said Robin Guidera, who brought her 7-year-old daughter, Zoe, to the city from Toledo, Ohio, for what she called a girls' weekend.

The city and hospitality industry are trying to convince more visitors to come, promoting everything from nine ice rinks around the city to deals at hotels and museums. And they also want people to know that although tour boats aren't running this time of year, visitors can still take architecture tours with the Chicago Architecture Foundation, as well as the Chicago History Museum's "L" tours.

Start with Millennium Park. Whatever grumbling there was about the park not opening until four years after the millennium has given way to effusive praise from around the world. No matter the weather, it seems nobody visits Chicago without taking a picture of -- and with -- the 110-ton stainless steel Anish Kapoor sculpture called "Cloud Gate" by the city and "the bean" by everyone else because that's what it looks like.

From there, a good chunk of the city's skyline is on display, as is the packed skating rink along Michigan Avenue, Lake Michigan to the east and the Art Institute of Chicago just to the south.

"It's just so incredibly beautiful," said Ian Caldwell, a college professor from Leeds, England, as he motioned from the park to the surrounding high-rises. "I've just never seen architecture like this."

This winter, the "Museum of Modern Ice" at Millennium Park will be the centerpiece of the city's winter celebration. On display in February will be two works of art by Canadian artist Gordon Halloran: a massive ice wall called "Paintings Below Zero" and another ice painting you can skate on.

The park also serves as a reminder that there is simply more for visitors to do in Chicago than even a few years ago. Another example is Northerly Island, the former site of a small airport between Soldier Field and Lake Michigan that was shuttered a few years back and is now parkland. On Feb. 23 it will be the site of Polar Adventure Days -- an event that includes a dog sled exhibit, ice sculptures, winter storytelling and, if there's snow, a supply of snowshoes people can borrow.

At the same time, the city has a lot to do for families who do not want to brave the weather. There is the Field Museum, the Adler Planetarium and the Chicago Children's Museum at Navy Pier.

Both the Field Museum and the Art Institute have waived their general admission fees between Feb. 1-29. And on Feb. 16, two exhibitions will open at the Art Institute -- one of the paintings of Edward Hopper and the other of Winslow Homer watercolors. Both can be seen for $10 until the end of the month, when the price doubles.

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