Midwest travel: Start the holidays with the Art Institute
Gingerbread house party
Enjoy a memorable holiday activity in the heart of Millennium Park when Park Grill holds a family-friendly Gingerbread House Decorating Party. Allow your inner designer to emerge and decorate a gingerbread house with candy, icing and other holiday treats. Couple that with ice skating on The Plaza at Park Grill's outdoor rink, touring the window scenes on nearby State Street, or shopping Christkindlmarket, and you've fashioned a wonderful winter day in the city. 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6, at Park Grill at Millennium Park, 11 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago. The fee is $50 per individual house or $85 per family house (maximum four people), which includes all materials as well as a gourmet hot chocolate bar. parkgrillchicago.com or (312) 521-7275.
Shop 'til you hop back on
If the thought of trudging through a mall to see the same old stuff is tiresome, get to West Town WinterFest on Small Business Saturday. Expect great local shopping and dining as dozens of West Town businesses on Division, Chicago and Grand are connected via Jolly Trolley Tours so you're chauffeured in style. Multiple Jolly Trolleys will run continuously throughout the weekend with curated three-hour shopping tours, each featuring six stops at different retail businesses and one stop at a local restaurant or bar mid-tour to sample holiday treats and drinks. If you purchase a shopping tour, you get a $30 Shop West Town gift certificate to use in January or February. Or, attend West Town WinterFest for free on your own to visit participating locations, which are planning special sales. Noon to 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 28. Tours run between noon and 3 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. WinterFest headquarters is at 2145 W. Grand Ave., Chicago. Tickets cost $15 for the trolley. eventbrite.com.
Get this arty started
The Art Institute of Chicago heralds the holidays with new additions to the museum, arty events and programs, music, miniatures and photos under the mistletoe ball on the grand staircase. It launches with the 24th annual Wreathing of the Lions the day after Thanksgiving with complimentary hot chocolate. The first 50 people in line after the event get free admission to the museum at 10:30 a.m. Families can visit the Ryan Education Center to create wreaths of their own. Don't miss a look at the intricate mid-18th-century Neapolitan crèche with more than 200 figures staged in a spectacular Baroque cabinet. In coming weeks, there will be joyous choir performances; a performance by members of Lyric Opera of Chicago's Ryan Opera Center; holiday-themed art lectures; the 34th Annual Treasure Hunt and Tea Party; a Build Your Own Gingerbread House workshop; and the 12 miniature Thorne Rooms decorated for the holidays. 10 a.m. Friday, Nov. 27, through Wednesday, Jan. 3, at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago. (312) 443-3600 or artic.edu for fees and an event schedule.
I saw Mommy kissing Sinterklaas
It might be "Santa" here, but in Pella, Iowa, it's "Sinterklaas." And during Sinterklaas Day, the man in the red suit arrives in a wooden ship, wears a bishop's miter, and has a Moorish servant as helper. Watch the parade of Christmas characters, decorated Dutch peddler carts, and caroling bands march past downtown Pella's Dutch buildings to the Tulip Toren. At the end of the procession looms a large ship carrying Sinterklaas and his helper Piets. An annual Sinterklaas party at the Pella Opera House follows the parade when Sinterklaas reads from his book of good children (who get Dutch chocolate). Then it's time for holiday songs, stories and visits with Sinterklaas. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 28, in downtown Pella and at the Pella Opera House, 611 Franklin St., Pella, Iowa. Admission for the breakfast is $10; the parade is free. pellahistorical.org or (641) 628-4311.
A horse of a different color
Enjoy the easy drive to the American Saddlebred Capital of the World, Shelbyville, Kentucky, where rolling hills and more than 90 historic Saddlebred horse farms and training facilities are waiting for your best photo shots. You can get a rare peek into the show horse world for free because there is no cost for a tour when you stay in Shelbyville/Shelby County lodging accommodations. Stop in the new designer outlet mall, Outlet Shoppes of the Bluegrass, and the impressive Wakefield-Scearce Galleries, offering one of the largest collections of English antique furniture and silver in the nation. The Shelby Christmas parade steps off on Saturday, Dec. 5, so make a weekend of it. 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, in Shelbyville, Kentucky. For event, lodging and horse farm tours and rides, go to visitshelbyky.com.
Grumpy drivers honking in the mall parking lot does not a Currier and Ives card make. The Abbey Resort may offer an antidote with its 7th Annual Tree Lighting Ceremony, including cocoa, candy canes, Christmas music from the Lake Geneva Symphony Orchestra Ensemble, festive refreshments and a visit from Santa Claus. If you can't make it the day after Thanksgiving, the four weekends leading up to Christmas offer holiday activities such as: Christmas movies in the on-site theater; Santa's Workshop crafts for all ages; A Holly Jolly Christmas Carnival of games, activities and crafts including cookie and gingerbread house decorating; Yuletide Bonfires with s'mores and cider; and a Brunch with Santa offered every Sunday. Tree lighting is 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 28, at the Abbey Resort in Fontana, Wisconsin. theabbeyresort.com or (800) 709-1323.