MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Trip Hints

Favorites for fall

Great holiday festivals
In November and December, check out Santa, Scrooge and shopping markets.
Owls, owls, everywhere
Influxes of magnificent birds have birders hurrying up north.
On the wine trail
In November, taste the fruits of the harvest on winery road trips.
Now they're cooking
On weekend getaways, amateur chefs can test their mettle in the kitchen.
Homes for the holidays
For Christmas tours, historic mansions up the ante on opulence.
Foodies in Madison
From street carts to fine-dining shrines, Wisconsin's capital city worships food.
Chicago at Christmas
During the holidays, this glittering, festive town becomes the City of Broad Smiles.
Wings over the Mississippi
Tundra-swan watchers have a honkin' good time during the November migration.

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FastPlans/Sample the Amanas

Pouring fruit wines in Amana.

Once upon a time, people in Iowa's Amana Colonies lived simply. Now, people go there to indulge.

These tidy, once-communal villages in east-central Iowa, near Cedar Rapids, are famous for their family-style restaurants, wineries, brewery and shops. During the holiday season, tourists descend on the villages to buy gifts — quilts, pottery, chocolates.

What to do: Shop and sample wines. Tour the Amana Heritage Museum on Saturdays. See "Nuncrackers'' at the Old Creamery Theatre Company or "Outside Mullingar'' at Iowa Theatre Artists Company.

Events to catch: Dec. 4-6, Prelude to Christmas.

Information: For more, see Truly Amana and Eating in the Amana Colonies.

Past fast plans: Shopping in Madison, Gales of November, Exploring Northfield, Halloween in Chicago, Fall at Devil's Lake

This weekend

Old World traditions flourish at holidays.

In Pella, Sinterklaas and his ship.

Holidazzle in Minneapolis. A month-long, open-air holiday village opens in Loring Park with a performance by the Minnesota Chorale and fireworks. Nov. 27–29.

Christkindlsmarkt in Excelsior, Minn. On the shores of Lake Minnetonka, a parade opens this German-style open-air Christmas market. Nov. 27–29.

Sinterklaas Day in Pella, Iowa. In this Dutch town, the man in the red suit (pictured) arrives in a wooden ship, wears a bishop's miter and has a Moorish servant as helper. A 10 a.m. parade is followed by a breakfast. Nov. 28.

Lighting & Electric Parade in St. Charles, Ill. There's Lighting of the Lights and music Friday and free horse-drawn sleigh rides, movies and Santa visits Saturday, with the Electric Christmas Parade at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 27–28.

For more events, see our Events Calendar.

Milwaukee at Christmas

During the holidays, this city shimmers like Cinderella.

The Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee.

No one ever accused Milwaukee of being flashy.

Best known for tractors, motorcycles and beer, it’s a meat-and-potatoes kind of town, stolid and practical like the Germans who built it.

It’s not what you’d call a trendy destination. And yet every time I go there, I have a great time.

The ugly duckling has turned into a swan. Consider its landmarks — a bright-white “wing,’’ whose graceful unfurling draws sightseers to the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the sliding roof of Miller Park, which tucks itself in to a musical fanfare after Brewers games.

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Great shopping towns

Few shoppers can resist these Shangri-Las of spending.

Shops on High Street in Mineral Point.

Some people may guess that lakes or bicycle trails are the chief attraction for travelers in the Upper Midwest. Other might say museums, state parks or stadiums.

Wrong, wrong and wrong. The No. 1 attraction in travel is . . . shops.

Shopping is sightseeing for a lot of people. On vacation, they shop not as they would at the local mall, but as if had all the time in the world to browse, stroll and sample.

As, in fact, they do. Legions of weekend hobby shoppers have fueled the rise of such boutique towns as Stillwater in Minnesota, Cedarburg in Wisconsin and Galena in Illinois.

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Where to stay in Chicago

Want to visit the Windy City? So does everyone else. Here's how to find a place.

Chicago's Marina City complex.

Chicago is a fun, fun place to be.

It's popular with conventioneers, families, students, girlfriend groups and couples on a romantic getaway. Everyone wants to join the festive mobs at Millennium Park, Navy Pier and, at Christmas, the Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza.

There are nearly 40,000 hotel rooms downtown, which you'd think would be enough. Except in summer, when vacationers from around the world flood in. And whenever there's a big convention, like the one that draws 55,000 radiologists to Chicago the week after Thanksgiving.

But new hotels have been popping up, adding to an already huge selection.  How to pick one? Here's a guide.

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Old World Christmas markets

Local versions of the traditional German Christkindlmarkt are a hit during the holidays.

Drinking Gluehwein at a Christkindlmarkt.

For 500 years, Germans have done their holiday shopping at open-air Christmas markets in town squares.

Named for the Christ child, the markets traditionally start on the first Sunday of Advent, with shoppers warming up with hot spiced wine while browsing at garland-draped timber kiosks.

It's a tradition worth importing, and that's what Chicago did in 1996 with its Christkindlmarket, where two-thirds of the vendors come from Germany.

It's become more popular every year, and now many other towns — from the shores of Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota to Wisconsin cheese country and the ethnic enclaves of Michigan — have markets of their own.

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November girlfriend getaways

When hunting season starts, women head out to have fun with their friends.

Horseback riding in autumn.

In November, women make a break for it.

As men sit in deer stands or watch football games on TV, women hit the road with their friends. They shop, they visit spas, they sip wine and they see shows their husbands or boyfriends don't want to see.

For women, November is a great month. Not only do they have a good excuse to get away with their friends, but it's time to start shopping for Christmas.

There are art fairs and holiday markets everywhere. And festivities start early in such shopping meccas as Cedarburg, Wis., which starts its Festive Friday Eves on the eve of Wisconsin's firearms deer opener.

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10 great late-fall getaways

It's the mellowest time of the year, when hotel rates drop with the leaves.

Dells Boat Tours.

Late fall – when crowds fade and hotel deals appear – is one of the best times to make a getaway.

For hikers, it's the sweet spot between the fall-color rush and hunting season. For shoppers, it's the time to get a head start on the holidays, before the craziness starts.

More often than not, the weather still is gorgeous, and stubborn oaks and willows offer color that lasts into the middle of November.

The more popular a destination is in summer, the more likely you'll find great deals in late October and November. Check deal sites, including LivingSocial Escapes and Groupon Getaways.

Here are 10 great places to go for a late-fall getaway.

Read story and trip tips

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