The best way to stay on top of the city's current crop of special events is to check in with the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau (tel. 877/CHICAGO [244-2246]; www.choosechicago.com). Visit their website to browse the Chicago Destination Guide, which surveys special events, including parades, street festivals, concerts, theatrical productions, and museum exhibitions (you can also get a copy mailed to you). The Mayor's Office of Special Events (tel. 312/744-3315) lets you search for upcoming festivals, parades, and concerts on its website, www.explorechicago.org.
For an exhaustive list of events beyond those listed here, check http://events.frommers.com, where you'll find a searchable, up-to-the-minute roster of what's happening in cities all over the world.
Chicago Boat, RV & Outdoor Show, McCormick Place, 23rd Street and Lake Shore Drive (tel. 312/946-6200; www.chicagoboatshow.com). All the latest boats and recreational vehicles are on display, plus trout fishing, a climbing wall, boating safety seminars, and big-time entertainment. January 11 to 15, 2012.
Winter Delights. Throughout January and February, the city's Office of Tourism (tel. 877/CHICAGO [244-2246]; www.choosechicago.com) offers special travel deals to lure visitors during tourism's low season. Incentives include bargain-priced hotel packages, affordable prix-fixe dinners at downtown restaurants, and special music and theater performances. Early January through February.
Chinese New Year Parade, Wentworth and Cermak streets (tel. 312/326-5320; www.chicagochinatown.org). Join in as the sacred dragon whirls down the boulevard and restaurateurs pass out small envelopes of money to their regular customers. In 2012, Chinese New Year begins on January 23; call to verify the date of the parade.
Chicago Auto Show, McCormick Place, 23rd Street and Lake Shore Drive (tel. 630/495-2282; www.chicagoautoshow.com). More than 1,000 cars and trucks, domestic and foreign, current and futuristic, are on display. The event draws nearly a million visitors, so try to visit on a weekday rather than Saturday or Sunday. Many area hotels offer special packages that include show tickets. February 10 to 19, 2012.
St. Patrick's Day Parade. In a city with a strong Irish heritage, this holiday is a big deal. The Chicago River is even dyed green for the occasion. The parade route is along Columbus Drive from Balbo Drive to Monroe Street. A second, more neighborhood-like parade is held on the South Side the day after the Dearborn Street parade, on Western Avenue from 103rd to 115th streets. Visit www.chicagostpatsparade.com for information. The Saturday before March 17.
Opening Day. For the Cubs, call tel. 773/404-CUBS  or visit www.cubs.mlb.com; for the White Sox, call tel. 312/674-1000 or go to www.whitesox.mlb.com. Make your plans early to get tickets for this eagerly awaited day. The calendar may say spring, but be warned: Opening Day is usually freezing in Chi-town. (The first Cubs and Sox home games have occasionally been postponed because of snow.) Early April.
Chicago Improv Festival. Chicago's improv comedy scene is known as a training ground for performers who have gone on to shows such as Saturday Night Live or MADtv. Big names and lesser-known (but talented) comedians converge for a celebration of silliness, with large main-stage shows and smaller, more experimental pieces. Most performances are at the Lakeshore Theater on the North Side (3175 N. Broadway; tel. 773/472-3492; www.chicagoimprovfestival.org). Late April.
Buckingham Fountain Color Light Show, Congress Parkway and Lake Shore Drive. This massive, landmark fountain in Grant Park operates daily from May 1 to October 1. From sundown to 11pm, a colored light show adds to the drama.
The Ferris Wheel and Carousel begin spinning again at Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand Ave. (tel. 312/595-PIER ; www.navypier.com). The rides operate through October. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, Navy Pier also hosts twice-weekly fireworks shows Wednesday nights at 9:30pm and Saturday nights at 10:15pm.
Art Chicago, the Merchandise Mart, at the intersection of Kinzie and Wells streets (tel. 312/527-3701; www.artchicago.com). The city's biggest contemporary art show brings together collectors, art lovers, and gallery owners from throughout the Midwest. You don't have to be an expert to check out the show: Tours and educational programs are offered to make the work accessible to art novices. The Next show, which runs concurrently, focuses on work by emerging international artists. First week in May.
Celtic Fest Chicago, Pritzker Music Pavilion, Randolph Street and Columbus Drive, in Millennium Park (tel. 312/744-3315; www.explorechicago.org). This festival celebrates the music and dance of global Celtic traditions. But the mood is far from reverential: There's a limerick contest and a "best legs" contest exclusively for men wearing kilts. First weekend in May.
Wright Plus Tour, Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, Oak Park (tel. 708/848-1976; www.wrightplus.org). This annual tour of 10 buildings, including Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio, the Unity Temple, and several other notable buildings in both Prairie and Victorian styles, is very popular, so plan on buying tickets in advance (they go on sale March 1). Third Saturday in May.
Chicago Gospel Festival, Pritzker Music Pavilion, Randolph Street and Columbus Drive, Millennium Park (tel. 312/744-3315; www.explorechicago.org). Blues may be the city's most famous musical export, but Chicago is also the birthplace of gospel music: Thomas Dorsey, the "father of gospel," and the greatest gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, were from the city's South Side. This 3-day festival -- the largest outdoor, free-admission event of its kind -- offers music on three stages with more than 40 performances. First weekend in June.
Printers Row Lit Fest, Dearborn Street from Congress Parkway to Polk Street (tel. 312/222-3986; http://printersrowlitfest.org). One of the largest free outdoor book fairs in the country, this weekend event celebrates the written word with everything from readings and signings by big-name authors to panel discussions on penning your first novel. Located within walking distance of the Loop, the fair also features more than 150 booksellers with new, used, and antiquarian books; a poetry tent; and special activities for children. First weekend in June.
Chicago Blues Festival, Petrillo Music Shell, Randolph Street and Columbus Drive, Grant Park (tel. 312/744-3315; www.explorechicago.org). Muddy Waters would scratch his noggin over the sea of suburbanites who flood into Grant Park every summer to quaff Budweisers and accompany local legends Buddy Guy and Lonnie Brooks on air guitar. Truth be told, you can hear the same great jams and wails virtually any night of the week in one of the city's many blues clubs. Still, a thousand-voice chorus of "Sweet Home Chicago" under the stars has a rousing appeal. All concerts at the Blues Fest are free, with dozens of acts performing over 3 days, but get there in the afternoon to get a good spot on the lawn for the evening show. Second weekend in June.
Ravinia Festival, Ravinia Park, Highland Park (tel. 847/266-5100; www.ravinia.com). This suburban location is the open-air summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the venue of many first-rate visiting orchestras, chamber ensembles, pop artists, and dance companies. June through September.
Puerto Rican Fest, Humboldt Park, Division Street and Sacramento Boulevard (tel. 773/292-1414; http://prparadechicago.org). One of the city's largest festivals, this celebration includes 5 days of live music, theater, games, food, and beverages. It peaks with a parade that winds its way from Wacker Drive and Dearborn Street to the West Side Puerto Rican enclave of Humboldt Park. Mid-June.
Old Town Art Fair, Lincoln Park West and Wisconsin Street, Old Town (tel. 312/337-1938; www.oldtowntriangle.com). This juried fine arts fair has drawn browsers to this historic neighborhood for more than 50 years with the work of more than 250 painters, sculptors, and jewelry designers from the Midwest and around the country on display. It also features an art auction, garden walk, concessions, and children's art activities. It tends to get crowded, but the overall vibe is low-key festive rather than rowdy. Second weekend in June.
Wells Street Art Festival, Wells Street from North Avenue to Division Street (tel. 312/951-6106; www.oldtownchicago.org). Held on the same weekend as the more prestigious Old Town Art Fair, this event is lots of fun, with 200 arts and crafts vendors, food, music, and carnival rides. Second weekend in June.
Grant Park Music Festival, Pritzker Music Pavilion, Randolph Street and Columbus Drive, in Millennium Park (tel. 312/742-7638; www.grantparkmusicfestival.com). One of the city's greatest bargains, this classical music series presents free concerts in picture-perfect Millennium Park. Many of the musicians are members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the shows often feature internationally known singers and performers. Bring a picnic and enjoy dinner beforehand with a view of the skyline. Concerts begin the last week in June and continue through August.
Taste of Chicago, Grant Park (tel. 312/744-3315; www.explorechicago.org). The city claims that this is the largest free outdoor food fest in the nation. Three and a half million rib and pizza lovers feeding at this colossal alfresco trough say they're right. Over 10 days of feasting in the streets, scores of Chicago restaurants cart their fare to food stands set up throughout the park. To avoid the heaviest crowds, try going on weekdays earlier in the day. Claustrophobes, take note: If you're here the evening of July 3 for the Independence Day fireworks, pick out a vantage point farther north on the lakefront -- unless dodging sweaty limbs, spilled beer, and the occasional bottle rocket sounds fun. Admission is free; you pay for the sampling. June 27 through July 6, 2012.
Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade, Halsted Street, from Belmont Avenue to Broadway, south to Diversey Parkway, and east to Lincoln Park, where a rally and music festival are held (tel. 773/348-8243; www.chicagopridecalendar.org). This parade is the colorful culmination of a month of activities by Chicago's gay and lesbian communities. Halsted Street is usually mobbed; pick a spot on Broadway for a better view. Last Sunday in June.
Independence Day Celebration (tel. 312/744-3315; www.explorechicago.org). Chicago celebrates the holiday on July 3 with a free classical music concert in Grant Park in the evening, followed by fireworks over the lake. Expect huge crowds. July 3.
Old St. Patrick's World's Largest Block Party, 700 W. Adams St., at Des Plaines Avenue (tel. 312/648-1021; www.oldstpats.org). This hugely popular blowout is hosted by the city's oldest church, an Irish Catholic landmark in the West Loop area. It can get pretty crowded, but Old St. Pat's always lands some major acts. Six bands perform over 2 nights on two stages and attract a young, lively crowd. Second weekend in July.
Chicago Yacht Club's Race to Mackinac Island, starting line at the Monroe Street Harbor (tel. 312/861-7777; www.chicagoyachtclub.org). This 3-day competition is the grandest of the inland water races. The public is welcome at a Friday night party. On Saturday, jockey for a good place to watch the boats set sail toward northern Michigan. Mid-July.
Sheffield Garden Walk, starting at Sheffield and Webster avenues (tel. 773/929-9255; www.sheffieldfestivals.org). More than 50 Lincoln Park homeowners open their back yards to visitors at this annual event, giving you a chance to snoop around these normally hidden retreats. The walk isn't just for garden nuts; it has also grown into a lively street festival, with live bands, children's activities, and food and drink tents. It's a popular destination for a wide cross-section of Chicagoans, from singles to young families to retirees. Third weekend in July.
Dearborn Garden Walk & Heritage Festival, North Dearborn and Astor streets (tel. 312/632-1241; www.dearborngardenwalk.com). A more upscale affair than the Sheffield Garden Walk, this event allows regular folks to peer into private gardens on the Gold Coast, one of the most expensive and exclusive neighborhoods in the city. As you'd expect, many yards are the work of the best landscape architects, designers, and art world luminaries that old money can buy. There's also live music, a marketplace, and a few architectural tours. Third Sunday in July.
Chicago SummerDance, east side of South Michigan Avenue between Balbo and Harrison streets (tel. 312/742-4007; www.explorechicago.org). From July through late August, the city's Department of Cultural Affairs transforms a patch of Grant Park into a lighted outdoor dance venue on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 6 to 9:30pm, and Sunday from 4 to 7pm. The 4,600-square-foot dance floor provides ample room for throwing down moves while live bands play music -- from ballroom and klezmer to samba and zydeco. One-hour lessons are offered from 6 to 7pm. Free admission.
Taste of Lincoln Avenue, Lincoln Park, between Fullerton Avenue and Wellington Street (tel. 773/868-3010; www.wrightwoodneighbors.org). This is one of the largest and most popular of Chicago's many neighborhood street fairs; it features 50 bands performing music on five stages. Neighborhood restaurants staff the food stands, and there's also a kids' carnival. Last weekend in July.
Newberry Library Book Fair & Bughouse Square Debates, 69 W. Walton St. and Washington Square Park (tel. 312/255-3501; www.newberry.org). Over 4 days, the esteemed Newberry Library invites the masses to rifle through bins stuffed with tens of thousands of used books, most of which go for a few dollars. Better than the book fair is what happens across the street in Washington Square Park: soapbox orators re-creating the days when left-wing agitators came here to make their case. Late July.
Northalsted Market Days, Halsted Street between Belmont Avenue and Addison Street (tel. 773/883-0500; www.northalsted.com). The largest of the city's street festivals, held in the heart of the North Side's gay-friendly neighborhood, Northalsted Market Days offers music on three stages, lots of food and offbeat merchandise, and some of the best people-watching of the summer. First weekend in August.
Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic, starting at 39th Street and King Drive and ending at 55th Street and Washington Park (tel. 773/536-3710; www.budbillikenparade.com). This annual African-American celebration, which has been held for more than 80 years, is one of the oldest parades of its kind in the nation. It's named for the mythical figure Bud Billiken, reputedly the patron saint of "the little guy," and features the standard floats, bands, marching and military units, drill teams, and glad-handing politicians. Second Saturday in August.
Chicago Air & Water Show, North Avenue Beach (tel. 312/744-3315; www.explorechicago.org). The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Seals usually make an appearance at this hugely popular aquatic and aerial spectacular. (Even if you don't plan to watch it, you can't help but experience it with jets screaming overhead all weekend.) Expect huge crowds, so arrive early if you want a spot along the water, or park yourself on the grass along the east edge of Lincoln Park Zoo, where you'll get good views (and some elbow room). Free admission. Third weekend in August.
Chicago Jazz Festival, Petrillo Music Shell, Jackson and Columbus drives, Grant Park (tel. 312/744-3315; www.explorechicago.org). Several national headliners are always on hand at this steamy gathering, which provides a swell end-of-summer bookend opposite to the gospel and blues fests in June. The event is free; come early and stay late. First weekend in September.
The art season, in conjunction with the annual Visions series of art gallery programs for the general public, begins with galleries holding their season openers in the Loop, River North, River West, and Wicker Park/Bucktown gallery districts. Contact the Chicago Art Dealers Association (tel. 312/649-0065; www.chicagoartdealers.org) for details. First Friday after Labor Day.
Boulevard Lakefront Bike Tour (Active Transit Alliance; tel. 312/427-3325; www.activetrans.org). This 35-mile leisurely bicycle excursion is a great way to explore the city, from the neighborhoods to the historic link of parks and boulevards. There's also a 10-mile tour for children and families. The Sunday morning event starts and ends at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, which plays host to vendors and entertainment at the annual Bike Expo. Mid-September.
Mexican Independence Day Parade, Dearborn Street between Wacker Drive and Van Buren Street (tel. 312/744-3315). This parade is on Saturday; another takes place the next day on 26th Street in the Little Village neighborhood (tel. 773/521-5387). Second Saturday in September.
Viva! Chicago Latin Music Festival, Pritzker Music Pavilion, Randolph Street and Columbus Drive, in Millennium Park (tel. 312/744-3315; www.explorechicago.org). This free musical celebration features salsa, mambo, and performances by the hottest Latin rock acts. Free admission. Third weekend in September.
Chicago International Film Festival (tel. 312/683-0121; www.chicagofilmfestival.org). The oldest U.S. festival of its kind screens films from around the world, as well as a few high-profile American independent films. It's a great way to catch foreign movies that may never be released in the U.S. Screenings take place over 2 weeks, with most held at downtown movie theaters that are easily accessible to visitors. First 2 weeks of October.
Chicago Country Music Festival, Pritzker Music Pavilion, Randolph Street and Columbus Drive, in Millennium Park (tel. 312/744-3315; www.explorechicago.org). Chicago may be a long way from Dixie, but country music still has a loyal Midwest fan base. This popular event features free concerts from big-name entertainers. First weekend in October.
Chicago Marathon (tel. 312/904-9800; www.chicagomarathon.com). Sponsored by Bank of America, Chicago's marathon is a major event on the international long-distance running circuit. It begins and ends in Grant Park but can be viewed from any number of vantage points along the route. Second Sunday in October.
The Chicago Humanities Festival takes over locations throughout downtown, from libraries to concert halls (tel. 312/661-1028; www.chfestival.org). Over a 2-week period, the festival presents cultural performances, readings, and symposiums tied to an annual theme (recent themes included "Brains & Beauty" and "Crime & Punishment"). Expect appearances by major authors, scholars, and policymakers, all at a very reasonable cost (usually $5-$10 per event). Early November.
Dance Chicago (tel. 773/989-0698; www.dancechicago.com). All of the city's best-known dance troupes (including Hubbard Street and Joffrey Ballet) and many smaller companies participate in this month-long celebration of dance, with performances and workshops at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., on the city's North Side. It's a great chance to check out the range of local dance talent.
Magnificent Mile Lights Festival (tel. 312/642-3570; www.magnificentmilelightsfestival.com). Beginning at dusk, a colorful parade of Disney characters makes its way south along Michigan Avenue, from Oak Street to the Chicago River. Thousands of lights are entwined around trees, and street lights switch on as the procession passes. Carolers, elves, and minstrels appear with Santa along the avenue throughout the day and into the evening, and many retailers offer hot chocolate and other treats. It's a great, family-friendly event, but get to the parade route early if you want your little ones to see the procession. Saturday before Thanksgiving.
Christmas Tree Lighting, Daley Plaza, in the Loop (tel. 312/744-3315). The arrival of the city's official tree signals the beginning of the Christmas season. The mayor flips the switch the day after Thanksgiving, around dusk.
Christkindlmarket, Daley Plaza, in the Loop (tel. 312/644-2662; www.christkindlmarket.com). This annual holiday event is inspired by traditional German Christmas festivals. A mini-European village springs up in downtown's Daley Plaza, where German-speaking vendors showcase handcrafted ornaments and other seasonal decorations. Of course, it wouldn't be a German celebration without beer, sausages, and hot spiced wine, too. The fair is open from Thanksgiving Day until Christmas Eve but is usually packed Thanksgiving weekend; visit on a December weekday for a more enjoyable visit.
A Christmas Carol, Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. (tel. 312/443-3800; www.goodman-theatre.org). This seasonal favorite, performed for more than 2 decades, runs from Thanksgiving to the end of December.
The Nutcracker ballet, Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. For tickets, call tel. 312/559-1212 (Ticketmaster) or contact the Joffrey office (tel. 312/739-0120; www.joffrey.com). The esteemed company performs its Victorian-American twist on the holiday classic. Late November to mid-December.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.