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You'll see Chicago at its best if you visit during the summer or fall. Summer offers a nonstop selection of special events and outdoor activities; the downside is that you'll be dealing with the biggest crowds and periods of hot, muggy weather. Autumn days are generally sunny, and the crowds at major tourist attractions grow thinner -- you don't have to worry about snow until late November at the earliest. Spring is extremely unpredictable, with dramatic fluctuations of cold and warm weather, and usually fair amounts of rain. If your top priority is indoor cultural sights, winter's not such a bad time to visit: no lines at museums, the cheapest rates at hotels, and the pride that comes with slogging through the slush with the natives.

When planning your trip, book a hotel as early as possible, especially if you're coming during the busy summer tourist season. The more affordable a hotel, the more likely it is to be sold out in June, July, and August, especially on weekends. It's also worth checking if a major convention will be in town during the dates you hope to travel. It's not unusual for every major downtown hotel to be sold out during the Housewares Show in late March or the Restaurant Show in mid-May.

Weather

Chicagoans like to joke that if you don't like the weather, just wait an hour -- it will change. In spring and autumn, be prepared for a wide range of temperatures; you may be shivering in a coat and gloves in the morning, only to be fine in a T-shirt by mid-afternoon. While Chicago winters get a bad rap, they're no worse than in other northern American cities. January isn't exactly prime tourist season, but the city doesn't shut down; as long as you've got the proper cold-weather gear and sturdy boots, you should be fine. Summers are generally warm and sunny, with temperatures that range from pleasant to steamy. The closer you are to the lake, the more you'll benefit from the cool breezes that float off the water.

As close to your departure as possible, check the local weather forecast at the websites of the Chicago Tribune newspaper (www.chicagotribune.com) or the Weather Channel (www.weather.com). You'll find packing a lot easier if you know whether to expect snow, rain, or sweltering heat. (That said, bring a range of clothes and an umbrella if you're going to be in town for awhile -- you should be prepared for anything!)

Holidays

Banks, government offices, post offices, and many stores, restaurants, and museums are closed on the following legal national holidays: January 1 (New Year's Day), the third Monday in January (Martin Luther King, Jr., Day), the third Monday in February (Presidents' Day), the last Monday in May (Memorial Day), July 4 (Independence Day), the first Monday in September (Labor Day), the second Monday in October (Columbus Day), November 11 (Veterans' Day/Armistice Day), the fourth Thursday in November (Thanksgiving Day), and December 25 (Christmas). The Tuesday after the first Monday in November is Election Day, a federal government holiday in presidential-election years (held every 4 years, and next in 2012).

Major Convention Dates

Listed below are Chicago's major (20,000 visitors or more) conventions for 2012, with projected attendance figures. Plan ahead, because hotel rooms and restaurant reservations can be hard to come by when the big shows are in town -- and even if you snag a room, you'll be paying top price. Contact the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau (tel. 877/CHICAGO [244-2246]; www.choosechicago.com) to double-check the latest info before you commit to your travel dates, as convention schedules can change.

Event -- 2012 Dates  -- Projected Attendance

International Heating and Air Expo -- Jan 23-25 -- 60,000

Chicago Dental Society -- Feb 23-25 -- 30,000

America's Beauty Show -- Mar 3-5 -- 48,000

International Home and Housewares Show -- Mar 11-13 -- 60,000

Kitchen & Bath Industry Show -- April 27-29 -- 60,000

National Restaurant Association Show -- May 19-22 -- 55,000

American Society of Clinical Oncology -- June 1-5 -- 35,000

Neo-Con: World's Trade Fair -- June 11-13 -- 40,000

International Manufacturing Tech Show -- Sept 10-15 -- 80,000

Graph Expo -- Oct 7-10 -- 30,000

Pack Expo -- Oct 28-Nov 1 -- 45,000

Process Expo -- Oct 29-31 -- 90,000

Radiological Society of North America -- Nov 25-30 -- 55,000

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.