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With temperatures well below freezing, whipping winds and snowstorms that paint the city white, Chicago hibernates in the winter. But as soon as the snow melts and the city heats up, Chi-Town throws a three-month party. The Bleacher Bums get wild when the Cubs season starts, sunbathers and volleyball players revel in the 26 miles of open and free lakefront, and music and food lovers let loose during free festivals that last until the cold air returns.

The best of the fests
From 24 June to 3 July, the 10-day Taste of Chicago transforms Grant Park into a culinary and musical smorgasbord, with hundreds of dishes on offer from 59 restaurants and about 2.5 million visitors each year. Foodies willing to brave the sometimes maddening crowds and sweltering heat are rewarded with sparkling views of Lake Michigan and tastes of delicious Chicago classics like cheesy deep-dish pizza from Lou Malnati’s and authentic Polish sausages from the Bobak Sausage company. More exotic fare like oxtail and jollof rice from African restaurant Iyanze and chana masala from vegetarian Indian restaurant Arya Bhavan make the Taste a truly international event.

Twelve stands will enjoy their first year at the festival — including Lao Sze Chuan, which will serve up its signature dry chilli chicken, and Starfruit Café, which will have a variety of tasty frozen kefir, Pace yourself (and your wallet), because while entry to the festival is free, food prices vary. Take advantage of the small “taste of” portions each vendor is required to offer for about $2.

After properly gorging, the masses head to two Grant Park stages to dance off the calories at free concerts from national bands like the Lemonheads (28 June) and the Jayhawks (2 July).

Despite financial constraints, former long-time mayor Richard M Daley demanded Chicago’s major summer concerts remain free. But because of budget cuts, the previously autonomous Celtic Fest (29 June), Gospel Music Festival (26 June), Latin Music Festival (24 June) and Country Music Festival (1 July) will join the Taste this year. In previous years, some of the music festivals would have lasted more than one day, but with the combined format, artists like country star Loretta Lynn and fiddler Natalie MacMaster will contribute to the Taste’s soundtrack.

While some of the city’s music festivals have shrunk, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival (24 to 25 September) will double in size this year, thanks to significant grants from several foundations. Growing in size from 5,000 attendees in 2007 to 30,000 attendees in 2009, this year’s event will host a second day for improvising trumpeters and soulful singers in spectacular venues like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House and the Hyde Park Union Church.

The cost-free music continues throughout the summer, but the future of Chicago’s free festivals remains unclear. Newly elected mayor Rahm Emanuel has yet to comment on whether he intends to privatize the concerts — a plan Daley considered before leaving office — which could bring dramatic changes to the summer festival line-up. So in the mean time, enjoy the many concerts at Millennium Park, including the Grant Park Music Festival (15 June to 20 August) and the 33-year-old Chicago Jazz Festival (1 to 4 September). 

Outside of the city’s parks, art enthusiasts in the market for botanic-themed photos, paintings or ceramics head to the Botanic Garden Art Festival (1 to 3 July, free admission), which returns for the first time in nearly a decade. Original works from 80 artists are on view throughout the lush landscapes of the 385-acre Chicago Botanic Garden.

Dave Matthews Band will return to Chicago for the first time since recording the album Live At Wrigley Field in 2010, and this time the band is bringing dozens of friends along to throw itself a 20th anniversary party on Lake Michigan’s shore. From 8 to 10 July, Chicago will be the second of four cities to host the inaugural Dave Matthews Caravan (3-day pass/$195, single day/$85). Artists including the Flaming Lips, Kid Cudi and Michael Franti and Spearhead will rock out at Lakeside, a 600-acre former steel mill, now being used as a concert venue for the first time.

In its second year, the North Coast Music Festival (2 to 4 September) is still finding its groove, but reviews of 2010’s inaugural show were mostly positive. The new kid in town highlights several genres of music largely ignored by some of the other major festivals, and at $95 for a three-day pass, is the least expensive of the bunch. Bassnectar, Thievery Corporation and Common are just a few of the acts performing.

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