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The best of what to do in and around Chicago this week

We’re approaching the holiday season, and the big kickoff happens when Chicagoans gather round Millennium Park to "oooh" and "ahhh" as they watch the gigantic Christmas tree light up for the first time. If you haven’t bought any gifts for the kids yet, you can determine the best ones at the massive Chicago Toy & Game Fair over at the must-see Navy Pier. Also must see? Hubbard Street, which is finally kicking off its dance season this week. Brian McKnight is in town, too, adding to this jam-packed week.

AFAR Local is our weekly insider guide to the best of what’s happening in cities around the U.S.

November 17 - 20 | Dance
Hubbard Street
Chicago’s mesmerizing modern dance company is finally bursting open its season with the arrival of two world premieres. You’ll get to see the group in all of its glory—they do a really cool combo of jazz, modern, and ballet—when they perform works choreographed by Alejandro Cerrudo and Brian Brooks. The program will also include scores by Bach, Liszt, and Schubert, so the contrast will show what this group can do.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, 1147 W Jackson Blvd., Chicago | From $30 | website

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November 18 | Concert
Brian McKnight
Brian McKnight is in town for an intimate concert at City Winery. Sample locally produced wine and eat dinner while listening to the R&B singer perform songs from his 16 albums. Best known for such hits as “One Last Cry,” “Still,” “The Way Love Goes,” and “Crazy Love,” McKnight has hosted multiple radio and TV shows in addition to his career as singer, songwriter, and producer. There is a second performance at 10 p.m.
7:00 PM | City Winery, 1200 W Randolph St., Chicago | From $60 | website

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November 18 | Christmas celebration
Tree lighting ceremony
It’s Chicago’s official start to the Christmas season. This is the 103rd Christmas tree lighting ceremony, and it’s much more than a flick of a switch. This grand ceremony features a performance by Stomp, the percussion sensation, and a special appearance from Santa. Check out the tree that was chosen from the hundreds of entrants to the competition to find the biggest and fanciest tree suitable for Chicago’s official Christmas tree.
6:30 PM | Millennium Park, near Michigan Ave. and Washington St., Chicago | Free | website

November 19 - 20 | Fair
Chicago Toy & Game Fair
This fair is every kid’s dream come true—although you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy it. It’s essentially a convention-sized room filled to the brim with toys and games from around the world, and you get to play with all of them. Go from booth to booth checking them out to see what you like (or for suitable gifts for the holidays). There are also interactive exhibits, inventor challenges, and contests. Plan to spend a significant chunk of time here, especially if you’re bringing a child. Complete breakdowns upon leaving are to be expected (ends at 5 p.m. on Sunday).
10:00 AM - 6:00 PM | Navy Pier, 600 E Grand Ave., Chicago | $10 adults, $5 kids | website

November 19 - 20 | Escape the city
Crystal Lake, Illinois
Crystal Lake is just 50 miles away—far enough that you get a complete change of scenery but close enough that you spend little of the weekend on travel. This destination is accessible by car and by Metra, but it’s best to drive since you may need your car once there. The area is known for its local dining scene (make sure you try de Baffone Cucina Italiana), along with its eclectic shops. During summer, the boardwalk is the place to be (the Three Oaks Recreation Area makes fishing, boat rentals, and even waterskiing easy), but this time of year, you could spend hours hiking the Crystal Lake trails. The Raue Center for the Arts always puts on worthwhile theater productions, and Crystal Lake Brewing, which brews around eight beers at a time in-house, is a must-stop.

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Danielle Braff lives in Chicago with her husband, two daughters, two cats, and her dog. When she’s not writing, she’s out photographing her city and running around frantically trying to fit as many events as she can into her day. You can check out her other articles at Daniellebraff.com.