Things to Do in Chicago
The Windy City is arguably the capital of the Midwest, but this metropolis on the shores of epic Lake Michigan isn’t too full of itself. Though it boasts cultural, architectural, culinary, and entertainment highlights, the vibe is accessible and welcoming to residents and visitors alike. The Loop, Chicago’s downtown, is home to the city’s most famous buildings—including the Willis (Sears) Tower—and defined by the El (elevated train) routes that circle the city before jutting out into outlying neighborhoods. In Lincoln Park, twentysomethings pack into sports bars and chic boutiques; coffee shops and dive bars abound in Wicker Park; Logan Square is typified by tree-lined boulevards of stately historic houses; and multimillion-dollar abodes line the Gold Coast. Most travelers stick to the North Side, but you'll be rewarded for venturing south to check out Hyde Park and the University of Chicago neighborhood, a haven for academic types and home to the Museum of Science and Industry. A Chicagoan’s perfect day might include visits to the Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park, or Shedd Aquarium (all within 2 miles/3.2km of each other), deep-dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s, a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, dinner at one of the many celebrity chef-helmed restaurants, and an overnight stay at Palmer House Hilton. Although winters are notoriously harsh due to the “lake effect” snow, summers bring block parties and festivals galore, as well as the opportunity to lounge on Lake Michigan beaches.
- Language: English
- Currency: $
- Time Zone: UTC (-6:00)
- Country Code: +1
- Best Time to Visit: Summer, Fall
When to Visit: After being cooped up all winter, Chicago is ready to party when the sun comes out (sometime during May). Summer highlights include the annual Taste of Chicago, Chicago Blues Festival, Andersonville’s Midsommarfest, and the Chicago Air and Water Show. Alternatively, fall brings fewer crowds and brisker weather, perfect for exploring neighborhoods on foot and watching the trees turn colors along the quaint neighborhood streets.
The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) is your best friend when traveling around Chicago. You’ll see many references to “the Loop,” the circle elevated train tracks that define the city’s downtown area. From there, train lines (both underground and elevated) shoot out to the airport and the nearby suburbs. The CTA also has a robust network of bus lines that make all corners of the city easily accessible. The Loop itself is very walkable, and if you’re there in the dead of winter and your toes are frozen, hailing a cab is a cinch.
Tipping: As in the rest of the US, tipping is common and how most service staff make the majority of their income. Between 10% and 20% is standard at an eatery, in a cab, or for personal services like a haircut or massage.
You Might Not Know...: The best place for a chargrilled Chicago hot dog after bar closing time (2 a.m.) is the Weiner’s Circle in Lincoln Park. The dog is served with a pickle, tomato wedges, chopped onions, sweet peppers, celery salt, and a side of major sass from the counterperson. If you know what’s good for you, never ever ask for ketchup—Chicago is a mustard town.
Chicago's most-visited tourist attraction, Navy Pier will certainly blow the minds of children younger than twelve. The pier's Chicago Children's Museum, plus a collection of high-tech rides, hands-on fountains, kid-focused educational exhibits, fast-food restaurants, and trinket vendors will transport your child into the kind of overstimulated, joyful state you haven't witnessed since you finally gave in and got them a puppy for their birthday last year.
For the adults, Navy Pier's charms revolve around the lakefront views, cool breezes, and a ride on the gigantic Ferris wheel. The carousel is another classic, with bobbing carved horses and organ music. You can also hop on afternoon or evening boat cruises from here.
Once the world’s tallest building, Willis Tower (formerly known as Sears Tower) is still the USA's tallest building, and it's still way up in the clouds. Its observation platform - the Skydeck - draws 1.5 million people a year who are eager to ascend the 110-story, 1,454 foot (443 meter) building for awesome panoramic views of the city and surrounding countryside.
On good days, however, you can see for 40 to 50 miles (64 to 80 kilometers), as far as the states of Indiana, Michigan. Iowa, and Wisconsin.
While you wait, you can watch a film about Willis Tower factoids like its 43,000 mi (69,200 km) of phone cable and 2,232 steps to the roof. Then you'll wait a little longer before the ear-popping, 70 second elevator ride up to the 103rd floor deck. From here, the entire city stretches below, and you can see exactly how Chicago is laid out.
One of Chicago’s most stunning parks, Millennium Park - part of larger Grant Park - is a showcase for modern architecture. It features, among other highlights, the McCormick Tribune Ice Skating Rink, the peristyle at Wrigley Square, the Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance, AT&T Plaza, Chase Promenade, and the Trees in Millennium Park. Millennium Park is often considered the largest roof garden in the world, having been built on top of a railroad yard and large parking garages.
A major highlight is Frank Gehry's 120 foot (36 meter) high swooping silver band shell anchors what is, in essence, an outdoor modern design gallery. It includes Jaume Plensa's 50 ft (15 m) high Crown Fountain that projects video images of locals spitting out water, gargoyle fountain-style. Kids of all ages will surely love it.
Also here is the famous Cloud Gate sculpture, otherwise known as “the Bean,” a highly polished reflective steel sculpture.
Winding its way through the heart of the Windy City, the Chicago River flows past some of the city’s most spectacular architecture, especially downtown. Here, river walks dotted with restaurants take you under some of the movable bridges that connect the Loop to Chicago’s Near North Side.
To see some of the prettiest views of the city, hop in a boat, kayak, canoe, or gondola and sail down the river. From the mouth of the river on Lake Michigan heading inland you’ll pass Navy Pier, Wrigley Building, Tribune Tower, Marina City, and the Merchandise Mart. Heading down the south branch, you’ll pass Union Station and the Civic Opera House.
One of the most spectacular events on the Chicago River is St. Patrick's Day, when the river is dyed green. The actual event does not necessarily occur on St. Patrick's Day and is scheduled for the Saturday of the closest weekend.
The Chicago Riverwalk is a continuous walkway and recreation zone that runs along the Chicago River, connecting the Lake Michigan lakefront with the heart of downtown Chicago. The Riverwalk was opened in phases, and it contains restaurants, bars, kayak and boat rentals, bike rentals, concert stages, and general park facilities.
In mid-2015, the second phase of the total Riverwalk plan opened, and the Chicago Riverwalk now extends from Lakeshore Drive to La Salle Street. This phase contains a number of food vendors on both banks of the Chicago River, providing visitors, residents, and nearby office workers plenty of options for a meal, a cup of coffee, or glass of wine. Food vendors along the new section of the Riverwalk include O'Briens Riverwalk Café, City Winery, and Flander’s Belgian Beer & Fries. The last phase of the Riverwalk, which extends to Lake Street at the confluence of the Main Stem of the Chicago River with the North Branch and the South Branch.
Proudly referred to as Chicago's "front yard," Grant Park is home to three world-class museums - the Art Institute, the Field Museum of Natural History, and the Shedd Aquarium - as well as the Museum Campus, a 1995 transformation of paved areas into beautiful greenspace. It’s also among the city's loveliest and most prominent parks.
Centered between the sparkling blue waters of Lake Michigan to the east and Chicago’s stunning skyline to the west, Grant Park is a lovely open space with walking paths, elm trees, and formal rose gardens.Grant Park's centerpiece is the Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain, built in 1927 to provide a monumental focal point while protecting the park's breathtaking lakefront views.
Throughout the summer, Grant Park is also the site of many of the city’s largest outdoor events, including the annual Taste of Chicago, the Lollapalooza music festival, and Chicago Jazz Festival.
The 1920s were a time of architectural significance in Chicago. The Wrigley Building, opened in 1925, set the pace for Chicago’s development and ushered the city into the modern age. When owner William Wrigley Jr., of the gum company of the same name, scouted locations for his company headquarters, he chose an unsightly piece of land – a uniquely shaped triangle – in an area known for warehouses, rail yards, and factories. His intuition played off, though, as this stretch of land eventually became known as Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.
The Wrigley Building’s clock tower is perhaps its most iconic image. The building’s design was inspired by the Seville Cathedral’s Giralda Tower in Spain and shows architectural influences from the French Renaissance and the Spanish Revival styles.
More Things to Do in Chicago
Standing tall above Michigan Avenue, the Tribune Tower is a Chicago Landmark home to the city’s newspaper The Chicago Tribune, as well as the media studios and radio stations of the Tribune. It was built as the result on an international design competition in 1922, which called for the best designed office building in exchange for prize money. Built in neo-Gothic style, it stands at 462 feet in height. The top of the tower was modeled after the Tour de beurre, or butter tower, of the Rouen Cathedral in France, though the building has even more interesting international roots.
Before the structure was built, Chicago Tribune reporters began bringing back pieces of rock from important landmarks around the world. As a result, there are small bits of buildings like the Taj Mahal, the Parthenon, the Great Pyramid, the Hagia Sofia, Angkor Wat and even the Great Wall of China embedded in the lower levels.
Fashion, architecture and history in Chicago come together on a renowned stretch of Michigan Avenue nicknamed the Magnificent Mile. As you walk from the Mile’s southern border, the Chicago River, to its northern border, Oak Street, you’ll pass several Chicago landmarks like the Water Tower, one of the city’s most beloved buildings and one of the only to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; the Tribune Tower, home to the Chicago Tribune; and the John Hancock Center, one of the tallest buildings in the city. Fashionistas clack their stilettos down the Mile to shop at Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Tiffany and Saks Fifth Avenue. It’s one of the most prestigious sections of pavement in the country, and a stroll down it is a Chicago must-do, even if you’re only window-shopping.
In a city of skyscrapers, the Chicago Board of Trade Building stands out. Its history dates back to 1821, though the structure standing today was erected in 1930. Built for the Chicago Board of Trade, today it still serves as a center of Chicago’s financial district as the trading venue for the derivatives exchange. It stood at the tallest building in Chicago for many years. Today it remains a gateway to the city’s financial district.
The traditional art deco architecture draws tourists to the Chicago Board of Trade Building. A three-story statue of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, stands atop the building on a copper pyramid, drawing visitors from all over the city to see the exquisite craftsmanship. The 6,500 pound Ceres represents the time when agriculture ruled Chicago. The 12-story building has a 19,000 square foot trading floor. Statues adorn the building, each of which tells a different story of the type of work that goes on inside.
Chicago Theatre was known as the “Wonder Theatre of the World” when it opened in 1921. This majestic, grand building was a flagship theater for the Balaban & Katz theater group. For two decades, until about 1945, the theater represented the best in American cinematic experience. Other theaters around the United States were modeled after the Chicago Theatre. Today, the theatre is owned by Madison Square Garden, Inc. Instead of showing films, it is a well-known performing arts venue.
Designed in a French baroque style, the theatre is aesthetically appealing and grandiose. Its grand lobby is modeled after the Royal Chapel at Versailles and the exterior features a replica of the famous Arc de Triomphe. The Grand Staircase on the interior is modeled after those at the Paris Opera House. The Chicago Theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. It remains a popular entertainment venue, as well as an historical gem.
This neighborhood gets its name from Chicago's largest park. Its 1,200 acres (485 hectares) stretch for 6 miles (10 kilometers), from North Avenue north to Diversey Parkway, where it narrows along the lake and continues until the end of Lake Shore Drive. Lincoln Park & Zoo has many lakes, trails and paths and even a lily pool called Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool, providing visitors with a unique architectural landscape. Cross-country skiing in the winter and sunbathing in warmer months are just two of the activities Chicagoans enjoy here. Most of Lincoln Park's pleasures are natural, though one of its joys is sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Standing Lincoln, which shows the 16th president deep in contemplation right before he delivers a great speech.
With more than 20 million artifacts, the Field Museum of Natural History is an engaging museum filled with both interactive and imaginative displays. The big attraction is the Tyrannosaurus rex named "Sue," a 13 foot (4 meter) tall, 41 ft (13 m) long beast who menaces the grand space with ferocious aplomb. The most complete T-Rex ever discovered, it takes its name from Sue Hendrickson, the fossil-hunter who found the 90 percent complete skeleton in South Dakota in 1990.
Dinosaurs loom large in the Field Museum. At the Evolving Planet exhibit, you can also watch staff paleontologists clean up fossils, learn about the evolution of the massive reptiles, and even learn about Homo sapien's evolutionary ties to the extinct beasts. Away from the prehistoric giants, the “Inside Ancient Egypt” exhibit recreates an Egyptian burial chamber on three levels. The mastaba (tomb) contains 23 actual mummies.
Chicagoans take their baseball seriously, and one of best places to see a Major League game is at the venerable, ivy-covered home of the Chicago Cubs: Wrigley Field. Built in 1914, Wrigley Field - nicknamed "The Friendly Confines" - is the second oldest baseball park in the major leagues. Wrigley Field is filled with legendary traditions and curses, as well as a team that suffers from the longest dry spell in U.S. sports history. The hapless Cubbies haven't won a championship since 1908, a sad record unmatched by any team in pro football, hockey or basketball. Still, seeing a game here takes you back - you’ll even find yourself singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
As tickets can be hard to come by if the Cubs are playing a home game, you can peep through the “knothole,” a garage-door-sized opening on Sheffield Avenue and watch the action for free. Baseball fanatics can take a 90 minute walk through the stadium that goes through the clubhouse, dugouts, and press box.
On any given Sunday afternoon from September to December, thousands of Chicagoans and sports fans converge around Soldier Field, home to the Chicago Bears of the NFL (National Football League). The parking lots surrounding the stadium buzz with excitement for hours prior to each game and even in the coldest temperatures, diehard Chicago sports fans pack Soldier Field to cheer on the home team.
Opened in 1924, the stadium was built as a memorial to fallen American soldiers. Over the years, it welcomed crowds of over 100,000 people for events like the 1927 heavyweight match between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney and a visit by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. The stadium was also the site of the very first Special Olympic Games, held in 1968, and in 1994, the it hosted the first World Cup Games to be played in the United States.
The world's largest assortment of finned, gilled, amphibious, and other aquatic creatures swims within the marble-clad confines of the John G. Shedd Aquarium.
Permanent exhibits include the multilevel Oceanarium, which mimics ocean conditions off the northwest coast of North America. The beluga whales inside are remarkably cute creatures that come from the pint-size end of the whale scale. Their humped heads and natural “smiles” make them look eerily human. You'll also see Pacific white-sided dolphins, harbor seals, and sea otters.
Don't linger only on the main floor; you can go underneath the cement seats and watch the mammals from below through viewing windows. The “Wild Reef” exhibit will have sharkophiles and sharkophobes equally entranced; over a dozen sharks cut through the waters in a simulation of a Philippines reef ecosystem. And the “Amazon Rising” exhibits offer a captivating look at a year in the Amazon River and rain forest.
The first planetarium built in the western hemisphere, the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum still captures intergalactic imaginations. From the entrance, visitors descend below the building, which has 12 sides, one for each sign of the zodiac. In the newest wing, a digital sky show recreates such cataclysmic phenomena as supernovas. Interactive exhibits allow you to simulate cosmic events such as a meteor hitting the earth (this one is especially cool).
Inside, the main attraction is the StarRider Theater, where you’ll take a 30 minute virtual reality trip through deep space, with eye-popping 3-D graphics. You’ll literally feel like you’re floating in space. The planetarium's exhibition galleries are equally engaging, with myriad displays and interactive activities. A must-see exhibit is “Shoot For The Moon,” an interactive exhibit on lunar exploration.
The Chicago Loop is Chicago's downtown business district, and the second largest business district in the United States. Aside from the many businesses located there, the Loop is home to many of Chicago's best museums, restaurants, universities, and tourist attractions. It has also become a popular place to live in the city. Visitors who wish to stay in the downtown area have a wide variety of hotels to choose from within the Loop.
One of the most famous buildings in the area is Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower) where you can take an elevator to the Skydeck for the best view of the city. Go for a stroll through Millennium Park to enjoy the fountains, gardens, and the famous Cloud Gate, nicknamed the Bean. Another well-known park is Grant Park, where you'll find Buckingham Fountain. Notable museums within the Chicago Loop district include the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum.
You certainly won’t be under-stimulated on a visit to the Museum of Science and Industry, a must-see Chicago museum. With some 2,000 exhibits to see, most of which are interactive, this massive museum continues to enlighten and amaze.
Nine permanent exhibits thoroughly examine everything on Earth, from cerebral concepts like the passage of time to questions about the origins of breakfast cereal. Visitors can climb through a German U-boat captured during WWII and press their noses against the window of the Apollo 8 command module.
The museum itself is set in Jackson Park, which has a Japanese garden, lagoons and a nature retreat with hundreds of species of birds. When you've had your fill of space capsules, coalmines, and Zephyrs at the museum, the park makes an excellent setting to recuperate.
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