Chicago is located in the Midwest. It is the third largest city in the United States with a population approaching 3 million. Chicago is a huge vibrant city and a metropolitan area that sprawls over 10,874km². It's well known for blues, jazz, comedy, shopping, and dining.
As the hub of the Midwest, Chicago is easy to find —its picturesque skyline calls across the waters of huge Lake Michigan, a first impression that soon reveals world-class museums of art and science, miles of sandy beaches, huge parks and public art, and perhaps the finest downtown collection of architecture in the world.
With a wealth of iconic sights and neighborhoods to explore, there's enough to fill a visit of weeks or even months without ever seeing the end. Prepare to cover a lot of ground: the meaning of Chicago is only found in movement, through its subways and archaic elevated tracks, and eyes raised to the sky.
The most visited part of Chicago is its large central area, which contains neighborhoods such as Downtown, River North, Streeterville, Old Town, the Gold Coast, Central Station, the South Loop, Printer's Row, and Greek Town among others. Collectively, these neighborhoods contain many skyscrapers, attractions, and highly ranked institutions. But there are also many attractions to be found in the city's other districts. Chicago consists of Downtown, the North Side, the South Side, and the West Side - each Side named according to its direction from Downtown. The Loop is the financial and cultural area located within Downtown. The North, South, and West Sides each contains numerous and varied neighborhoods. Chicagoans tend to identify strongly with their neighborhood, reflecting a real place of home and culture.
Chicago was known as a fine place to find a wild onion if you were a member of the Potawatomi tribe, who lived in this area of Illinois before European settlers arrived. It was mostly swamps, prairie and mud long past the establishment of Fort Dearborn in 1803 and incorporation as a town in 1833. It could be argued that nature never intended for there to be a city here; brutal winters aside, it took civil engineering projects of unprecedented scale to establish working sewers, reverse the flow of the river to keep it out of the city's drinking supply, and stop buildings from sinking back into the swamps — and that was just the first few decades.
By 1871, the reckless growth of the city was a sight to behold, full of noise, Gothic lunacy, and bustling commerce. But on October 8th, Mrs. O'Leary's cow reportedly knocked over a lantern in the crowded immigrant quarters in the West Side, and the Great Chicago Fire began. It quickly spread through the dry prairie, killing 300 and destroying virtually the entire city. The stone Water Tower in the Near North is the most famous surviving structure. But the city seized this destruction as an opportunity to rebuild bigger than before, giving canvas for several architects and urban planners who would go on to become legends of modern architecture.
At the pinnacle of its rebirth and the height of its newfound powers, Chicago was known as The White City. Cultures from around the world were summoned to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, to bear witness to the work of Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and the future itself. Cream of Wheat, soft drinks, street lights and safe electricity, the fax machine, and the Ferris Wheel bespoke the colossus now resident on the shores of Lake Michigan.
As every road had once led to Rome, every train led to Chicago. Carl Sandburg called Chicago the Hog Butcher for the World for its cattle stockyards and place on the nation's dinner plate. Sandburg also called it the City of the Big Shoulders, noting the tall buildings in the birthplace of the skyscraper — and the city's "lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning." But Chicago is a city in no short supply of nicknames. Fred Fisher's 1922 song (best known in Frank Sinatra's rendition) calls it That Toddlin' Town, where "on State Street, that great street, they do things they don't do on Broadway." It's also referenced by countless blues standards like Sweet Home Chicago.
Chicago is also known as The Second City, which refers to its rebuilding after the fire — the current city is literally the second Chicago, after the one that nearly burned down in 1871. The moniker has stuck as Chicago had long-held the position of the nation's second-largest city. And many know the nickname from Chicago's great comedy theater Second City located in Old Town which has supplied countless talent to television's Saturday Night Live and many sitcoms.
During the Prohibition era, Chicago's criminal world, emblemized by names like Al Capone, Baby Face Nelson, and later Sam Giancana, practically ran the city. The local political world had scarcely more legitimacy in a town where voter turnout was highest among the dead and their pets, and precinct captains spread the word to "vote early, vote often." Even Sandburg acknowledged the relentless current of vice that ran under the surface of the optimistic city.
Chicago is also known as The Windy City. Walking around town, you might suspect that this nickname came from the winds off Lake Michigan which can, on occasion, make for some windy days. Truth be told, Chicago is far from being excessively windy. In fact, according to the United States National Climatic Data Center, Chicago does not rank high on the list of windy cities. The origin of the saying Windy City comes from politics; some saying it may have been coined by rivals like New York City as a derogatory reference; at the time the two cities were battling for the 1893 World's Fair, which Chicago ultimatley won. Others say that the term originated from the city's strong political climate.
Finally, the city is also known as the The City That Works as promoted by long-time Mayor Richard M. Daley, which refers to Chicago's labor tradition and its willingness to tackle grand civic projects. Daley and his father, former Mayor Richard J. Daley, were continous voted into office for many terms and governed the city for decades. As other manufacturing cities like Cleveland, Detroit, and Buffalo went into decline, Chicago thrived, transforming from a city of culture and manufacturing to a city of culture and finance. Chicago now houses the world's largest future exchanges (the Chicago Mercantile Exchange). With Richard M. Daley deciding not to run for mayor again due to his ailing wife, and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel resigning from that post to become mayor of Chicago, the city elected its first Daley-less administration with Emanuel since Mayor Richard M. Daley was in office from April 1989 to May 2011.
While the city has many great attractions in its huge central/downtown area, lots of Chicagoans live and play outside of the central district as well. Travelers also go to the city's vibrant neighborhoods to soak up the local nightlife, sample the wide range of fantastic dining, and see other sights that are a part of Chicago. Thanks to the city's massive public transit system, which includes over 140 Chicago Transit Authority subway/elevated train stations, a separate city/suburban Metra rail network, and bus routes criss-crossing the city every few blocks apart, all parts of Chicago are indeed accessible.
As far as Chicago's weather goes, well let's just say that Chicago is an enormous city so things tend to get blown out of porportion more than they would in other cities, that includes the weather. The city doesn't have weather like Honolulu - then again, many other cities do not either? The winters in Chicago are indeed cold, but so is most of the United States from Maine to Utah, with the exception of the extreme south. A fact; Chicago receives less precipitation (snow and rain) in the winter than East Coast cities like New York City or Boston receive. And although Chicago is cold in winter, its Midwestern neighbor Minneapolis is generally colder in winter. Chicago's summers are not much hotter than the East Coast, and definitely not as hot as the southern U.S. where there is a nonstop heatwave throughout the summer. There is a good time to be had in any season in Chicago, and the summer offers an array of parades, festivals, and events.
The winter months from December to March will see cold temperatures with cold wind chill factors. Snow is usually limited to a handful of heavy storms per season, with a few light dustings in-between and a little more along the lakefront —in the local parlance, that's "lake effect snow". Chicago is a city that's well-accustomed to winter season, so city services and public transportation are highly unlikely to ever shut down.
A little-known fact: there are more days with a maximum temperature of 80-84°F (27-29°C) than any other five-degree range, this includes winter months. Chicago's summer days can feel as warm as Honolulu or as humid and sticky as Miami. During any random summer, temperatures in July or August may go above the normal average of 83°F and become hot and humid with dewpoints that can be similar to those found closer to the Gulf of Mexico. However, these heatwaves are not for the entire duration of the summer, but usually in patches of days. Summer nights are usually reasonable and you'll get a few degrees' respite along the lakefront — in the local parlance again, that's "cooler by the lake."
Chicago does have several months of nice weather. June and September are very pleasant; April and May are quite fine, although thunderstorms can occur suddenly. July and August are okay as long as a heatwave hasn't hit the entire country. Although there may be a slight chill in the air, October rarely calls for more than a light coat and some days that's not even necessary. And in some years, prolonged mild summer-like temperatures overlap into November.
Chicago literature found its roots in the city's tradition of lucid, direct journalism, lending to a strong tradition of social realism. Consequently, most notable Chicago fiction focuses on the city itself, with social criticism keeping exultation in check. Here is a selection of Chicago's most famous works about itself:
Chicago is America's third most prolific movie industry after Los Angeles and New York, and there have been scores upon scores of films amd television series filmed here. Here is a very small list of some very Chicago-centric movies that have been produced in the city. These are just a few:
Some others include Harrison Ford vs. the one-armed man in The Fugitive, the CTA vs. true love in While You Were Sleeping, Autobots vs. Decepticons in Transformers 3, the greatest Patrick Swayze hillbilly ninja vs. Italian mob film of all time, Next of Kin, and the humble John Candy film Only The Lonely which captures the south side Irish mentality, the love and comfort of neighborhood dive bars, as well as the Chicago working class, and political power, theme with the repeated line "Sometimes it's good to be a cop".
Smoking is prohibited by state law at all restaurants, bars, nightclubs, workplaces, and public buildings. It's also banned within fifteen feet of any entrance, window, or exit to a public place, and at CTA train stations. The fine for violating the ban can range from $100 to $250.
Chicago's visitor information centers offer maps, brochures and other information.
Chicago (IATA: CHI for all airports) is served by two major airports: O'Hare International Airport and Midway Airport. There are plenty of taxis both to and from the city center, but they are quite expensive, especially during rush hours. Expect upwards of $40 for O'Hare and $30 for Midway. CTA trains provide direct service to both larger airports for $2.25 from anywhere in the city — faster than a taxi during rush hour and a lot less expensive.
Many large hotels offer complimentary shuttle vans to one or both airports, or can arrange one for a charge ($15-25) with advance notice.
O'Hare International Airport (IATA: ORD) is 17 miles (27km) northwest of downtown and serves many international and domestic carriers. United Airlines has the largest presence here (about 50%) followed by American Airlines with about 40%. Most connecting flights for smaller cities in the Midwest run through O'Hare. It's one of the biggest airports in the world, and it has always been notorious for delays and cancellations. Unfortunately, it's too far northwest for most travellers who get stuck overnight to head into the city. As a result, there are plenty of hotels in the O'Hare area. See the O'Hare article for listings.
The CTA Blue Line runs between the Loop and O'Hare every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. A lot of repair work has been completed on the Blue line and the trip from O'Hare to the Loop now takes 35-50 minutes. The O'Hare station is the end of the line and is essentially in the basement of O'Hare airport. Walking from the platform to the ticket counters should take 5-10 minutes for Terminals 2 or 3, slightly more for Terminal 1, and a great deal longer for the International Terminal 5 (It is necessary to take the free people mover for transfer). The fare to board the train at O'Hare is $5 - as opposed to $2.25 anywhere else - but it is still a bargain compared to a taxi and can even be faster when traffic is bad.
Midway International Airport (IATA: MDW) is 10 miles (16km) southwest of downtown. Midway primarily serves low-cost carriers, with the exception of a handful of Delta flights, and is the largest airport for Southwest Airlines. If it's an option for your trip, Midway is more compact, less crowded, has fewer delays, and usually cheaper. And, of course, it's significantly closer to downtown.
Airlines serving Chicago-Midway (MDW):
The CTA Orange Line train runs between the Loop and Midway in around 25 minutes. There is an enclosed tunnel that links the station and airport but it takes approximately 10-15 minutes to walk from one to the other. There are a number of hotels clustered around Midway, too — see the Southwest Side article for listings.
Chicago Executive Airport (IATA: PWK) is nine miles north of O'Hare, serves the general and business aviation sector, and is the third busiest airport in Illinois. Approximately three hundred aircraft are based on the field and approximately 200,000 take-offs and landings occur annually. Air taxi and air charter companies such as Jetset Charter fly a variety of private charter aircraft and jets, from charter luxury Gulfstream's down to economical piston twins for small groups and individuals.
Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport  (IATA: MKE) is served by 7 Amtrak trains per day (6 on Sunday), and the Hiawatha Service has a 95% on-time rating. The trip from Chicago Union Station to Mitchell Airport Station is about one hour and 15 minutes. There are also buses from Mitchell Airport to Chicago O'Hare Airport.
Chicago is historically the rail hub of the entire United States. Today, Amtrak, ☎ +1 800 872-7245, uses the magisterial Union Station (Canal St and Jackson Blvd) as the hub of its Midwestern routes, making Chicago one of the most convenient U.S. cities to visit by train, serving the majority of the passenger rail company's long-distance routes, with options from virtually every major U.S. city. With its massive main hall, venerable history, and cinematic steps, Union Station is worth a visit even if you're not coming in by train.
Most (but not all) Metra suburban trains run from Union Station and nearby Ogilvie/Northwestern Station (Canal St and Madison St), which are west of the Loop. Some southern lines run from stations on the east side of the Loop. The suburban trains run as far as Kenosha, Aurora, and Joliet, while the South Shore line runs through Indiana as far as South Bend. Several CTA buses converge upon the two stations, and the Loop CTA trains are within walking distance.
Chicagoans refer to some expressways by their names, not the numbers used to identify them on the signs you'll see posted on the U.S. interstate highway system. So you'll have to commit both name and number to memory. I-55 (the Stevenson Expressway) will take you from the southwest city and the southwest suburbs to downtown Chicago. I-90/94 (called The Dan Ryan south of downtown) comes in from Indiana to the east (via the Chicago Skyway - I-90 and Bishop Ford Freeway - I-94) and from central Illinois (via I-57). I-90 (called The Kennedy north of downtown) comes in from the northwest city and northwest suburbs. I-94 (called the Edens Expressway) comes in from the North Side and the northern suburbs to downtown. I-80 runs south of the city in an east-west direction, linking with several north-south expressways.
The Illinois tollway, which in addition to I-90, consists of I-88 which serves the west suburbs, I-355 (called The Vets or The Veterans Memorial Tollway) which connects Joliet with Schaumburg, and I-294 - The Tri-State which runs from the South Side to the far Northwest Side and passes next to O'Hare Airport. Be prepared for toll booths off to the right hand side of the tollway which will cost about $1.50 per booth, a much lower cost than you will find on tolls in New York City or the Los Angeles area. When traveling the tollway, always have a few dollars in cash and coins to pay at the booths, which are staffed on mainline toll plazas.
If arriving downtown from the south on I-94 or I-90, or from the north on I-90/94, great views can be seen as you approach the downtown skyline. If arriving on I-55 from the southwest, or on I-290 (the Eisenhower Expressway, formerly and sometimes still called The Congress Expressway) from the west, the skyline is also visible. If arriving from north or south on Lake Shore Drive (U.S. Highway 41) a scenic introduction will be provided, day or night, on what has to be the most beautiful thoroughfare in the world.
Navigating Chicago is easy. Block numbers are consistent across the whole city. Standard blocks, of 100 addresses each, are roughly 1/8th of a mile long. (Hence, a mile is equivalent to a street number difference of 800.) Each street is assigned a number based on its distance from the zero point of the address system, the intersection of State Street and Madison Street. A street with a W (west) or E (east) number runs north-south (indicating how many blocks East or West of State St. it falls), while a street with a N (north) or S (south) number runs east-west (indicating how many blocks North or South of Madison St. it falls). A street's number is usually written on street signs at intersections, below the street name. Major thoroughfares are at each mile (multiples of 800) and secondary arteries at the half-mile marks. Thus, Western Ave at 2400 W (3 miles west of State Street) is a north-south major thoroughfare, while Montrose Ave at 4400 N is an east-west secondary artery.
In general, "avenues" run north-south and "streets" run east-west, but there are numerous exceptions. (e.g., 48th Street may then be followed by 48th Place). In conversation, however, Chicagoans rarely distinguish between streets, avenues, boulevards, etc.
Several streets follow diagonal or meandering paths through the city such as Clark St, Broadway, Milwaukee Ave, Archer Ave, Vincennes Ave, and South Chicago Ave to name a few. Interestingly, many of the angled streets in Chicago (including Archer Ave., Clark Street and Lincoln Ave.) were originally Native American trails established long before Chicago was a city.
Downtown Chicago is very walkable, with wide sidewalks and minimal congestion. Walkers looking to avoid cold, heat, rain and snow find the Chicago Pedway System to be helpful. It is a system of underground, ground-level, and above-ground passages that connect downtown buildings.
By public transit
The best way to see Chicago is by public transit. It is cheap (basically), efficient (at times), and safe (for the most part). The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) oversees the various public transit agencies in the Chicagoland area. You can plan trips online with the RTA trip planner or get assistance by calling 836-7000 in any local area code between 5am and 1am. The RTA also has an official partnership with Google Maps, which can provide routes with public transit.
The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) operates trains and buses in the city of Chicago and some of the suburbs. Put simply, the CTA is Chicago. It is a marvel and a beast, convenient and irreplaceable. Even if you have the option of driving while you're in town, no experience of Chicago is complete without a trip on the CTA.
Fares are paid with a card system called Ventra. Passes can be bought and re-filled at kiosks in the lobby of every CTA station. All accept cash and credit cards. Once at the machine, you have the option of buying a pass, good for unlimited rides for a set number of days, or simply putting cash on the card. Unlike many cities' rail system that are set up on zone fares, Chicago's L network, regardless of how many miles you're travelling, only cost $2.25. At many stations, you can transfer to another L line at no additional cost. If you have exited the turnstiles, entering another CTA station or boarding a CTA bus costs an additional $0.25 with your transit card, and transferring a third time is free provided it is still within two hours of when you started the trip.
Locals refer to Chicago's public train system as the "L". (Most lines run on el-evated tracks — get it?) All train lines radiate from the Loop to every corner of the city. The "Loop" name originally referred to a surface-level streetcar loop, which pre-dated the elevated tracks.
CTA train lines are divided by colors: Red, Green, Brown, Blue, Purple, Yellow, Orange and Pink. All lines lead to the Loop except the Yellow Line, which is a shuttle between the suburb of Skokie and the northern border of Chicago. The Red and Blue lines run 24/7, making Chicago and New York City the two American cities that offer 24-hour rail service running throughout their city limits. Hours for the other lines vary somewhat by the day, but as a general rule run from about 4:30am-1am.
Before you travel, find out the name of the train station closest to your destination, and the color of the train line on which it is located. Once you're on-board, you'll find route maps in each train car, above the door. The same map is also available online. The name signs on platforms often have the station's location in the street grid, e.g. "5900 N, 1200 W" for Thorndale.
There should be an attendant on duty at every train station. They cannot provide change or deal with money, but they can help you figure out where you need to go and guide you through using the machines.
Buses run on nearly every major street throughout the entire city, and in many cases, every four blocks apart. Look for the blue and white bus stop sign, which should show the route that the bus will take. Once inside, watch the front of the bus, a red LED display will list the names of the streets as they pass by, making it easy to know that your stop is approaching if you're unfamiliar with the city. Rides of any length cost $2 with a transit card or Chicago Card or $2.25 in cash.
Chicago has a large and comprehensive bus system, and buses typically run frequently. This allows Chicagoans to go to bus stops and wait for the bus without even looking at bus schedules, as buses usually run every few minutes apart. The major bus routes run every 7-15 minutes apart during the morning and afternoon hours. In the evening, these same routes run about every 15-20 minutes apart. The less traveled bus routes may run about 15-20 minutes apart during the day. There are many bus routes that run 24 hours a day; these are called OWL routes and the bus stop sign usually has a picture of an owl to belabor that point. Overnight OWL service is approximately every 30 minutes. (See individual district articles for major bus routes through different parts of the city.)
If you have a web-enabled mobile device, the CTA runs a little godsend called the CTA Bus Tracker, which uses GPS to provide reliable, real-time tracking information for almost all bus routes.
CTA buses accept transit cards but do not sell them. They also accept cash but do not provide change. Like any bus system, you pay exact fare or forfeit your change.
In compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, all CTA buses and some train stations are accessible to wheelchairs. Wheelchair-accessible 'L' stations are indicated by the international wheelchair symbol and have elevators or are at ground level. If you are trying to get to a place with a non-accessible station, there will be alternate routes by bus so contact the CTA for more information.
Crime on the CTA is low, but as with any major urban area, travellers should be aware of their surroundings, especially when travelling in the wee hours of the night. Some L cars have a button and speaker for emergency communication with the driver, located in the center aisle of the car on the wall next to the door. This is for emergencies only: do not press this just to ask questions, as the driver is required to halt the train until the situation has been confirmed as resolved, and your fellow passengers will not be amused.
Metra and South Shore
Metra ☎ +1 312 322-6777, runs commuter trains for the suburbs, providing service within Illinois, to Kenosha, Wisconsin, out west, and to the South Shore railroad, which provides service to South Bend, Indiana. Metra trains are fast, clean, and punctual, but unpleasantly crowded during rush hour. Generally, every car or every other car on the train has a bathroom.
Metra's Electric Line provides service to the convention center (McCormick Place), Hyde Park (Museum of Science and Industry, University of Chicago), and the Far Southeast Side's Pullman Historic District and Rainbow Beach. The Electric Line is fast, taking at most 15 minutes to reach Hyde Park from the Loop. Unfortunately, service outside of rush hours is infrequent (about once/hour), so be sure to check the schedules while planning your trip.
Although there are plans to change this in the future, none of the commuter trains currently accept CTA transit cards as payment. The fare to McCormick Place and Hyde Park, however, is only $2. Buy your tickets before boarding the train at a window or one of the automated vending machines. You can buy a ticket on the train, but that comes with an extra $3/ticket surcharge if the station you're leaving from had an open ticket window or an operational ticket machine.
Ten-ride, weekly, and monthly passes are available. If you have a group of four or more people, it may be cheaper to purchase a ten-ride card and have all of your fares punched from that one card. If using Metra on Saturday and/or Sunday, you can purchase an unlimited ride weekend pass for just $7. Keep in mind that Metra only accepts cash at this time.
Pace runs buses in the suburbs, although some routes do cross into the city, particularly in Rogers Park at the Howard (Red/Purple/Yellow Line) CTA station and the Far Northwest Side at the Jefferson Park (Blue Line) CTA station. Pace provides paratransit services should you need to go somewhere inconvenient via CTA.
Avoid driving in downtown Chicago if at all possible.
Traffic is heavy and garages in the Loop can cost as much as $35 per day. Free websites like ParkWhiz.com and ParkingPanda.com let you book off-street parking in advance after searching by location and price, which is often discounted. Other sites like ChiParking.com provide tips about where to park in different parts of Chicago.
Although downtown streets are laid out on the grid, some streets have multiple levels which can confuse even the most hardened city driver. Even outside of the city center, street parking may not be readily available. If you do find a spot, check street signs to make sure that a) no residential permit is required to park, and b) parking is not disallowed during certain hours for street cleaning, rush hour or something along those lines. Parking restrictions are swiftly enforced in the form of tickets and towing — be especially wary during snowy weather.
On-street parking is handled by one-per-block kiosks, which will issue a slip for you to put in your front window. The kiosks will accept cash or credit cards. If the kiosk fails for any reason (such as the printer running out of paper), there should be a phone number to call to report it and ensure you don't receive a ticket.
Be advised: talking on a handheld cell phone while driving is illegal, and the police will write you a ticket. If you need to take or make a call, use a hands-free headset — or better yet, pull over.
Drivers on the city expressways can be very aggressive. For those used to driving on expressways in the Northeast US or Southern California, this may simply be a reminder of home. For everyone else, though, it may be intimidating.
Hiring a vehicle at Chicago O'Hare International Airport is a quick and easy affair. Arriving passengers will find offers and services from various car rental firms there. It's only a short distance from the desks of the car rental agents to the car rental service centre where the hire cars are picked up and returned.
Rides from O'Hare and Midway to outer suburbs cost an additional 50% over the metered fee. Give the driver the nearest major intersection to which you are heading (if you know it) and then the specific address. There is no additional charge for baggage or credit card use, although some drivers discourage credit card payments if the distance travelled is short.
If you are outside of Downtown, North Side, Near West, or Near South neighborhoods, it may be less easy to find cabs from the street and easier just to call one. Taxis typically take 10-15 min from the time you call to arrive. The principal companies are:
The above applies only to Chicago taxis. Suburban taxi cabs have their own fares and rates, depending on the laws and regulations of the town in which they are based.
Chicago has a bike path along the shores of Lake Michigan, making north-south travel very convenient as long as the weather is favorable by the lake. Most major city streets have bike lanes, and the biking culture is established enough that cars tend to accommodate and (grudgingly) yield to bicycles. Bike trips can also be combined with rides on the CTA. See the bicycling section below for more details.
By water taxi
In the summer, water taxis are sometimes more convenient than the CTA, if you are traveling around the fringes of downtown. They are also a relatively cheap way to take in some offshore views. Two private companies operate water taxi services around the Loop.
Chicago Water Taxi (Wendella Boats)  ☎ +1 312 337-1446, uses yellow boats and has three stops (Michigan Ave, LaSalle/Clark, Madison St), plus Chinatown on weekends ($2, $4 Chinatown/all day pass). Taxis run roughly M-F 6:30AM-6:30PM, Sa-Su 10:30AM-6:30PM.
Shoreline Sightseeing  ☎ +1 312 222-9328, has blue and white boats. It is more expensive ($5-7), but it serves seven destinations including some on Lake Michigan (Union Station/Sears Tower, Wells & Wacker, Michigan Ave Bridge, Navy Pier-Ogden Slip, Navy Pier-Dock St, Buckingham Fountain, and Museum Campus). Shoreline taxis run 10AM-6PM every twenty minutes and 6PM-9PM every half hour Memorial Day–Labor Day, with occasional and less frequent service in the spring and fall.
Chicago's set of museums and cultural institutions are among the best in the world. Three of them are located within a short walk of each other in the Near South, on what is known as the Museum Campus, in a beautiful spot along the lake: the Adler Planetarium, with all sorts of cool hands-on space exhibits and astronomy shows; the Field Museum of Natural History, which features SUE, the giant Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, and a plethora of Egyptian treasures; and the Shedd Aquarium, with dolphins, whales, sharks, and the best collection of marine life east of California. A short distance away, in Hyde Park, is the most fun of them all, the Museum of Science and Industry — or, as generations of Chicago-area grammar school students know it, the best field trip ever.
In the Loop, the Art Institute of Chicago has a handful of iconic household names among an unrivaled collection of Impressionism, modern and classical art, and tons of historical artifacts. And in Lincoln Park, a short trip from the Loop, the cheerful (and free) Lincoln Park Zoo welcomes visitors every day of the week, with plentiful highlights like the Regenstein Center for African Apes.
Also, Chicago has some knockout less well-known museums scattered throughout the city like the International Museum of Surgical Science and the Loyola University Museum of Art in Gold Coast, Chicago History Museum in Lincoln Park, DuSable Museum of African American History in Washington Park, National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, the Polish Museum of America in Wicker Park, the Museum of Photography in the Loop, and the Driehaus Museum in Near North. The University of Chicago, in Hyde Park, has several cool (and free) museums that are open to all visitors, showcasing a spectacular collection of antiquities and modern/contemporary art.
Discount packages like the Chicago CityPASS  can be purchased before you arrive in town. They cover admission to some museums and other tourist attractions, allowing you to cut to the front of lines, and may include discounts for restaurants and shopping. Also, programs such as Bank of America's Museums to Go offer free admission at multiple Chicago museums for designated times which can save you a small fortune on admission fees. Ticket comparison sites like Trevii,  automatically calculates you the best ticket option for your trip itinerary with consideration of various discount options, such as CityPASS, Bank of America's Museums to Go, age-dependent discounts, and etc.
See the Chicago skyline guide to find out more about the city's skyscrapers.
From the sternly classical to the space-age, from the Gothic to the coolly modern, Chicago is a place with an embarrassment of architectural riches. Frank Lloyd Wright fans will swoon to see his earliest buildings in Chicago, where he began his professional career and established the Prairie School architectural style, with numerous homes in Hyde Park/Kenwood, Oak Park, and Rogers Park — over 100 buildings in the Chicago metropolitan area! Frank Lloyd Wright learned his craft at the foot of the lieber meister, Louis Sullivan, whose ornate, awe-inspiring designs were once the jewels of the Loop, and whose few surviving buildings (Auditorium Theater, Carson Pirie Scott Building, one in the Ukrainian Village) still stand apart.
The 1871 Chicago Fire forced the city to rebuild. The ingenuity and ambition of Sullivan, his teacher William Le Baron Jenney (Manhattan Building), and contemporaries like Burnham & Root (Monadnock, Rookery) and Holabird & Roche/Root (Chicago Board of Trade) made Chicago the definitive city of their era. The world's first skyscrapers were built in the Loop as those architects received ever more demanding commissions. It was here that steel-frame construction was invented, allowing buildings to rise above the limits of load-bearing walls. Later, Mies van der Rohe would adapt Sullivan's ethos with landmark buildings in Bronzeville (Illinois Institute of Technology) and the Loop (Chicago Federal Center). Unfortunately, Chicago's world-class architectural heritage is almost evenly matched by the world-class recklessness with which the city has treated it, and the list is long of masterpieces that have been needlessly demolished for bland new structures.
Today, Chicago boasts three out of America's five tallest buildings: the Sears Tower (1st), the Trump Tower (2nd), and the Aon Center (5th) (although the local favorite is actually #6: the John Hancock Center). For years, the Sears Tower was the tallest building in the world, but it has since lost the title. Various developers insist they're bringing the title back with proposed skyscrapers. Until they do, Chicago will have to settle for having the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere with the Sears Tower, although the Hancock has a better view and is quite frankly better-looking.
Chicago is particularly noted for its vast array of sacred architecture, as diverse theologically as it is artistically. There were more than two thousand churches in Chicago at the opening of the twenty-first century. Of particular note are the so-called Polish Cathedrals like St. Mary of the Angels in Bucktown and St. Hyacinth Basilica in Avondale, as well as several treasures in Ukrainian Village — beautifully crafted buildings with old world flourishes recognized for their unusually large size and impressive scope. The National Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini in Lincoln Park is the masterpiece of renowned architect Leonard Gliatto.
Architectural tours cover the landmarks on foot and by popular river boat tours, or by just standing awestruck on a downtown bridge over the Chicago River; see individual district articles for details. For a tour on the cheap, the short trip around the elevated Loop train circuit (Brown/Purple Lines) may be worth every penny of the $2 fare.
Chicago's African-American history begins with the city's African-American founder, Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable. Born to a Haitian slave and a French pirate, he married a woman from the Potawatomi tribe, and built a house and trading post on the Chicago River on the spot of today's Pioneer Court (the square just south of the Tribune Tower in the Near North). Du Sable lived on the Chicago River with his family from the 1770s to 1800, when he sold his house to John Kinzie, whose family and friends would later claim to have founded the city.
Relative to other northern cities, African-Americans constituted a fairly large part of Chicago's early population because of Illinois' more tolerant culture, which was inherited from fervent anti-slavery Mormon settlers. As a non-slave state generally lacking official segregation laws, Illinois was an attractive place to live for black freedmen and fugitive slaves.
By the 1920s, Chicago had a thriving middle class African-American community based in the Bronzeville neighborhood, which at the time became known as "The Black Metropolis," home to a cultural renaissance comparable to the Harlem Renaissance of New York. African-American literature of the time was represented by famous and local poetess Gwendolyn Brooks and the novelist Richard Wright, most famous for his Native Son, nearly all of which takes place in Chicago's Bronzeville and Hyde Park/Kenwood. The Chicago school of African-American literature distinguished itself from the East Coast by its focus on the new realities of urban African-American life. Chicago became a major center of African-American jazz, and the home for the blues. Jazz great Louis Armstrong got his start there; other famous black Chicagoans of the day included Bessie Coleman — the world's first licensed black pilot, the hugely influential African-American and women's civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, the great pitcher/manager/executive of Negro League Baseball Andrew "Rube" Foster, and many more.
Helping to fuel Chicago's black renaissance was one of the single most influential parts of African-American history: the Great Migration. African-Americans from the South moved to the industrial cities of the North (particularly Chicago) due to the post-WWI shortage of immigrant industrial labor, and to escape the Jim Crow Laws and racial violence of the South. The massive wave of migrants increased Chicago's black population alone by more than 500,000. With it came southern food, Mississippi blues, and the challenges of establishing adequate housing for so many recent arrivals.
Black Chicago's renaissance was halted momentarily, as was the entire world, by the Great Depression. In 1937 came the creation of the Chicago Housing Authority which sought to build affordable public housing for the city. However well-intentioned, the results were not well. The largest housing projects by far were the 1940 Ida B. Wells projects; the Cabrini Green projects, which developed a reputation as the most violent housing projects in the nation , and the massive 1962 Robert Taylor Homes which stretched for several miles. In the beginning, the housing projects were indeed decent. As the years past, unsavory people and less maintenance proved to be the downfall of the projects. The Black Metropolis was unable to cope with this development and surrounding neighborhoods fell with it. Today, the city has torn down most of these structures and replaced them with lower rise, mixed used buildings; which has shown to have more success than the previous dwellings.
Further damaging to Chicago's black population was the phenomenon of "white flight" that took place across the nation. Unwilling to live beside black neighbors, many white Chicagoans fled desegregation to the suburbs. This trend was accelerated by the practice of "blockbusting," where unsavory real estate agents would fan racist fears in order to buy homes on the cheap. As a result, most of Chicago neighborhoods never truly integrated at that time, and the social, educational, and economic networks that incoming non-whites had hoped to join disintegrated in the wake of fleeing white citizens.
Today, integration has come a long way and integration exists in many Chicago neighborhoods including the communities on the entire eastern half of the North Side that border the lakefront, as well as communities such as Hyde Park/Kenwood, Logan Square, Little Italy, Auburn Gresham, Beverly, and Hegewisch. However, there are still parts of the city that are predominantly composed of one race.
In 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. decided to come north and chose Chicago as his first destination. However, from the moment of his arrival on the Southwest Side, King was utterly confounded. The death threats that followed his march through Marquette Park were challenge enough, but nowhere in the South was there a more expert player of politics than Chicago's Mayor Richard J. Daley. King left town frustrated and exhausted, but Rev. Jesse Jackson continued civil rights efforts in Chicago through his Operation PUSH. The 1983 election of Mayor Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago, was a watershed event for Chicago's African-American population, and although long battles with obstructionist and racist white politicians lay ahead, it marked the moment when Black elected officials became major, independent forces in Chicago.
Today, comprising well over a third of the city, Chicago's black population is the country's second largest in overall numbers, after New York City. However, blacks make up a larger percentage of Chicago than they do of New York City. The large South Side is the cultural center of Chicago's black community. The South Side along with the adjoining south suburbs constitutes the largest single Black region in the entire country, and boasts the country's greatest concentration of black-owned businesses. Some Chicagoans and outsiders from other parts of the country who are ignorant of this area may tell you that it is dangerous. North Siders in general do not think much of the West Side or the South Side (similar to the way Manhattanites in New York City do not think much of the other four boroughs of that city). Although the West Side of Chicago does contain many economically challenged neighborhoods, the reality of the South Side is more complex. On the South Side there are affluent, middle class, and economically challenged neighborhoods. Affluent and upper-middle class areas on the South Side include the South Loop, Hyde Park/Kenwood, upper Bronzeville, Chatham, South Shore, Beverly, Mount Greenwood, West Lawn, and western Morgan Park. Chicago is a very large city and the South Side is large, thus, many people outside the South Side may not be familiar with these affluent/upper-middle class areas on the South Side. The local newscasts also have a bad habit: When a crime happens on the North Side, the commentator will put an emphasis on the neighborhood in which it happened, which tends to not give the entire North Side a bad image. However, when a crime happens on the South Side, the emphasis is put on South Side, thus giving the entire South Side a bad image.
For those interested in African-American history, Bronzeville is a top destination. The Kenwood area also boasts interesting recent history, as it has been (or is) home to championship boxer Muhammad Ali, Nation of Islam leaders Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan, and President Barack Obama. No one should miss the DuSable Museum of African-American History in Bronzeville, adjancent to Hyde Park, the first museum of African-American history in the United States. And if your interest is more precisely in African-American culture than history, head down to Chatham and South Shore to enter the heart of Chicago's black community.
Chicago is among the most diverse cities in America, and many neighborhoods reflect the character and culture of the immigrants who established them. Some, however, do more than just reflect: they absorb you in a place that can make an entire neighborhood feel like a chunk of another country. The best of Chicago's ethnic neighborhoods are completely uncompromised, and that makes them a real highlight for visitors.
Chicago's Chinatown is among the most active Chinatowns in the world. It even has its own stop on the CTA Red Line. It's on the South Side near Bridgeport, birthplace of the Irish political power-brokers who have run Chicago government for most of the last century. More Irish communities exist on the Far Southwest Side, where they even have an Irish castle to seal the deal. The Southwest Side houses enormous populations of Polish Highlanders and Mexicans, as well as reduced Lithuanian and Bohemian communities.
No serious Chicago gourmand would eat Indian food that didn't come from a restaurant on Devon Avenue in Rogers Park. It's paradise for spices, saris, and the latest Bollywood flicks. Lawrence Avenue in Albany Park is sometimes called Seoul Drive for the Korean community there, and the Persian food on Kedzie Avenue nearby is simply astonishing. At the Argyle Red Line stop, by the intersection of Argyle and Broadway in Uptown, you'd be forgiven for wondering if you were still in America; Vietnamese, Thais, and Laotians share space on a few blocks of restaurants, grocery stores, and even dentists. Neither the Swedish settlers who built Andersonville or the Germans from Lincoln Square are the dominant presence in those neighborhoods any more, but their identity is still present in restaurants, cultural centers, and other discoveries to be made. Likewise, Little Italy and Greektown on the Near West Side survive only as restaurant strips.
A more contemporary experience awaits in Pilsen and Little Village, two neighborhoods on the Lower West Side where the Spanish signage outnumbers the English; in fact, Chicago has the second largest Mexican and Puerto Rican populations outside of their respective home countries. Pilsen and its arts scene is an especially an exciting place to visit.
It's hard to imagine displacement being a concern for the Polish community on the city's Far Northwest and Southwest sides. The Belmont-Central business district is what you might consider the epicenter of Polish activity,. Bars, restaurants, and dozens of other types of Polish businesses thrive on this strip, and on a smaller section of Milwaukee Avenue (between Roscoe and Diversey) in the vicinity of St. Hyacinth Basilica which bears the Polish name of Jackowo- Chicago's Polish Village. Polish Highlanders, or Górals, on the other hand dominate the city's Southwest Side with a cuisine and culture that is decidedly Balkan. A host of restaurants and cultural institutions visibly display the rustic touch of their Carpathian craft such as the Polish Highlanders Alliance of North America at Archer Avenue just northeast of its intersection with Pulaski Road.Taste of Polonia, held over Labor Day weekend on the grounds of the Copernicus Foundation at the historic Gateway Theatre, draws an annual attendance of about 50,000 people and is touted as the city's largest ethnic fest.
The five Great Lakes together form the largest mass of freshwater on Earth, containing 21% of the world's surface fresh water alone, and Chicagoans enjoy flocking to the beaches of Lake Michigan. Chicago has great beaches and anyone can show up and swim. There are no admission fees on the city's miles upon miles of beaches, and nearly the entire waterfront is open as public beach and parkland; what amounts to terrific planning by the city. The water is quite warm in the summer and early fall (check with the NOAA for temperatures ). The Chicago shore has been called the second cleanest urban waterfront in the world, and that's really saying something for a metropolitan area of nearly 10 million people. Bacteria levels in the water do force occasional closures, but they are very rare. Lifeguards will be posted when the beach is officially open.
Oak Street Beach and North Avenue Beach (in the Near North and Lincoln Park) are the fashionable places to sun-tan and be seen and are usually crowded due to their proximity to downtown and area hotels. Rogers Park, Edgewater, and 35th Street Beach allow visitors more individual space and an enjoyable vibe as well. Hyde Park's Promontory Point is beautiful, and offers skyline views from its submerged beach by the rocks, although a swim there is technically against city rules. Hollywood Beach in Edgewater is the main gay beach. Montrose Beach in Uptown is the city's largest beach and hosts a large dog beach and a full service, outdoor restaurant in addition to July 3 fireworks and a variety of live music events. A large bird sanctuary and one of the few hills in Chicago are also located near Montrose Beach.
Volleyball tournaments are occassionally held at Chicago beaches. The city has 33 beaches of various sizes within the city limits alone. There are additional beaches in the northern suburbs as well.
Where there are beaches, there are waterfront parks. During the summer months, the parks are a destination for organized and impromptu volleyball and soccer games, chess matches, and plenty more, with tennis and basketball courts dotted along the way.
There are also terrific parks goin inland. In the Loop, Grant Park hosts music festivals throughout the year, and Millennium Park is a fun destination for all ages, especially during the summer. In Hyde Park, Midway Park offers skating, and summer and winter gardens in the shadow of the academic giant, the University of Chicago, and Jackson Park has golf, more gardens and the legacy of the city's shining moment, the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition. In Bronzeville, Washington Park is one of the city's best places for community sports. And that's just a brief overview. Almost every neighborhood in Chicago has a beloved park.
Chicago is also in the development stages of creating the Bloomingdale Trail/606. This is a linear park in the sky. This elevated greenway, created from railroad right-of-ways and its viaducts, will be nearly 3 miles, running through several Chicago neighborhoods, and complete with walking paths, bike lanes, benches, flowers and plants. This type of linear park, over former rail lines, will be the third such type in the entire world, after a nearly 3 mile long version in Paris, and a 1 mile long version in New York City.
Events & Festivals
If you're absolutely determined and you plan carefully, you may be able to visit Chicago during a festival-less week. It's a challenge, though. Most neighborhoods, parishes, and service groups host their own annual festivals throughout the spring, summer, and fall . And the city has several in the winter. There are a few can't-miss city-wide events, though. In the Loop, Grant Park hosts Taste of Chicago in July, the largest outdoor food festival in the world; and there are four major music festivals: Blues Fest and Gospel Fest in June, Lollapalooza in August, and Jazz Fest in September. All but Lollapalooza are free. The Chicago-based music website Pitchfork Media also hosts their own annual three day festival of rock, rap, and more in the summer at Union Park on the Near West Side.
With entries in every major professional sports league and several universities in the area, Chicago sports fans have a lot to keep them occupied. The Chicago Bears play football at Soldier Field in the Near South from warm September to frigid January. Since the baseball teams split the city in half, nothing seizes the Chicago sports consciousness like a playoff run from the Bears. Aspiring fans will be expected to be able to quote a minimum of two verses of the Super Bowl Shuffle from memory, tear up at the mention of Walter Payton, and provide arguments as to how Butkus, Singletary, and Urlacher represent stages in the evolution of the linebacker, with supporting evidence in the form of grunts, yells, and fists slammed on tables.
The Chicago Bulls play basketball at the United Center on the Near West Side. They are an exciting team to watch, led by star Derrick Rose. The Chicago Blackhawks share quarters with the Bulls. As one of the "Original Six" teams in professional hockey, the Blackhawks have a long history in their sport, and the team is experiencing a renaissance after capturing the Stanley Cup in 2010 for the first time in 49 years and winning their second championship in four seasons in 2013. Home games for both teams tend to sell out, but tickets can usually be found if you check around. Both the Bulls and the Blackhawks play from the end of October to the beginning of April.
It's baseball, though, in which the tribal fury of Chicago sports is best expressed. The Chicago Cubs play at Wrigley Field ( It is the oldest National League ballpark and the second oldest active major league ballpark) on the North Side, in Lakeview, and the Chicago White Sox play at U.S. Cellular Field (Comiskey Park, underneath the corporate naming rights) on the South Side, in Bridgeport. Both franchises have more than a century's worth of history, and both teams play 81 home games from April to the beginning of October. Everything else is a matter of fiercely held opinion. The two three-game series when the teams play each other are the hottest sports tickets in Chicago during any given year. If someone offers you tickets to a game, pounce.
There are plenty of smaller leagues in the city as well, although some play their games in the suburbs. The Chicago Fire (Major League Soccer) and Chicago Red Stars (Women's Professional Soccer) play soccer in the suburb of Bridgeview, the Chicago Sky play women's professional basketball at the UIC Pavilion on the Near West Side, and the Windy City Rollers skate flat-track roller derby in neighboring Cicero. Minor league baseball teams dot the suburbs as well.
While college athletics are not one of Chicago's strong points, Northwestern football (in Evanston) and DePaul basketball (off-campus in Rosemont) show occasional signs of life. If you find yourself in Hyde Park, ask someone how the University of Chicago football team is doing — it's a surefire conversation starter.
Modern American comedy — the good parts, at least — was born when a group of young actors from Hyde Park formed The Compass Players, fusing intelligence and a commitment to character with an improvisational spark. One strand of their topical, hyper-literate comedy led, directly or indirectly, to Shelly Berman, Mike Nichols & Elaine May, Lenny Bruce, M*A*S*H and The Mary Tyler Moore Show; another strand, namely The Second City, led to Saturday Night Live and a pretty huge percentage of the funny movies and television of the last thirty years. Still in Chicago's Old Town (and few other places as well), still smart and still funny, Second City does two-act sketch revues followed by one act of improv. If you only see one show while you're in Chicago, Second City is a good choice.
Improvisational comedy as a performance art form is a big part of the Chicago theater scene. At Lakeview and Uptown theaters like The Annoyance Theater, I.O., and The Playground, young actors take classes and perform shows that range from ragged to inspired throughout the week. Some are fueled by the dream of making the cast of SNL or Tina Fey's latest project, and some just enjoy doing good work on-stage, whether or not they're getting paid for it (and most aren't). There's no guarantee that you'll see something great on any given night, but improv tends to be cheaper than anything else in town, and it can definitely be worth the risk. Another popular theater experience is the comedy/drama hybrid Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, offering 30 plays in 60 minutes every weekend in Andersonville.
Steppenwolf, in Lincoln Park, is Chicago's other landmark theater. Founded in 1976, they have a history of taking risks onstage, and they have the ensemble to back it up, with heavyweights like Joan Allen, John Malkovich, and Gary Sinise. Steppenwolf isn't cheap any more, but they mix good, young actors with their veteran ensemble and still choose interesting, emotionally-charged scripts. It's the best place in town to see modern, cutting-edge theater with a bit of "I went to..." name-drop value for the folks back home.
Most of the prestige theaters, including the Broadway in Chicago outlets, are located in the Loop or the Near North. Tickets are expensive and can be tough to get, but shows destined for Broadway like The Producers often make their debut here. For the cost-conscious, the League of Chicago Theatres operates Hot Tix , which offers short-notice half-price tickets to many Chicago shows.
One theater to see, regardless of the production, is The Auditorium in the Loop. It's a masterpiece of architecture and of performance space. Designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, who were on a commission from syndicate of local business magnates to bring some culture to the heathen city, it was the tallest building in Chicago and one of the tallest in the world at the time of its opening in 1889, and it's still an impressive sight, inside and out.
Chicago has a strong, passionate bicycle culture, and riding opportunities abound. Pedaling your way around the city is one of the best ways to get to know Chicago. And the terrain is mostly flat — a boon for easy-going cyclists! If you don't have a bike, that's no problem. Bobby's Bike Hike has the official city concession, with a central bike rental location near Navy Pier, at the old North Pier at 465 N. McClurg Court. In June 2013, the Divvy bikeshare system launched in Chicago. Tourists can buy a 24-hour pass that includes an unlimited number of 30-minute rides for $7.
The scenic Lakefront Trail runs for 18 continuous miles along the city's beautiful shoreline, from Hollywood Beach in Edgewater to the magnificent South Shore Cultural Center. Even while riding at a moderate pace, travelling downtown along the lakefront can be faster than driving or taking the CTA! If you're starting from downtown, you'll be at the approximate midpoint of the trail. Head south if you want a speed workout with fewer crowds, or north to see more of the locals at play.
Further inland, many streets have bike lanes, and signs direct riders to major bike routes. The City of Chicago maintains helpful bicycle resources online, including major civic bike events and (slow) interactive maps of major streets with bike lanes.
Bicyclists have to follow the same "rules of the road" as automobiles (stop at red lights and stop signs, etc). Bicycle riding is not allowed on sidewalks (except for children under age 12). This rule is strictly enforced in higher density neighborhoods, mostly areas near the lake, and is considered a criminal misdemeanor offense. You must walk your bike on the sidewalk.
CTA buses are all equipped with front bike racks, which carry up to two bicycles, and 'L' trains permit two bicycles per car except during rush hour (roughly 7-9:30AM and 3:30-6:30PM weekdays, excluding major holidays on which the CTA is running on a Sunday schedule). With the buses, inspect the rack closely for wear or damage and be absolutely certain that the bike is secured before you go, lest it fall off in traffic (and be immediately flattened by the bus). The CTA will fight tooth and nail to avoid reimbursing you for the loss, and the driver might not stop to let you retrieve it.
Bikes may be rented from the North Avenue Beach House (Lincoln Park), Navy Pier, (Near North), the Millennium Park bike station (Loop), and from several bike shops in the city. Another option is to contact the terrific Working Bikes Cooperative, an all-volunteer group of bike lovers that collects and refurbishes bikes, and then sells a few in Chicago to support their larger project of shipping bikes to Africa and South America. You could buy a cheap bike and donate it back when you're done, or even spend a day or two working as a volunteer.
For an opportunity to connect with the local bike community and take a memorable trip through the city, don't miss the Critical Mass rides on the last Friday of every month, starting from Daley Plaza in the Loop (5:30PM). With numbers on their side, the hundreds or even thousands of bike riders wind up taking over entire streets along the way, with themed routes that are voted upon at the outset of the trip. Anyone is free to join or fall away wherever they like. Police are generally cooperative — take cues from more experienced riders.
The University of Chicago's Gothic campus is in Hyde Park, which is, famously, "home to more Nobel Prizes per square mile than any other neighborhood on Earth."
Chicago still loves Carl Sandburg and his poems, but the city shucked off the hog butcher's apron a long time ago. In terms of industry, there's little that distinguishes Chicago from any other major city in America, save for size. The Chicago Board of Trade and Chicago Mercantile Exchange are among the biggest employers, with stables of traders and stock wizards. Boeing moved its headquarters to Chicago amid much fanfare a few years ago; United Airlines, Abbott Laboratories, and AbbVie are other international companies with headquarters in town. The Big Five consulting firms all have one or more offices in the Loop. And there's always construction work in the city; the city has a strong union presence.
For younger workers, the museums in the downtown area are always looking for high-enthusiasm guides, and the retail outlets on the Magnificent Mile and State Street are also good options. And with so many colleges and universities in the city, study abroad opportunities abound.
Whatever you need, you can buy it in Chicago, on a budget or in luxury. The most famous shopping street in Chicago is a stretch of Michigan Avenue known as The Magnificent Mile, in the Near North area. It includes many designer boutiques, and several multi-story malls anchored by large department stores like 900 N Michigan and Water Tower Place. Additional brands are available from off-strip shops to the south and west of Michigan.
State Street used to be a great street for department stores in the Loop, but it's now a shadow of its former self, with Carson Pirie Scott's landmark Louis Sullivan-designed building now a Target store, and invading forces from New York holding the former Marshall Field's building hostage under the name Macy's (Most locals still insist that it is "Marshall Field's"). Even Filene's Basement, the famous discount location, is now closed, though a few other discount shops persist.
For a classic Chicago souvenir, pick up a box of Frango Mints, much-loved mint chocolates that were originally offered by Marshall Field's and are still available at Macy's stores. Although no longer made in the thirteenth-floor kitchen of the State Street store, the original recipe appears to still be in use, which pleases the loyal crowds fond of the flavor — and too bad for anyone looking to avoid trans-fats.
However, for a more unique shopping experience, check out the fun, eclectic stores in Lincoln Square, or the cutting-edge shops in Bucktown and Wicker Park, which is also the place to go for music fiends — although there are also key vinyl drops in other parts of the city as well. Southport in Lakeview and Armitage in Lincoln Park also have browser-friendly fashion boutiques.
For art or designer home goods, River North is the place to go. Centered between the Merchandise Mart and the Chicago Avenue Brown Line "L" stop in the Near North, River North's gallery district boasts the largest arts and design district in North America outside of Manhattan. The entire area is walkable and makes for fun window-shopping.
Goods from around the world are available at the import stores in Chicago's many ethnic neighborhoods; check See for descriptions and district articles for directions.
If you are the type that loves to browse through independent bookstores, Hyde Park has a stunning assortment of dusty used bookstores selling beat-up-paperbacks to rare 17th century originals, and the world's largest academic bookstore. Printer's Row in the Near South is also a great stop for book lovers.
Groceries and other basics
The major supermarket chains in Chicago are Jewel, Mariano's, Food 4 Less, Aldi, Whole Foods Market, and Trader Joe's. In addition the nation's three largest discount store chains Walmart, Target, and Kmart have several stores in Chicago as well. 7-Eleven convenience stores are usually found every couple of blocks and are always open 24-7, but have limited selection and high prices. The Walgreens drug store chain which is based in the city are also ubiquitous throughout Chicago with many locations open twenty four hours a day.
Due to its huge expat and immigrant population, Chicago also features a large variety of ethnic grocery stores, including Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Polish, and Mexican.
Chicago is one of the great restaurant towns in America. If you're looking for a specific kind of cuisine, check out the neighborhoods. Greektown, the Devon Ave Indian corridor, Chinatown, and Chatham's soul food and barbecue are just the tip of the iceberg. Other areas are more eclectic: Lincoln Square and Albany Park have unrivaled Middle Eastern, German, and Korean food, while Uptown offers nearly the whole Southeast Asian continent with Ghanaian, Nigerian, contemporary American, stylish Japanese, and down-home Swedish a few blocks away.
If you're interested in celebrity chefs and unique creations, Lincoln Park and Wicker Park have plenty of award-winners. River North has several good upscale restaurants, but don't waste your time on tourist traps like Rainforest Cafe, Cheesecake Factory, or the Hard Rock Cafe. In fact, you should never submit to standing in line — there are always equally good restaurants nearby. No matter what you enjoy, you'll have a chance to eat well in Chicago, and you won't need to spend a lot of money doing it — unless you want to, of course.
But while Chicago has a world class dining scene downtown, it is the low-end where it truly distinguishes itself. No other city on earth takes fast food so seriously; for those who don't concern themselves with calorie counting, Chicago is cheap, greasy heaven. Head northwest and you'll find sausage shops and old-style Polish restaurants that carry on as if health food and celebrity chefs never happened in Jackowo- Chicago's Polish Village, as well as at Belmont-Central- an Eastern European culinary heaven. The suburb of Des Plaines on the northwest side of the city near O'Hare is where you can find the world's first McDonalds, or as locals like to say: The Birth of American Obesity. Quite a few other local "culinary specialties" in particular deserve further description.
Chicago's most prominent contribution to world cuisine might be the deep dish pizza. Delivery chains as far away as Kyoto market "Chicago-style pizza," but the only place to be sure you're getting the real thing is in Chicago. To make a deep dish pizza, a thin layer of dough is laid into a deep round pan and pulled up the sides, and then meats and vegetables — Italian sausage, onions, bell peppers, mozzarella cheese, and more — are lined on the crust. At last, tomato sauce goes on top, and the pizza is baked. It's gooey, messy, not recommended by doctors, and delicious. When you dine on deep dish pizza, don't wear anything you were hoping to wear again soon. Some nationally-known deep dish pizza hubs are Pizzeria UNO and DUE, Gino's East, Giordano's, and Lou Malnati's, but plenty of local favorites exist. Ask around — people won't be shy about giving you their opinion.
But deep dish is not the end of the line in a city that takes its pizza so seriously. Chicago also prides itself on its distinctive thin-crust pizza and stuffed pizzas. The Chicago thin crust has a thin, cracker-like, crunchy crust, which somehow remains soft and doughy on the top side. Toppings and a lot of a thin, spiced Italian tomato sauce go under the mozzarella cheese, and the pizza is sliced into squares. If you are incredulous that Chicago's pizza preeminence extends into the realm of the thin crust, head south of Midway to Vito and Nick's, which is widely regarded among local gourmands as the standard bearer for the city.
The stuffed pizza is a monster, enough to make an onlooker faint. Start with the idea of a deep dish, but then find a much deeper dish and stuff a lot more toppings under the cheese. Think deep-dish apple pie, but pizza. Allow 45 minutes to an hour for pizza places to make one of these and allow 3-4 extra notches on your belt for the ensuing weight gain. Arguably the best stuffed pizza in town is at Bella Bacino's in the Loop, which somehow is not greasy, but other excellent vendors include Giordano's, Gino's, and Edwardo's.
The Chicago hot dog
This may come as a surprise to New Yorkers, but the Chicago hot dog is the king of all hot dogs — indeed, it is considered the perfect hot dog. Perhaps due to the city's history of Polish and German immigration, Chicago takes its dogs way more seriously than the rest of the country. A Chicago hot dog is always all-beef (usually Vienna beef), always served on a poppy-seed bun, and topped with what looks like a full salad of mustard, diced tomatoes, a dill pickle spear, sport (chili) peppers, a generous sprinkling of celery salt, diced onion, and a sweet-pickle relish endemic-to-Chicago that is dyed an odd, vibrant bright-green color. It's a full meal, folks.
Ketchup is regarded as an abomination on a proper Chicago-style hot dog. Self-respecting establishments will refuse orders to put the ketchup on the dog, and many have signs indicating that they don't serve it; truly serious hot dog joints don't even allow the condiment on the premises. The reason for Chicago's ketchup aversion is simple — ketchup contains sugar, which overwhelms the taste of the beef and prevents its proper enjoyment. Hence, ketchup's replacement with diced tomatoes. Similarly, Chicagoans eschew fancy mustards that would overwhelm the flavor of the meat in favor of simple yellow mustard. And for the hungry visiting New Yorkers, the same goes for sugary sauerkraut — just no.
At most hot dog places, you will have the option to try a Maxwell Street Polish instead. Born on the eponymous street of the Near West Side, the Polish is an all-beef sausage on a bun, with fewer condiments than the Chicago hot dog: usually just grilled onions, mustard, and a few chili peppers.
In a tragic, bizarre twist of fate, the areas of Chicago most visited by tourists (i.e., the Loop) lack proper Chicago hot dog establishments. If you are downtown and want to experience a Chicago hot dog done right, the nearest safe bet is Portillo's. Although, if you're up for a little hot dog adventure, you can eat one right at the source, at the Vienna Beef Factory deli. Sadly, both baseball parks botch their dogs, although the 2011 return of Vienna Beef as the official hot dog of Wrigley Field is a step in the right direction.
The Italian Beef sandwich completes the Chicago triumvirate of tasty greasy treats. The main focus of the sandwich is the beef, and serious vendors will serve meat of a surprisingly good quality, which is slow-roasted, and thinly shaved before being loaded generously onto chewy, white, Italian-style bread. Two sets of options will come flying at you, so prepare yourself: sweet peppers or hot, and dipped or not. The "sweet" peppers are sautéed bell peppers, while the hots are a mixed Chicago giardiniera. The dip, of course, is a sort of French dip of the sandwich back into the beef broth. (Warning: dipped Italian Beefs are sloppy!) If you are in the mood, you may be able to get an Italian Beef with cheese melted over the beef, although travelers looking for the "authentic Italian Beef" perhaps should not stray so far from tradition.
The Italian Beef probably was invented by Italian-American immigrants working in the Union Stockyards on the Southwest Side, who could only afford to take home the tough, lowest-quality meat and therefore had a need to slow-roast it, shave it into thin slices, and dip it just to get it in chewable form. But today the sandwich has found a lucrative home downtown, where it clogs the arteries and delights the taste buds of the Chicago workforce during lunch break. Some of the city's favorite downtown vendors include Luke's Italian Beef in the Loop and Mr. Beef in the Near North, while the Portillo's chain is another solid option.
Chicago is a drinking town, and you can find bars and pubs in every part of the city. It is believed that Chicago has the second highest bars-per-capita in the U.S. (after San Francisco). Chicagoans have their choice of the hottest clubs or the best dive bars in town. Most areas that thrive on the bar culture do so for the variety, and bar hopping is quite common. Grab a drink or two, have a good time, and then try another place. It is all about variety. Be prepared to be asked for identification to verify your age, even at neighborhood dive bars. Smoking is banned in Chicago bars (and restaurants).
The best places to drink for drinking's sake are Wicker Park and neighboring Logan Square and Bucktown, which have a world-class stock of quality local breweries and dive bars, which can be reached by the CTA Blue Line. These two areas are where the majority of Chicago's hipsters live, with the effect that most of the bars are considered Hipster Bars. North Center and Roscoe Village are also great destination for the art of the beer garden. Just to the west of the Addison CTA Red Line stop and near Wrigley Field in Lakeview is the Wrigleyville district with bars that are popular with twenty-somethings. These bars are crowded on weekends and whenever the Cubs are playing. One block to the East of the Addison stop on Halsted Street, is the center of Chicago's gay community, known as Boystown. Boystown centers around Halsted street and stretches from Belmont Avenue to the south to Irving Park Road on the North. Clark Street runs at an angle through the area. This district is filled with many trendy shops, bars, clubs, and restaurants. Housing is at a premium rate in this area. Boystown is busy most nights of the week and very busy on weekends. Just to the south, the Lincoln Park neighborhood has bars and beer gardens, and some trendy clubs for the neighborhood's notorious high-spending Trixies. This is another very expensive neighborhood.
Tourists and locals also converge upon the nightclubs of Rush and Division St. This area remains very popular although other areas of the city are becoming increasing popular as nightlife destinations as well. For the last few years the West Loop's warehouse bars were the place to be, but more recently the River North neighborhood has become popular. Still, the Rush/Division bars do huge business. Streeterville, immediately adjacent, exchanges the dance floors for high-priced hotel bars and piano lounges.
Although good dance music can be found in Wicker Park and the surrounding area, the best places to dance in the city are the expensive see and be seen clubs in River North and the open-to-all (except perhaps bachelorette parties) clubs in gay-friendly Boystown, which are a lot of fun for people of any sexual orientation. Halsted St in Boystown has many LGBT bars and nightclubs, for every age and type of music. Take the Redline train and get off at Belmont station.
Jazz and Blues
See The Jazz Track for a wealth of information about current and historic jazz clubs in Chicago.
The Lower Mississippi River Valley is known for its music; New Orleans has jazz, and Memphis has blues. Chicago, though located far away from the valley, has both. Former New Orleans and Memphis residents brought jazz and blues to Chicago as they came north for a variety of reasons: the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 brought a lot of itinerant musicians to town, and the city's booming economy kept them coming through the Great Migration. Chicago was the undisputed capital of early jazz between 1917-1928, wih masters like Joe King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds, Earl Hines, and Jelly Roll Morton. Most of Chicago's historic jazz clubs are on the South Side, particularly in Bronzeville, but the North Side has the can't-miss Green Mill in Uptown.
The blues were in Chicago long before the car chase and the mission from God, but The Blues Brothers sealed Chicago as the home of the blues in the popular consciousness. Fortunately, the city has the chops to back that up. Maxwell Street  (Near West Side) was the heart and soul of Chicago blues, but the wrecking ball, driven by the University of Illinois at Chicago, has taken a brutal toll. Residents have been fighting to save what remains. For blues history, it doesn't get much better than Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation (Near South), and Bronzeville, the former "Black Metropolis," is a key stop as well. Performance venues run the gamut from tiny, cheap blues bars all over the city to big, expensive places like Buddy Guy's Legends (Loop) and the original House of Blues (Near North).
But don't let yourself get too wrapped up in the past, because Chicago blues is anything but. No other city in the world can compete with Chicago's long list of blues-soaked neighborhood dives and lounges. The North Side's blues clubs favor tradition in their music, and are usually the most accessible to visitors, but offer a slightly watered down experience from the funkier, more authentic blues bars on the South and Far West Sides, where most of Chicago's blues musicians live and hang. If one club could claim to be the home of the real Chicago blues, Lee's Unleaded Blues in Chatham-South Shore would probably win the title. But there are scores of worthy blues joints all around the city (many of which are a lot easier to visit via public transport). A visit to one of these off-the-beaten-path blues dives is considerably more adventurous than a visit to the touristy House of Blues, but the experiences born of such adventures have been known to reward visitors with a life-long passion for the blues.
Although playing second fiddle to the blues in the city's collective consciousness, jazz thrives in Chicago, too, thanks in no small part to members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and their residencies at clubs like The Velvet Lounge and The Jazz Showcase (both of which see regular national acts) (Near South), The New Apartment Lounge (Chatham-South Shore) and The Hideout (Bucktown), with more expensive national touring acts downtown at The Chicago Theater (Loop). If you are staying downtown, the Velvet Lounge will be your best bet, as it is an easy cab ride, and its high-profile performances will rarely disappoint.
Fans should time their visits to coincide with Blues Fest in June, and Jazz Fest over Labor Day Weekend. Both take place in Grant Park (Loop).
Wicker Park and Bucktown are the main place to go for indie rock shows: the Double Door and the Empty Bottle are the best-known venues, but there are plenty of smaller ones as well. In Lakeview, the Metro is a beloved concert hole, with Schubas, Lincoln Hall, The Vic, and the Abbey Pub nearby (the latter on the Far Northwest Side). Other mid-sized rock, hip-hop and R&B shows take place at the Riviera and the awesome Aragon Ballroom in Uptown. The Near South has become an underrated destination for great shows as well.
The Park West in Lincoln Park has light jazz, light rock, and other shows you'd sit down for; so does Navy Pier (Near North), particularly in the summer. The venerable Chicago Theater in the Loop is better-known for its sign than for anything else, but it has rock, jazz, gospel, and spoken-word performances by authors like David Sedaris. The world-renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) is the main bulwark in the city for classical and classy jazz, with occasional curve-balls like Björk. You'll find musicians from the CSO doing outreach all over the city, along with their counterparts at the Lyric Opera. Both are in the Loop.
A few big concerts are held at the UIC Pavilion, the Congress Theater, and the United Center on the Near West Side every year, and some huge concerts have taken place at Soldier Field (Near South). The Petrillo Bandshell in Grant Park and the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, both in the Loop, tend to host big, eclectic shows and festivals in the summer, which are sometimes free.
Otherwise, most big shows are out in the suburbs, primarily at the Allstate Arena and the Rosemont Theater in Rosemont, the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Tinley Park, Star Plaza in Indiana, and the Alpine Valley Music Theater over the Wisconsin border in Elkhorn. You'll also have to head out to the suburbs for Ravinia, which features upscale classical, jazz, and blues outdoors throughout the summer. See Chicagoland for details on suburban venues.
Chicago hosts many major conventions each year and has plenty of places to stay. The majority are either at O'Hare Airport or downtown in the Loop and the Near North (near the Magnificent Mile). If you want to explore the city, aim for downtown — a hotel near O'Hare is good for visiting one thing and one thing only, and that's O'Hare (although the CTA Blue Line is walking distance from most of them, so access to the city is easy, aside from 30 minutes). However, if you have a specific interest in mind, there are hotels throughout the city, and getting away from downtown will give you more of a sense of other neighborhoods. You'll appreciate that if you're in town for more than a couple of days. Make sure that where you're staying is within your comfort level before committing to stay there, though. More far flung transient hotels will be suitable for those seeking to relive Jack Kerouac's seedy adventures around the country, but may alarm and disgust the average traveler.
Budget-priced places are usually pretty far from the Loop, so when you're booking, remember that Chicago is vast. Travelers on a budget should consider accommodations away from the city center which can be easily reached via any of the several CTA train lines. There is a hostel in the Loop, a hostel in Greektown within walking distance to Union Station, a hostel by Wrigley Field and three others near the universities in Lincoln Park,Rogers Park and in Wicker Park, all of which are interesting neighborhoods in their own right, and close to the L for access to the rest of the city. For deals on mid-range hotels, there are good options far out from the center by Midway and in North Lincoln.
As in almost the entire United States, dial 911 to get emergency help. Dial 311 for all non-emergency situations in Chicago.
Despite a big decline in the crime rate from the 1970s and 1980s, Chicago is still a big city with big city problems. There are run-down areas within a few blocks of some well-travelled places such as near the United Center and US Cellular Field. The majority of the city's violent crimes occur within a relatively small number of neighborhoods well off the beaten path in the South and West Sides, but given the chance nature of crime, you should exercise the usual precautions wherever you go. Even in a neighborhood with a bad reputation, though, you might still have a perfectly good time, as long as it falls within your comfort level.
Take caution in the Loop at night; after working hours, the Loop gets quiet and dark in a hurry west of State Street, but you'll be fine near hotels and close to Michigan Avenue and the lake. When disembarking a crowded CTA train, especially in the downtown-area subways, be wary of purse snatchers and Apple pickers (thieves who snatch your smart phone--iPhones are a particular favorite--out of your hand and exit the train just before the doors close).
Homelessness is a problem in the city and seeing people ask for help is common downtown. They are very unlikely to pose any kind of problem, though. Most are either holding up a sign asking for some type of assistance while others will actively solicit you for spare change. If you ignore them, they will ignore you. Some do sell a local newspaper called Streetwise to make a living. These people should be wearing a badge of some kind to indicate they sell the newspaper and they keep all the profits they make. If you're feeling generous but want to be safe, those selling Streetwise are your best bet.
A common scam is for a beggar to come up to you and make remarks about how your shoes need to be cleaned or polished. They can be very friendly though very pushy to the unsuspecting tourist. Before you know it, your shoe is up on their knee and they are asking you for some amount they claimed they told you before they started. If you simply ignore them and walk away they should leave you alone. Not often, but some will continue to follow and harass you. If this happens, go inside any restaurant or store until they leave.
In general, common sense will keep you safe in Chicago: avoid unfamiliar side streets at night, stay out of alleys at night, know where you're going when you set out, stick to crowded areas, and keep a $20 bill on hand for cab fare as a bail-out option.
Dress appropriately for the weather. Chicago's winter is famously windy and cold, so cover exposed skin and wear layers in the winter, but heat exhaustion is an equal risk in the summer months, especially July and August.
Stay off the road during a snowstorm. Chicago's streets and sanitation department generally does a good job clearing the major roads in the center of the city, but the neighborhoods can take longer, and the construction-littered expressways are anyone's guess.
If you happen to be driving in Chicago during or right after a snowstorm, be aware that certain areas have a tradition of parking "dibs" where residents place debris on the street to mark their cleared parking spots when their cars aren't present. If you see broken furniture or wooden crates covering up a potential parking spot, don't move the debris to park as this might result in a serious altercation with residents or deliberate damage to your vehicle (eg slashed tires, broken windows, key scratches, etc).
Chicago has a reputation of being a segregated city, yet this image has finally started to erode somewhat. In many ways, it is like any other city: What may be okay behavior on one side of the city may get you into trouble on another side of the city. Homosexuality, accepted through downtown and the North Side, and parts of the South Side, may not be as well received elsewhere.
There are many neighborhoods in Chicago where various races live in harmony, and race isn't an issue whatsoever. There are also neighborhoods that are mainly white, black, or latino and outsiders may be looked at with a curious eye.
If you get lost, it is recommended that you try and flag down a police officer, as the Chicago Police Department can be quite helpful. You should also have a map with you of the city or area of the city that you intend to explore in case you get lost, so you don't have to bother someone for directions.
The first Internet cafe in the United States was opened in Chicago, but they never really caught on here. There are still a few, though; check individual district articles. If you have a computer with you, free wireless Internet access is now standard-issue at coffee shops throughout the city including major ones like Starbucks. Most hotels above the transient level offer free Wi-Fi, too.
The good news is that all branches of the Chicago Public Library system offer free internet access, via public terminals and free, password-free, public wireless. If you do not have a Chicago library card, but you have a photo ID that shows you do not live in Chicago, you can get a temporary permit from the library information desk. (If you are from Chicago and don't have a library card, though, all you can get is a stern look and a brief lecture on how Chicagoans need to support the library system.) The most centrally located branch is the giant Harold Washington Library in the Loop, but there are branch libraries in every part of the city — again, see individual district articles. Only Harold Washington and the two regional libraries (Sulzer and Woodson) are open on Sundays.
312 was the area code for all of Chicago for a long time; it's still the code of choice for the Loop, and most of the Near North and Near South. 773 surrounds the center, covering everything else within city limits.
Suburban areas close to the city use 847 (north/northwest), 224 (north/northwest), 708 (south), 815 (southwest), 630 (west), and 219 (northwest Indiana).
There are places of worship all over the city; the front desk of your hotel will almost certainly be able to direct you to one nearby. Otherwise, the following are centrally located in either the Loop or the Near North, unless otherwise noted.
For churches of specific Orthodoxies, check in neighborhoods that feature communities with ties to that region. There's a majestic Orthodox church in Ukrainian Village, for example. Evangelical Christian ministries are mostly on the South Side, with some historic churches in Bronzeville. For the Baha'i faith, visit the Baha'i Temple in Wilmette, easily accessible by the CTA Purple Line.
Here's a quick list of foreign consulates in Chicago:
Elsewhere in Illinois