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Chicago, the third largest city in the United States after New York City and Los Angeles, is the home of the blues and the truth of jazz, the heart of comedy and the idea of the skyscraper. Here, the age of railroads found its center, and airplanes followed suit. Butcher of hogs and believer in progress, it is one of the world's great cities, and yet the metropolitan luxuries of theater, shopping, and fine dining have barely put a dent in real Midwestern friendliness. It's a city with a swagger, but without the surliness or even the fake smiles found in other cities of its size. As the hub of the Midwest, Chicago is easy to find — its picturesque skyline calls across the waters of 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 modern architecture in the world. With a wealth of iconic sights and neighborhoods to explore, there's enough to fill a visit of days, weeks, or even months without ever seeing the end. Dress warm in the winter, and prepare to cover a lot of ground: the meaning of Chicago is only found in movement, through subways and archaic elevated tracks, in the pride of tired feet and eyes raised once more to the sky. (less...) (more...)
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Points of Interest in Chicago
- Along the Magnificent Mile — one day and night in Chicago, with skyscrapers, shopping, food, parks, and amazing views of the city from high and low.
- Loop Art Tour — a 2 to 4 hour walking tour of downtown Chicago's magnificent collection of modern sculptures.
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. The Museum of Science and Industry has a transportation exhibit and a weather exhibit.Visitors can even control a tornado with the joystick controller desk. In 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. Just one block east of the historic Water Tower in the Near North is the Museum of Contemporary Art which features paintings, sculpture, film and photography produced since 1945.
Also, Chicago has some knockout less well-known museums scattered throughout the city like the International Museum of Surgical Science 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.
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 four out of America's ten tallest buildings: the Sears Tower (2nd), the Trump Tower (3rd), the Aon Center (6th), and the local favorite, the John Hancock Center (7th). 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 second-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.
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 better-known Harlem Renaissance of New York. African-American literature of the time was represented by local poetess Gwendolyn Brooks and 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 center 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.
Both fueling and threatening Chicago's black renaissance was the single most influential part of Chicago's African-American history: the Great Migration. African-Americans from the rural South moved to the industrial cities of the North 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, most from Mississippi, increased Chicago's black population by more than 500,000. With it came southern food, Mississippi blues, and the challenges of establishing adequate housing for so many recent arrivals — a challenge that they would have to meet themselves, without help from a racist and neglectful city government.
Black Chicago's renaissance was brought to its knees by the Great Depression; its fate was sealed ironically by the 1937 creation of the Chicago Housing Authority, which sought to build affordable public housing for the city. However well-intentioned the project may have sounded, the results were disastrous. The largest housing projects by far were the 1940 Ida B. Wells projects, which were designed to "warehouse" Chicago's population of poor African-Americans in a district far away from white population centers, the Cabrini Green projects, which developed a reputation as the most violent housing projects in the nation, and the massive 1962 Robert Taylor Homes in Bronzeville, which were forced to house an additional 16,000 people beyond their intended 11,000 capacity. The Black Metropolis proved unable to cope with this massive influx of new, impoverished residents, and the urban blight that came from concentrating such a great number of them in one place.
Further damaging to Chicago's black population was the phenomenon of "white flight" that accompanied the introduction of African-Americans to Chicago neighborhoods. Unwilling to live beside black neighbors, many 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, Chicago neighborhoods (with the notable exceptions of Hyde Park/Kenwood, and Rogers Park) never truly integrated, and the social, educational, and economic networks that incoming African-Americans hoped to join disintegrated in the wake of fleeing white communities. During this period, Chicago experienced a huge population loss and large sections of the city became covered with vacant lots, which in turn created the conditions for crime to flourish. A number of Chicago's major roads, most notably the Dan Ryan Expressway, were built in part to segregate these areas from more prosperous ones like the Loop.
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 white politicians lay ahead, it marked the moment when African-American 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, after New York. The broader South Side is the cultural center of Chicago's black community; it constitutes the largest single African-American neighborhood in the country and boasts the nation's greatest concentration of black-owned businesses. Chicagoans ignorant of these areas may tell you that they are dangerous and crime-ridden, but the reality is much more complex. There are strong, middle and upper class black communities throughout the city, some of the more prominent of which include upper Bronzeville, Hyde Park/Kenwood, Chatham, South Shore, and Beverly.
Bronzeville is the obvious destination for those interested in African-American history, although Kenwood 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, 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, for several blocks at a time, may as well be a chunk of another country, picked up and dropped near the shores of Lake Michigan. 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 small 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.
Weather is definitely not one of the attractions in Chicago. There's a good time to be had in any season, but it is a place where the climate has to be taken into consideration.
A little-known fact: despite Chicago's winters, there are more days with a maximum temperature of between 80-84°F (27-29°C) than any other five-degree range. Obscured by Chicago's ferocious winters are the heat waves of summer. The days in July and August that go above the "normal" are oftentimes disgustingly hot and humid, and dewpoints can be similar to those found closer to the Gulf of Mexico. The city's surprisingly attractive lakefront beaches can relieve some of the swelter. Summer nights are usually reasonable, though, and you'll get a few degrees' respite along the lakefront — in the local parlance, that's "cooler by the lake."
But then there are those winters. The months from December to March will see very cold temperatures, with even more bitter 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 — again in the local parlance, that's "lake effect snow".) Ice storms are also a risk. It's a city that's well-accustomed to these winters, though, so city services and public transportation are highly unlikely to shut down.
That said, Chicago does have a few nice months of weather. May and September are pleasant and mild; April and June are mostly fine, although thunderstorms with heavy winds can also occur suddenly. Although there may be a slight chill in the air in October, it rarely calls for more than a light coat and some days that's not even necessary. In some years, the warmth stored by the lake may prolong a pleasant autumn into November.
Chicago is not known as a beach destination, but Lake Michigan is the largest freshwater lake located entirely within the United States, and Chicagoans flock to its sandy shores. Anyone can show up and swim — there are no admission fees, miles of beaches are within walking distance of the Red Line, and almost none of the lakefront is spoiled by "private" beaches. Despite the latitude, 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, although bacteria levels in the water do force occasional — but rare — beach closures (which are clearly posted at the beach, and online). Lifeguards will be posted (usually in a rowboat) if 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, but Rogers Park has mile after mile of less pretentious sand and surf. 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.
Navy Pier was built in 1914 and was served as a naval base during both world wars. It is now Illinois' number one most visited tourist attraction (ahead of some boring exurban megamalls). The pier has carnival rides, including the popular ferris wheel, as well as theater, restaurants, arcades, bars, shops, and most importantly great views back towards the city.
Where there are beaches, there are lakefront 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.
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.
Lincoln Park stretches for seven miles along the lakefront, with numerous bicycle paths, beaches, harbors and museums. Situated just east of the Lincoln Park neighborhood is the cheerful (and free) Lincoln Park Zoo which welcomes visitors every day of the week, with plentiful highlights like the Regenstein Center for African Apes. There are also terrific parks further away from the lake. 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.
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. There are a few can't-miss city-wide events, though. In the Loop, Grant Park hosts Taste of Chicago in July, and four major music festivals: Blues Fest and Gospel Fest in June, Lollapalooza in August, and Jazz Fest over Labor Day Weekend. 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. While quality of play and ticket prices may never again reach Jordan-era mania, they're still an exciting team to watch, led by young 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. 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 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) play soccer in the suburb of Bridgeview, near the Southwest Side of Chicago, the Chicago Red Stars (National Women's Soccer League) play at Benedictine University in suburban Lisle, the Chicago Sky play women's professional basketball at the Allstate Arena in the suburb of Rosemont, also home to the Chicago Wolves minor league hockey team, 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 improvisation. 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 is probably best for longer-term rentals, with a central bike rental location near Navy Pier, at the old North Pier at 465 N. McClurg Court. Alternately, the city's new, distinctively blue DIVVY bike sharing system has kiosks throughout the central area, near the lake and the parks. 24 hour passes cost $7, but that doesn't mean you keep the bike for 24 hours — it means you can take an unlimited number of rides, up to 30 minutes each, over the course of those 24 hours, parking at the same or different kiosks along the way. Hence, the system is geared toward short trips, not leisurely tourist rides along the lakefront. DIVVY launched with 750 bikes at 75 stations spanning from the Loop north to Fullerton Ave, west to Damen Ave, and south to 23rd St. The system is planned to grow to 4,000 bicycles at 400 stations by Spring 2014.
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, traveling 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. Of special note is the unofficially named Hipster Highway which is Milwaukee Avenue from Kinzie St in the West Loop to Logan Square, which is a popular bike route where bicyclists oftentimes outnumber cars! Also of note is Dearborn Street in the Loop which is a two way protected bicycle lane on a one way highway (cycle track for you Europeans) complete with special signals for bikes. Note that if going against car on Dearborn traffic you need to be more cautious about pedestrians who aren't expecting bicycles heading opposite the way they are used to looking.
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.
Kayaks and SUPs
Kayaking in urban environments is a relatively new but rapidly developing industry. Chicago is currently considered one of worlds premier self paddle destinations. Paddling companies have access points on many of Chicago's amazing beaches as well as on the Chicago River. Companies like Urban Kayaks provide unique and insightful architecture tours as well as hourly kayak rentals right downtown just minutes walking distance from some of Chicago's biggest attractions such as Navy Pier and Millennium Park.
Access to Chicago's waterways requires boat registration with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources ($13) as well as small fees that independently managed access points may charge ($5–20). The Chicago River and the area of the lake near the Chicago Lock is a carefully guarded piece of national infrastructure and the U.S. Coast Guard and CPD Marine unit are known to regularly issue citations for violating the rules. High traffic volume and other safety concerns make it advisable to visit an experienced outfitter in the area to learn about safety and proper etiquette while navigating Chicago's waterways. Most outfitters will allow users to bring their own equipment as long as it is properly registered.
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 Desi 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. 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. It's a true pie, with crust on the bottom and the top. 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, Edwardo's, and Connie'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, tomato slices, 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 sliced 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 number of bars per capita in the U.S. (after San Francisco). Unlike many other big cities where the hottest clubs are sought after, Chicago locals much prefer the dive bars and many don't seem to particularly like staying in one place. Most areas that thrive on the bar culture do so for the variety, and bar hopping is the norm. Grab a drink or two, then try the place next door. 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 dive bars and local craft breweries. North Center and Roscoe Village are also a great (and underrated) destination for the art of the beer garden. Beware the bars in Lakeview near Wrigley Field, though, which are packed on weekends, and jam-packed all day whenever the Cubs are playing. Just to the south, Lincoln Park has bars and beer gardens to indulge those who miss college, and some trendy clubs for the neighborhood's notorious high-spending Trixies.
Ill-informed tourists converge upon the nightclubs of Rush and Division St. The city's best DJs spin elsewhere, the best drinks are served elsewhere, and the cheapest beers are served elsewhere; the hottest of-the-moment clubs and in-the-know celebrities are usually elsewhere, too. For the last few years the West Loop's warehouse bars were the place to be, but more recently the River North neighborhood has been making a comeback. Still, the Rush/Division bars do huge business. This area includes the "Viagra Triangle," where Chicago's wealthy older men hang out with women in their early 20s. 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.
Chicago is home to a number of breweries and micro-brews. The most widely recognized craft brewery is probably Goose Island Brewery, which was formerly independent but now owned by Inbev; it produces the usual range of craft and seasonal beers, gives tours and samplings, and has an excellent restaurant. The city's first post-Prohibition distillery is the Koval Distillery, an independent, family-run affair offering a variety of unusual and sometimes delicious whiskeys, most of which are distilled from 100% of whichever grain they're using (spelt, millet, rye, and others); it offers an extensive tour with samplings.
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, with 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 lifelong 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.
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 housing a Target, 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").
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.
This article is based on Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike 3.0 Licensed text from the article Chicago on Wikivoyage.