Itineraries in Chicago, Usa
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.
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.
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).
Today, Chicago boasts four out of America’s ten tallest buildings: the Willis Tower (2nd), the Trump Tower (4th), the Aon Center (7th), and the John Hancock Center (8th). For years, the Willis Tower (at that time still called 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 Willis 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 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 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 one of the largest masses of freshwater on Earth, containing around 20% 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. 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.
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 occasionally 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 going 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. Lincoln Park contains the Lincoln Park Zoo and the Lincoln Park Conservatory. And that’s just a brief overview. Almost every neighborhood in Chicago has a beloved park.
Chicago is also home to the Bloomingdale Trail/606. This is a linear park in the sky. This elevated greenway, created from railroad right-of-ways and its viaducts, is 2.7 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, is 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.