Seeing Chicago Anew
Rediscovering the world-class city at your doorstep
When you live just miles from one of the greatest cities in the world, it can be easy to take it for granted. Indeed, often it takes having a visitor come in from out of town to prompt a quick tour of Chicago’s many great attractions. But even then, you can never take in everything there is to see and do.
So maybe now is the time to act like an out-of-towner and check out the city for yourself. The summer is the perfect season to see Chicago at its finest — from its shoreline bike paths and sandy beaches to its many parks, museums and architectural landmarks. And if you haven’t made a pilgrimage downtown in awhile, you’re likely in for a few surprises.
That’s because Chicago, perhaps more than any of America’s large cities, is constantly reinvigorating itself. Neighborhoods are transformed, museums are reinvented, and perhaps most stunningly, the city has entered a golden age of park development in recent years.
With that in mind, here’s an admittedly incomplete guide to the city at your doorstep, including a number of tried-and-true, “must” stops as well as some ideas for seeing the city from a new perspective.
Take in the Parks, Both Old and New
Though it cost more than $490 million to build — more than three times what was initially budgeted — Millennium Park has proven to be the signature public works achievement Mayor Richard M. Daley hoped it would be, transforming the small parcel of land north of Grant Park into the city’s cultural centerpiece.
Cloudgate, the sculpture more commonly known as “The Bean,” may have supplanted the Willis Tower as the symbol of the city, and even if you’ve seen it before, you’ll still be hard-pressed to keep you camera in your pocket. Artist Anish Kapoor created a distinctive work that absorbs the light, colors and people around it to become something different with every visit.
The Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion is among the world’s most stunning music venues, and on Monday nights it plays host to free concerts from national and local acts. Bring your own wine, beer and cheese, and park yourself on the blanket on the lawn and don’t be surprised to find yourself whispering, “Wow, this city really is amazing.”
But Chicago didn’t stop with Millennium Park. Daley’s dedication to greening the city has continued under current Mayor Rahm Emanuel. This year alone the city unveiled three transformative new urban spaces.
First, there’s Maggie Daley Park, a lakefront recreation center just east of Millennium Park that will wear out your kids. A massive climbing wall, a play garden featuring some awesome slides, and come wintertime, an ice ribbon that weaves its way through the park like a river in the woods. This summer, it’s an inline skating track.
Getting less attention is the new Chicago Riverwalk extension that opened in June. The new stretch runs from State Street to Clark Street and has turned what was a dingy facade along the Chicago River into yet another showpiece for the city featuring dining, educational and cultural activities.
And the city finally extended its public works investment to the west side, where the new 2.7-mile 606 trail opened in June. The trail replaces a section of the abandoned Bloomingdale Rail Line, and if you ever rode the el and wondered what it would be like to go for a run or bike ride down the tracks, now you have your answer.
The 606 runs above the neighborhoods of Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Bucktown and to the edge of Lincoln Park, uniting these disparate communities with one beautiful urban space. The biking and running path weaves through trees, flowers and bushes and takes you over 37 bridges.
Though all of these parks have their crowded moments, there is one tranquil spot that somehow remains secluded just a step off the buzz of Fullerton Parkway in Lincoln Park. The Alfred Caldwell Lily Pond will calm you, and provides a perfect place for a midday picnic for two or simply a reprieve from the summer crowds.
Become A Chicago Expert in Two Hours
One of the best ways to see and learn about the city is on a Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise. If you’re new to Chicagoland, you’ll leave the boat an expert. If you think you know everything about the city, you’ll find out you don’t.
The hour and a half tours are narrated by experienced docents who will wow you with a deluge of history, insight and humor as you soak in city views from a new vantage point. You won’t just learn the names of the various buildings, but who designed them, the challenges in building them, and the legends associated with them. You’ll start as a Chicago neophyte, and finish as an insider.
Plan An Urban Outdoor Adventure
If you’re the active type, a trip down the Chicago River by kayak combines the views of the architecture river cruise with the exhilaration of powering your own way forward. While the guides may not be the experts you’ll find in the architecture tour, they will keep you safe and share stories of their own, as you maneuver amongst the cruise boats, barges, and water taxis. The sunset and fireworks tours offered by Kayak Chicago on Wednesdays and Saturdays make for an especially great date night excursion.
Continue the outdoor theme with a ride or run down the Lakefront Trail. When urban planner Daniel Burnham called for the city to preserve the lakeshore for the masses in his 1909 Plan of Chicago, he couldn’t possibly have envisioned what an impact that would have. More than a century later, that shoreline boasts one of the greatest and most public-friendly urban pathways in the world.
Run or cycle all or part of the 18 miles from Foster Beach all the way down to 71st Street, and be awed by the views that unfold before you and the melange of active Chicagoans on full display. Runners, cyclists and rollerbladers come in waves, passing the many jam-packed volleyball courts and soccer fields, while on the water, rowing teams and sailing aficionados work on their skills,
all with one of the world’s greatest skylines as their backdrop.
If you choose to run, turn slightly inland at Belmont, then head south past the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum to run a loop around the Lincoln Park Zoo and into one of the city’s secret gems, the Lincoln Park Nature Boardwalk. You’ll feel as though you’ve disappeared into a rural bubble as you’re surrounded by tall grasses, butterflies and flowers circling a scenic pond, with the Hancock Building and city skyline off in the distance. It’s one of the city’s best destinations for photo buffs as well.
Explore Chinatown Through a Food Tour
A trek to Chinatown is fun, and Chicago Food Planet’s Chinatown Food Tour offers a remarkable journey through the neighborhood’s history and culture. Eat signature dishes at five restaurants, learn Chinese dining customs, and sample food you might not be brave enough to try on your own.
An experienced guide leads the way through Mandarin, Szechuan and Cantonese cuisine, and also to a Buddhist Temple and into the hidden gem that is Ping Tom Park along the Chicago River’s South Branch. The Chinatown Food Tour is great for couples but can also accommodate groups of up to eight people.
A Day at the Museums
Chicago has an abundance of riches when it comes to museums big and small. At the famous Field Museum, the popular Mammoths and Mastodons exhibit returns to take you to a world where these beasts roamed amongst humans. That show is back at the Field through Sept. 12. The Vikings exhibit brings to life the Scandinavian legends whose names we hear daily, but about whom we know surprisingly little. Enrich your knowledge through Oct. 4.
Down in Hyde Park, take a stroll along the Nobel-tinged grounds of the beautiful castle-like campus at the University of Chicago and you’ll almost feel yourself getting smarter. Then head over to the Museum of Science and Industry, where this summer’s Robot Revolution exhibit allows visitors to interact with a cutting-edge collection of robots from around the world.
Even if you’re not an art buff, it’s hard not to be spellbound when roaming the halls of the Art Institute of Chicago. Stroll the halls and find yourself face-to-face with world-renowned works like Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom,” Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” or George Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” If you just want to get your art appreciation feet wet, the institute is free for Illinois residents on Thursday evenings from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
While the Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry and Art Institute are must stops, there’s another less-heralded museum in Lincoln Park that Chicago history buffs will love.
The Chicago History Museum at North and Clark is dedicated solely to the history of the city and the larger cultural forces that have molded it through the years. Did you know the city is named for wild onions? Or that there is meaning behind each of the stars on the Chicago city flag? Learn about the G-Men who fought Capone and other gangsters, the tumult of Chicago in the 1960s, and the south side stockyards that gave the city the nickname, “Hog Butcher for the World,” at the turn of the century.
If you’re bringing the kids, they’ll love hopping on the old el car and swarming around the Chicago hot dog display. But the best of this museum is a quiet exhibit. Vivian Maier’s images of Chicago people and places are at times beautiful and haunting. A Chicago nanny, Maier roamed the city with her camera in her off time, capturing rare glimpses into everyday life in Chicago during the 1960s and 70s. Maier took thousands of photos, but they didn’t come to light until after her death in 2009.
One could spend a whole day without venturing far from this part of the city, with the Lincoln Park Zoo a short stroll to the north, the lakefront trail to the east, and Second City, Chicago’s quintessential Chicago evening entertainment venue, a few blocks to the west. The legendary comedy club that launched the careers of John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chris Farley, Amy Poehler
and Tina Fey — among dozens of others — is still one of the absolute best things to do in Chicago, hands down.
Just Because They're Touristy Doesn’t Mean They're Not Awesome
While longtime Chicagoans may downplay “tourist traps” like Navy Pier, Willis Tower, and the Magnificent Mile, these attractions draw millions of people each year for a reason — they really are fun and worthwhile places to see.
With its lack of nearby parking and slightly carnival-esque feel, Navy Pier sometimes gets a bad rap from locals, but taking a ride on the massive 150-ft ferris wheel is pretty cool no matter how old you are. The Pier is also home to the Chicago Children’s Museum, and IMAX Theater, and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, which is staging Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” from July 3 through Aug. 16.
The Willis Tower remains the second tallest building in the western hemisphere and offers a view you can’t get anywhere else in America. The addition of The Ledge to the Skydeck allows you to test your courage in a knee-buckling new way. The glass box extends 4.3 feet from the side of the tower, and 1,353 startling feet from the ground below.
To the north, 360 Chicago at the Hancock Tower arguably offers the city’s best view. Look out on Lake Shore Drive from the 94th floor, and test your stomach as you lean against the new Tilt window, which allows you to look down at a 30 degree angle at the city below.
And of course, when you take a stroll down the Magnificent Mile of Michigan Avenue, it’s hard not to get swept up in awe of the most exclusive shopping district in the Midwest and one of the most famous in the world. Indulge yourself at chic specialty stores, luxury boutiques, or iconic department stores.
But the mile isn’t just for adults. Take the kids to Water Tower Place for a visit to the LEGO Store, American Girl, or the new Chicago Sports Museum. You’ll find history here too, as the old
Water Tower and pumping station is the only structure in the area that survived the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.
Yes, the crowds on North Avenue Beach for the Air and Water Show can be daunting. It’s not a weekend for a leisurely stroll or bike ride down the Lakefront Trail, but if you get there early and carve out a spot the show is worth the effort.
Spend the afternoon in the sun as some of the most awe-inspiring jets in the world roar past. Even better, find your way onto a boat and catch the show from the water. There you can get a rare glimpse of a great American skyline dotted with WWII-era fighters, F-16s, and pilots performing aerial acrobatics that will take your breath away. The boats and planes return to the lakefront Aug. 15 and 16.
A list of what to do in Chicago could be a book, but here’s hoping you’ve been reminded of a few things you’ve taken for granted, or given you some new ideas for rediscovering Chicago.
- Myles Dannhausen is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago.
LINCOLN SQUARE: A CLASSIC CITY NEIGHBORHOOD
It’s not hip like Logan Square, and you won’t find it teeming with tourists, but for a taste of a slower-paced Chicago, head to the north side and check out Lincoln Square.
An old German and Greek neighborhood which retains much of its historic ethnic influences — including several of the best German restaurants in the city — Lincoln Square has been described as small city within the city, with a pace of its own.
Located at the Western Avenue Brown Line CTA Stop, you’ll find a dozen cozy neighborhood taverns in this one-mile stretch, but you’ll also find craft cocktails at the sliver of a bar that is Tiny Lounge. Down the street, Half Acre Brewing Co. has opened a beautiful tap room to sample this Chicago-brewed favorite.
For bookstore lovers, the Book Cellar is a must stop, and often features readings from notable authors. The Grind is a fantastic — although often packed — little coffee shop, and The Grafton is a great little Irish Pub. Up and down the square proper you’ll also find boutique shops like Merz Apothecary and The Chopping Block, which offers cooking classes and an amazing selection of kitchen ware.
In the heart of the square is Gene’s Sausage Shop. Head up the stairs, into the elevator, and stumble onto one of the great casual rooftops in Chicago. Grab a Stiegel (or something heavier if
you prefer) and a sausage and tan your forehead.
Hang into the evening and catch a show at the Old Town Folk School, an amazing, intimate venue to catch renowned folk and Americana artists.
The city’s neighborhoods are the heart of Chicago, and few exemplify this as well as Lincoln Square.