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Chicago is a huge city with several district articles containing sightseeing, restaurant, nightlife and accommodation listings.
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 house music, blues, jazz, comedy, shopping, dining, architecture, and fine cultural attractions.
As the hub of the Midwest, Chicago is easy to find — its picturesque skyline calls across the waters of huge freshwater Lake Michigan, an impressive sight that soon reveals world-class museums of art and science, miles of sandy beaches, huge parks, 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 are not neighborhoods themselves; they each contains numerous and varied neighborhoods. Chicagoans tend to identify strongly with their neighborhood, reflecting a real place of home and culture.
Downtown (The Loop, Near North, Near South)
The center of Chicago and the entire Midwest for work and play with major corporate headquarters, skyscrapers, shopping, big theaters, parks, beaches, museums, and the city's most famous travel sights
North Side (Lakeview, Boystown, Lincoln Park, Old Town)
Upscale neighborhoods with entertainment aplenty in storefront theaters and the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field, along with a ton of bars and clubs, and one of the largest LGBT communities in the nation
South Side (Hyde Park, Bronzeville, Bridgeport-Chinatown, Chatham-South Shore)
The historic Black Metropolis, Hyde Park and the University of Chicago, Chinatown, the White Sox, soul food, and the real Chicago blues
West Side (Wicker Park, Logan Square, Near West Side, Pilsen)
Ethnic enclaves, dive bars, and hipsters abound on the fashionably rough side of town
Far North Side (Uptown, Lincoln Square, Rogers Park)
Ultra-hip and laid-back, with miles of beaches and some of the most vibrant immigrant communities in the country
Far West Side (Little Village, Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, Austin)
So far off the beaten tourist track you might not find your way back, but that's OK given all the great food, a couple of top blues clubs and enormous parks
Southwest Side (Back of the Yards, Marquette Park, Midway)
Former home to the massive meatpacking district of the unnion Stockyards, huge Polish and Mexican neighborhoods, and Midway Airport
Far Northwest Side (Avondale, Irving Park, Portage Park, Jefferson Park)
Polish Village, historic homes and theaters, and some undiscovered gems in the neighborhoods near O'Hare International Airport
Far Southeast Side (Historic Pullman, East Side, South Chicago, Hegewisch)
The giant, industrial underbelly of Chicago, home to one large tourist draw: the historic Pullman District
Far Southwest Side (Beverly, Mount Greenwood)
rarely does a neighborhood have such beauty as this in an urban setting
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 winters in Chicago are indeed cold, but the same could be said for most of the United States from Maine to Utah, with the exception of the extreme south. In fact, Chicago receives less precipitation (snow and rain) in the winter than East Coast cities like New York City or Boston. And although Chicago is cold in winter, its Midwestern neighbor Minneapolis is generally colder in the winter. Chicago's summers are not much hotter than the East Coast, and definitely not as hot as the southern U.S. 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.
Chicago is America's third most prolific movie industry after Los Angeles and New York, and there have been scores upon scores of films and 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:
Ferris Bueller's Day Off (John Hughes, 1986). The dream of the northern suburbs: to be young, clever, and loose for a day in Chicago. Ferris and friends romp through the old Loop theater district, catch a game at Wrigley Field, and enjoy the sense of invincibility that Chicago shares with its favorite sons when all is well.
Adventures in Babysitting (Chris Columbus, 1987). The flip side of Ferris Bueller — the dangers that await the suburbanite in the Loop at night, including memorable trips to lower Michigan Avenue and up close with the Chicago skyline.
The Blues Brothers (John Landis, 1980). Probably Chicago's favorite movie about itself: blues music, white men in black suits, a mission from God, the conscience that every Chicago hustler carries without question, and almost certainly the biggest car chase ever filmed.
The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987). With a square-jawed screenplay by David Mamet, this is a retelling of Chicago's central fable of good vs. evil: Eliot Ness and the legendary takedown of Al Capone. No film (except perhaps The Blues Brothers) has made a better use of so many Chicago locations, especially unnion Station (the baby carriage), the Chicago Cultural Center (the rooftop fight), and the LaSalle Street canyon.
High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000). John Cusack reviews failed relationships from high school at Lane Tech to college in Lincoln Park and muses over them in trips through Uptown, River North, all over the city on the CTA, his record store in the rock snob environs of Wicker Park, and returning at last to his record-swamped apartment in Rogers Park.
Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005) and its sequel The Dark Knight (2008). Making spectacular use of the 'L', the Chicago Board of Trade Building, Chicago skyscrapers, the Loop at night, and lower Wacker Drive, the revived action series finally sets the imposing power and intractable corruption of Gotham City where it belongs, in Chicago.
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.
To get in
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 (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.
Chicago is historically the rail hub of the entire United States. Today, Amtrak, uses the magisterial unnion 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, unnion Station is worth a visit even if you're not coming in by train.
Most (but not all) Metra suburban trains run from unnion 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.
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.
Discount packages like the Chicago CityPASS and the Go Chicago Card 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.
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.
What to do
Shedd Aquarium (Shedd Aquarium), 1200 S. Lake Shore Dr. Chicago, IL 60605. 9 am - 5pm. Chicago's Shedd Aquarium is the city's premier location for aquatic life and family fun! With over 32,000 creatures, ranging from fish to crustaceans and everything in between, Shedd is the perfect place for children to learn and inspire curiosity about oceanic and aquatic life! Various exhibits include Aquatic Shows, Amazon Rising, Caribbean Reef, Jellies, Abbott Oceanarium, Polar Play Zone, Waters Of The World, Wild Reef, and A Holiday Fantasea. General Admission Adults - $8, Children - $6, special exhibits cost extra.
Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), 224 S. Michigan Avenue (at Michigan and Jackson). 9-6. provides over 90 tours by boat, bike, trolley, bus and on foot of Chicago's architecture. Tours offered every day except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Multiple walking tours through out the day; one bus or trolley tour daily, Chicago River Cruise from April thru November. prices vary.
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 (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. 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.
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 unnion Park on the Near West Side.