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Chicago 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.
Chicago was known as a fine place to find a wild onion if you were a member of the Potawatomi tribe, who lived in this area of Illinois before European settlers arrived. It was mostly swamps, prairie and mud long past the establishment of Fort Dearborn in 1803 and incorporation as a town in 1833. It could be argued that nature never intended for there to be a city here; brutal winters aside, it took civil engineering projects of unprecedented scale to establish working sewers, reverse the flow of the river to keep it out of the city's drinking supply, and stop buildings from sinking back into the swamps — and that was just the first few decades.
By 1871, the reckless growth of the city was a sight to behold, full of noise, Gothic lunacy, and bustling commerce. But on October 8th, Mrs. O'Leary's cow reportedly knocked over a lantern in the crowded immigrant quarters in the West Side, and the Great Chicago Fire began. It quickly spread through the dry prairie, killing 300 and destroying virtually the entire city. The stone Water Tower in the Near North is the most famous surviving structure. But the city seized this destruction as an opportunity to rebuild bigger than before, giving canvas for several architects and urban planners who would go on to become legends of modern architecture.
At the pinnacle of its rebirth and the height of its newfound powers, Chicago was known as The White City. Cultures from around the world were summoned to the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition, to bear witness to the work of Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and the future itself. Cream of Wheat, soft drinks, street lights and safe electricity, the fax machine, and the Ferris Wheel bespoke the colossus now resident on the shores of Lake Michigan.
As every road had once led to Rome, every train led to Chicago. Carl Sandburg called Chicago the Hog Butcher for the World for its cattle stockyards and place on the nation's dinner plate. Sandburg also called it the City of the Big Shoulders, noting the tall buildings in the birthplace of the skyscraper — and the city's "lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning." But Chicago is a city in no short supply of nicknames. Fred Fisher's 1922 song (best known in Frank Sinatra's rendition) calls it That Toddlin' Town, where "on State Street, that great street, they do things they don't do on Broadway." It's also referenced by countless blues standards like Sweet Home Chicago.
Chicago is also known as The Second City, which refers to its rebuilding after the fire — the current city is literally the second Chicago, after the one that disappeared in 1871. The moniker has stuck, in no small part due to its popular association with the city's long-held former position as the United States' second largest city. And many know the nickname from Chicago's great comedy theater in Old Town.
Chicago's history with corruption is legendary. During the Prohibition era, Chicago's criminal world, emblemized by names like Al Capone, Baby Face Nelson, and later Sam Giancana, practically ran the city. The local political world had scarcely more legitimacy in a town where voter turnout was highest among the dead and their pets, and precinct captains spread the word to "vote early, vote often." Even Sandburg acknowledged the relentless current of vice that ran under the surface of the optimistic city.
Today, Chicago is known as The Windy City. Walking around town, you might suspect that Chicago got this nickname from the winds off Lake Michigan, which shove through the downtown corridors with intense force. But the true origin of the saying comes from politics. Some say it may have been coined by rivals like Cincinnati and New York as a derogatory reference to the Chicagoan habit of rabid boosterism and endless political conventions. Others say that the term originated from the fact that Chicago politicians change their minds "as often as the wind."
Finally, the city is known as the The City That Works, as promoted by longtime Mayor Richard M. Daley, which refers to Chicago's labor tradition, the long hours worked by its residents, and its willingness to tackle grand civic projects. Daley and his father, former Mayor Richard J. Daley, ruled the city for decades in what can only be described as a benevolent dictatorship; as other Midwestern manufacturing cities like Cleveland and Detroit went into decline, Chicago thrived, transforming from a city of stockyards and factories to a financial giant at the forefront of modern urban design. With Richard M. Daley deciding not to run for mayor (after 22 years in office) due to his ailing wife, and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel resigning from that post to become mayor of Chicago, the city elected its first Daley-less administration since Mayor Richard M. Daley was in office from April 1989 to May 2011.
While the city has many great attractions downtown, most Chicagoans live and play outside of the central business district. To understand Chicago, travelers must venture away from the Loop and Michigan Avenue and out into the vibrant neighborhoods, to soak up the local nightlife, sample the wide range of fantastic dining, and see the sights Chicagoans alone know and love — thanks to the city's massive public transit system, every part of Chicago is only slightly off the most beaten path.
Insider tip: Winter + Snow + Wind = Chicago.
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 often times disgustingly hot and humid, dewpoints can be similar to those found closer to the Gulf of Mexico. 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.
LiteratureChicago literature found its roots in the city's tradition of lucid, direct journalism, lending to a strong tradition of social realism. Consequently, most notable Chicago fiction focuses on the city itself, with social criticism keeping exultation in check. Here is a selection of Chicago's most famous works about itself:
•Karen Abbott's Sin in the Second City is a recent best-seller about Chicago's vice district, the Levee, and some of the personalities involved: gangsters, corrupt politicians, and two sisters who ran the most elite brothel in town.
•Nelson Algren's Chicago: City on the Make is a prose poem about the alleys, the El tracks, the neon and the dive bars, the beauty and cruelty of Chicago. It's best saved for after a trip, when at least twenty lines will have you enraptured in recognition.
•Saul Bellow's Adventures of Augie March charts the long drifting life of a Jewish Chicagoan and his myriad eccentric acquaintances throughout the early 20th century: growing up in the then Polish neighborhood of Humboldt Park, cavorting with heiresses on the Gold Coast, studying at the University of Chicago, fleeing union thugs in the Loop, and taking the odd detour to hang out with Trotsky in Mexico while eagle-hunting giant iguanas on horseback. This book has legitimate claim to be the Chicago epic (for practical purposes, that means you won't finish it on the plane).
•Gwendolyn Brooks' A Street in Bronzeville was the collection of poems that launched the career of the famous Chicago poetess, focused on the aspirations, disappointments, and daily life of those who lived in 1940s Bronzeville. It is long out of print, so you'll likely need to read these poems in a broader collection, such as her Selected Poems.
•Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street is a Mexican-American coming-of-age novel, dealing with a young Latina girl, Esperanza Cordero, growing up in the Chicago Chicano ghetto.
•Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie is a cornerstone of the turn of the 20th century Chicago Literary Renaissance, a tale of a country girl in the big immoral city, rags-to-riches and back again.
•Stuart Dybek's The Coast of Chicago is a collection of fourteen marvelous short stories about growing up in Chicago (largely in Pilsen and Little Village) in a style blending the gritty with the dreamlike.
•John Guzlowski's Lightning and Ashes chronicles the author's experiences growing up in the immigrant and DP neighborhoods around Humboldt Park in Chicago, talking about Jewish hardware store clerks with Auschwitz tattoos on their wrists, Polish cavalry officers who still mourned for their dead horses, and women who walked from Siberia to Iran to escape the Russians.
•Erik Larson's Devil in the White City is a best-selling pop history about the 1893 Colombian Exposition; it's also about the serial killer who was stalking the city at the same time. For a straight history of the Exposition and also the workers' paradise in Pullman, try James Gilbert's excellent Perfect Cities: Chicago's Utopias of 1893.
•Audrey Niffenegger's The Time-Traveler's Wife is a recent love story set in Chicago nightclubs, museums, and libraries.
•Mike Royko's Boss is the definitive biography of Mayor Richard J. Daley and politics in Chicago, written by the beloved late Tribune columnist. American Pharaoh (Cohen and Taylor) is a good scholarly treatment of the same subject.
•Carl Sandburg's Chicago Poems is without a doubt the most famous collection of poems about Chicago by its own "bard of the working class."
•Upton Sinclair's The Jungle sits among the canon of both Chicago literature and US labor history for its muckraking-style depiction of the desolation experienced by Lithuanian immigrants working in the Union Stockyards on Chicago's Southwest Side.
•Richard Wright's Native Son is a classic Chicago neighborhood novel set in Bronzeville and Hyde Park about a young, doomed, black boy hopelessly warped by the racism and poverty that defined his surroundings.
Hold on to your baby carriages in Union Station! Chicago is America's third most prolific movie industry and a host of very Chicago-centric movies have been produced here. 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 Union 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.
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".
SmokingSmoking 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.
Tourist InformationChicago's visitor information centers offer maps, brochures and other information.
Chicago Water Works Visitor Information Center ,163 E Pearson Ave ,☎ +1 877 244-2246 [☛] ,M-Th 8AM-7PM, F 8AM-6PM, Sa 9AM-6PM, Su 10AM-6PM (closed 1 Jan, 4th Th of Nov (Thanksgiving), 25 Dec).The city's main visitor information center is located on the Magnificent Mile in the historic Pumping Station, across the street from the Water Tower. In addition to extensive free visitor materials, there is a small cafe and a Hot Tix window for discount theater tickets. Chicago Cultural Center Visitor Information Center ,77 E Randolph St ,☎ +1 312 744-8000 [☛] ,M-Th 8AM-7PM, F 8AM-6PM, Sa 9AM-6PM, Su 10AM-6PM (closed 1 Jan, 4th Th of Nov (Thanksgiving), 25 Dec).A centrally located place to pick up a host of useful, free materials. The Cultural Center itself makes a good first stop on your tour, with free, worthwhile art and historical exhibits throughout the year.
By planeChicago ( 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'HareO'Hare International Airport is 17 miles (27 km) 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 travelers 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).
MidwayMidway International Airport is 10 miles (16 km) southwest of downtown. Southwest Airlines [☛] is the largest carrier here, followed by AirTran [☛]. 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.
The CTA Orange Line train runs between the Loop and Midway in around 25 minutes. Keep in mind that the CTA Midway Station is at the end of the Orange Line. There is an enclosed tunnel that links the station and airport but it takes approximately 10-15 minutes to walk from one to the other. There are a number of hotels clustered around Midway, too — see the Southwest Side article for listings.
OthersChicago Executive Airport is nine miles north of O'Hare, serves the general and business aviation sector, and is the third busiest airport in Illinois. Approximately three hundred aircraft are based on the field and approximately 200,000 take-offs and landings occur annually. Air taxi and air charter companies such as Jetset Charter [☛] fly a variety of private charter aircraft and jets, from charter luxury Gulfstream's down to economical piston twins for small groups and individuals.
Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport [☛] is served by 7 Amtrak trains per day (6 on Sunday), and the Hiawatha Service has a 95% on-time rating. The trip from Chicago Union Station to Mitchell Airport Station is about one hour and 15 minutes. There are also buses from Mitchell Airport to Chicago O'Hare Airport.
By busGreyhound ,630 W Harrison St ,☎ +1 312 408-5800 [☛] ,24 hours. America's largest bus carrier offers service to destinations throughout the Midwest. The main terminal is near the southwestern corner of the Loop. There are secondary terminals at the CTA Red Line station at 95th/Dan Ryan and the CTA transit building (5800 N Cumberland). Indian Trails ( at the Greyhound Station) [☛] . Frequent daily service to Michigan's Upper Peninsula via Wisconsin. Onward connections are available. Buses have Wi-Fi and power outlets. Megabus ( East across Canal St from Union Station) ,☎ +1 877 462-6342 [☛] , price Detroit $1-50 / Milwaukee $1-20 / Minneapolis $1-52.Daily service across the Midwest with destinations from Memphis to Minneapolis. Buses have Wi-Fi and 110v outlets. Wisconsin Coach ,O'Hare Airport ,☎ +1 877-324-7767 [☛] , price ORD: $26.Offers 14 buses daily, departing every hour, from O'Hare to Southeastern Wisconsin and Milwaukee, including Milwaukee Airport.
Three-level streets in the Loop Chicago is historically the rail hub of the entire United States. Today, Amtrak [☛], ☎ +1 800 872-7245, uses the magisterial Union Station (Canal St and Jackson Blvd) as the hub of its Midwestern routes, making Chicago one of the most convenient U.S. cities to visit by train, serving the majority of the passenger rail company's long-distance routes, with options from virtually every major U.S. city. With its massive main hall, venerable history, and cinematic steps, Union Station is worth a visit even if you're not coming in by train.
Most (but not all) Metra suburban trains run from Union Station and nearby Ogilvie/Northwestern Station (Canal St and Madison St), which are west of the Loop. Some southern lines run from stations on the east side of the Loop. The suburban trains run as far as Kenosha, Aurora, and Joliet, while the South Shore line runs through Indiana as far as South Bend. Several CTA buses converge upon the two stations, and the Loop CTA trains are within walking distance.
By carChicagoans have a maddening habit of referring 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 directly from St. Louis into downtown Chicago. I-90/94 (The Dan Ryan south of the city) 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 (The Kennedy north of the city) comes in from Madison to the northwest. I-94 (the Edens Expressway) comes in from Milwaukee to the north, but recent roadwork has slowed traffic considerably compared to I-90. I-80 will get you to the city from Iowa which neighbors Illinois to the west.
The Illinois tollway (which in addition to I-90 - The Jane Adams west of O'hare airport) consists of I-88 - The Reagan which serves the west suburbs, I-355 - The Veterans Memorial which connects Joliet with Schaumburg, and I-294 - The Tri-State which bypasses downtown 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. When travelling the tollways, always have a few dollars in cash to pay at the booths, which are staffed on mainline toll plazas, but not always at exits, so always have some coins as well.
If arriving downtown from Indiana, from the south on I-94 or I-90, or from the north, Lake Shore Drive (U.S. Highway 41) provides a scenic introduction in both directions, day or night. 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 may also be visible from certain clear spots, but without the shore view. It should also be noted that I-55 from the southwest and I-90 through much of northwest Indiana are chock full of heavy industries with odors that'll knock your socks off, so plan your route downtown wisely.
Itineraries• 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.
Penguin triumphant, Lincoln Park Zoo 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 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, and the Museum of Photography in the Loop. 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.
Prairie School Style Home, Oak Park
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.
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.
African-American historyChicago'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.
Wentworth Ave, Chinatown's main street 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.
BeachesChicago 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 . 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.
The Osaka Garden on Jackson Park's Wooded Isle 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.
There are also terrific parks further away from the lake. In the Loop, Grant Park hosts music festivals throughout the year, and Millennium Park is a fun destination for all ages, especially during the summer. In Hyde Park, Midway Park offers skating, and summer and winter gardens in the shadow of the academic giant, the University of Chicago, and Jackson Park has golf, more gardens and the legacy of the city's shining moment, the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition. In Bronzeville, Washington Park is one of the city's best places for community sports. And that's just a brief overview. Almost every neighborhood in Chicago has a beloved park.
Events & FestivalsIf 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.
SportsWith 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) and Chicago Red Stars (Women's Professional Soccer) play soccer in the suburb of Bridgeview, the Chicago Sky play women's professional basketball at the UIC Pavilion on the Near West Side, and the Windy City Rollers skate flat-track roller derby in neighboring Cicero. Minor league baseball teams dot the suburbs as well.
While college athletics are not one of Chicago's strong points, Northwestern football (in Evanston) and DePaul basketball (off-campus in Rosemont) show occasional signs of life. If you find yourself in Hyde Park, ask someone how the University of Chicago football team is doing — it's a surefire conversation starter.
Jefferson Park , seat of the Copernicus Foundation. The theater's Baroque spire is a replica of the Royal Castle in Warsaw.
Modern American comedy — the good parts, at least — was born when a group of young actors from Hyde Park formed The Compass Players, fusing intelligence and a commitment to character with an improvisational spark. One strand of their topical, hyper-literate comedy led, directly or indirectly, to Shelly Berman, Mike Nichols & Elaine May, Lenny Bruce, M•A•S•H and The Mary Tyler Moore Show; another strand, namely The Second City, led to Saturday Night Live and a pretty huge percentage of the funny movies and television of the last thirty years. Still in Chicago's Old Town (and few other places as well), still smart and still funny, Second City does two-act sketch revues followed by one act of improv. If you only see one show while you're in Chicago, Second City is a good choice.
Improvisational comedy as a performance art form is a big part of the Chicago theater scene. At Lakeview and Uptown theaters like The Annoyance Theater, I.O., and The Playground, young actors take classes and perform shows that range from ragged to inspired throughout the week. Some are fueled by the dream of making the cast of SNL or Tina Fey's latest project, and some just enjoy doing good work on-stage, whether or not they're getting paid for it (and most aren't). There's no guarantee that you'll see something great on any given night, but improv tends to be cheaper than anything else in town, and it can definitely be worth the risk. Another popular theater experience is the comedy/drama hybrid Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, offering 30 plays in 60 minutes every weekend in Andersonville.
Steppenwolf, in Lincoln Park, is Chicago's other landmark theater. Founded in 1976, they have a history of taking risks onstage, and they have the ensemble to back it up, with heavyweights like Joan Allen, John Malkovich, and Gary Sinise. Steppenwolf isn't cheap any more, but they mix good, young actors with their veteran ensemble and still choose interesting, emotionally-charged scripts. It's the best place in town to see modern, cutting-edge theater with a bit of "I went to..." name-drop value for the folks back home.
Most of the prestige theaters, including the Broadway in Chicago outlets, are located in the Loop or the Near North. Tickets are expensive and can be tough to get, but shows destined for Broadway like The Producers often make their debut here. For the cost-conscious, the League of Chicago Theatres operates Hot Tix [☛], which offers short-notice half-price tickets to many Chicago shows.
One theater to see, regardless of the production, is The Auditorium in the Loop. It's a masterpiece of architecture and of performance space. Designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, who were on a commission from syndicate of local business magnates to bring some culture to the heathen city, it was the tallest building in Chicago and one of the tallest in the world at the time of its opening in 1889, and it's still an impressive sight, inside and out.
BicyclesChicago has a strong, passionate bicycle culture, and riding opportunities abound. Pedaling your way around the city is one of the best ways to get to know Chicago. And the terrain is mostly flat — a boon for easy-going cyclists! If you don't have a bike, that's no problem. Bobby's Bike Hike [☛] has the official city concession, with a central bike rental location near Navy Pier, at the old North Pier at 465 N. McClurg Court.
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.
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.
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 closed, and invading forces from New York holding the former Marshall Field's building hostage under the name Macy's (Most locals still insist that it is "Marshall Field's"). Even Filene's Basement, the famous discount location, is now closed, though a few other discount shops persist.
For a classic Chicago souvenir, pick up a box of Frango Mints, much-loved mint chocolates that were originally offered by Marshall Field's and are still available at Macy's stores. Although no longer made in the thirteenth-floor kitchen of the State Street store, the original recipe appears to still be in use, which pleases the loyal crowds fond of the flavor — and too bad for anyone looking to avoid trans-fats.
However, for a more unique shopping experience, check out the fun, eclectic stores in Lincoln Square, or the cutting-edge shops in Bucktown and Wicker Park, which is also the place to go for music fiends — although there are also key vinyl drops in other parts of the city as well. Southport in Lakeview and Armitage in Lincoln Park also have browser-friendly fashion boutiques.
For art or designer home goods, River North is the place to go. Centered between the Merchandise Mart and the Chicago Avenue Brown Line "L" stop in the Near North, River North's gallery district boasts the largest arts and design district in North America outside of Manhattan. The entire area is walkable and makes for fun window-shopping.
Goods from around the world are available at the import stores in Chicago's many ethnic neighborhoods; check See for descriptions and district articles for directions.
If you are the type that loves to browse through independent bookstores, Hyde Park has a stunning assortment of dusty used bookstores selling beat-up-paperbacks to rare 17th century originals, and the world's largest academic bookstore. Printer's Row in the Near South is also a great stop for book lovers.
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