Home to two major league baseball teams and the third largest population in the USA, Chicago is located on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan. The city has evolved over its nearly 200 year history into a major financial center with architecturally stunning buildings and thousands of acres of parkland.
Chicago's weather is mild in the spring and fall seasons, but experiences extremes of heat and humidity in the summer and exceptional chilliness in the winter.
Chicago's motto of "City in a Garden" reflects the large amount of parkland contained within its limits. In fact, Chicago's parkland consumes more than 7600 acres (3100 hectares)—about 5% of its total size. Even Chicago's downtown core is set inland from the shore to make way for Grant Park—a large urban park that is home to Buckingham Fountain and numerous annual festivals.
In addition to having the second largest transit system in the country, Chicago has also been ranked in magazines for being one of the most pedestrian and bicycle friendly cities. In 2005, 315 miles (500 km) of bicycle paths existed in the city, and that number will grow to 500 miles (800 km) by the year 2015. One can spend a casual sunny afternoon cycling the 18 miles (30 km) of bike trails running along Chicago's lakefront.
Chicago has a bike sharing program in its downtown area named Chicago B-cycle, which lets people rent a bicycle from a station and return it to any other station. With a membership, the first hour of use is free and a fee is charged after the first hour. Visitors without a membership may also use this service, but the rental cost is much more expensive. The best value is to purchase a membership if you plan to use the bicycle service for more than a few days.
The greater Chicago area is named Chicagoland and extends slightly into the nearby states of Wisconsin and Indiana.
Public Transportation: provided by CTA
Public transportation in Chicago is provided by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) in the form of elevated metro lines and an extensive network of bus routes. Chicago's metro is called 'L' and provides 8 rapid transit lines from its downtown business district to various outlying areas. Nearly all of the lines converge in "The Loop," an elevated rectangular loop in Chicago's downtown business district.
The 'L' Blue Line provides 24-hour service from Chicago O'Hare International Airport to downtown Chicago and takes about 45 minutes.
A number of landmarks in Chicago are also served by express buses, making it easy to travel the city as a tourist. All buses and trains are also equipped with GPS devices and can be tracked online and by cell phone text messaging. Further, transit vehicles are wheelchair accessible and all buses are equipped with bike racks. Trains permit bikes on board during non-peak hours.
Each trip requires a separate fare, but a transfer within 2 hours from a train or bus to another train or bus costs 25 cents. A one month pass may also be purchased for those who travel daily.
Suburban service in greater Chicagoland is provided by the Metra commuter rail system, South Shore Line commuter rail line and Pace buses. These agencies run on separate fare systems than the CTA.
Chicago is a hub for the Amtrak intercity passenger train system, making it easy and convenient to travel to other cities by train.
Many ESL schools in Chicago are located in an 8-block span along the eastern tracks of The Loop near Madison/Wabash Station and west of Grant Park. A number of Chicago universities also offer English programs for foreigners and are generally accessible by public transportation.
Restaurants and Nightlife
Known as the Blues Capital of the World, Chicago is legendary for its live blues, jazz, and gospel music. The annual Chicago Blues Festival is the largest in world and free to attend.
The drinking age is 21 and most clubs and bars close at 3am on Saturday nights and 2am every other night. Some bars stay open until 5am on Saturday nights and 4am on other nights of the week.
Chicago's most popular night spot is River North, located north of The Loop and bounded on the west and south by the Chicago River. Take the 'L' Brown Line or Purple Line to Merchandise Mart Station. Clubs and lounges are open late and River North boasts the highest concentration of restaurants in the city, representing almost every ethnicity imaginable. River North is also a cultural hub, with various comedy clubs, a number of antique stores and the second largest collection of art galleries in the USA.
The area north of the Chicago River surrounding Rush Street and Division Street is also a major nightlife area. Take the 'L' Red Line to Clark/Division Station. This area is typically a younger crowd mixed with tourists.
Some other popular areas to explore at night in Chicago include Wicker Park/Bucktown, Halsted Street and Lincoln Ave near Lincoln Park, and Wrigleyville.
Chicago is home to dozens of world-class museums, art galleries, and other cultural institutions. Many of these museums offer free admission one day per week or on specific days throughout the year. "Free day" schedules are easy to find online and one could spend weeks exploring Chicago's cultural centers.
Chicago's vibrant downtown is much more than just a business district. Unlike most cities, the skyscrapers are separated from the shore by a large urban park known as Grant Park. Throughout the year, this park hosts festivals of all sorts, such as outdoor music performances and the free to attend Taste of Chicago food festival. Buckingham Fountain is also a prominent destination in the park. Grant Park is also home to numerous gardens and three museums. Take any 'L' line to The Loop to get to Grant Park.
Just south of Grant Park, the Shedd Aquarium has been an icon and favorite must-see attraction in Chicago for decades. This is the most popular aquarium in the country and features 5 permanent exhibits, including a replica of the Amazon river and its surrounding jungle. The newest exhibit is a coral reef modeled after one that exists in the Philippines, complete with countless species of fish and a number of sharks. Purchase tickets online to avoid a 60-90 minute queue at the gate.
Lincoln Park is a long strip of parkland that spans 7 miles (11 km) along Chicago's shore and is the home of many popular destinations. The Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the few zoos in the country with free admission. The #151 or #156 bus routes provide service to the zoo and the nearest 'L' station is Armitage Station on the Brown Line or Purple Line. From this station, either walk east about 1 mile (1.6 km) or transfer to the #73 Clark/North bus.
Right next to Lincoln Park Zoo is North Avenue Beach. This is Chicago's most popular summer beach destination, with a sandy shore and full service beach house in the shape of an ocean liner. This beach makes a perfect daytrip, and be sure to bring a camera to capture the spectacular view of downtown Chicago.
Also next to the Lincoln Park Zoo and also free is the world-class Lincoln Park Conservatory. Featuring a warm haven of plants and flowers in 4 distinct greenhouses, this is an excellent place to go in the winter to escape the cold weather.
For those hot and humid summer days, consider spending the day in one of Chicago's dozens of outdoor public swimming pools. Attending a Chicago Cubs baseball game at Wrigley field is also a popular summer activity, and one can enjoy a party atmosphere with thousands of other spectators.
Chicago offers much to do in the winter. A number of free outdoor ice skating rinks open in November, and the most popular rink is located near The Loop at the picturesque Millenium Park. A visit to Lincoln Park Zoo's annual winter ZooLights is also recommended. This is a time when the zoo is decorated with amazing light displays.
High-end prestigious shopping can be found on Michigan Ave between the Chicago River and Oak St, known as The Magnificent Mile. Take the 'L' Red Line to Grand-Red Station. All the major department stores are located here, along with many other big names and a few museums.
For a more historical experience and to enjoy some of Chicago's incredible architecture, State Street is an suitable place to visit and is located inside The Loop. This half mile stretch includes a diverse assortment of shops, ranging from the landmark Macy's to several discount stores.
Wicker Park/Bucktown is a good place to find one-of-a-kind fashion and small independent retailers. Take the 'L' Blue Line to Damen-O'Hare Station where the 3 streets of Damen Ave, Milwaukee Ave, and North Ave intersect. Most shops are concentrated within a 2 mile (3 km) radius of this station.
At least a dozen different ethnicities are well-represented in Chicago. The Irish had a large influence in building Chicago during its early days, but have since dispersed across the city. Some Irish heritage is still visible in subdivisions of the South Side.
Chicago's Chinatown is a good place to eat out and to see some interesting architecture. The main section is located on Wentworth Ave, about 2 blocks from the 'L' Red Line Cermak-Chinatown Station.
Koreatown can be found in the Albany Park neighborhood. About half of the shops along Lawrence Ave between Pulaski Rd and Kedzie Ave are Korean. Take the 'L' Brown Line to Kimball Station. Chicago is also home to a Korean television station, Korean radio station and 4 Korean newspapers (The Korea Times-Chicago, The Korea Central Daily, Kyocharo, and The Korean Christian Journal).
Another popular area with good Korean restaurants and shops is located on the diagonal Lincoln Ave near California Ave. Take the #11 or #93 bus to get to this intersection.
Polish culture is alive and well in Chicago. Tourist guides will direct you to Wicker Park, but many Polish speaking shops have moved northwest to Belmont Ave west of Laramie Ave. The #77 bus route travels to this area from the 'L' Blue Line Belmont-Blue Station. Also on the 'L' Blue Line is the Polish Museum of America.
Greektown provides an authentic atmosphere with some high quality Greek restaurants and annual festivals celebrating its identity. Many buildings also have Greek signage and fly the flag of Greece. Take the 'L' Blue Line to UIC-Halsted Station. The majority of the restaurants are on Halsted St from Monroe St to Van Buren St, but the surrounding area contains many other Greek shops, bars and culture to explore.
Pilsen is a very authentic Mexican neighborhood and a place to find plenty of cheap and tasty Mexican food. The area also boasts colorful wall murals and a number of art galleries. Take the 'L' Pink Line to 18th Station.
There are still more examples of Chicago's diversity. Italy also has a large presence in various parts of Chicago. Peurto Rico's presence is mostly in the Humboldt Park area. Devon Ave is home to Indian, Russian and Jewish communities and a Czech community can be found on W Cermak Rd.
Places to Go Near Chicago
One of the most popular weekend resort destinations from Chicago is the town of Lake Geneva, located on Geneva Lake. This year-round destination can be found in nearby Wisconsin state, about a 2.5 hour drive and 80 miles (130 km) northwest of Chicago. It's possible to get to Lake Geneva without a car by Metra rail to Harvard Station (about 2 hours on the Union Pacific/Northwest line) and then by taxi to the town (about 30 minutes). Go as a group of 4-5 friends and share the taxi fare.
Geneva Lake offers activities throughout the year. In the summer, the lake features several beaches, a water park, boating, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, golf, tennis and a lake cruise with a view of many amazing and historic lakefront mansions. Courageous visitors can see the mansions up-close by trying the 21 mile (34 km) hike around the lake. In the winter, skating, sleigh rides and skiing are popular.
If Chicago's parklands aren't enough, Starved Rock State Park offers numerous nature walks of varying length and terrain with spectacular views of waterfalls, canyons, rivers, wildlife, trees and foliage. During the earlier months of the year, bald eagles are usually easy to spot along the river. Other daytime activities include canoeing, fishing and horseback riding. This park is extremely popular—be sure to arrive early or go on a weekday to avoid the crowds.
Starved Rock is about 95 miles (150 km) southwest of Chicago and takes about 2 hours to get to. Admission is free and the park makes a good day trip or overnight trip. There is a lodge for overnight stays with a large outdoor dining patio overlooking the Illinois River and with occassional live music on weekends. A number of hotels are also located in the nearby towns of Utica and Oglesby and camping in the park is an option.
Starved Rock tends to get extremely busy at times and a less well-known park with many of the same activities is Matthiessen State Park, just 3 miles (5 km) south of Starved Rock. Try this destination for outdoor activities if you prefer a bit more solitude.
For an enjoyable beach experience closer to Chicago, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes State Park offer sandy beaches and various hiking trails on the south shore of Lake Michigan. The water is often warm enough to swim in by August. A warning: many of the trails in these parks look like forest paths but are mostly sand. One of the most difficult is a hike up a sand dune named Mount Baldy. On clear days, the view of Lake Michigan and Chicago's skyline can be breathtaking.
Indiana Dunes is located 50 miles (80 km) southeast of Chicago and takes about 1 hour to drive to. Train service from downtown Chicago to the park takes about 75 minutes. Take the South Shore Line from Millenium Station to Dune Park Station and then walk about 1 mile (1.6 km).
A bit further east of Indiana Dunes and at the next train stop is the small resort community of Beverly Shores. This quieter area has a public beach, historic buildings and a small art community.
Even further east of Indiana Dunes along the coast of Lake Michigan is the laid back Harbor Country community in Michigan state. This region is made up of 8 lakeside towns and is an excellent place to visit several wineries and farmers' markets. The beach is just as white and sandy as the beaches at Indiana Dunes. The nearest station on the South Shore Line is Carroll Ave (Michigan City). From this station, take a taxi to Grand Beach (about 8 miles). An alternate route is via Amtrak to New Buffalo city.
For quick day trips without a car, Metra rail provides service to many of Chicago's suburbs. Two suburbs of interest are Oak Park and Naperville. Oak Park is directly west of Chicago and a tourist spot with some mansions and interesting architecture.
Further west, Naperville's main attractions are Centennial Beach and its Riverwalk. Centennial Beach is a former quarry that was turned into a 2 acre public outdoor swimming pool with a sand beach. It was renovated in May 2011 with a number of landscaping improvements and modernized bath house.
The Riverwalk is a scenic and relaxing path along the DuPage River, which flows through the middle of Naperville. Along the way, it passes many picturesque sculptures, charming fountains and enchanting wooden bridges. If you don't feel like walking, you can rent a paddle boat and paddle along the river. Weddings are often held on the Riverwalk because of its scenery.
A number of large cities are located within 2-4 hours of Chicago and usually accessible by train or inter-city shuttle bus. Milwaukee is known for its beer breweries. Madison is both the state capital of Wisconsin and a large university city, which makes for an interesting mix. Finally, nearby Indianapolis is known for its annual Indy 500 car race.