Tell me how to be a good tourist in Chicago

It’s surprising, but I don’t know as much about this great American city as I should. My husband and I are thinking about a three- to five-day getaway to Chicago in the next six months. So what should we see? Here is a little about our traveling preferences:

*We much prefer cities to resorts or beach destinations. We’ve spent our most memorable vacations in NYC, Boston, London, Paris
*We love museums (The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the main reasons we want to go there–it’s on our list of Great Museums Of The World We Have To See)
*We are not afraid of/enjoy using public transportation to get around
*Sports? Yes. We’re avid fans and would love to visit the home field/park/arena of a team whose sport is in season
*Prefer hotels that are comfortable, mid- to upper-quality, and well-located for walking around and exploring; a pool is a plus
*Hot bars and clubs and nightlife? Not so much. But good restaurants, sports bars, and casual local eateries are high on the list
*We like historical, iconographic, or simply unique places to see
*Weather is a small factor–have enjoyed Boston in January, Paris in April, London in August and New York at all times of the year–won’t plan a trip around the seasons, but would want to be appropriately prepared for what the season brings.

So tell me, what should be on our “must” list? How easy is it to get around, and how easy is it to get from the airport into the city? What part of town should we target for a hotel–any particular hotel recommendations? What other museums are worth a few hours? What unique Chicago adventures should we not miss?

Thanks in advance for helping.

I’m no expert, but my wife and I made our first 3-5 day Chicago getaway last May. We can highly recommend an architecture tour (the theme of ours was “historic skyscrapers”). And we found good casual local eateries somewhat north of the huge buildings, in (I think) the North Halstead and Andersonville neighborhoods.

The architecture tour is definitely worth it.

The public transit system in Chicago is pretty easy to navigate, although sometimes stuff is rerouted or stops are closed; you can get updates at

If you have time, you should visit the UChicago campus. They have a couple museums that are worth seeing and the Harper Library looks like something out of Harry Potter. And the buildings are gorgeous.

A lot of tourists only stick to the Loop, but the neighborhoods up north are lot more interesting. Wicker Park has some quirky shops, and Lincoln Square and Roscoe Village has some lovely restaurants.

If you like museums, you might want to check out CityPass, which will get you admission to several of the best in Chicago at a discount rate. Unfortunately, the Art Institute is not part of the package, but I can recommend the Museum of Science and Industry and the Field Museum as well worth your time.

From O’Hare airport you can get to downtown on the Blue line very easily; I think you can buy multi-day passes on the CTA online which will save you a few bucks.

I’ve only been there a few times.

I recommend: The Frank Lloyd Wright house in Oak Park, blues clubs downtown, especially Kingston Mines, and a walk through Northwestern University and nearby Evanston. The thing I liked about Evanston (and I mention this because it may do nothing for you) is that it’s as close to a perfect community (according to my values, anyway) as I’ve ever seen. Within a few blocks you have a Borders, a Barnes & Nobles, lots of interesting restaurants, a world class university which borders on a great lake, and a commuter train station that will get you to Chicago real quick.

Oh, and don’t forget the pizza.

Giordano’s (sp?)…hmm, that’s the stuff. Tuck in a few White Castles while you’re at it.

I haven’t been in the city in a long time, though my hometown isn’t too far. Sadly, Rose Records closed, but I guess in this internet order-from-home age that isn’t totally tragic.

Tell me you can still go up in the Sears Tower, someone.

Oh and Field Museum, don’t forget that one.

I’m from the Twin Cities, over in Minnesota. So I’ve been to Chicago often enough for business, etc. to have formed an opinion. I go to the Art Institute every single chance I get, but always just end up stuck at The Rock. If you can get through that incredible collection and not get stuck, I congratulate you. But I will admit, the field museum and S&I are really cool, even though I pretty much saw everything in one or two visits over a couple decades, I always enjoyed the places. The Sears tower, if it’s a clear day, is a must. But one clear day is all you need, there is no reason to go back and be overcharged for a view. If you like ribs, I mean really are a connoisseur of ribs like I am, cheap delicious ribs are atPortillo’s, so make sure a lunch time (and then a nice nap) is in that area of town. Everyone says Lawrys or Carson’s are THE place for ribs. Bullshit. They are riding their name and charge a lot for mediocre ribs with white linen. Ribs should be blue collar and kick your mouth. Portillo’s is some of the best ribs I have ever had, yet at a 1/3 of the price. And if you go to late at night, and on the wrong side of the street, you might mugged. Hey. That is real ribs.

Wrigley Field is the greatest ballpark on the planet. Drink some beers in the awesome bars surrounding it. It’s right off the el. Make sure the Cubbies are in town the week you are there.

Field Museum.
Museum of Science & Industry.
Shedd Aquarium.
Lincoln Park Zoo.
Go up in the John Hancock building. It’s 95 cents cheaper than the Sears Tower, it’s open later, they sell tickets up to 15 minutes before closing (Sears Tower is 30 minutes), and it’s not as crowded.
That’s my short list.

Be prepared to eat a strange version of a “Hot Dog.”

Go to the bar at the top of the Hancock Building. You won’t have to pay entrance fees. You will have to have a drink or something, but the price of a cocktail is the same as the price of a ticket anyway. For the same price you get a great view and a cocktail. :slight_smile:

Thanks for all the great suggestions! The architecture tour sounds great–I will look into it. Field Museum, Science and Industry, Northwestern and/or UChicago, up in a skyscraper (it’s kind of corny, but I love that stuff) . . . sounds like we will have no problem filling our days.

Can’t wait to try the pizza, and, if the timing works out, seeing a game at Wrigley would be divine. And yeah, I’ve heard the hot dogs are unique.

Thank you all for the input–we are checking our calendars now and hope to get there this summer.

Going to Wrigley Field is a religious experience. Make sure you schedule so the Cubbies are in town, and by the looks of things we should be pretty damned good this year. Tickets are easily had if you are willing to pay for it. They will be sold out, so going to a ticket broker or scalper will be your only choice. You might want to spend some time on Craigslist before traveling. Do your very best to get seats in the sun, it adds to the experience. Keep in mind that game days are simply chaotic up there and there are literally dozens of bars big and small surrounding the stadium. Things get a little rowdy post-game so be prepared.

The Museums are all world class. The Field Museum, Art Institute and Shedd Aquarium are all collected close to one another and you can walk through Grant Park and Millennium Park while commuting between the two. You could do them all in one day if you got started early, though I personally think that would be a little bit of an overload.

The Museum of Science and Industry is a fave and it’s huge but it’s a bit off the beaten path. It’s on the south side, about a 15-20 minute cab ride from the loop, close to the University of Chicago so you could group those two together.

Evanston and Northwestern University are north of the city, but not impractically so, and you can take the Red/Purple Line to get there. A trip up there would make for a nice morning jaunt, you could shop and walk the campus and settle in for a nice little lunch at a cafe if it’s warm enough.

Oak Park is another key location just outside of the city easily accessible on the Green line. It’s the center of many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s best known work and there are several tours to look into. It’s another half-day trip, so you will have to consider how much time you have to spare.

In the city, there’s an endless list of things to do. If you are able to score tickets to Wicked I highly recommend it. It’s one of many first rate musicals and shows available. Most of these shows are located downtown in the Loop. The Loop isn’t really known for being a destination aside from visiting the Sears Tower, especially on the weekends when it can be pretty quiet. Some of the best architecture tours are the Boat Tours which circle the Loop via the Chicago River. Just being on the river amidst all the towering buildings is a pretty terrific experience, there isn’t really anywhere like it.

Blue Man Group is always an entertaining and unique way to spend an evening and it’s located in the North Halsted neighborhood, popularly know as Boystown, which is a huge gay community. It’s pretty affluent and happening so if that’s something that interests you you could make a short trip. It’s adjacent to the Wrigleyville neighborhood on the north side, only a $10-15 cab ride from the Loop.

Steppenwolf is famous for the actors it’s produced and always has some of the very best dramatic plays. Right across the street is the Royal George Theater which is known for it’s comedies. Both are located on the south edge of the Lincoln Park neighborhood which is a very affluent residential neighborhood with some of the finest dining in the world. Both Alinea and Charlie Trotters are within a couple blocks walk and there are 6 or 7 other nice restaurants right there on Halsted. Lincoln Park also contains DePaul University which makes for a really great mix of young and middled aged people and feeds a really dense network of sports bars and casual dining. The Halsted and Armitage intersection is home to one of the best boutique shopping areas in the city. If you get a block off Halsted and walk up Dayton or Orchard on either side you can see some really amazing single family mansions on quaint tree lined streets. The neighborhood is bounded on the east by Lincoln Park (the actual park that gives the 'hood the name) and the Lake. It will be dense with runners, bikers and sunbathers in the summer and contains some great botanical gardens and statues. Lincoln Park Zoo is settled in here as well, it’s free and open every day.

The River North area which lies between the Loop and Lincoln Park/Old Town is where you are liable to send most of your time. It’s the core tourist/hotel area because of it’s central location. This is where the famous Magnificent Mile is located. All the best known stores have flagship stores here and every luxury hotel has a location on the strip. Take your pick, if you’re savvy with Priceline you can get a great rate at a 4-star place, the regular rack rates can be $300-$500 a night. I suggest stopping into the Drake Hotel for brunch or afternoon tea. It’s pricey but it’s a really indulgent experience and makes you feel like a titan of industry without having to actually be a millionaire.

The John Hancock Building is on the Mag Mile too so you can step into the observatory or the Signature lounge on the 98th floor. Both the Hancock and Sears Tower observatories are cool, so take your pick. The Hancock is a little cheaper and conveniently located. It makes for a nice little quick trip to take a break from shopping. The Sears Tower is located in the south loop and it’s tour is a bit more elaborate with history and all, it was the tallest building in the world (still is when you eliminate superficial spires and antennas) so that gives it a bit more gravitas than the Hancock. Still, if you are limited on time and don’t want to make a special trip and don’t want your hand held by a guide the Hancock is a excellent compromise.

River North is home to all the best known restaurants. Hundreds upon hundreds of places to eat, Italian, Pizza, Steaks, Sushi, Ethnic, French and everything in between, both upscale and casual. Giordano’s is my personal recommendation for deep dish 'Za, while Gino’s East, Uno’s (and Due) and Lou Malnati’s are other choices. Each is a little different and people have strong opinions on which is better. Gino’s is the best known and unfortunately the most disappointing, I generally assume that tourists who decide they dislike Chicago pizza went here instead of the superior Giordano’s or Malnati’s. I’m sure someone will come by and totally disagree with me soon.

There are lots of other interesting neighborhoods but frankly you won’t have time to see them all. Bucktown/Wicker Park on the northwest side is a favorite among the hipster/artsy crowd. It has plenty of little boutiques and galleries. It also has it’s share of bums and slackers which some people think adds to the edgy coolness. Personally, I think it’s overrated but I’m not into the whole tattoo-piercing-starving artist motif. If you like small independent art galleries it’s worth your time though. Lincoln Square is even further northwest and is a nice up and coming area with a real German heritage and lots of food and drinks. Andersonville is a very popular and diverse area on the far north side. The West Loop is just west of the Loop (obviously) and is a fast growing residential area ripe with cool loft buildings, the meat packing district and plenty of restaurants. This is where the famous Greektown section of Halsted is located and is worth a dinner or lunch reservation. You could couple this with a trip to the Sears Tower since they are somewhat close to each other if you choose.

Anyways, there’s lots more and you can’t see it all in a single weekend but I hope this is a good start. Also you might want to do a search for previous threads on the topic, we’ve done this several times.

Omni did a good write up so I wikk jsut skip to this:

If by “strange” you mean “best encased meats on the planet” then by all means we are in agreement. Unfortunately I detect a undertone of ignorance; the kind that puts ketchup or sauerkraut on a hot dog.

Cecil wept.