Chicago: Top Ten Things to See and Do

Chicago Illinois at night.
Chicago Illinois at night.
Ferris wheel at the Navy Pier, Chicago. photos by Susan McKee.
Ferris wheel at the Navy Pier, Chicago. photos by Susan McKee.

Chicago: Lots of Free Attractions in Second City

By Susan McKee

Chicago is one of the best tourist cities in the world. It is compact, easy to navigate on foot and by public transportation and it’s full of surprises. Here are the top ten sites to see in Chicago.

Number 10: Universities

Chicago’s institutions of higher learning are world-famous. From Hyde Park on the south to suburban Evanston on the north, college campuses are great for wandering.

The University of Chicago, where more winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics have taught than anywhere else in the world, also claims renowned educator John Dewey and sociologist Robert Park. The first controlled nuclear reaction occurred there as part of World War II’s Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb.

The Oriental Institute includes a newly renovated museum to display its vast collection of ancient art and artifacts from Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq). Nearby, of course, is former President Barack Obama’s Chicago manse: 5046 South Greenwood Avenue.

Northwestern University has a 90-year-old Shakespeare Garden on its Evanston campus that draws fans from around the globe to see a 70-by-100-foot plot of land with flowers, shrubs, trees, and herbs mentioned in the Bard’s sonnets and plays.

Established by the Garden Club of Evanston in 1915, it also celebrates the historic ties between America and England. All of the garden’s flowers, shrubs, trees, and herbs are mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.

Number 9: Chicago Neighborhoods

Chicago is a city of neighborhoods – 77 neighborhoods to be precise.

Chicago River.
Chicago River.

Best known is Chinatown, just south of the Loop (Chicago’s downtown). The ornate red and gold gate over Wentworth Avenue at Cermak Road marks the entrance to a dozen square blocks packed with 59 restaurants and twice as many shops.

In fact, Chinatown is so tightly packed that it’s exploded its borders – don’t miss the new section north of Cermak.

Chicago’s Mexican-American community has displaced the Czechs in Pilsen, a neighborhood around 18th Street and Ashland Avenue.

Heading west from Ridge Avenue on Devon Avenue you come to Chicago’s Indo-Pakistani neighborhood. If you’d like to sample a curry, try on a sari or ogle gold jewelry, this is the place. Don’t miss the huge Patel Brothers market – a neighborhood landmark venue.

Andersonville, along Clark Street north of Foster, is a neighborhood in transition from Swedish to Middle Eastern. Where else can you pick up a jar of lingonberry jam to enjoy with your freshly baked pita bread! My favorite stop: the Swedish Bakery on Clark.

Number 8: Festivals, Parades, and Other Special Events

There’s always something special happening in Chicago. During the winter, the Ice Rink is open for skating in Millennium Park (through mid-March, weather permitting).

Taste of Chicago is the city’s biggest event, drawing as many as three million people to the lakefront each summer. The longest-running of the city’s many lakefront music festivals is the Chicago Jazz Fest – a Labor Day weekend tradition. The Air and Water Show (August) is best viewed from the Oak Street Beach, just north of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.

If you’re in Chicago during one of its ethnic festivals, plan to drop by for good entertainment and great food. Celtic Fest kicks off the season in May in Millennium Park, but there are plenty more.

Chinatown, in Chicago.
Chinatown, in Chicago.

Number 7: Food

The city has thousands of restaurant choices (between 7,000 and 15,500 – depending on who’s counting. Ethnic eateries are legendary. Scope out Chinatown (of course) but also Greek Town (try the long-time favorite, Greek Islands, 200 South Halsted Street).

Irish food? Try Mrs. Murphy and Sons Irish Bistro, 3905 North Lincoln Avenue. German? There’s Glunz Bavarian Haus, 4128 North Lincoln Avenue. Italian? Volare, 201 East Grand Avenue.

Ready for some fine dining? Girl & The Goat, 809 West Randolph, is a James Beard award winner.

The emblematic Chicago dish remains more down to earth. Deep-dish pizza has been drawing diners to Gino’s East, 162 E. Superior Street, and Pizzerias Uno (29 East Ohio Street) and Due (619 North Wabash Avenue) for decades.

Number 6: Performing Arts

Music, theatre, opera, and dance flourish in the Second City. It’s claimed the term “jazz” was coined here in 1914, and of course, the Blues Brothers themselves are Chicagoans!

Venerable icons are the Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but culture vultures also have discovered the new North Loop Theater District. In the Old Town area is Steppenwolf, home to such well-known actors as John Malkovich, Gary Sinise and Laurie Metcalf.

Entrance to Chicago's Old Town.
Entrance to Chicago’s Old Town.

There are great music festivals in Grant Park – all with free admission – including the Chicago Blues Festival in June and ¡Viva! Chicago Latin Music Festival in August.

Number 5: Sports

The quintessential Chicago experience is an afternoon double-header of baseball at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.

If a Cubs game doesn’t fit your schedule, check out their cross-town rivals, the White Sox, playing at U.S. Cellular Field (formerly Comiskey Park).

Sports teams for other seasons include the NFL’s Chicago Bears,
basketball’s Chicago Bulls, hockey’s Chicago Blackhawks and Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire.

Number 4: Shopping

It’s still a major retail presence in the Loop  (the downtown area named for its surrounding “loop” of elevated train tracks).

Downtown shopping began on State Street with the opening of the original Marshall Field’s department store in 1852. Chicagoans mourned when it was purchased by Macy’s and renamed Macy’s on  State Street (official address: 111 North State Street).

North Michigan Avenue – known as The Magnificent Mile – is a  browser’s delight. In addition to the myriad options street side, four vertical malls together offer some 250 department stores and specialty shops. Look for Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom’s, Bloomingdale’s, Crate & Barrel, Burberry’s and more.

Just to the west of the Magnificent Mile, the River North neighborhood is the newest magnet for art galleries, auction houses, antique dealers and jewelers who love the spacious loft buildings. This newly gentrified area stretches a half-dozen blocks north from the Merchandise Mart.

Once open to the trade only, that mammoth emporium now includes an 80-store retail complex and a special series of public showrooms for kitchen and bath products.

Art Institute of Chicago.
Art Institute of Chicago.

Number 3: Museums

There are more than four dozen museums here, from the obscure to the world-famous.

The John G. Shedd Aquarium is the largest indoor aquarium in the world. The Art Institute of Chicago holds the largest collection of Impressionist paintings outside the Louvre in Paris. The largest Latino cultural institution in the United States is Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art. The Adler Planetarium was the first in the Western Hemisphere.

But, Chicago also is home to the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art,  and the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows. a seemingly endless list.

If you can see only one, make it the Museum of Science and Industry. Opened in 1933, this Southside landmark is chock full of opportunities for discovery. My favorite remains Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle, but there’s a World War II German submarine, a replica of an Illinois coal mine, and a DNA double-helix structure dedicated by its discoverer (and Chicago native) Dr. James D. Watson.

If you have more time, add a visit to the Museum Campus on the south side of downtown. Grouped together are the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum of Natural History (home of “Sue”, the biggest T-rex fossil ever unearthed) and Adler Planetarium.

Lake Michigan, from atop a skyscraper in Chicago. photo Brittanica.
Lake Michigan, from atop a skyscraper in Chicago. photo Brittanica.

Number 2: Chicago Architecture

Chicago is a microcosm of the modern urban building — the first steel-frame skyscraper was build here in 1885. Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, Helmut Jahn, and hundreds of other designers have created a “living museum of architecture.”

Highlights in the Loop include the Chicago Cultural Center (check out the Tiffany domed ceiling), Auditorium Building, and the magnificently Art Deco style Chicago Board of Trade.

The best view in town is from the Skydeck on the tower formerly known as Sears at sunset! (Yes, it’s now called the Willis Tower, for its new owners!)

North of the Chicago River, Tribune Tower has exterior walls imbedded with actual bits of famous buildings – Westminster Abbey, Taj Mahal, and Arc de Triomphe among them. Across the street is the Wrigley Building, designed to look like a “luscious birthday cake.” The fanciful Water Tower is one of the few buildings to survive the disastrous 1871 Chicago fire.

One of the best ways to learn about the city’s architecture is to take the Chicago River Architecture Tour hosted by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Knowledgeable docents will tall you all about the city’s famous buildings.

Number 1: The Lake!

Chicago would not have existed without Lake Michigan (the city marks the location of an ancient Native American portage site connecting the Atlantic with the Gulf via the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River).

Waterfronts in other cities are crowded with factories, highways or ports, but The Second City celebrates its lakefront with an unparalleled system of public parks.

Daniel H. Burnham, who was chief of construction for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, envisioned a comprehensive outline of development for Chicago that included parks connected by landscaped boulevards. The centerpiece of his 1909 plan is Grant Park.

Navy Pier

No visit to Chicago is complete without a visit to this lakefront oasis, no matter the season. To the north, check out Navy Pier, an entertainment and shopping complex that began life as a dock for Lake Michigan freighters. Now it’s home to a replica of the 150-foot Ferris wheel that made its debut at the World’s Columbian Exposition and docks for sightseeing cruises.

Right in the middle of Grant Park is Buckingham Fountain, twice as large as its inspiration, the Latona Basin at Versailles, France. Don’t miss the nighttime light shows (each evening between Memorial Day and Labor Day).

Chicago’s best festivals take place right here along Lake Michigan. And remember, in the summer, the weather is “cooler by the lake.”

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