The Windy City: Tips for Visiting Chicago

Chicago, located in Illinois right on Lake Michigan, is a hidden gem of the Midwest. Chicago has many popular attractions, including sports (major league teams for baseball, basketball, and football), the arts, world-class dining, museums, attractions for kids, and, of course, the lake. Lake Michigan is one of the five Great Lakes located in the Midwest, and is the second largest of the Great Lakes. The word Michigan derives from the Ojibwa word for great water, “mishigami.” Because of this location right on the lake, Chicago has rightly earned the nickname of “Windy City” – when the wind whips off the lake, it can either be refreshing (in the summer) or a challenge (in the winter). Regardless, Chicago is the largest city in Illinois (and the Midwest), boasting a population of almost 3 million.  It’s a city beloved by both natives and visitors, and for good reason.

The history of Chicago is remarkable, starting from a Native American settlement; a confluence of transportation events growing the city; the tragic Chicago Fire of 1871; hosting the 1893 World’s fair;  building the world’s first skyscraper and elevated train system; having the world’s first planetarium; and the first use of the word Jazz helps to celebrate its artistic side. Chicago is also the home of the well-known comedy theater, Second City (along with a plethora of theaters and music venues). There’s a lot of outdoor art and activities, as well.

But what can you DO? Well, you could spend months here as a tourist and still not see everything. And, it depends on what you are looking for, in terms of arts and entertainment. We’ve visited Chicago many, many times, and each time is different (and fun). My sister and her family live in Chicago, so we have an insider’s edge. So, here’s a short list of activities that you can reference to plan a trip to the Windy City.

See a game – whether it is the Bears (Football), Bulls (Basketball), White Sox or Cubs (Baseball) – there’s something for everyone.

The Art Institute of Chicago is an extraordinary art museum. Also plan on visiting the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, for their world-renowned collections of ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern treasures.

Chicago is a museum town – you can head to the Museum of Science and Industry, the Shedd Aquarium (their recent renovation is remarkable), Adler Planetarium, Chicago History Museum, DuSable Museum of African American History, a Museum of Broadcast Communications, Museum of Contemporary Art, a Nature Museum, and our favorite, the Field Museum of Natural History. There are plenty more – these are just the big ones!

Most people plan a trip to Navy Pier whilst in Chicago. It boasts a ferris wheel, stores, theaters, restaurants, museums, and more. It’s on a pier, of course, jutting out into Lake Michigan.  Plan also to see Grant Park (where President Obama had his Election Speech), a wide space of greens and public art, including The Bean and other fun art installations. From Grant Park (or anywhere along the lake), you can access a long, beautiful waterfront park along Lake Michigan, the Chicago Lakefront Trail. Walk, run, picnic, swim – it’s all available to the public, 18 miles of it. There are two zoos – the Brookfield Zoo and the Lincoln Park Zoo. Don’t forget to visit Sears Tower and the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired buildings all around Chicago (including his own home). There are several large exhibition halls for conferences.

Theater & Music:
Most well-known is The Second City Theater, known for comedy Improvisation (they started it). Other well-known theaters include Steppenwolf, the Goodman Theatre, and Victory Gardens Theater. You can catch Broadway productions and similar entertainment at the Cadillac Palace Theatre (where we saw Mary Poppins), the Ford Theatre, Bank of America Theatre, and at many other venues. Chicago is well-known for supporting the arts and culture. There is also the Joffrey Ballet, the Lyric Opera of Chicago (my mom and aunt have season tickets), the Chicago Symphony, and more. Chicago is very well-known for blues, jazz, soul, and house music. In the summer, there is a music or arts festival just about every weekend. It’s worth planning a trip around!

Well, as a foodie, this section is the most important to me. I’ve not yet had a bad meal in Chicago – from the best gourmet hot dogs and duck fat frites at Hot Doug’s, to elegant Thai food and an authentic Italian Deli downtown; from organic baked goods at the Bleeding Heart Bakery to delicious vegetarian fare at Victory’s Banner. Check Urbanspoon, Yelp, our own site, or one of the many Chicago food blogs for recommendations. Try the world-renowned Chicago Deep Dish Pizza. It’s incredible.

Surely you’ve heard of the Magnificent Mile? Located along Michigan Avenue in the Loop, Chicago boasts one of the best shopping districts in the US. If you can’t find it here, you aren’t looking hard enough, I overheard one day! Head away from downtown and you can find just about anything, from Chicago’s Chinatown to other global enclaves. It’s truly a pleasure to shop here, for anything. National Geographic named the Mag Mile as one of the ten best shopping avenues in the world, along with Rodeo Drive and Fifth Avenue, in the US.

Chicago is quite easy to get around – use the El (elevated trains), buses, bike paths, walk, or drive your car. Warning: parking is very expensive downtown.

Chicago is well-known for its politics, celebrities (Oprah Winfrey, for one), finance and trade districts, Universities, and Media. But for me, it’s a place of joy, great meals, lots of learning and exploring, and family memories. May you experience the same, when you next visit Chicago.

Content and Images by:

Dr. Jessie Voigts
Wandering Educators

Wandering Educators are an eclectic group of global and traveling educators, bent on sharing our passion for travel with like-minded individuals.