If you've already done — OR just want to ignore—Chicago's major attractions, consider some of the following ways Chicagoans and their personal guests appreciate the city's downtown offerings.
City of Big Shoulders
The Windy City holds up perhaps the world's greatest architectural spread, and the Chicago Architecture Foundation (224 S. Michigan, 312-922-TOUR) presents hundreds of walks, talks, bus tours, bike rides and exhibits annually to make sure we don't forget it. The most convenient of these to fit into a packed itinerary are the frequent and diverse talking tours. Historic Skyscrapers, Modern Skyscrapers, Riverfront, Streeterville, North Michigan, Museum Campus, Printers Row and the Gold Coast walks are all scheduled, several more than once, on the days of your Chicago visit. Nonmembers pay $8 to $10 per tour.
One of the most popular recommendations of native Chicagoans for their out-of-town guests is CAF's 90-minute River Tour. While cruising down the Chicago River, experienced docents provide in-depth narration on over 50 historic and architecturally significant sites along the modest waterway attributed with the emergence of Chicago from a swampy land of smelly onions. Monday through Friday 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays 11 a.m., 12 noon, 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. The cost is $21, advance reservations recommended (Ticketmaster, 312-902-1500).
For a more informal tour, pick up a Chicago Landmarks Map from the visitors center in the Chicago Cultural Center (77 E. Randolph). Before you leave, make sure to view the center's striking exhibit of landmark photography.
By Land and By Sea
From its earliest days, Chicago flourished as a transportation hub for the nation. Its internal transportation network is currently a great way to see lots of city for little money.
The well-worn tracks of the Chicago Transit Authority's elevated train (the "L") that encircle the core of our downtown gave the area its famous "Loop" nickname. Now, visitors can learn the history of the Loop, its architecture and the 100-year-old elevated train system aboard the Chicago Architecture Foundation's Loop Tour Train (Randolph & Washington station, 312-744-2400). The 40-minute guided tours leave Saturdays at 12:15 p.m., 12:55 p.m., 1:35 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. Free tickets must be picked up in advance from the Chicago Cultural Center and are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
A newer component in Chicago's transportation system is the free downtown trolleys. Trolleys (312-744-3565 for route information) leave from various downtown attractions and serve distinct areas, such as the daily Navy Pier route and a weekend shuttle to the Garfield Park Conservatory. Board at designated stops every 15 to 30 minutes. Find route maps on trolleys and at the Chicago Cultural Center.
What does Chicago have in common with Rio and Havana? They are the only three North American cities that enjoy a downtown located next to the beach. Chicago has over 18 miles of lakefront paths (Navy Pier is an approximate midpoint)—studded with parks, beaches, gardens, sporting opportunities, museums and a zoo—from which to luxuriate in this public treasure.
Self-propelling transportation befits the lakefront paths, particularly in early June when it seems that half the city is out. Bike Chicago (800-915-BIKE, www.bikechicago.com) lets visitors play along by renting mountain bikes, classic cruisers, tandems, quadcycles, scooters and in-line skates at their Navy Pier, Oak St. Beach, Lincoln Park Zoo and Buckingham Fountain locations. Free, easy tours that introduce riders to Chicago history, architecture and nightlife leave daily from Navy Pier at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Reservations are accepted and encouraged.
While tourists regularly shell out several dollars for a jaunt down the Chicago River, a mere $2 gain you passage on Wendella Boats' commuter RiverBus, producing the same basic result in less time and with more local color. Boats leave every eight minutes during rush hours and about every half-hour otherwise, from three docks, 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Exit at Madison (Madison Street bridge and the river) for the Sears Tower and Union Station; at Michigan (400 N. Michigan) for the Magnificent Mile; and Tavern on the Pier (455 E. Illinois) for Navy Pier and the lakefront.
With a "second city" complex and a "windy" (as in boastful hot air) reputation, it's no wonder that Chicagoans like sky-high extremes.
Here's one great sightseeing secret that is making its way into more and more guidebooks: Bypass the $9 trip to the 94th-floor observation deck for a nighttime elevator ride to the 96th floor of the John Hancock Building (875 N. Michigan). It's a free glide to the lounge, where you can opt, like so many others, to soak up breathtaking views of the glittering city below without sitting down and buying a drink. (A drink with tax and tip from a window-side table will run about $10.) If you feel some unsettling motion, it may not be vertigo or too many piña coladas but the built-in "sway" that helps Big John withstand fierce winds and other intemperances.
George Ferris debuted his Ferris Wheel in mammoth form at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Navy Pier—once a freight center, navy training base and branch of the University of Illinois and now 50 acres of fun—pays homage to this Chicago introduction with their 150-footer. Open year-round, the wheel permits a spectacular view of the city, especially at nightfall.
Daley Culture—High, Low and Street-Level
Primarily the stomping grounds of city and county employees and the Chicagoans who have bureaucratic business in the surrounding government buildings, Daley Plaza (Washington and Dearborn) offers visitors three great perspectives on day-to-day life in downtown Chicago.
The "Picasso," a large, untitled sculpture by the great artist, has stood sentinel over Daley Plaza since 1967, bemusing and confusing passersby and providing a sturdy base for brown-baggers and rambunctious kids. Weekdays 12 p.m. to 1 p.m., the Department of Cultural Affairs sponsors a range of cultural events "Under the Picasso," from concerts, drama, dance and lectures to ethnic celebrations, fashion shows, exhibits and farmer's markets. Dial 312-FINE-ART for upcoming programs.
The staircases visible from the plaza lead to the sprawling underground Pedway. Not the upscale economic development vehicle of, say, Atlanta or Tokyo, Chicago's pedway is a long-standing, utilitarian production, probably a response to our cold winters. Still, the pedway is an impressive maze of walkways leading to and lined with several government offices, banks, hotels, services, retail stores (including Marshall Field's), restaurants, attractions and public transportation.
Across the street from the Picasso stands the equally enigmatic creature of another Spanish master, Joan Miró. From 1981, Miró's Chicago has dominated the courtyard of Holabird & Roche's 1923 Chicago Temple (77 W. Washington). Housing the First United Methodist Church of Chicago, this is the world's tallest church (568 ft.). Its sanctuary is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., and daily tours of its Sky Chapel (located in the spire) are given at 2 p.m.
Among the Stacks
Far from the shop-talk of the McCormick Center floor, you may realize that you only thought you had your fill of books for the weekend. The particular magnificence of these three libraries can remind anyone that books are no ordinary business.
Named for Chicago's first African-American mayor, the Harold Washington Library Center (400 S. State, 312-747-4300), the main branch of the Chicago Public Library, is the second largest public library in the world. Don't miss the Winter Garden on the ninth floor; the Jazz, Blues and Gospel Hall of Fame on eight; or the permanent art collection scattered throughout the building. Join a guided tour, Monday through Saturday at noon and 2 p.m. A monthly events listing will alert you to the free performances, films, lectures, workshops, art exhibits and children's programming scheduled for the day.
Such items as a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible and original drawings for Alice in Wonderland are among the valuables at the Newberry Library (60 W. Walton, 312-943-9090), an independent history and humanities research facility boasting a world-class collection of rare books, maps, graphics and manuscripts. Free tours given Thursdays at 3 p.m., Saturdays at 10:30 a.m.
Known as "The People's Palace" when it first opened in 1897 as the city's original public library, the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington, 312-346-3278) is a national landmark still deserving of that affectionate designation. It remained Chicago's central library until 1977, becoming the Cultural Center after an extensive renovation was completed in 1991. As an architectural masterpiece, this beaux arts spectacle wows on every repeated visit. The Grand Staircase, Preston Bradley Hall, $35-million Tiffany dome (the world's largest) and G.A.R. Rotunda are the type of things usually associated with palaces. When it comes to the 1,000 free cultural events a year—weekday lunchtime programs, exhibits, concerts, dance and dramatic performances, films, classes, lectures and workshops—it is peerless.
Once you've hit Chicago's major world-class museums, these two are among the most interesting and accessible of the smaller institutions.
Jane Addams' Hull House (800 S. Halsted, 312-413-5353) is where author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams and crew began their settlement house and social work projects to improve the lives of immigrants in the surrounding neighborhood. Accompanying exhibits focus on Addams, other women who lived and worked at Hull House, their social endeavors and Chicago immigration history. Open Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Free.
Housed in a renovated old warehouse, the relatively new National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum (1801 S. Indiana, 312-326-0270) is unique in its specialization in art produced by Vietnam War veterans. Artists from the U.S. and Southeast Asia have contributed over 600 powerful and sometimes disturbing paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographic pieces to a collection that also contains North Vietnamese and Viet Cong artifacts. Open Tuesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday noon to 5 p.m.; $5.
Support Our Local Artists
Whether browsing for fun, shopping for sport or dashing in for a quick souvenir, these shops make a great starting point for tracking down special gifts at surprisingly reasonable prices.
Gallery 37 is a 10-year-old project of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs that pairs talented Chicago students earning an hourly wage with local and international artist-instructors. Its Gallery 37 Store (121 N. La Salle, 312-744-7274) sells much of the exceptional artwork created during these year-round internships. Jewelry, stationery, hand-painted apparel, ceramics, furniture and decorative furnishings, mosaics, carved wood works and more are for sale to support the program. Closed Sundays.
Located in the James R. Thompson Center, aka the State of Illinois Building, the Illinois Artisans Shop (100 W. Randolph, 312-814-5321) markets an impressive range of arts and crafts from dozens of Illinois woodworkers, photographers, painters, potters, felt crafters, quilters, beaders, jewelry makers and other artisans. Look for everything from fine art to county fair crafts, from the practical to the purely aesthetic. Closed weekends.
If you haven't yet made Chicago lodging arrangements or are already looking ahead for future BEAs, the following are excellent alternatives to the major hotels.
Bed & Breakfast Chicago (773-394-2000, www.chicago-bed-breakfast.com) links travelers with distinctive lodging in Chicago's Downtown, Gold Coast, Lincoln Park, North Shore and Hyde Park neighborhoods. Rooms with breakfast run from $75 to $125 per night; self-contained apartments from $125 to $325. These are no typical country-inn B&Bs, but charming urban locales, ranging from cozy coach houses to elegant town homes to stunning high-rise apartments. The Heritage Bed & Breakfast Registry (800-431-5546, 312-857-0800, www.heritageregistry.com) offers similar accommodations.
The Three Arts Club (1300 N. Dearborn, 312-944-6250) has been a supportive residence for emerging women artists since 1912. Its gorgeous landmark building, complete with outdoor courtyard, ballroom and exhibition space, in the ritzy Gold Coast enclave is quite a find for budget travelers. Laundry, multipurpose art studio, pianos and TV lounges are open to guests. Private rooms are $45 per night and $250 per week, and include breakfast and dinner. The one catch is that during the school year only women travelers are allowed to rent rooms; it goes co-ed for the summer after May 31.
For a taste of neighborhood Chicago not far from downtown, try the one-of-a-kind, Eurostyle boutique hotels of Neighborhood Inns of Chicago. Located in lively East Lakeview, each hotel is just a short walk from numerous restaurants, clubs, theaters, interesting shopping, the lakefront and Wrigley Field. Rooms range from $159 to $229. The City Suites Hotel (933 W. Belmont, 773-404-3400) has a Chicago Prohibition-era theme, The Majestic (528 W. Brompton, 773-404-3499) a British ambiance and The Willows (555 W. Surf, 773-528-8400) a French country style.