This guide is a slightly edited version of pages we created for out-of-town guests to our wedding on August 5, 2006. Thus, some of the information is dated.
There are literally a million things you could do in Chicago, particularly in the summertime when the city is at its most vibrant. There are innumerable festivals, many of them free, during the summer. We're not going list all the possible options, but rather will provide a few day-long itineraries we think are fun. We don't like being rushed, so each itinerary is not too full. If they're too slow-paced for you, you might want to combine two itineraries together.
Itinerary 1: Museum Day
While Chicago isn't New York or Washington D.C. when it comes to museums, it has a host of great museums all located within (a long) walking distance. All museums listed below are in Downtown.
Museum Campus, located just North of Soldier Field, consists of the Shedd Aquarium (Address: 1200 S. Lake Shore Dr., Chicago; Tel: 312-939-2438), Adler Planetarium (Address: 1300 S. Lake Shore Dr., Chicago; Tel: 312-922-STAR), and the Field Museum (Address: 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago; Tel: 312-922-9410). While the aquarium and planetarium are quite nice, the real jewel of the three is the Field, which covers many aspects of natural history. In the permanent collection, the Grainger Hall of Gems will dazzle (literally!) and the skeleton of "Sue," the museum's pet T. Rex, will awe. A temporary exhibition "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" is open until 2007. (Note special exhibitions usually cost extra.) The King Tut exhibit is often sold out, so we recommend you pre-purchase tickets to it online. Summer hours: 8-5 daily.
The Art Institute of Chicago (Address: 111 S. Michigan Ave. [at Adams], Chicago; Tel: 312-443-3600; map), has world-class collections ranging from Ancient Chinese to modern art. Their Impressionist collection is quite nice (Georges Seurat's pointillist work "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" is here). The miniature rooms are usually a hit, even with kids. Men and boys will like the armory, showing swords and coats of armor. You can easily spend 4 hours at the Art Institute, so you should budget half a day there. The cafeteria in the basement is quite good and reasonably affordable (a friend of ours at church is a pastry chef at the Art Insitute restaurant). Summer hours (through Labor Day): M-W 10:30-5:00, Th 10:30-9:00, F 10:30-9:00, Sa 10:00-5:00, Su 10:00-5:00.
Though you can walk from Museum Campus to the Art Institute, the walk's a little long, so you may find bus or taxi to be easier. For dinner, there's nothing really nearby Museum Campus, so you might as well take a taxi or drive to one of the restaurants listed in our dining guide. If you end the day by the Art Institute, you might want to have dinner at the Park Grill at Millennium Park (Address: 11 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago; Tel: 312-521-7275). It's a bit on the classy-side, with quality food and service.
Itinerary 2: Shopping Day
Even for someone who's not into shopping, the Magnificent Mile still is fun (which says something about the district). We recommend starting from the northern end of the Mile and working your way down. Take the CTA Red Line and hop off at the Chicago station (Chicago Ave. and State St.). Head east and you will find the Magnificent Mile, also called N. Michigan Ave. (map of Mag Mile).
At the northern end of the Magnificent Mile you will find designer stores such as Louis Vuitton, Bennetton, Bulgari, and Gucci. For the men who would rather sightsee, there's the John Hancock Center where tourists can ride up to the observatory deck near the top of the building (Address: 875 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago; Tel: 312-751-3681), or the Signature Room restaurant (Address: 875 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago; Tel: 312-787-9596) at the 95th floor. Another choice for a nice lunch is The Cheesecake Factory at the foot of John Hancock Center (Address: 875 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago; Tel: 312-337-1101).
After scoping out the city from up high, hit the Water Tower Place (Address: 835 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago; Tel: 312-440-3580), an 8 floor atrium mall with 100 stores. There are small food stalls, a food court, and a California Pizza Kitchen, but besides that the dining options are slim; don't save up for a sit-down meal here. The coolest part of the mall is the fountain at the main entrance of the mall: It lines the escalator leading into the mall and shoots "pebbles" of water to a rhythmic beat.
When you're finished at Water Tower Place, walk west across Michigan Ave. and grab an ice cream at the Ghiradelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate store (Address: 830 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago; Tel: 312-337-9330). In summer it's really busy and you'll have to fight for a table or sit outside by the by the old historic Chicago Water Tower that survived the Great Fire. Take pictures and enjoy a couple street artists who are around that area. Then, begin heading south toward the parade of designer and brand name stores.
The Ralph Lauren (Address: 750 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago; Tel: 312-280-1655) 4-story store, the world's largest Polo store, is quite a place to gaze at; it feels like a small mansion as you stroll through it. As you head south you'll pass by an Apple Store (Address: 679 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago; Tel: 312-981-4104) and a Niketown. Other famous chain stores that are in the vicinity include Banana Republic, Pottery Barn, Tiffany & Co. And we can't forget about Ann Taylor (Address: 600 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago; Tel: 312-587-8301)!
Snack at Garrett Popcorn Shops (Address: 670 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago; Tel: 312-280-0162) where you will probably find a long line of people waiting to get a bite of Garret's popcorn. Their cheese popcorn is awesome!
Continue heading south and visit stores like Coach, Guess, and H20+ Inc. H20+ (Address: 600 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago; Tel: 312-397-1243) skin care products are particularly moisture rich (as the name kinda suggests :P).
End at the Westfield North Bridge Mall (Address: 520 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago; Tel: 312-327 2300) where you will find places to sit and rest, in addition to Nordstrom's, Ann Taylor Loft, and Oilily. One place we haven't visited at this mall, but would love to, is Ethel's Chocolate Lounge (Address: 520 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago; Tel: 312-464-9330). It sounds like a nice place to just sit and recover after a long day's shopping. Make sure to visit the LEGO store and see what creative sculptures they've built with Lego blocks!
There are a number of good restaurants on the Mag Mile. If it was a really long day of shopping, treat yourself at the Capital Grill (Address: 633 N. St. Clair, Chicago; Tel: 312-337-9400) where you will find one of the best places to have steak. They have an unforgettable Caesar salad. The Capital Grill isn't cheap, so if you'd like something a little more moderately priced, try out the Grand Lux Cafe (Address: 600 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago; Tel: 312-276-2500), which is very much like a Cheesecake Factory in style and menu (in fact they're owned by the same company). Or if you'd like to eat somewhere away from the Mag Mile, see our dining guide for more options.
If you and your party are still up for more sightseeing, we recommend heading east on Illinois St. towards the Lake and visiting Navy Pier (Address: 600 E. Grand Ave., Chicago; Tel: 312-595-PIER) This mini-amusement park is a great place to end your day where you can ride on top of a large ferris wheel to view Chicago's skyline at night. Kids will enjoy the carousel and mini-golf course. Many evenings in the summer, Navy Pier sponsors fireworks shows you can see from the Pier and surrounding areas. You can also buy tickets to sit on a small cruise ship to cruise around Lake Michigan and view Chicago from there!
Itinerary 3: Day of Buildings and Parks
In this itinerary we spend the day exploring Chicago's architectural heritage and the cultural events available at the main Downtown parks. This entire itinerary takes place in the Loop.
Chicago is known for its architecture, and justly so. Even though New York is larger and more crazily vibrant, for layout and selection of buildings and structures, Chicago beats everyone hands-down. There is a tremendous diversity of architectural styles, but the buildings styles augment one another rather than seeming random and disconnected as in New York. And unlike other cities, you can see the Downtown skyline in one fell swoop, with breathtaking results.
Start the day with an architecture tour along the Chicago River. The Chicago Architecture Foundation's 90 minute Architecture River Cruise is a great time. The guides are erudite and the scenery spectacular. The price may seem high ($25-27) but it's worth it. The dock is located at the southeast corner of Wacker Dr. and the Michigan Ave. Bridge. You have to take an exterior stairway from the bridge down to the river bank. You can buy advance tickets from Ticketmaster at 312-902-1500 (there's an extra fee). For group reservations call 312-922-3432x226.
After you're done with the architecture tour, spend time strolling through the city's world-class urban parks. The most amazing is the lakefront of Lake Michigan. Particularly for those who've been to Malibu, CA, where it seems like every beachfront homeowner has put up fencing to restrict public access to as close to zero as legally possible, it's hard to believe that Chicago has set aside nearly the entire lakefront - miles and miles of lakefront - as a public park and beach. There are no restricted privately-owned buildings on the eastern side of Lake Shore Dr., except for a single high-rise near Navy Pier. You can access the lakefront from many places along Lake Shore Dr.; just walk towards the lake. The CTA map of Downtown gives a good idea of how to get to the Lake. Walk up and down the lakefront and relax!
If you walk south along the lakefront from the Chicago River (where the architecture tour was), you'll hit the two main central Downtown parks, Grant Park (Address: 331 E. Randolph St., Chicago; Tel: 312-742-7648) and the adjoining Millennium Park (Address: E/W between Columbus Dr. and Michigan Ave. and N/S between Randolph St. and Monroe St., Chicago; Tel: 312-742-1168).
These two parks anchor and animate the city. Giant Buckingham Fountain, seen in the opening sequence of Married With Children, is in Grant Park. Millennium Park boasts several unique and fascinating sculptures, including two city-favorites: Cloud Gate (a.k.a. "The Bean") and The Crown Fountain (a.k.a. "The Mouths that Shoot Water"). Both parks are also the home of numerous cultural events during the summer, many of which are free to the public. These include:
- Chicago SummerDance Festival: Includes free lessons and open dancing. You don't need a partner...a fun and easy way to meet random Chicagoans!
- Grant Park Music Festival: Features Classical music. Lawn and general seating is free.
- Millennium Park Events: Includes everything from Gospel music, to garden tours, to ballet.
For dinner, the Park Grill restaurant is right at Millennium Park (Address: 11 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago; Tel: 312-521-7275). It's a bit on the classy-side, with quality food and service. Besides Park Grill, there aren't many places we like that are near Millennium and Grant Parks. See our dining guide for other options.