Summer might be over, but there is still plenty to celebrate as fall packs a one-two punch of Latino culture, history and tradition.
Things kick off with Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15-Oct. 15, which coincides with seven independence days from countries across the Latin world and honors the culture and contributions of Latinos around the globe.
Dia de los Muertos follows on Nov. 1-2. As a public holiday in Mexico and other countries, the "day of the dead" commemorates the lives of deceased loved ones. Families gather to offer gifts and build shrines. Kids can even eat skulls-made of sugar, that is.
But you don't need a passport to join the fun. With the second-largest Mexican population in the United States, there's plenty to do here in Chicago. And what better way to share in the experience than to visit the neighborhood at the center of it all: Pilsen.
Located on Chicago's near west side, near downtown and the South Loop, Pilsen combines small-town charm with the bustle of a big city. Traditional murals line train platforms. Quiet coffee shops come equipped with WiFi.
At the heart of the activity is 18th Street. Stroll this main drag, or take a trolley ride, which is free from noon to 4 p.m. every Sunday through Labor Day, and hit some of the local hot spots.
Start your day at Café Mestizo (1646 W. 18th St., www.cafemestizo.com) with a cocoa azteca (Mexican mocha) or horchata (a Mexican rice-flavored drink). Sit down with a sandwich after browsing the bilingual children's books from Tianguis (1646 W. 18th St., www.tianguis.biz), many of which are half price. Rotating art exhibits hang in this loft-like space.
Next, head for the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum (1852 W. 19th St., www.mfacmchicago.org). The museum is free and features three intimate galleries, ideal for parents who worry about losing little ones in larger museums. The vibrant, eye-catching artwork is hung low enough so kids can see it.
Starting Sept. 27, the museum will feature its 20th annual Dia de los Muertos exhibition, "Rooted in Tradition."
When tired eyes begin to wander, step outside into what many locals call "the pride of Pilsen," Harrison Park (1824 S. Wood St.). Grab a snowcone or a churro (warm cinnamon stick) from a street vendor.
Stop by Oxala (1653 W. 18th St.), which offers international and local handmade items. Browse candles, jewelry, pictures, religious wares, batiks and kites-especially popular with kids, says owner Omar Valencia. This fall, the year-old store will offer some how-to programs for kids.
You don't need a sweet tooth to indulge at one of Pilsen's many panaderias. For starters, try Nuevo Leon Panaderia (1634 W. 18th St.). Grab the tongs and fill a silver tray with fresh-baked Mexican goodies, from brownies to churros, muffins and breads. Most items are under $1, and are great for the ride home.