We’re probably all guilty of rolling our eyes at a group of tourists fumbling with maps and blocking our way. But Chicago is a world-class city, so why should the natives miss out on all the fun? We’ve got six ideas for experiencing our great city like it was your first trip around the Loop.
Think like an out-of-towner
It turns out Chicago’s Visitors Centers actually aren’t just for visitors. Dorothy Coyle, executive director of the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture, says employees at the Cultural Center or the Water Works are happy to help you set up an itinerary and navigate public transportation, not to mention provide scavenger hunts and Foursquare badges to make exploration more fun (we like the Celery Salt badge for Chicago hot dogs, or the Brain Freeze Trek for ice cream lovers; visit explorechicago.org/games).
Or, see all those spots you disparage as “so touristy.” Think as if you’re hosting out-of-town guests and want to show off the places that make Chicago Chicago. If it’s been a while, you might not know that Navy Pier is far from a warm-weather-only destination; there are activities going on all year-inside and out (and a rockin’ children’s museum).
Have years passed since you’ve ascended the Sears-ahem, Willis-Tower? Then you probably haven’t had the opportunity to defy your fear of heights on The Ledge. And Coyle says it’s worth looking into membership options so you can explore the Museum of Science and Industry over and over. Think basic, and you might be surprised by how extraordinary it is.
Is there any word more powerful than “free”? We don’t think so, which is why we’re glad Chicago abounds with cultural opportunities that don’t lighten the wallet. The Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the country’s finest, is always free. Bring along a picnic lunch and you’ve got a cheap day of entertainment.
Chicago museums, including big names like the Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium, regularly offer free days.
We also love places where kids under 12 are always free, such as the Chicago History Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Coyle says spring is a great time for a parade, such as March’s St. Patrick’s Day parade and May’s Cinco de Mayo celebration. And we’d also like to point out that window-shopping on the Magnificent Mile doesn’t cost a penny.
Go to the extremes
Think of two opposites and then try them out. High and low? Ride to the top of one of Chicago’s famous skyscrapers, then wander under the city using the Chicago Pedway.
Got baseball fans? Take behind-the-scenes tours at Wrigley Field and U.S. Cellular Field and learn more about the city’s relationship with the American pastime-and deep-seated rivalry.
Sick of unpredictable weather? Pick a controlled climate to explore, whether the tropical landscape of Garfield Park Conservatory’s Palm House (one of Chicago’s “under-discovered” attractions, Coyle says) or the chilly waters of Shedd Aquarium’s Oceanarium.
On chilly spring days, you can even explore contrasts in the interiors of buildings: Coyle recommends stopping into the Chicago Cultural Center or Palmer House Hotel to check out the lobbies, then popping by the Aqua Building or Trump Tower for some sleeker décor.
Try different transport
If you’re used to exploring by car or on foot, switch it up. Chicago’s got a wide range of alternative transportation, whether distinctive-looking trolleys or eco-friendly bikes (ride to Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum to check out the new exhibit Bikes!: The Green Revolution).
Families can gape at the city’s amazing architecture from a new vantage point on the Chicago River, while adventurers and the non-self-conscious can test out their balance on a Segway (age minimum is 12). There are even tours on antique fire trucks! Or if you want to keep it simple, buy a CTA Day Pass ($5.75) and make your way around the city on our world-famous El.
“Transportation is such a fascinating topic for children, and the physical structure of the El is pretty unique,” Coyle says. “I think it’s fun to go on public transportation.”
Attack your someday list
We’ve all got something we pledge to do “someday.” Write a “bucket list” for the things you’d like to do or see in Chicago. Whether it’s marveling at the water show at Buckingham Fountain, enjoying modern art, or checking out Sue’s impressive skeleton-now’s your chance.
If your dream activity is somewhat of a splurge, a family overnight at a museum or a Broadway in Chicago show, start saving now. For the ultimate splurge, Coyle recommends a weekend in the city, whether at one of the budget-friendly locales like Best Western River North or a more over-the-top choice like The Four Seasons.
“You just have time to absorb everything around you, and you’re not so rush, rush, rush,” she says.
And if you need an excuse to do something every other native seems to have done, well, you can always pretend to be a tourist. Just bring along a map to make it convincing.