You’re right on the water, so take advantage of it while you can! If you’re trying to see as much as you can without having to do any work yourself, hop on a boat—you can get a tour of the shoreline, or take one that goes up the Chicago River and focuses on Chicago’s famous architecture. Beachwise, there are tons of options—up north, you have Loyola Beach, but closer to the city you have North Avenue Beach (head there if you’re looking for a party), Oak Street Beach, and 12th Street Beach.
Different beaches have different vibes. Do a little research so you don’t end up in the middle of a bro party.
What happens when a 2.7 mile railroad line ends? You can either let it sit and get dilapidated, or you can do what Chicago did and turn it into an elevated greenway: The 606. Whether you want to take an early morning run or a mid-afternoon walk to get out of the office, The 606 is where you want to be on a nice day. Besides the fact you’re connected to nature right in the heart of Chicago, there’s art sprinkled throughout, plus monthly events, like For The Love of Stars.
There are 12 access points to The 606, and they’re all accessible to people with disabilities.
When the weather is nice, you get your ass to Lake Shore Drive (like everyone else). The 15 mile path is peppered with everything you could possibly want to do. Want to stay outside? Take a jog (or bike) the Lakefront Trail, head into Lincoln Park for beaches, golf, soccer, and more, or be a tourist at Navy Pier (you probably don’t want to do this). There’s also the Lincoln Park Zoo and Soldier Field. Weather taking a turn for the worse? Pop into the Museum of Science and Industry and educate yourself.
Everyone is going to have the same idea as you, so be prepared for hordes of people.
Even if you don’t care about baseball, a visit to Wrigley Field is a Chicago necessity. It’s arguably the most famous stadium in all of baseball—hell, all sports—having been around since 1914. Grab a bag of peanuts, a Chicago dog, too many beers, and take in the ivy-covered outfield walls, the historic scoreboard, and enjoy the game. If you want a...different...experience, grab some cheap bleacher seats. Just don’t wear nice shoes.
Getting tickets isn’t always easy, so buy early or pay a hefty toll. Speaking of hefty tolls, you’re better off taking an Uber or the Red Line than trying to park.
Sometimes you need an escape from the city while not really escaping the city. The Chicago Botanic Garden is perfect for that, with 27 unique garden areas spread over 385(!) acres, including six miles of lake shoreline. Find some inner peace in the Japanese Garden, decide you’re going to start a new hobby while taking in their bonsai collection, or live out your royal dreams in the English walled garden. Besides all the beautiful plants and architecture, the best part is: It’s free! Make sure to check their calendar in advance to see if any of their signature events catch your eye, like the Night of 1,000 Jack-o'-Lanterns.
Parking is expensive! You can do it online beforehand for $25-30, or you can Uber.
Millennium Park is such an iconic jewel of downtown, it’s hard to imagine it was once a web of railroad tracks. Not only is it a cultural oasis, it’s also a special events hub, welcoming visitors with free programs, family-friendly happenings, summer concerts, and unforgettable architecture. Is Millennium Park touristy? Oh yeah. Do Chicagoans still love it? You bet. In the winter, there’s ice skating, in the summer, you can dip your feet in the stream at the Lurie Garden and watch kids play in the Crown Fountain. People picnic on the Great Lawn during a range of performances from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to St. Vincent, or to partake in the free Summer Film Series selections.
You can take a short walk over the BP Bridge to check out the adjacent Maggie Daley Park, a mecca for kids.
One of America’s first zoos, the Lincoln Park Zoo lets visitors of all ages, genus, and species get face-to-furry-face with over 1,200 exotic animals. Best of all, admission is free. For those who somehow need more convincing than “there’s a bunch of wild animals and it’s free,” you can also enjoy some of the most scenic views of downtown Chicago from the zoo. Walk the Nature Boardwalk, where you’ll be flanked by native trees (and engagement photographers) of all kinds. If you get hungry, zoo options run the gamut from casual hot dog stands to the gourmet Cafe Brauer. And just because some of their animals hibernate, doesn’t mean the zoo does—be sure to check out their dazzling Zoo Lights displays if you’re here in December.
The zoo is free for you, but not your car; parking fees do apply. And as a popular go-to for field trips and birthday parties, the zoo can sometimes make you wonder which side of the glass you’re on.
Discovery and awe mark the Garfield Park Conservatory, a lush escape from downtown’s hustle. Exotic plants live under the hood of the conservatory’s epic glass windows, and an outdoor water lily garden emulates Claude Monet’s own French oasis. No matter the weather, the conservatory’s tropical palms, ferns, and aptly-named Desert House transport you from the Midwest to uncharted locales. Did we mention these greenhouses are known as one of Chicago’s best date spots? Whether venturing solo or with a sweetie, the trip is mesmerizing.
Parking and admission are free.
Photo courtesy of Garfield Park Conservatory