Before you bypass this article thinking Chicago is a very dangerous place to visit, consider some advice from someone who has spent a lot of years in the city. Chicago can be a dangerous place just like any other metropolis. The major rule to follow is: don’t go somewhere unless you know the area well. For visitors, especially first time visitors, this may seem impossible. However, the best way to follow the rule is to pick your spots to go to, go there during the daytime first, and follow the crowds. Once you have visited the city a few times – and you will likely want to return – you will have a better sense of how to stay safe.
As for the city itself, even if you are planning to spend an entire week there, you will not be able to see the best the city has to offer. The Museum of Science and Industry can take you more than an 8 hour day to explore. You will want to spend a day at the beach during the warmer months. You can shop ‘til you drop, but bring a credit card that has a significant available balance if you want to choose this option. You will want to get a CityPass to save you a lot of money. A lot, especially if you plan on seeing the major tourist attractions. With this primer, let’s look at the 20 must-see places to go to while visiting the toddling town.
20. The Water Tower
The Chicago Water Tower once was a single structure with a historic past that stood outside for everyone to visit. For better or worse, the Department of Architecture has turned it into a visitor’s structure with an entrance fee. The water tower is the only structure that survived the infamous Chicago Fire, back in the days when sidewalks were made of wood. There are a number of stories that are connected with the tower, including it being haunted. The best thing about it is it will probably be the shortest stop on your tour of Chicago.
19. Shedd Aquarium
Environmentalists and fish lovers alike will want to spend some time visiting the Shedd Aquarium. It serves as a safe haven for endangered species and has some of the world’s most exotic sea creatures. One of its best qualities is it is not an overwhelming aquatic experience, meaning you can see the best it has to offer in a reasonable amount of time and walk away feeling it was time well-spent.
18. The Museum of Science and Industry
If you are wondering how huge this museum is, consider the fact that one of its exhibits is a U-505 German submarine from World War 2. Then there is the tour through a coal mine and one of its favorite exhibits – watching baby chicks hatch! You have the option of touring, watching IMAX presentations, or personally experiencing exhibits such as the U-505 tour. There are separate tickets for many events which you will have to pay for, but there are package deals you can buy. Forget about going through this museum in a single day.
17. The Field Museum
The historic cousin of the Museum of Science and Industry is the Field Museum. This is not one of Chicago’s museums that gets a lot of upvotes for popularity because it is less of an interactive experience than its cousin. Many families with children are not likely to spend all day here, but if you are looking for a retreat from the many family-oriented visitor attractions you are likely to find some solace here. You can always say hello to Sue, the full scale T-Rex that is a centerpiece of the museum.
16. Brookfield Zoo
If you are looking for a place to get away from the downtown area and do something outdoorsy, the Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo is a good choice. This is a personal preference over the Lincoln Park Zoo, in part because it does get you away from the city. You have 216 acres to roam on, and there are more than 400 species of animals to look at – while they stare back at you. But this is a daytime event as the zoo’s hours are from 10 – 5 weekdays and 10 – 6 on the weekends. You can choose to bring your own food or buy it at the zoo.
15. The United Center
If you are a sports or concert goer, you will want to find out what is going on at the United Center. Home of the NBA Chicago Bulls and NHL Blackhawks, the 2020 NBA All Star game is scheduled to be held here. Before then, there is a constant stream of performers, everyone from JLo to Sara Bareilles. By the way, you can say hello to The Spirit of Michael Jordan as you walk by his statue outside of the stadium.
14. Magnificent Mile
The downtown street where you can shop ‘til you drop, the Magnificent Mile has been a long standing attraction of downtown Chicago. You will find everything from Nordstrom’s and Saks to the Banana Republic and The Disney Store to browse through and buy from. While the Magnificent Mile is also lined with great hotels, there are also plenty of great places for you to sit down and give your legs a rest. Whether you want a sweet treat from Fannie May’s, a latte from Starbucks, or a sit down meal at a restaurant, you will have plenty of options. The faire ranges from the iconic Harry Caray restaurant to specialty French and Italian eateries.
13. Adler Planetarium
Planetariums have fallen somewhat out of vogue expect for people who are more interested in learning than being entertained. Fortunately, the Adler Planetarium has found the right mix and is a great way to spend a few hours away from the crowds. The Adler’s Definiti Space Theater changes its exhibits at least once a year, so there is something new to see if you are returning to visit the city.
12. Willis Tower
Formerly known as Sears Tower, it was once the tallest building in the world. The Skydeck, on the 103rd floor, has the Ledge which is a safe but completely transparent extension that lets you look straight down onto the street below. Most adults shy away from the view but children seem to be far more adventurous. If you choose to look out from the Skydeck you can see four states on a clear day. On partly sunny days you may find yourself looking at the tops of the clouds. The express elevator that takes you up to the Skydeck takes all of two minutes – it’s deceptively fast.
11. The Art Institute
One of the most unmistakable frontpiece’s of architecture in the city, there are two lions that “guard” the entrance. The main building of the Institute was built in 1893 for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and while the lions do not have official names they were later given the appropriate titles of “In an Attitude of Defiance” for the lion on the south end of the entrance, and “On the Prowl” for the north posing lion. Even if you are not an art lover you will find hundreds of interesting exhibits to wander past. Also interesting is no selfie sticks are allowed (hooray!), and you can have your wedding photos taken in front of exhibits. But remember it is an art gallery so patience is required.
10. Wrigley Field
One of the oldest baseball parks in the country, Wrigley Field has a long history of disgruntled Cubs fans and a recent world championship. But you really want to go there for the atmosphere. Because of its long history there are guided tours of the ballpark during the regular season, so you don’t have to attend a game to get an inside look. There are several package deals for groups of up to 50 people, so if you’re visiting with family and friends it is something to look into.
9. 360 Chicago
Some say the view from the John Hancock Building which houses 360 Chicago is better than that of the Willis Tower because its location on the north side of the city offers a better view. You go up to the observation deck on the 34th floor where you can experience The Tilt. Like The Ledge in the Willis Tower, children may be more inclined to experience this adventure as the windows tilt between 10 and 30 degrees straight down to the street from 1,000 feet up. Tickets are about $20 per person.
8. The Lake Michigan Shoreline
Unless you are from either coast, or even if you are from either coast, there is nothing like taking in the beaches along Lake Michigan during the summer months. But if you not inclined to fight the crowds, there are plenty of walking spaces near and along the shoreline. If you catch the breeze coming off the lake on a hot day you will better understand what is meant by the lake effect wind. The skyline of Chicago at night is one of the best in the world, so you might consider asking about driving along Lake Shore Drive.
7. The Downtown Architecture
This is a list in a list, as there are 10 recommended buildings to see that are iconic in the city. Obviously the Willis Tower and John Hancock Building make the list, but there are also the Marina Towers and the very unique Aqua Tower. Put on your walking shoes and take advantage of the good weather to take a simple and zero-cost tour of the city. Along the way you will find plenty of places to sit or grab a bite to eat.
6. Navy Pier
Navy Pier is one of the most iconic places in the city. It is not a just a 3,300 foot long pier that stretches out into Lake Michigan but a 50 acre landmark that features an assortment of entertainment and fun things to do. Some serious remodeling was done to Navy Pier about 25 years ago, making it a more modern and visitor friendly place to go. There are rides for the kids and family-friendly restaurants to eat at. There are also cruises and tours of the city which originate from Navy Pier. If there is one historic landmark in Chicago you want to experience, this is the one.
5. Millennium Park
For those looking for a unique visual, real life experience, stop by – or rather walk by – the Millennium Park Cloud Gate. It is a part of the larger Grant Park area of Chicago, which has a number of interesting places as well. There is the Lurie Garden, which is open all day and is free to everyone. You also want to check out the Jay Pritzker Pavilion and see what kind of concerts are going on in the outdoor venue.
4. Chicago Riverwalk and Lakefront Trail
Chicago is often known for the Chicago River which was re-engineered to flow towards Lake Michigan. On St. Patrick’s Day the river is dyed green because the Irish heritage flows strongly through the city’s history. The Riverwalk and Lakefront Trail stretches for 18 miles along the River and shoreline, offering a variety of eating options and running through some of Chicago’s most historical landmarks. For some people, the best feature of the walk is only people-powered wheels are allowed, so you can enjoy the walk free of any motorized traffic.
3. Buckingham Fountain
Grant Park was mentioned earlier, and perhaps the most popular feature is Buckingham Fountain. Every hour its 200 nozzles spray 15,000 gallons of water in an impressive combination of nature and architecture. But it is at night when the lighted display starts that Buckingham Fountain gets its storied reputation. As one of the world’s largest water fountains, it is also an outdoor piece of art. Forget the videos. It is something to experience for yourself.
2.The Rookery Building
Admittedly, this is more for fans of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and those with an eye for design, but it is worth stopping by to see what all the excitement is about. Here you have to go inside the building to appreciate what can be done with iron and wood. The building has earned a listing in the Register of Historic Places. Yet the building’s architectural magnificence has not stopped it from housing commercial offices. When you go there you will be in the heart of Chicago’s financial district, so there will be even more to see.
1. Oriental Institute Museum
Last, but certainly not least, is the Oriental Institute Museum which houses many works of art and archaeology from the Near East. The artifacts from countries such as Egypt, Israel, Iraq, and Nubia can be found here. Because it is located in the University of Chicago campus, you will also get a look at one of the country’s most prestigious educational institutions as it regularly churns out Nobel Prize winners in Economics.