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20 Best Things to Do in Chicago for First Time Visitors


Chicago is an amazing city to visit as it offers its visitors such a diverse experience. It combines history and culture, with modern amenities and attractions. Regardless of whether you are interested in art, theater, interactive activities, or music, you will find plenty of things to see and do during your stay. In fact, there are so many attractions and activities in this city, that you may find it difficult planning what to include in your vacation itinerary. If you want to make the most of your time in this fabulous city, there are some activities and attractions that you should not miss. To help you out, here are 20 things that you should see or do during your first time in Chicago.

20. National Museum of Mexican Art

Although there are many amazing art museums to visit in Chicago, one that is a little different is the National Museum of Mexican Art. The museum is located in Pilsen, the Hispanic neighborhood of Chicago. This cultural institution boasts one of the largest collections of Mexican Art in the United States. There is a permanent exhibition, Nuestras Historias, along with ever-changing exhibitions. Along with the traditional Mexican pieces, you will see work by Chicago-based artists with Mexican heritage, including Errol Oritz and Hector Duarte.

19. Humboldt Park

One of the most pleasant places to spend time outdoors in Chicago is Humboldt Park. This pretty green space is filled with lagoons, and it is popular with tourists and locals alike. If you are visiting during the summer months, you will see the park come alive with various events. Located on Chicago’s West Side, this park also has a boathouse restaurant. This is a very relaxing place to visit away from the buzz of the urban parts of the city. It is also a great place to enjoy the fresh air and see a different side of Chicago.

18. Navy Pier

One of the most famous landmarks in Chicago is Navy Pier, so it is well worth a visit during your time in Chicago. The pier stretches out into the waters of Lake Michigan and features a 200-foot Ferris wheel. It is also home to the only IMAX screen in Chicago, the Chicago Children’s Museum, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and several dining options. Therefore, you will find plenty of things to do during your visit. From the pier, you can also take a boat ride across the lake or enjoy a drink at Offshore, which is the largest rooftop bar in the world.

17. Music Box Theater

This is actually a movie theater, so it is a great place to visit on a rainy day or if you are looking for something to do in the evenings other than dining out or drinking in bars. The vintage theater has two large screens and it shows limited-release films. Often, there are midnight showing hosted at this movie theater. An adjacent lounge means you can enjoy drinks and snacks before or after a screening.

16. Chicago Cultural Center

The best way to learn about the history and culture of Chicago is to take a trip to the Chicago Cultural Center. This venue has some fascinating exhibitions, and it also hosts many cultural events throughout the year. Furthermore, the Chicago Cultural Center is a venue for plays, so it is a good place to visit for anyone who is interested in the arts.

15. Goose Island Fulton Street Brewery

If you are a fan of beer, then one of the best ways to sample some of the best produce from Chicago is to visit Goose Island Fulton Street Brewery. At this venue, you can enjoy a tour of the brewery and learn more about beer production in Chicago. You will have the chance to sample some of the produce, and the breweries shop sells a range of their products for you to take home.

14. Adler Planetarium

This is an interesting activity for those who are interested in science, history, or space. You can visit the planetarium in the evening to enjoy spectacular views of the night sky. You will also have the chance to learn about the history of space exploration in the United States and to take a peek inside the Gemini 12 capsule. The planetarium is located on the outermost tip of the Museum Campus. After visiting the planetarium, you can also visit the Grainger Sky Theater where you can enjoy screenings of immersive films inside a 70-foot-diameter dome. It is important to check times and availability before your visit.

13. 360 Chicago

One of the best places to enjoy views across the city and beyond is 360 CHICAGO. The observation deck of this building sits at 1,000 feet, and you can view across the city skyline and over the four surrounding states. There are very few ways that you can see four states of the United States of America all at the same time. This venue has something called the TILT attraction, which involves leaning over the side of the building to see the city streets below. This is not for the faint-hearted or those who are scared of heights.

12. Chicago Theater

One of the top evening attractions in this city is the Chicago Theater. You can spend the evening in the theater watching the performance of your choice, followed by a drink in one of the many surrounding bars or an evening meal in one of the outstanding Chicago restaurants in the surrounding area. Chicago theater has a jam-packed program throughout the year, with everything from musicals to comedic performances. If you plan to spend an evening at the theater during your visit to Chicago, it makes sense to check what is on before embarking on your trip and to book your tickets in advance.

11. Shedd Aquarium

Shedd Aquarium is a particularly good attraction to visit if you have come to Chicago with children. However, it is just as enjoyable for adults. The aquarium is home to thousands of aquatic creatures from around the globe, so you will see everything from the giant Pacific octopus to adorable otters. Tropical fish are in abundance, and you will find it therapeutic watching them silently glide through their huge glass homes. One of the highlights for many people is enjoying the Caribbean Reef exhibition. If you are willing to pay a little extra during your visit, you will have the chance to get up close and personal with a beluga whale.

10. The Chicago Riverwalk

The Chicago River is the most important natural landmark in the city, so it makes sense to include it in your itinerary the first time you visit Chicago. The waterside walkway is lined with some of Chicago’s top restaurants and bars, so you can enjoy breakfast, brunch, lunch, or dinner during your walk. A walk along the river is one of the best ways to admire both the traditional and modern Chicago architecture and to see some of the top landmarks in the city.

9. The Green Mill

The Green Mill is famous for its iconic marquee, and many visitors have their photograph taken with this before they even step inside the venue. It is best to show up early to this cocktail bar to make sure you get a good seat. Once you have settled in for the evening, you can expect to see some of the greatest jazz musicians in Chicago performing for your pleasure. Despite the necessity of early arrival, the music lasts late into the night.

8. Museum of Science and Industry

Recommended by US News, the Museum of Science and Industry is a tribute to the innovative roots of Chicago. There are more than 35,00 artifacts exhibited at this venue, and many of these have an interactive element. This means it is an interesting place to visit for people of all ages. You will find this museum within the former Palace of Fine Arts.

7. Wrigley Field

Located in Wrigleyville, Wrigley Field is home to the Chicago Cubs, which is the North Side, baseball team. This is one of the oldest ballparks in America as it was built in 1914. Even if you are not a fan of the sport, it is worth making a visit to watch a game, just so that you can enjoy the vibe and the amazing sense of camaraderie amongst the fans.

6. Skydeck

Vocal Wander says that you should take the opportunity to get a bird’s eye perspective of the city by visiting Skydeck Chicago. Located on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower, this is the highest observation deck in the United States. You can enjoy panoramic views of the city from 1,400 feet in the air. From this vantage point, you can enjoy the spectacular sight of many of Chicago’s landmarks.

5. Museum of Contemporary Art

Art lovers will adore spending time at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which boasts one of the largest collections of contemporary art in the United States. It is widely considered a destination for cutting edge exhibitions. The line-up of exhibitions is constantly changing, so you can visit many times and still see something different at each visit. You can also enjoy a delicious meal during your visit, as the museum is home to a top-quality restaurant called ‘Marisol’.

4. Lincoln Park Zoo

A great day out for all the family is Lincoln Park Zoo. The zoo covers 35 acres in the middle of Lincoln Park, and it is one of the few remaining free zoos in the United States. It is home to more than 1,000 animals, and it is a great chance to learn more about the different species. Some of the highlights of the visit include watching the African penguins playing in Penguin Cove and seeing the big cats in the Kovelr Lion House. If you prefer smaller animals, you might enjoy a visit to the McCormick Reptile House. When you have finished seeing the animals at the zoo, you are free to stroll around the stunning Lincoln Park at your leisure.

3. Garfield Park Conservatory

One of the largest conservatories in the United States, this is a giant greenhouse located in Garfield Park. It contains more than 600 species of plants and it is open 365 days a year. This is a free activity, so it is ideal for those who are visiting Chicago on a budget. It is also great for those who want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city streets.

2. Art Institute of Chicago

Chicago is a great place to visit for art lovers as there are many venues that display various genres of art. One of the best places to visit is the Art Institute of Chicago as this is one of the most well-known cultural institutions in the city. It is home to more than 300,000 works of art, and there is also an excellent Italian restaurant on-site if you are hungry during your visit.

1. Millennium Park

According to Time Out, the top attraction to visit in Chicago is Millennium Park. Often referred to as Chicago’s front yard, this vast park covers 24.5 acres and it is the most popular place to spend time outdoors in the city. Other than going for walks, you can enjoy the public art or take the kids to the play areas. There are also various events that take place in this park throughout the year, including the addition of the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in the winter and the Pritzker Pavilion in the summer. No matter what time of year you visit, you will find plenty of things to enjoy at this park.

Liz Flynn

Written by Liz Flynn

Liz Flynn has worked as a full-time writer since 2010 after leaving a career in education. She finds almost all topics she writes about interesting, but her favorite subjects are travel and food. Liz loves the process of researching information, learning new things, and putting into words what others who share her interests might like to read. Although she spends most of her time writing, she also enjoys spending time with her husband and four children, watching films, cooking, dining out, reading, motorsports, gaming, and walking along the beach next to her house with her dog.

Read more posts by Liz Flynn

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