It may be called the “Second City,” but Chicago plays second-fiddle to none. With stunning architecture, 40 world-class museums, over 200 theaters and more than 200 independent art galleries, and over 7000 restaurants serving award-winning food, Chicago is a great place to visit for a weekend of culture, cuisine and history any time of year.
But at no time does Chicago shine brighter than during the summer months. The Windy City is one of the most beautiful places to visit from June through September, when locals shake off the winter blues and take advantage of every last drop of summer sun. From eclectic street festivals to picnics in the park, running along the Lakefront and hitting the beach, there’s so much to do in Chicago during the summer. Here are nine reasons why you should add a visit to Chicago to your summer plans.
You’ll never go hungry in Chicago
In fact, the biggest challenge you might face is figuring out how to pack all the eating you want to do into a limited itinerary. Chicago is home to 23 Michelin starred restaurants, two former Top Chef contestants and several celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless, Homaro Cantu, and Grant Achatz. From the mind-blowing 18-course menu at Alinea to the dressed up sausages and “encased meats” at Hot Doug’s, Chicago chefs knows how to make a dish more than the sum of its parts. Of course, if your tastes (and budget) aren’t as highbrow, you can still take a bite out of Chicago without starving your savings.
Deep dish pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs may be the most famous budget-friendly foods in Chicago, but you’ll also find plenty of other options to fit any budget, from hearty Argentine steaks at Tango Sur to Italian small plates at Quartino to the best mussels this side of the Atlantic at Hopleaf. You can even enjoy a night out in style on a small budget by dining at a BYOB restaurant. Some places – even those worthy of a special occasion – allow you to bring in your own beer or wine, either for free or for $2-$3 per bottle.
There’s always something happening in Grant Park
Nicknamed “The City’s Front Yard,” Grant Park is Chicago’s most famous park. At 319 acres it’s also one of the largest and contains Millennium Park, the Buckingham Fountain (which you might recognize from the opening credits of Married with Children), and the Museum Campus, home to museums like the Art Museum, Field Museum, and Shedd Aquarium.
During the summer, it seems there’s a festival held here every weekend. From free events like the Taste of Chicago, the world’s largest outdoor food fest, to concerts like Lollapalooza, the park is the stage for hundreds of summer events. The free summer Grant Park Music Festival has been running since the 1930’s and draws an annual audience of over 300,000, the Grant Park Orchestra performs throughout the day, five days a week and there’s a lunchbreak music series daily from June to September in Millennium Park.
Chicago Summer Dance, held Thursdays through Sundays from July 7 to September 18 in Grant Park, offers group dance lessons in swing, waltz, salsa, cha-cha, ballroom, big band, folk, tango and more accompanied by live bands. Over 100,000 people come to dance at the festival, which is the largest of its kind in the US.
The farmer’s markets bring fresh food to the city
When you’re on vacation, the last thing you’re probably thinking about is grocery shopping, but the farmer’s markets in Chicago are good for more than just stocking your fridge. For the best array of goodies, head to the Green City Market in Lincoln Park, on the city’s north side. Held every Saturday and Wednesday from 7am to 1pm, from May to October, the market offers everything from fresh produce, herbs, and flowers and organic meats and dairy to artisanal breads and cheese. It’s the perfect place to stock a picnic basket, but it’s also a great place to grab a light bite.
At the market you’ll find made-to-order crepes, piping hot sugar-dusted Italian donuts, hearty burgers and sausages, fruit smoothies, banana bread, ice cream, pies, and more, all ready to be devoured for a few bucks. Make a round of the market to select your meal and then settle in to watch a cooking demo or listen to live music.
You can make a splash at one of beaches
For a Midwest city, Chicago has a lot to offer the beach bum traveler. Chicago has over 26 miles of shoreline within its city limits, with 15 swimming beaches. There are beaches for families, party beaches, quiet beaches, and even dog-friendly beaches. From May to September, the beaches are the place to see and be seen on warm, sunny days, especially if you are young and single. But scoping out the hot bodies isn’t the only reason to hit the beach.
You can work on your tan, grab a bite to eat at a beachside restaurant, play in the waves, run or bike along the Lakefront Path, or – if you’re lucky and know someone with a boat – spend some time out on Lake Michigan. Boating is extremely popular in the city and Chicago boasts the nation’s largest municipal harbor system – bigger than even New York or Miami.
Public transport makes the big city feel small
Chicago is big. It’s home to the largest convention center in the country, the world’s largest public library and the world’s longest street. Yet despite it’s size, Chicago is livable, accessible and easy to get around. Most of the main tourist attractions are located in the Loop, the main business area. And though most tourists prefer to stay on beautiful Michigan Avenue just across the river, it’s just an easy walk or short bus ride to places like Grant Park or the Museum Campus.
If you want to get out of the downtown core to explore some of the city’s neighborhoods or dine at one of the city’s best restaurants, you’ll learn to love the “el” – the elevated (mostly, but not always) train that can easily whisk you from downtown to Chinatown, Bucktown, Lakeview, Lincoln Park or any one of dozens of other Chicago ‘hoods. Public transport in Chicago is easy to use, cheap, and efficient, so there’s no need to rent a car or rack up exorbitant taxi charges.
It’s the Hollywood of the Midwest
Once upon a time – in the early 1900’s to be exact – Chicago was a major center for film production. Essenay Studios, where many of the early silent films (including those starring Charlie Chaplin) were filmed, is located on the city’s north side. Though the epicenter of the film industry eventually moved west, Chicago has remained a popular film location, setting the stage for films and tv shows like ER, Perfect Strangers, The Bob Newhart Show, Family Matters, Married with Children, Batman Begins and The Dark Night, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Public Enemies, The Break-up, High Fidelity, While You Were Sleeping, Stranger Than Fiction and dozens more.
You’ll recognize many famous movie locations just walking around the city. For a more in depth look at film backdrops around Chicago, you can book the Chicago Film Tour, a two hour tour that goes to over 30 sites used in about 50 movies, from Chinatown in the south to Uptown on the city’s north side.
Neighborhood festivals keep the party going all summer long
During the summer, it seems like there is a street festival happening in Chicago nearly every weekend. There are festivals for neighborhoods (like Retro on Roscoe and Summer on Southport), festivals that celebrate certain drinks or food (Pizza Fest, Wing Fest), cultural festivals (like Oktoberfest or the Taste of Greece) art and crafts festivals (Renegade Craft Fair and Lakeview Arts Fest) and more.
Going to at least one summer festival is practically a requirement for young singles in Chicago, though you’ll find people of all ages, including families with young kids. Most festivals are free or cost just a few bucks to get in and you’ll find plenty to eat and drink, crafts vendors, and live music inside.
For architecture buffs, Chicago is mecca
Chicago is considered the birthplace of the skyscraper; the first was was built here after a fire destroyed 24 city blocks, 2000 acres of land and 18,000 buildings in 1871. A short 22 days after the fire, over 21 million people came to Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Within a few months, Potter Palmer opened the Palmer House Hotel (after the first one burned in the fire, 13 days after its grand opening) on State Street and declared it to be “the world’s first fire-proof building.” Since then, Chicago rebuilt with glass, steel and stone structures which became the new model for buildings around the world.
One of the best ways to see the astounding architecture of the city (and learn more about the people who helped the city reach for the sky), is to take the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise, a 90-minute cruise that is narrated by an Architecture Foundation docent and takes in some of the city’s best views and is the a great way to relax on a hot summer day. Or for a smaller fee, you can hop on the Chicago Water taxi and get the same perspective for less.
You can travel the world without ever leaving the city
Chicago is one of the most multi-cultural cities in the US. It’s home to large numbers of Latinos, Italians, Irish, and other Eastern Europeans such as Serbians, Croatians, and Ukrainians, and has the largest Polish population in the world, after Warsaw. For a little taste of that international vibe, you can hop on the el and spend the day exploring neighborhoods like Greektown, Chinatown, Little Italy and Pilsen or sample cuisine from any one of dozens of cultures like Thai, German, Vietnamese, Korean, Ethiopian, West African, Swedish, and others.
Chicago also hosts several international festivals throughout the summer, celebrating different cultures. There’s an Irish-American heritage festival, a Turkish festival, a Greek festival, and many more.
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