Chicago is not only one of the largest cities in the United States, it is also one of the coolest cities to visit—a city jam-packed with fun things to do and see.
With nearly 3 million residents, Chicago is the third-most populous city in the United States (after New York City and Los Angeles), the most-populous city in the state of Illinois and the Midwestern United States, the county seat of Cook County, and the economic and recreational hub for the upper Midwest region.
Last year, the city of Chicago played host to nearly 53 million domestic and international visitors—a new record for the city—making it one of the most oft-visited cities in the nation and world. Chicago’s amazing cultural scene includes the visual arts, novels, film, theater, especially improvisational comedy, and music, particularly jazz, blues, soul, gospel, and house music. It also has professional sports teams in each of the major professional leagues—the NFL (Bears), NBA (Bulls), NHL (Blackhawks) and MLB (Cubs and White Sox). Chicago has many nicknames, the best-known being the Windy City, so named for its blustery winter conditions.
There are literally thousands of sites and attractions worth visiting in Chicago—attractions that are guaranteed to please every member of your family and group. To illustrate this point, below we will highlight five of the coolest things to do and see while visiting Chicago, and provide an in-depth description of each of these attraction’s most popular characteristics.
While the famous Millennium Park is unquestionably the centerpiece of the proud city of Chicago, the odd and very whimsical Oz Park, themed around the book and the movie, “the Wizard of Oz,” has had an amazingly positive effect on the neighborhoods and the community it touches.
When the city of Chicago decided to revamp the rundown Lincoln Park neighborhood, it made the unusual choice to honor the late author L. Frank Baum, who once made his home in the neighborhood, by developing the Oz-themed Park that still stands today.
Not long after the park area was acquired in 1974, improvements to Oz Park began to be made by the City of Chicago parks department—improvements that slowly transformed every inch of the public space into a must-see wonderland. Today, Oz Park features amenities such as Dorothy’s Playground and a beautiful green space known as the Emerald Gardens. The most popular park attractions, however, are the life-sized character statues that rise above certain areas of the park, including monuments depicting Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Tin Man, among others. Most of the statues are metal depictions created by local artist John Kearney, an admitted fan of the 1939 Wizard of Oz production that has become such a symbolic piece of American lore.
Oz Park has sparked wonderment and a sense of peace among the residents of the Lincoln Park neighborhood, providing a safe clean space that attracts both locals and tourists alike. It has been described by some as an almost magical space that serves a calming purpose in what was once one of Chicago’s most dangerous and crime-ridden regions.
The Art Institute of Chicago
If you’re looking for a world-class museum that is loaded with hundreds of thousands of artwork specimens, you simply must put the Art Institute of Chicago on your list of places to see in the city. Spanning thousands of years, the collection at this emblematic museum includes precious and priceless pieces from a variety of media, including one-of-a-kind paintings, prints, sculptures, decorative arts, photographs, architectural renderings, textiles and more.
The Art Institute of Chicago is perhaps best known for its collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, including the 1884 masterpiece from Georges Seurat, “A Sunday Afternoon on the La Grande Jatte,” Renoir’s 1876 “Acrobats at the Circque Fernando,” and a great number of paintings from the renowned Claude Monet.
The splendid collection at the Art Institute of Chicago captures more than 5,000 years of human expression from cultures around the planet and contains more than 300,000 works of art in 11 curatorial departments. The museum exhibits works of art that range from early Japanese prints to the art of the Byzantine Empire to contemporary American art. It is first and foremost known for one of the United States’ finest collection of paintings produced in Western culture.
The building in which the Art Institute of Chicago displays its pieces is also a work of art. The current building at 111 South Michigan Avenue is the third address for the Art Institute. It was designed in the Beaux-Arts style by the architectural firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, whose headquarters are in Boston. The building was created for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition as the World’s Congress Auxiliary Building with the intent that the Art Institute would occupy the space after the fair had concluded.
The Shedd Aquarium
Located on the renowned Lake Shore Drive in Central Chicago, the Shedd Aquarium is an indoor, underwater exhibit that first opened its doors in the spring of 1930. The Shedd Aquarium features 32,000 animals representing hundreds of different species, and was for many years the largest indoor aquarium in the world, boasting some 5 million gallons of water.
Officially known as the John G. Shedd Aquarium, the building was donated by Mr. Shedd and his family. John G. Shedd was the second president and chairman of the board of Marshall Field & Company, the revered Chicago institution opened in 1930. Since that time, it has added several permanent exhibits to the main aquarium, effectively doubling its size.
The Shedd Aquarium was the first inland aquarium to feature a permanent saltwater fish collection, and the facility is surrounded by “Museum Campus Chicago,” which it shares with the Adler Planetarium and the Field Museum of Natural History. The aquarium hosts approximately 2 million visitors annually, and in 2005 and 2007 it was the most visited attraction in Chicago, surpassing places such as Millennium Park and the Navy Pier.
The aquarium is open from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM on weekdays, and 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM on weekends. Guests have several choices when it comes to seeing and experiencing this great attraction. They include:
- Express Pass: Same Day Admission (express entry, plus access to all of Shedd, including the aquatic presentation, Stingray Touch, a 4-D Experience): Adults, $54.95; children $45.95
- Total Experience Pass (includes the main aquarium, Oceanarium, 4-D Experience, aquatic show and the Wild Reef): Adults, $39.95; children (ages 3-11), $30.95.
- Shedd Pass Plus (includes general admission, 4-D Experience, Wild Reef, Oceanarium): Adults, $32.95; children, $23.95.
- Shedd Pass (includes Waters of the World, Caribbean Reef, Amazon Rising, Wild Reef, Abbott Oceanarium, and Polar Play Zone): Adults, $30.95; children, $21.95.
- Aquarium Only: Adults, $8; children, $6 (Waters of the World, Caribbean Reef, and Amazon Rising only)
The Shedd Aquarium boasts a National Historic Landmark designation and is one of the top attractions in the South Loop neighborhood.
Situated on Chicago’s Lake Michigan shoreline, the Navy Pier is a 3,300 foot-long structure that features some of the best shopping and food in the city. The long pier is one of Chicago’s most symbolic structures and one of the most popular recreation spots among locals and tourists alike.
Currently, the Navy Pier encompasses roughly 50-plus acres and plays host to a number of fine dining establishments, snack-style eateries, lush parks and gardens, trendy shops and boutiques, family-oriented attractions, and exhibition facilities. It is considered one of the premier leisure destinations in the entire Midwest region, attracting approximately nine million visitors each and every year.
The Navy Pier first opened to the public in 1916, under its original name, the “Municipal Pier.” It was designed and constructed by the famous architect Charles Sumner Frost, with the assistance of Daniel Burnham, who created the “Master Plan of Chicago.”
Attractions are abundant at the Navy Pier. They include exciting sightseeing excursions from independent companies like Seadog Adventures, Shoreline Sightseeing Cruises and the Water Taxi Service, all of which help visitors maximize their Navy Pier experience. Dinner cruises are available on three of the ships that frequent the pier: the Mystic Blue, Spirit of Chicago and the Odyssey II. There are also firework shows during the summer, with celebrations taking place every Wednesday and Saturday evening at 9:00 PM.
From December through January each year, the Navy Pier hosts the PNC Bank Winter Wonderfest, and there is also an indoor ice skating rink here—a fun place to burn off some calories after feasting on all the great food that has made the Navy Pier such a popular Chicago attraction.
For children, the Navy Pier hosts the Chicago Children’s Museum, which features a number of great exhibits that will truly capture their attention and imagination, including interactive displays that will generate hands-on wonderment for kids of all ages—and their parents. The Navy Pier is open at 9:00 AM every day, excluding major holidays.
Chicago Favorites Food Tour
Do you like great food? If so, the Chicago Favorites Food Tour is something you may want to add to your Bucket List. Guests of the Chicago Favorites Food Tour will have the unique opportunity to sample their way through Chicago’s most popular food scene. Some of the Chicago treats on hand during the tour include Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, Italian beef, and craft beers, and tourists can even indulge in a brownie from the very folks who invented it.
This walking Chicago Favorites Food Tour shows guests some of the most beautiful sites in downtown Chicago, from Millennium Park to the lobby of the Palmer House. During the colder months, this walking tour route makes use of the unique indoor pedway system, which connects much of downtown, keeping participants warm and cozy as they grub their way through the city. However, during the warmer days, the tour affords an opportunity to enjoy the large outdoor promenades of the Chicago Loop.
Highlights of the Chicago Favorites Food Tour include: Millennium Park, the Historic Palmer Hotel, iconic Chicago Theater Marquee, and the Chicago Riverwalk. People of all fitness levels will enjoy the leisurely walking pace. The price of the tour ($45.75 for adults and $40.75 for students with ID) includes all food/beverage samples. Note: The tour includes stairs, but ADA accessible tours are available upon request.