Chicago is located in the Midwest along the Great Lakes shoreline. It is the third largest city and metropolitan area in the United States with a city population approaching 3 million and a metro population approaching 10 million. Chicago is a huge vibrant city and metropolitan area that sprawls over 10,874km². It’s well known for house music and electronic dance music, blues, jazz, comedy, shopping, dining, sports, architecture, highly-regarded colleges and universities, and premier cultural attractions.
As the hub of the Midwest, Chicago is easy to find with its picturesque skyline calling across the waters of the huge freshwater Lake Michigan, an impressive sight that soon reveals world-class museums, miles of sandy beaches, huge parks, public art, and perhaps the finest looking downtown in the world.
With a wealth of iconic sights and neighborhoods to explore, there’s enough to fill a visit of months without ever seeing the end. Prepare to cover a lot of ground; the meaning of Chicago is only found in movement, through its subways and historic elevated rail, and eyes raised to the sky.
The most visited part of Chicago is its large central area, which contains neighborhoods such as Downtown, River North, Streeterville, Old Town, the Gold Coast, Central Station, the South Loop, Printer’s Row, Greek Town, and the Near West Side among others. Collectively, these neighborhoods contain many skyscrapers, attractions, and highly ranked institutions. But there are also many attractions to be found in the city’s other districts. Chicago consists of Downtown, the North Side, the South Side, and the West Side – each Side named according to its direction from Downtown. The Loop is the financial, cultural, retail, and transportation area located within Downtown. Another region in the Central Area is North Michigan Avenue. This portion of Michigan Avenue, and its adjacent streets, is called the Magnificent Mile and contains high-end shops, retail, and restaurants.
The North, South, and West Sides of Chicago are not neighborhoods themselves, they are large Sides of the city that each contain numerous and varied neighborhoods. Residents tend to identify strongly with their neighborhood, reflecting a real place of home and culture. Below are various regions of Chicago and some of the neighborhoods that they contain:
The center of the entire Midwest for work and play, and global importance with major corporate headquarters, skyscrapers, shopping, river walks, big theaters, parks, beaches, museums, a pier, a sports stadium; the area contains some of the country’s most famous sights
Chicago was known as a fine place to find a wild onion if you were a member of the Potawatomi tribe, who lived in this area of Illinois before European settlers arrived. It was mostly swamps, prairie and mud long past the establishment of Fort Dearborn in 1803 and incorporation as a town in 1833. The city later undertook civil engineering projects of unprecedented scale to establish working sewers, even reversing the flow of the Chicago river to keep unclean water out of the city’s drinking supply, and stop buildings from sinking back into the swamps — and that was just the first few decades.
By 1871, the reckless growth of the city was a sight to behold, full of noise, Gothic lunacy, and bustling commerce. But on October 8th, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow reportedly knocked over a lantern in the crowded immigrant quarters in the West Side, and the Great Chicago Fire began. It quickly spread through the dry prairie, killing 300 and destroying virtually the entire city. The stone Water Tower in the Near North area is the most famous surviving structure. But the city seized this destruction as an opportunity to rebuild bigger than before, even inventing the skyscraper in Chicago; which of course, would be picked up and utilized in cities worldwide in the modern day. In addition, several architects and urban planners of Chicago would go on to become legends of modern architecture.
During the late 1800s, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world. At the pinnacle of its rebirth, Chicago was known as The White City. Cultures from around the world were summoned to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which Chicago beat New York to host, to bear witness to the work of Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and the future itself. Cream of Wheat, soft drinks, street lights and safe electricity, the fax machine, and the new invention called the Ferris Wheel bespoke the colossus now resident on the shores of Lake Michigan.
As every road had once led to Rome, every train led to Chicago. Carl Sandburg called Chicago the Hog Butcher for the World for its cattle stockyards and place on the nation’s dinner plate. Sandburg also called it the City of the Big Shoulders, noting the tall buildings in the birthplace of the skyscraper — and the city’s “lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” But Chicago is a city in no short supply of nicknames. Fred Fisher’s 1922 song (best known in Frank Sinatra’s rendition) calls it That Toddlin’ Town, where “on State Street, that great street, they do things they don’t do on Broadway.” It’s also referenced by countless blues standards like Sweet Home Chicago.
Chicago is also known as The Second City, which refers to its rebuilding after the fire — the current city is literally the second Chicago, after the one that nearly burned down in 1871. The moniker has stuck as Chicago had long-held the position of the nation’s second-largest city. And many know the nickname from Chicago’s great comedy theater Second City located in Old Town which has supplied countless talent to television’s Saturday Night Live and many sitcoms.
During the Prohibition era, Chicago’s criminal world, emblemized by names like Al Capone, Baby Face Nelson, and later Sam Giancana, practically ran the city. The local political world had scarcely more legitimacy in a town where voter turnout was highest among the dead and their pets, and precinct captains spread the word to “vote early, vote often.” Even Sandburg acknowledged the relentless current of vice that ran under the surface of the optimistic city.
Chicago is also known as The Windy City. Walking around town, you might suspect that this nickname came from the winds off Lake Michigan which can, on occasion, make for some windy days. Truth be told, Chicago is far from being excessively windy. In fact, according to the United States National Climatic Data Center, Chicago does not rank high on the list of windy cities. The origin of the saying Windy City comes from politics; some saying it may have been coined by rivals like New York City as a derogatory reference; at the time the two cities were battling for the 1893 World’s Fair, which Chicago ultimatley won. Others say that the term originated from the city’s strong political climate.
Finally, the city is also known as the The City That Works as promoted by long-time Mayor Richard M. Daley, which refers to Chicago’s labor tradition and its willingness to tackle grand civic projects. Daley and his father, former Mayor Richard J. Daley, were continous voted into office for many terms and governed the city for decades. As other manufacturing cities like Cleveland, Detroit, and Buffalo went into decline, Chicago thrived, transforming from a city of culture and manufacturing to a city of culture and finance. Chicago now houses the world’s largest future exchanges (the Chicago Mercantile Exchange). With Richard M. Daley deciding not to run for mayor again due to his ailing wife, and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel resigning from that post to become mayor of Chicago, the city elected its first Daley-less administration with Emanuel since Mayor Richard M. Daley was in office from April 1989 to May 2011.
While the city has many great attractions in its huge central/downtown area, lots of Chicagoans live and play outside of the central district as well. Travelers also go to the city’s vibrant neighborhoods to soak up the local nightlife, sample the wide range of fantastic dining, and see other sights that are a part of Chicago. Thanks to the city’s massive public transit system, which includes over 140 Chicago Transit Authority subway/elevated train stations, a separate city/suburban Metra rail network, and bus routes criss-crossing the city every few blocks apart, all parts of Chicago are indeed accessible.
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|Check Chicago’s 7 day forecast at NOAA|
The winter months from December to March will see cold temperatures with cold wind chill factors. Snow is usually limited to a handful of heavy storms per season, with a few light dustings in-between and a little more along the lakefront —in the local parlance, that’s “lake effect snow”. Chicago is a city that’s well-accustomed to winter season, so city services and public transportation are highly unlikely to ever shut down.
A little-known fact: there are more days with a maximum temperature of 80-84°F (27-29°C) than any other five-degree range, this includes winter months. Chicago’s summer days can feel as warm as Honolulu or as humid and sticky as Miami. During any random summer, temperatures in July or August may go above the normal average of 83°F and become hot and humid with dewpoints that can be similar to those found closer to the Gulf of Mexico. However, these heatwaves are not for the entire duration of the summer, but usually in patches of days. Summer nights are usually reasonable and you’ll get a few degrees’ respite along the lakefront — in the local parlance again, that’s “cooler by the lake.”
Chicago does have several months of nice weather. June and September are very pleasant; April and May are quite fine, although thunderstorms can occur suddenly. July and August are okay as long as a heatwave hasn’t hit the entire country. Although there may be a slight chill in the air, October rarely calls for more than a light coat and some days that’s not even necessary. And in some years, prolonged mild summer-like temperatures overlap into November.
Chicago literature found its roots in the city’s tradition of lucid, direct journalism, lending to a strong tradition of social realism. Consequently, most notable Chicago fiction focuses on the city itself, with social criticism keeping exultation in check. Here is a selection of Chicago’s most famous works about itself:
Some others include Harrison Ford vs. the one-armed man in The Fugitive, the CTA vs. true love in While You Were Sleeping, action thriller film Wanted staring Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman, romantic comedy-drama The Break Upstaring Jenifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn, Autobots vs. Decepticons in Transformers 3, the greatest Patrick Swayze hillbilly ninja vs. Italian mob film of all time, Next of Kin, and the humble John Candy film Only The Lonely which captures the south side Irish mentality, the love and comfort of neighborhood dive bars, as well as the Chicago working class, and political power, theme with the repeated line “Sometimes it’s good to be a cop”.
Smoking is prohibited by state law at all restaurants, bars, nightclubs, workplaces, and public buildings. It’s also banned within fifteen feet of any entrance, window, or exit to a public place, and at CTA train stations. The fine for violating the ban can range from $100 to $250.
Chicago’s visitor information centers offer maps, brochures and other information.
Chicago (IATA: CHI for all airports) is served by two major airports: O’Hare International Airport and Midway Airport. There are plenty of taxis both to and from the city center, but they can be expensive, especially during rush hour due to traffic. Expect upwards of $40 for O’Hare and $30 for Midway.
Chicago is quite unique in that it has established subway/elevated rapid transit rail service to its commercial airports; something many cities have not done at all, or perhaps have completed to one airport in their region. CTA trains provide direct service to both O’Hare and Midway airports. From Downtown, the Blue Line runs to O’Hare in about 45 minutes and the Orange Line runs to Midway in about 30 minutes. Cost $2.25 from anywhere in the city – less expensive than a taxi.
Many large hotels offer complimentary shuttle vans to one or both airports, or can arrange one for a charge ($15-25) with advance notice.
O’Hare International Airport (IATA: ORD) is 17 miles (27km) northwest of downtown and serves many international and domestic carriers. United Airlines has the largest presence here (about 50%) followed by American Airlines with about 40%, transatlantic carriers include British Airways, Lufthansa, Iberia, and KLM. Most connecting flights for smaller cities in the Midwest run through O’Hare. It’s one of the biggest airports in the world, and it has always been notorious for delays and cancellations. Unfortunately, it’s too far northwest for most travellers who get stuck overnight to head into the city. As a result, there are plenty of hotels in the O’Hare area. See the O’Hare article for listings.
The CTA Blue Line runs between the Loop and O’Hare every 5-15 minutes, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. A lot of repair work has been completed on the Blue line and the trip from O’Hare to the Loop now takes 35-50 minutes. The O’Hare station is the end of the line and is essentially in the basement of O’Hare airport. Walking from the platform to the ticket counters should take 5-10 minutes for Terminals 2 or 3, slightly more for Terminal 1, and a great deal longer for the International Terminal 5 (It is necessary to take the free people mover for transfer). The fare to board the train at O’Hare is $5 – as opposed to $2.25 anywhere else – but it is still a bargain compared to a taxi and can even be faster when traffic is bad.
Midway International Airport (IATA: MDW) is 10 miles (16km) southwest of downtown. Midway primarily serves low-cost carriers, with the exception of a handful of Delta flights, and is the largest airport for Southwest Airlines. If it’s an option for your trip, Midway is more compact, less crowded, has fewer delays, and usually cheaper. And, of course, it’s significantly closer to downtown.
Airlines serving Chicago-Midway (MDW):
The CTA Orange Line train runs between the Loop and Midway in around 25 minutes. There is an enclosed tunnel that links the station and airport but it takes approximately 10-15 minutes to walk from one to the other. There are a number of hotels clustered around Midway, too — see the Southwest Side article for listings.
Chicago Executive Airport (IATA: PWK) is nine miles north of O’Hare, serves the general and business aviation sector, and is the third busiest airport in Illinois. Approximately three hundred aircraft are based on the field and approximately 200,000 take-offs and landings occur annually. Air taxi and air charter companies such as Jetset Charter, Monarch Air Group, Mercury Jets fly a variety of private charter aircraft and jets, from charter luxury Gulfstream’s down to economical piston twins for small groups and individuals.
Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport (IATA: MKE) is served by 7 Amtrak trains per day (6 on Sunday), and the Hiawatha Service has a 95% on-time rating. The trip from Chicago Union Station to Mitchell Airport Station is about one hour and 15 minutes. There are also buses from Mitchell Airport to Chicago O’Hare Airport.
Most (but not all) Metra suburban trains run from Union Station and nearby Ogilvie/Northwestern Station (Canal St and Madison St), which are west of the Loop. Some southern lines run from stations on the east side of the Loop. The suburban trains run as far as Kenosha, Aurora, and Joliet, while the South Shore line runs through Indiana as far as South Bend. Several CTA buses converge upon the two stations, and the Loop CTA trains are within walking distance.
Chicagoans refer to some expressways by their names, not the numbers used to identify them on the signs you’ll see posted on the U.S. interstate highway system. However, most expressway signs in the city have both the name of the expressway and the number. I-55 (the Stevenson Expressway) will take you from the southwest city and the southwest suburbs to downtown Chicago. I-90/94 (called The Dan Ryan south of downtown) comes in from Indiana to the east (via the Chicago Skyway – I-90 and Bishop Ford Freeway – I-94) and from central Illinois (via I-57). I-90 (called The Kennedy north of downtown) comes in from the northwest city and northwest suburbs. I-94 (called the Edens Expressway) comes in from the North Side and the northern suburbs to downtown. I-80 runs south of the city in an east-west direction, linking with several north-south expressways.
The Illinois tollway, which in addition to I-90, consists of I-88 which serves the west suburbs, I-355 (called The Vets or The Veterans Memorial Tollway) which connects Joliet with Schaumburg, and I-294 – The Tri-State which runs from the South Side to the far Northwest Side and passes next to O’Hare Airport. Be prepared for toll booths off to the right hand side of the tollway which will cost about $1.50 per booth, a much lower cost than you will find on tolls in New York City or the Los Angeles area. When traveling the tollway, always have a few dollars in cash and coins to pay at the booths, which are staffed on mainline toll plazas.
If arriving downtown from the south on I-94 or I-90, or from the north on I-90/94, great views can be seen as you approach the downtown skyline. If arriving on I-55 from the southwest, or on I-290 (the Eisenhower Expressway, formerly and sometimes still called The Congress Expressway) from the west, the skyline is also visible. If arriving from north or south on Lake Shore Drive (U.S. Highway 41) a scenic introduction will be provided, day or night, on what has to be the most beautiful thoroughfare in the world.
In general, “avenues” run north-south and “streets” run east-west, but there are numerous exceptions. (e.g., 48th Street may then be followed by 48th Place). In conversation, however, Chicagoans rarely distinguish between streets, avenues, boulevards, etc.
Several streets follow diagonal or meandering paths through the city such as Clark St, Broadway, Milwaukee Ave, Archer Ave, Vincennes Ave, and South Chicago Ave to name a few. Interestingly, many of the angled streets in Chicago (including Archer Ave., Clark Street and Lincoln Ave.) were originally Native American trails established long before Chicago was a city.
Downtown Chicago is very walkable, with wide sidewalks, beautiful architecture, and an abundance of hotels, shopping, restaurants, and cultural attractions. The Chicago Pedway System is helpful for walkers looking to avoid cold or snow. It is a system of underground, ground-level, and above-ground passages that connect downtown buildings.
The best way to see Chicago is by public transit. It is cheap (basically), efficient (at times), and safe (for the most part). The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) oversees the various public transit agencies in the Chicagoland area. You can plan trips online with the RTA trip planner or get assistance by calling 836-7000 in any local area code between 5am and 1am. The RTA also has an official partnership with Google Maps, which can provide routes with public transit.
The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) operates trains and buses in the city of Chicago and some of the suburbs. Put simply, the CTA is Chicago. It is a marvel and a beast, convenient and irreplaceable. Even if you have the option of driving while you’re in town, no experience of Chicago is complete without a trip on the CTA.
Fares are paid with a card system called Ventra. Passes can be bought and re-filled at kiosks in the lobby of every CTA station, or online. The kiosks accept cash and credit cards. You have the option of buying a pass, good for unlimited rides for a set number of days, or simply putting cash on the card. A Ventra card costs $5, but you can get that amount back as credit on your card if you register the card online. With an online account, you can add more credit to your card or buy additional unlimited ride passes as needed. Note that the system will use an unlimited rides pass before it uses any transit credit that’s already on the card. Unlike many cities’ rail system that are set up on zone fares, Chicago’s L network, regardless of how many miles you’re traveling, only cost $2.25. At many stations, you can transfer to another L line at no additional cost. If you have exited the turnstiles, entering another CTA station or boarding a CTA bus costs an additional $0.25 with your transit card, and transferring a third time is free provided it is still within two hours of when you started the trip. You can pay for up to six additional riders fares with a single Ventra card by simply passing the card back to your travel companion after you go through the turnstiles at L stations or telling bus drivers you are paying for multiple fares upon entering a bus (they have to initiate the reader to accept multiple fares on the same card).
Locals refer to Chicago’s public train system as the “L”. (Most lines run on el-evated tracks — get it?) All train lines radiate from the Loop to every corner of the city. The “Loop” name originally referred to a surface-level streetcar loop, which pre-dated the elevated tracks.
CTA train lines are divided by colors: Red, Green, Brown, Blue, Purple, Yellow, Orange and Pink. All lines lead to the Loop except the Yellow Line, which is a shuttle between the suburb of Skokie and the northern border of Chicago. The Red and Blue lines run 24/7, making Chicago and New York City the two American cities that offer 24-hour rail service running throughout their city limits. Hours for the other lines vary somewhat by the day, but as a general rule run from about 4:30am-1am.
Before you travel, find out the name of the train station closest to your destination, and the color of the train line on which it is located. Once you’re on-board, you’ll find route maps in each train car, above the door. The same map is also available online. The name signs on platforms often have the station’s location in the street grid, e.g. “5900 N, 1200 W” for Thorndale.
There should be an attendant on duty at every train station. They cannot provide change or deal with money, but they can help you figure out where you need to go and guide you through using the machines.
Chicago has a large and comprehensive bus system, and buses typically run frequently. This allows Chicagoans to go to bus stops and wait for the bus without even looking at bus schedules, as buses usually run every few minutes apart. The major bus routes run every 7-15 minutes apart during the morning and afternoon hours. In the evening, these same routes run about every 15-20 minutes apart. The less traveled bus routes may run about 15-20 minutes apart during the day. There are many bus routes that run 24 hours a day; these are called OWL routes and the bus stop sign usually has a picture of an owl to belabor that point. Overnight OWL service is approximately every 30 minutes. (See individual district articles for major bus routes through different parts of the city.)
If you have a web-enabled mobile device, the CTA runs a little godsend called the CTA Bus Tracker, which uses GPS to provide reliable, real-time tracking information for almost all bus routes.
CTA buses accept transit cards but do not sell them. They also accept cash but do not provide change. Like any bus system, you pay exact fare or forfeit your change.
In compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, all CTA buses and some train stations are accessible to wheelchairs. Wheelchair-accessible ‘L’ stations are indicated by the international wheelchair symbol and have elevators or are at ground level. If you are trying to get to a place with a non-accessible station, there will be alternate routes by bus so contact the CTA for more information.
Crime on the CTA is low, but as with any major urban area, travellers should be aware of their surroundings, especially when travelling in the wee hours of the night. Some Lcars have a button and speaker for emergency communication with the driver, located in the center aisle of the car on the wall next to the door. This is for emergencies only: do not press this just to ask questions, as the driver is required to halt the train until the situation has been confirmed as resolved, and your fellow passengers will not be amused.