Chicago For First-Time Visitors

Chicago For First-Time Visitors
Liz's Basic Chicago Map

So, talking about Chicago is one of my favorite pastimes. Big surprise there, right? So when a friend says something like, "I'm going to Chicago for a couple of days. What should I see?", I get just a little bit... giddy. It happened twice this week alone.

Here is a typical email I'd send to a friend. 


"Okay Markie,

Basically, you can do so much downtown--literally in a straight line.

On the north end of Michigan Avenue, you have the John Hancock Building and the entrance to Oak Street Beach.  If you keep walking down (or south) on Michigan Avenue, you will hit all of the shopping.  Then you get to the river, which is SO BEAUTIFUL. The river cruises depart from there. Some go out onto the lake, like Wendella Cruises or Mercury.  Keep walking south and you will hit Millennium Park on the left (east) side of the street. Walk a bit further and you hit the Art Institute.  Just across the street is the Chicago Architecture Foundation. The shop is very cool.  And just through the shop doors through the atrium is a free gallery called Cityspace.  You should check it out.  The building is a historic one.  The Santa Fe Building, which was designed by Daniel Burnham, who designed a lot in the city like the Art Institute, lower Wacker Drive (where they filmed the most recent Batman), the bridge you'll walk over on Michigan Avenue at the river. Very cool stuff.  If you keep walking south, you will hit Grant Park.  In that area is the Buckingham Fountain.  From that point, you can cross over to the lake and sit at the harbor or walk the path in either direction.  You can walk over to Museum Campus.  You will never forget the views of the city from that point. Amazing.

-You do not need a car. Basically, if you are staying in the downtown area, you will never be going more than 5-7 miles in either direction. Isn't that amazing? It feels more stretched out because a bus ride might take you up to 30 minutes--but even then (like downtown to Wrigley Field on a bus), it's only 5-7 miles.

-There are so many downtown hotels from which to choose. The farthest south I would go is the Hilton on South Michigan Avenue. The farthest west I would go is something like the Allegro Hotel in the theatre district.

-You can buy a 1-day transit pass at a currency exchange or at a CVS downtown. They also sell 5-day passes. Otherwise, you can buy a transit pass at any train station in the city--but they don't sell 1-day and 5-day passes. You can just put any amount of money on a card and the amount will be deducted per ride. Each bus or train ride is $2.25--and you have to have exact change with you if you are not going to be using a transit pass.

Don't miss:

1.) The view of the city from Museum Campus. Take the 146 bus to Museum Campus (where you can see Soldier Field, Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum)--and if you sit near the Adler Planetarium right near the lake, the views of the city are phenomenal.

2.) The Buckingham Fountain (in Grant Park, between Michigan Avenue and Lake Michigan).

3.) Millennium Park (just north of the Art Institute) on Michigan Avenue. Walk in and see Cloudgate (the big bean) and the Pritzker Pavilion (where there are often free concerts. It's a Frank Gehry design. The architect who designed the Disney Concert Hall in L.A.)

4.) The Art Institute

5.) The Chicago River. Try to take a river cruise OR a river/lake cruise.

6.) Michigan Avenue shopping. Beautiful stretch of downtown that they call the Magnificent Mile.

7.) The John Hancock Building (go have a drink at the lounge or eat at the restaurant--and that way you'll get the incredible views without having to pay for a separate observatory admission).

8.) Oak Street Beach (beautiful lakeshore views, walking/running/biking path)

9.) Gold Coast "mansions" (if you keep walking north on Michigan Avenue...stay on the Bloomingdales side of the street), it turns into Lake Shore Drive, and this is the Gold Coast area. BEAUTIFUL homes.

10.) If you keep walking north, you will hit Lincoln Park. The Lincoln Park Zoo is free. SO beautiful. Definitely worth a visit.

11.) Back towards the center of the downtown/loop area, you should check out the old Marshall Field's department store. Its is now a Macy's (sad face), but from the 1880's until about 2007, it was Marshall Field's. They have a fun basement section with Frango mints and even a little sports bar. And go to the 4th or 5th floor if you wanna see a beautiful Tiffany dome mosaic ceiling, which is made up of millions of tile pieces.

12.) Right near Marshall Field's is the Cultural Center (on Michigan and Randolph/Washington). Lots of visitor info there and some nice art exhibits. Beautiful building.

13.) If you wanna go see a White Sox game, you can take the Red Line train southbound.

14.) If you wanna go see a Cubs game, you can take the Red Line train northbound. OR the #22 Clark bus (just walk up to Dearborn Street, which is just a few blocks west of Michigan Avenue).

15.) The best deep dish in my opinion is at Giordano's. I get the deep dish with spinach--but u can choose sausage or several other options. There are 2 locations downtown that are optimal--one is behind the Prudential building--around Lake St. Just off Michigan Avenue (very close to the Michigan Ave bridge, where the river cuts through the city). The other is just north a bit, not too far from the Water Tower Place shopping center. On Superior Street, I believe.

The best thin crust pizza in my opinion is at Pizano's, and that's on Madison--not too far from the river--also right off of Michigan Avenue. If you're at Millennium Park, you're super-close to either Giordano's or Pizano's.

16.) If you're in the Lincoln Park area, a great spot is Oven Grinders, which is on the 2100 block of Clark Street. Yummy pizza pot pies.

17.) I LOVE going to Bandera, which is right on Michigan Avenue, across from the Nordstrom building. They have live jazz at night and delicious veggie burgers (I'm a vegetarian) and of course, good meat options. It's a great ambience.

18.) For very casual dining, you should check out FoodLife inside the Water Tower Place shopping mall. It's like the best 'food court' ever.

So so much to talk about in this city. Of course there are several other neighborhoods which can be explored, but a lot of the must-see gems are the ones I've listed."

. . .

I'd love to see your list for first-time visitors!

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  • Good advice except for the pizza ;) I've tried both after moving here two years ago...and Giordano's was a bit too greasy, and Pizano's was like Pizza Hut. For deep dish, I instead recommend Ex Chequer in the Loop, and for thin crust...well, I haven't found a satisfactory thin crust yet. I've heard that Pizzeria Via Stato has the best Italian style thin crust, though--I need to try that.

    Also, I HIGHLY recommend Quartino, which is across the street from Pizzeria Via Stato. Amazing homemade noodles, and absolutely divine desserts.

    Oh yeah, and ditto on going to the lounge. It's much cheaper than paying observatory tickets, plus you get a drink, too. The view from the women's room is amazing, too...sorry guys ;)

  • In reply to Holly:

    I'll have to check these places out! Thank you! I love Quartino, too.
    Yep, the view from the ladies' restroom at the JH is wonderful. That should be another blog post. Great restrooms. I'd recommend the restroom at the Bloomingdale's Home Store (Medinah Temple). Beautiful!

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