Tourist attractions: Whether loved or loathed, they are undeniably an integral part of any city. Chicago is well-known as a top tourist destination, providing all those who visit with famous museums, parks, theaters, public art, monuments, architecture that stuns, and enough walking trails to keep your feet sore for days.
But Chicago’s tourist attractions have some negativity surrounding them, as well: They can be over-crowded, expensive, and deemed unrepresentative of the authentic Chicago.
As a recent transplant from Southwest Florida, I have been playing tourist this past month and experiencing both the positive and negative qualities of some of the city’s top attractions.
When first deciding which famous Chicago tourist attractions to visit, I was overwhelmed with information. Just typing “Chicago tourist attractions” into Google brings up over 30 options. Scrolling down revealed pages advertising “the best things to do in Chicago” and “what not to forget when visiting Chicago.” Social media sites like Pinterest boasted the same information, but from traveling bloggers offering their own best/worst lists.
Here I have picked five of the most memorable attractions from my tourist experience this month. They are not the best nor the worst, but a good place to start. They’re perfect if you’re just in the city for a visit. And for all the native Chicagoans, who, I am sure, have visited each of these places dozens of times, I’ve thought of new ways for you to fall in love with these classic spots all over again.
400 N. Michigan Ave. (main dock)
In the heart of Downtown Chicago, a boat waits to take you on a voyage of beauty and knowledge. Once aboard, you will find yourself awestruck by the grandiose buildings that surround you. From this vantage point, the skyscrapers disappear into the clouds, the sunlight dances off the blue-green waves, and the river is reflected in many buildings.
As you travel all three branches of the Chicago River, you’ll hear the inspiring stories of the architects, made famous by their massive creations. By the end of the tour, expect to know how to identify the main three styles of architecture in Chicago; which buildings were designed by the same architect; and where future buildings will be constructed. You’ll also be able to recite Chicago’s history, from the 1909 Plan of Chicago, to the story of the Great Chicago Fire.
There is no better way to learn about the city’s architecture than cruising down the river and, surrounded by buildings, listening to your guide detail Chicago’s past, present, and future.
Fall in love again: Let the sparks fly on Wednesdays and Saturday nights when the Fireworks Cruise gives you an unobstructed 360-degree view of a fireworks show with the city as the backdrop.
201 E. Randolph St.
One of the most iconic parks in Chicago, Millennium Park is known for its distinctive landscape, views of the surrounding architecture, and famous public art. There are four major highlights in the park: the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, “Cloud Gate,” Crown Fountain, and Lurie Garden. All deserve equal attention and are the perfect places to take photos commemorating a trip to Chicago.
Millennium Park offers dozens of free events and programs throughout the year. Most recently, the Summer Film Series has been attracting massive numbers of visitors and Chicagoans alike to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion on Tuesday nights. After the movie, many flock to “Cloud Gate,” known to natives as the beloved “Bean,” to view the nighttime Chicago skyline in its mirror-like surface. Crown Fountain is also very popular for people of all ages looking for the spray to cool them off in the summer heat.
No matter the time or day, Millennium Park is constantly brimming with people.
Fall in love again: Head over to Lurie Garden and sketch the variety of perennials, bulbs, grasses, shrubs, and trees — it will feel like you’ve left the city behind.
Blocks 7100 South/2560 East to 5800 North/1000 West
Uniting tourists and native Chicagoans, the Lakefront Trail is a dedicated path along Lake Michigan, flanked by beaches, volleyball courts, playgrounds, baseball diamonds, soccer fields, and tennis courts — the quintessence of summer. The trail also provides direct access to cultural landmarks and notable attractions, such as the Field Museum of Natural History, Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, and the Chicago Children’s Museum. Due to its allure, it is often crowded: Countless runners, cyclists, and rollerbladers will whiz by you. The view of Lake Michigan, mixed seamlessly with the Chicago skyline, is enough to keep you wanting to walk all 18.5 miles — just maybe not all in one day.
Fall in love again: Grab your yoga mat and head over to the water as the sun rises for a perfect moment of peace and reflection.
2001 N. Clark St.
The Lincoln Park Zoo is not only one of the oldest zoos in the U.S., it is also one of the last zoos to offer free admission. It is a unique opportunity to see animals of foreign lands in Chicago’s backyard.
However, after visiting some enclosures, that is exactly what it might begin to feel like: a backyard. It is tough to watch lions and tigers relentlessly pace their dens without imagining their sheer boredom, and to call it “fun.”
It should be noted that this was not the case with every enclosure; some of the man-made habitats, such as those for chimpanzees and gorillas, were spacious, provided ropes and toys for physical and mental stimulation, and included many windows for the animals to look out.
The Lincoln Park Zoo also has picturesque ponds filled with flamingos, geese, and even the common duck. Café at Wild Things provided a tasty dining experience on the rooftop, with fresh and healthy options. Construction is also underway for a polar bear and penguin exhibit, set to debut later this year.
Overall the Lincoln Park Zoo is a sight for everyone to see, at least once.
Fall in love again: Grab your friends and challenge them to a Lincoln Park Zoo scavenger hunt. Post to Snapchat for more fun — who doesn’t love a good animal video?
3175 N. Broadway St.
One of the most well-known comedy clubs for emerging stand-up artists, featuring famous comedians such as Dane Cook, Chris D’Elia, and my personal favorite, Iliza Shlesinger, the place does not disappoint. Try the Top $10 Tuesday, a show that features 10 of the best stand-up acts in the city. Each comedian shares one short and hilarious story, guaranteed to make you want to hear more. The catch? An 18-year-old age restriction and a two-drink minimum. But the catch isn’t all bad — the drinks are good, and the jokes even better. Arrive about 30 minutes early so that you can secure a decent seat, because the place fills up quickly. Due to the large attendance, it can take ages to get a drink refill. But have no fear: The voices of hard-working comedians on the brink of accomplishing their dreams will keep you happily entertained.
Fall in love again: For those who want to celebrate a long work week with laughter late into the night, Friday and Saturday Midnight Madness shows are for you.