A jewel of the Midwest, Chicago lies west of Lake Michigan and about an hour south of the Wisconsin border. To the southeast of Chicago, you’ll find the Indiana state line. With two international airports, a rail system, and plenty of highways, Chicago is one of the most accessible cities in the country, from anywhere in the world.
Where is Chicago Located?
While Chicago is the largest city in Illinois, it is not the capital (that’s Springfield). The city made up of about 2.7 million (plus another 7 million in greater Chicagoland) finds its place at the northeastern edge of the state. To the east of the city lies Lake Michigan, to the south, west, and north other cities tuck in around the city to create the third largest metropolitan area in the United States.
Chicago is just 40 minutes (by car) to the Indiana state line and an hour and 20 minutes from the Wisconsin state line.
This major city is home to two international airports (Chicago O’Hare – ORD – and Midway International – MDW) and several regional and local airports. You may also easily visit by train, car, or even boat.
Points of Interest on the Chicago Map
The Windy City welcomes visitors and locals alike with a huge collection of attractions, dining experiences, shopping, and natural beauty, unlike any other city in the world. With Lake Michigan to the East and forested land to the west and north, the city is surrounded by many terrains and options that folks love.
Lincoln Park Zoo
The Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the few free zoos left in the United States. The massive zoo is situated near the Lake with easy connecting bridges and trails that take you through the Lincoln Park and into the city, including along the Lakefront Trail. Parking at the zoo is the only potential expense, so most visitors opt to walk in from their hotel or take public transportation. Bring along a picnic and enjoy the park and grounds all day.
The Art Institute of Chicago
The world-famous Art Institute of Chicago frequently brings in incredibly well-known, renowned works of art from around the world for their traveling exhibitions. You could spot a Matisse, a van Gogh, or a Blackshear. Entry fees vary, depending on your residency, with the cheapest rates being for Chicago residents, followed by other Illinois residents. Free days also hit the calendar, so plan your trip around those dates, if you’re able.
One of the most famous features you’ll find in Chicago, tucked into Grant Park near Lake Shore Drive, Buckingham Fountain pumps out 14,100 gallons of water per minute. The beautiful fountain dances to the music in the summer, changing colors at night. Ideally, access the fountain through the park on foot, but if you’re stuck in traffic on the LDS, you’ll catch a glimpse, too.
Running from Edgewater neighborhood at the north end of the city down to 71st Street in the South Side, the Lakefront Trail welcomes runners, walkers, and bikers with 18 miles of flat trail. The trail runs most of the length of the city, primarily along Lake Michigan, giving easy human-powered commuting for much of the city. Parks, beaches, restaurants, and more line the trail on either side, as well as marinas and docks. The trail cuts through Lincoln Park, as well, with easy access to the Zoo.
Popular among tourists, Navy Pier perches at the edge of the city on Lake Michigan directly east of the Loop downtown. Here you’ll find loads of shopping and dining, as well as museums, activities, rides, and much more. For most of the major holidays, you’ll find fireworks are set off by the pier, as well as Wednesdays all summer long. Grab a spot on the grass across the way at Museum Campus for any of the fireworks and a smaller crowd than at the pier itself.
“The Bean” and Millennium Park
You can’t visit Chicago without making your way to the Cloud Gate or the “Bean” a giant bean-shaped metallic public art piece. The Bean is in Millenium Park and reflects back the skyline of the city. Even in winter when it’s covered in snow, the sculpture makes for an incredible, unique sight. The park contains many other attractions and sights, including the Maggie Daley Ice Skate Park, the Lurie Garden, and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Join in for free concerts and festivals in the park or enjoy the many walkways and beautiful spaces, any time of the year.
One of the most famous spots in Chicago is the Magnificent Mile – a mile-long stretch of Michigan Avenue. Here, high-end shops, boutiques, restaurants, attractions, and more make their home, drawing in the crowds. The stretch is particularly busy during holiday shopping and vacation season (i.e., summer and spring break) when Chicago is inundated with tourists from all over the world. Grab a coffee, snag a unique treat at one of the many bakeries, or find the perfect outfit all while seeing some of the most sites in the city.
The 606 (Bloomingdale Trail)
If outdoor adventures are more your thing, grab a bike or pair of running shoes and head to the 606. The trail, named for the city’s zip code, is a converted old train line. The trail stretches for 2.7 miles, passing through some of the most popular neighborhoods in the city (Wicker Park, Bucktown, Humbolt Park, Logan Square). Join locals and other tourists for a casual stroll, pet trek, or easy bike ride. Then, step off the trail via easy access points to the fabulous neighborhoods where you’ll find plenty of boutiques, restaurants, and more.
The Field Museum
Situated on the Museum Campus peninsula in the city, the Field Museum offers opportunities to learn about many veins of history. The various traveling exhibits differ frequently, giving different chances to learn, along with the permanent exhibits that explore ancient Egypt, the age of the dinosaurs (complete with the famous SUE, the T. Rex), Native American history, and much more. Because the exhibits change regularly, it’s a great place to visit even if you live in the city and come every year.
The Museum of Science and Industry
Another popular museum worth visiting over and over, the Museum of Science and Industry resides on the South Side of Chicago. Here, you’ll explore all sorts of scientific topics, from robotics and geology to biology and space travel. The exhibitions vary over time, encouraging folks to revisit over and over, even if they live in the neighborhood.
Home to the Chicago Cubs, Wrigley Field in Wrigleyville offers guests and locals plenty of opportunities for entertainment. During baseball season, the Cubs play against world class teams on their home field. Throughout the warmer months, you’ll also find concerts and other live events playing with plenty of seats available.
Also situated on Museum Campus, Shedd Aquarium is the famous home of Beluga whales known well by children of the 1980s and Raffi’s song “Baby Beluga.” Come visit the otters, dolphins, whales, fish, seahorses, and many other aquatic animals at the aquarium. You can easily make a whole day of it or just take a few hours.
The Water Tower and Pumphouse
The oldest standing buildings in Chicago — the only ones within city limits to survive the Great Fire of 1871 — the water tower and pumphouse offer iconic architecture. Visit the art gallery inside the water tower, snap some photos all around the little park, and enjoy seasonal events such as the light parade, or attend in-person events at the pumphouse on Tuesdays.
Over 250 Live Performance Theatres
Many folks may not realize it, but Chicago has more theaters than almost anywhere else in the world. Over 250 different venues provide theatergoers with opportunities to catch local shows, Broadway tours, Chicago headliner premieres, and many more, all within an hour of Union Station. Chicago is specifically known for its storefront theaters, as well, so when you’re out for a walk and notice a tiny sign advertising a “show,” you’ve stumbled upon one of them. They’re every bit as worthy of your attendance as the massive venues like the Civic Opera House, Apollo, or Auditorium theaters.
The Green Mill
While Chicago isn’t the only city in the USA with prohibition history, it is perhaps the most famous. And the Green Mill happens to be one of those spots where you can still feel the prohibition vibes. Enter the bar on Broadway in Uptown and feel the mobster mood descend. It used to be Al Capone’s hangout, along with many other Roaring 20s mobsters. Catch a show on the weekends, live jazz several times a week, or just pop in for a drink and a moody atmosphere.
Best Suburbs Around Chicago
While folks who live in the city itself will tell you that the suburbs are not Chicago, the some 9.5 million people living in the suburbs around may disagree. In the city, lots of land are much smaller, of course, and neighbors far closer, while prices are higher. So, many have moved out to the suburbs. Many are close enough you can’t even tell when you’ve left city limits, too.
Long Grove – Lake County
For charm pouring out of every door and honest-to-goodness small town values, head out to Long Grove. The beautiful small town welcomes visitors with many boutiques and some dining, but not a single chain of any kind within the town limits. Not even the big name coffee shop chain that started in the town (Gloria Jean’s). Instead, find gorgeous shops in the historic downtown, including places like the Viking Treasures Scandinavian Gifts, Vintage Charm Homestead, Signature Popcorn, and Ma and Pa’s Candy. Be sure to visit the Sock Monkey Museum, Paddy’s on the Square, and Broken Earth Winery for more unique experiences, gifts, and food choices. The small town is also specifically known for its many charming festivals year-round, so be sure to check the calendar and drop in for a visit at the right time of year.
Wilmette – Cook County
In Cook County, Wilmette is situated to the north of the city, with a population of roughly 28,000 people. The village is close enough to the city that you might not know you’ve crossed the boundaries – which means you get the best of both worlds. The positives of a small town and the proximity of the big city. The real estate here is some of the premier in the state, as well, so it’s an ideal location, especially as it’s rated as the seventh-best place in the U.S. to raise kids. You’ll also find the stunning Bahai temple in Wilmette, well worth the visit, no matter your faith background.
Evanston – Cook County
Easily accessed by Chicago’s public transit (Purple Line, Metra, or CTA and Pace busses), Evanston is one of the best suburbs around Chicago. The town is close enough to the city that you may not even realized you’ve crossed the line. If you look around a bit, though, you’ll notice houses are a bit more spaced out, though, and that’s your clue. Evanston has tons of amazing restaurants, boutiques, and music venues, as well as loads of lakefront parks and beaches.
Buffalo Grove – Cook & Lake Counties
A little further out – about 30 minutes from the city – Buffalo Grove offers a quiet living. Many folks move here specifically for the public schools but stay for the parks, dining, and affordable housing. The many forest preserves don’t hurt, either! Museums, parks, excellent dining, bakeries, golf courses, and many other activities and attractions keep residents busy while drawing in visitors from neighboring towns.
Arlington Heights – Cook County
Located about 40 minutes from the city, Arlington Heights has a lot to offer for both residents and visitors. One of the biggest draws is the easy access to the Busse Woods forest reserves, for gorgeous trails for running and walking through the woods. Here, you’ll also find the Elk Grove Pasture where you might catch a glimpse of the remaining elk in the area.
Additionally, you’ll find an authentic Japanese mall called Mitsuwa Marketplace. They have a bookstore, hair salon, massage chairs, vending machines, Japanese groceries, a bakery, and a food court. In the food court, you’ll find a wide range of Japanese cuisine, including a variety of matcha offerings. The city is also home to the fantastic Metropolis Performing Arts Center and other venues and dining.
Elmhurst – Dupage/Cook County
Right on the county line, Elmhurst is one of those charming small-town feeling suburbs around 35 minutes from the city. Young families flock here for affordable housing, nice parks, eateries, and many amenities. Some of the popular attractions include the Wilde Mansion, Prairie Path, Wilder Park, Spring Inn, Oak Brook Center, and the Oak Brook Golf Club.
Park Ridge – Cook County
About 30 minutes from the city, you’ll find Park Ridge, a pretty, small town at the city’s border. This small town happens to be the hometown of Harrison Ford and Hillary Clinton. The historic Pickwick Theatre, Des Plaines River Trail, and many restaurants, parks, and shopping options make the suburb worth a visit or relocation possibility. If possible, come in the summertime when they host a number of festivals and events you’ll be sure to enjoy.
Geneva – Kane County
A bit further out — about 1.25 hours — Geneva offers small-town charm that’s close enough to the city you won’t mind being an hour away. The downtown area has loads of boutiques, coffee shops, pizza, and ice cream joints. A gorgeous trail not only offers gorgeous views of Fox River but leads to the Japanese Garden and a historic windmill.
Woodstock – McHenry County
Chicagoland is known for many filming locations. Perhaps one of the most popular has become Woodstock, a town about 1.5 hours from the city. Here, Billy Murray and the team filmed the majority of the classic film Groundhog Day. Take a self-guided walking tour around the town and take in the sights. Then, pop into the Woodstock Opera House (featured in the film and the former training site of famous Orson Wells) for a show. Drink up at Liquid Blues with live music, play a game at Griffonest Games, or watch a film and go bowling at other sites featured in the film. Be sure to hit up the Boone Creek Conservation Area for a nice hike or horseback riding adventure. And, if you happen to be around in February, come for the Groundhog Days festival.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Rudy Balasko/Shutterstock.com
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