Unless you’ve had your head buried deep in the sand, you’ve probably noticed that the city’s lakefront is dotted with postcard-ready beaches that could rival any haughty East or West Coast competitors—at least for a few weeks per year. We combed the city’s 26 swimmable strands to see what each had to offer, from the North Side’s Speedo-and-bikini–filled hookup spots to the South Side’s good eats and kid-friendly corners.
Foster Beach, 5200 North, at Foster Avenue
BEST DOG DAY OUT You won’t suffer the stink-eye from any dog-hating neighbors at this sandy sanctuary. Just like the city’s larger, more crowded dog beach at Montrose, this spot allows pups to run free and frolic unhindered in the fenced-in area. A $5 Dog Friendly Area tag is required; see mondog.org for details.
Montrose Beach, 4400 North, at Montrose Avenue
BEST FOR ACTION SPORTS No need to escape to Wisconsin to plow the waves on a WaveRunner—just rent one from Windy City Watersports (200 W Montrose Harbor Dr, 312-278–3316). For a less high-octane adventure, rent a kayak, a sailboat or a Water Beetle paddleboat from Kayak Chicago (630-336-7245); sailing lessons are available, too. Landlubber sports abound, as well: Join games of volleyball or soccer, rent a bike or see if your ollie skills hold up on the Wilson Skate Park’s hipped bowls, grind boxes and rails (312-742-7529).
North Avenue Beach, 1600 North, at North Avenue
BEST SINGLES MINGLE Sand, surf, sports and booze combine to make this beach fertile hunting ground for summer loving. Get a few names and maybe numbers with a pickup game of volleyball; equipment rental is available at the beach house. Or, loosen up with a few cocktails at Castaways (1603 N Lake Shore Dr, 773-281-1200).
Ohio Street Beach, 400 North, at Ohio Street
BEST PLACE FOR OLYMPIC GOLD–GRABBING HOPEFULS You’ve probably seen groups of overachieving triathletes training here, completing their biking and running legs on the lakefront path before making the masochistic plunge into the chilly waters for distance swimming. You might not be able to beat them, but you can join them: Wetsuit rentals and group triathlon seminars are available at nearby Fleet Feet (1620 N Wells St, 312-587-3338).
57th Street Beach, 5700 South, at 57th Street
BEST PICNIC PLACE Picnic at the site of the 1933 Century of Progress world’s fair. Promontory Point, just north of Hyde Park’s beach in Burnham Park, makes the scene with a backdrop of lush greenery, a castlelike field house and an Alfred Caldwell–designed curved stone bench.
63rd Street Beach, 6400 South, at 63rd Street
BEST BEACH FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY Its rep for frequent closures aside, this beach offers plenty of action for all ages: Let sibling rivalries play out in the sand with free volleyball-equipment rental, encourage kids to go berserk in the interactive spray fountain or give sporty teens the chance to try out kitesurfing—the Park District’s allowing it for the first time this year at designated sites, including nearby Jackson Park Harbor. One last parental bonus: Stella’s Market, an African-Caribbean snack shack in the arcaded beach house, serves up some of the best beach fare we’ve tried, including respectable jerk-chicken sandwiches and fruit smoothies.
South Shore Beach, 7100 South, at 71st Street
BEST COUNTRY-CLUB EXPERIENCE The Park District purchased, refurbished and opened this once superexclusive country club, built in 1916, to all in the 1970s. The 65-acre site boasts a clean, uncrowded beach, the Mediterranean Revival–style clubhouse known as the South Shore Cultural Center (where the Obamas were married), plus a 2,700-yard, par-33 golf course complete with panoramic lake views. For added Gatsby-ian ambience, grab a window seat at the clubhouse’s Parrot Cage restaurant and gaze out over the water while you dine on meals prepared by students from Washburne Culinary Institute.