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Photograph: Torie Palacios for Sofar Sounds

9 Chicago secrets you should know about

Like most secrets, you'll find these local treasures hidden in plain sight

Zach Long
Morgan Olsen
Written by
Zach Long
&
Morgan Olsen
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Can you keep a secret? As much as we're tempted to keep our lips sealed about lesser-known things to do in Chicago, it's more fun to share the wealth. After all, who wouldn't want to explore tucked-away gardens, spot vintage murals or journey through tunnels beneath the city's streets? We're taking a closer look at some Chicago secrets that everyone deserves to know about—the kind of stuff that doesn't typically show up in guidebooks, but nothing that requires you to break any laws. Embark on a tour of these Chicago secrets, from a surprisingly affordable prix fixe meal at one of the best restaurants in Chicago to a cocktail bar that doubles as a hair salon.

Explore Chicago's best secrets

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Lincoln Park

Situated at the north end of Lincoln Park and just east of the Lincoln Park Conservatory and Mon Ami Gabi, Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool is a serene pond that’s surrounded by lush vegetation and a stone walkway. Designed by landscape architect Alfred Caldwell, the secluded green space is meant to emulate a river twisting through a prairie—a.k.a. an environment of total tranquility. Pack a book, find a spot in the sun and stay awhile.

  • Art
  • Loop

For most Chicagoans, the Pedway is nothing more than a confusing maze of subterranean tunnels below the Loop, a way to get from point A to point B without braving the elements. Space p11 aims to change that through a series of off-the-grid installations that breathe new life into the utilitarian walkway. Step inside the space to explore the tiny art gallery: You’ll find video projections, dance performances, talks and exhibitions.

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Check out a secret concert series
Photograph: Jose Pardillo for Sofar Sounds

3. Check out a secret concert series

Anyone can buy tickets to see their favorite artists perform at United Center or Thalia Hall, but if you’re looking for something off the beaten path, turn to Sofar Sounds, a platform that hosts intimate performances in unexpected places, such as a chocolate shop or a secluded rooftop. Head to Sofar's website and purchase tickets for shows in neighborhoods throughout the city. The venue is revealed the day before the concert, but you won’t find out who’s playing till you get there. Rest assured, past acts have included top local talent as well as up-and-coming names like Kweku Collins and Grace Weber.

  • Hotels
  • Chain hotels
  • Loop

Travel nearly a century into the past by stepping inside the lobby of the Hampton Inn on East Wacker Place, just across the street from the Carbide and Carbon building. In the late 1920s, the Art Deco building was the home of the Chicago Motor Club, where visitors could find maps of the United States' then-developing highway system and get restaurant or hotel recommendations while enjoying a drink. You can still grab a beer or cocktail from the bar to sip while you gaze upon John Warner Nortin's 1928 mural depicting a map of the U.S., including national parks and major highways.

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Snap a highly unusual shot of the skyline
  • Bars
  • Lounges
  • Streeterville
  • price 3 of 4

You’ve already got Instagrammable photos of the cityscape from the Adler Planetarium and Cindy’s at the Chicago Athletic Association. But have you seen the view from the women’s restroom at the Signature Lounge inside the building formerly known as the John Hancock Center? From 96 floors up, Chicago’s landscape of skyscrapers sparkles—especially after the sun goes down. Sorry, dudes, you’ll have to stand in line for TILT, an attraction that allows you to lean out over the city in a glass-encased box from 1,000 feet in the air.

  • Restaurants
  • Contemporary American
  • West Loop
  • price 3 of 4

You don't need to spend a ton of money to experience a tasting menu at a restaurant with a Michelin star. With executive chef Andrew Zimmerman at the helm, Sepia has earned the prestegious rating annually since 2011, and it's signature four-course will only cost you $85 per person. Best of all, you can tailor each course to your liking, choosing from a short list of options such as a crispy soft boiled egg, duck breast and beef tartare. Wine pairings will add another $55 to your bill, but you can always save some dough by purchasing wine by the glass instead.

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  • Things to do
  • Bronzeville/Oakland

Chicago is littered with unsung historical gems that tell the story of how the city was built. Need proof? Look no further than The Secret Mermaid, a sculpture of a tailed creature that lives along Chicago’s lakefront. In 1986, a handful of guerilla artists, led by steelworker Roman Villareal, chipped away at a hunk of stone in Burnham Park, and the mermaid was born. Later, when the shoreline was undergoing restorations, the boulder-size statue was moved into storage until it found its forever home at Oakwood Beach in 2010. Though it’s out of hiding, the unauthorized work of art is still a funky beachside discovery.

  • Bars
  • Cocktail bars
  • Boystown

Unlike many Chicago speakeasies, Buzzed by Zea doesn't go to any great lengths to hide its dual identity—it's just a hair salon that happens to house a craft cocktail bar. While many local barbershops will let you sip a beer during your haircut, this Northalsted salon will serve you a drink even if you don't have an appointment. You can order a Manhattan or a Tequila Honey Bee during the day, or swing by in the evening when the lights are dimmed and Buzzed by Zea transforms into a late-night lounge outfitted with a few salon chairs.

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  • Things to do
  • Literary events
  • Uptown

If you're growing tired of Humboldt Park, Jackson Park and Lincoln Park, why not explore an equally beautiful green space that doesn't get quite as many visitors. Graceland Cemetery is lined with trees and home to hundreds of interesting statues and ornate mausoleums—and it's open to the public daily. While it'd be disrespectful to throw a Frisbee or meet for a picnic here, the expansive Uptown cemetery is a great place to go for a walk (or a jog) while keeping an eye out for the final resting places of famous Chicagoans like film critic Roger Ebert and business magnate Marshall Field.

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