The interior of Sushi Suite 202
Photograph: Courtesy of Sushi Suite 202

Hidden gems in Chicago you need to know

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

Written by: Jeffy Mai
Contributor: Isaiah Reynolds
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Even though it makes sense to gatekeep some of our favorite hidden gems in the city, it's much more fun to share the wealth. Everyone Chicagoan has their favorite under-the-radar spots they call their own. These can be niche coffeeshops, vintage murals or underground art galleries that deserve some extra love. Our picks include a shockingly affordable tasting menu at one of the best restaurants in Chicago, a cocktail bar that doubles as a hair salon and some secret (but public) parks. So read on to discover the best Chicago secrets you should know about.

RECOMMENDED: The worst-kept secrets in Chicago

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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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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  • 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 $95 per person. Best of all, you can tailor each course to your liking, choosing from a short list of options such as a roasted foie gras custard, duck breast and blood orange chicken wings. Wine pairings will add another $59 to your bill, but you can always save some dough by purchasing wine by the glass instead.

  • Music
  • Rock and indie
  • Ukrainian Village
  • price 1 of 4

Chicago’s music scene is unsurpassed and there are countless shows across town every night of the week. What’s even better, though, is that you don’t have to break the bank to get your fix of live music. Premier indie rock club The Empty Bottle hosts free concerts on Mondays and during the warmest months, the Millennium Park Summer Music Series features a wide variety of free performances from both established acts and emerging artists at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.

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  • Things to do
  • Literary events
  • price 1 of 4

Whether it’s the Art Institute of Chicago or the Field Museum, the city is home to a host of world-class museums. And while many of them offer free museum days, there are some that are completely free every day of the year. You can check out more than 5,000 artifacts from the ancient Middle East, that go as far back as 10,000 years, at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute Museum. Or immerse yourself in one of the country’s largest collections of Mexican culture at the National Museum of Mexican Art.

  • Attractions
  • Libraries, archives and foundations
  • Loop

No, seriously. The Winter Garden on the ninth floor of the Harold Washington Library Center is a peaceful oasis that provides an escape from the bustle of downtown. The gorgeous atrium is the architectural centerpiece of the building, featuring a 52-foot glass dome that spans the entire space. So you can soak up some vitamin D as you work, study or relax, no matter what season it is.

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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.

  • Lincoln Park

Omakase restaurants are very in right now, offering tasting menus packed with pristine cuts of fish flown in from overseas and other luxurious ingredients. These experiences are usually pretty intimate—with only a few guests per seating—but a couple of spots take it even further. At Sushi Suite 202, you’ll enjoy a 75-minute, 17-course meal set inside a hotel suite, while newcomer Sushi by Scratch Restaurants: Chicago takes place in a dimly-lit room hidden below a dive bar. If you’ve ever wanted to get up close and personal with the pros preparing your dinner, this is the coolest way to do it.

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  • 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.

  • 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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  • Things to do
  • Talks and lectures
  • Loop

You needn’t be religious to poke around Chicago’s Sky Chapel, a breathtaking house of worship situated 400 feet above street level inside a Gothic skyscraper in the Loop. Accessible via two elevators and a staircase, the impressive space is surrounded by colorful stained-glass windows and intricate carvings. Free tours are available after Sunday worship services.

14. Stretch in an urban jungle

People may know about the lush and striking Garfield Park Conservatory, but few know about the yoga sessions at the two-acre greenhouse space. Visitors can join in-person yoga classes (usually once-a-month) for only $5 per session. Dust off that yoga mat and slip into something comfrotable for a peaceful recharge in one of the most beautiful places in Chicago.

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15. Walk through the remnants of a historic steel mill

Steelworkers Park is home to the former US Steel Corporation steel mill where Chicago, a major hub for steel imports, would receive giant pieces of construction material in the early 20th century. After closing in 1992, the remnants of the steel mill went relatively unused until it officially became a public park in 2014. The monstrous ore walls still stand, doubling as climbing walls, and there is a publicly accessible walking path within the Steelworkers Park grounds. Whether you're looking for a new adventure or just want to learn more about Chicago history, this gem hiding in plain sight should be added to your bucket list. 

16. Stroll down the river on a hidden trail

Riverbank Neighbors Park started as a community project in 1994 when residents alongside the North Branch of the Chicago River saw their riverfront was eroded and filled with trash. Since then, the community has built up the riverbank as a community space and walking path. For a year-round stroll, this unique hidden gem is a great place to escape from the bustle of the city.

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  • Coffee shops
  • Portage Park
Read your favorite magazines at a throwback coffeehouse
Read your favorite magazines at a throwback coffeehouse

Who said news was dead? City News Cafe transports you to the days of yesteryear of magazine stands and independent bookstores. Find editions of any of your favorite publications, grab a cup of coffee and read up on the latest news all in one place.

18. Wander through a subterranean labyrinth

When the temperatures dip and the weather turns frightful, there’s no better way of getting around the downtown area than through the Chicago Pedway. This underground network of tunnels connects a nearly five-mile stretch of local businesses, restaurants and commuter rail facilities. All in all, the Pedway covers more than 40 blocks and 50 buildings, making it ideal for those who want to stay out of the elements.

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