Loaded hot dogs and law enforcement TV shows may seem like our chief cultural exports, but Chicago is a city that is known for its attractions. It's a place where you can climb to the top of a 103-story building, visit a sprawling downtown park and relax on a beach in the course of an afternoon. For those willing to venture away from the Loop, Chicago offers a free zoo, some gorgeous conservatories, a legendary baseball stadium and a popular lakefront trail. Get ready to explore with our list of must-see Chicago attractions.
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Chicago's top attractions
Situated atop the 94th floor of the John HancockCenter, 360 Chicago offers a new twist on the experience of seeing the city (and three neighboring states) from high above the ground. The observatory’s Tilt attraction places visitors on a moving platform that slowly (as its name implies) tilts over the side of the building at a 30 degree angle, revealing a stomach-dropping view of the street below.
In the summer, Grant Park is the epicenter of activity in the city, playing host to festivals like Lollapalooza, Blues Fest and Taste of Chicago. The sprawling lakefront park in the heart of downtown is filled with Instagram-worthy landmarks like Buckingham Fountain, a skate park and the Museum Campus. If you can’t find something to do, just sit in the grass and admire the amazing view of the skyline.
Housing more than 1,200 animals, the Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the few remaining free zoos in the United States. The 35-acre menagerie may seem small, but it packs in plenty of amazing sights, including popular attractions like the Kovier Lion House and the Regenstein Center for African Apes. In the winter, many of the animals go indoors, while the ZooLights go up in celebration of the holiday season, making this zoo a year-round attraction.
A veritable outdoor gallery of public art, Millennium Park contains a selection of Chicago’s most iconic sights, ranging from the popular Cloud Gate (better known as “The Bean”) to the towering Crown Fountain, which features a rotating display of local faces. When the weather is warm, you can see a free concert at the Frank Gehry–designed Pritzker Pavilion or have a picnic in the heart of the city.
Chicago may not boast a tropical climate, but when it gets muggy during the summer, you’ll find people flocking to the beaches that line the coast of Lake Michigan. Most of the Park District’s beaches feature amenities like lockers, concession stands, volleyball courts and even free Wi-Fi. Large crowds typically gather at the centrally located North Avenue Beach, but you can head north or south to find roomier patches of sand.
If you want to get some altitude in Chicago, you can’t get much higher than the Willis Tower Skydeck. One hundred and three floors above the streets, visitors can see as far as 50 miles in all directions from the top of the iconic skyscraper. If you’re feeling brave, step out onto the Ledge—a glass cube suspended from the side of the building that will make you feel like you’re walking on air (or about to fall to your death).
Since opening in 1930, Shedd Aquarium has provided as a slice of tropical paradise in the middle of the city, collecting more the 32,000 animals in a structure designed by the architects behind the Wrigley Building. No matter what the weather is like outside, visitors to the Shedd can get a closer look at a shark, touch a stingray or take a selfie with Luna the sea otter.
Originally built for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, the building that houses the Museum of Science and Industry now hosts a variety of interactive exhibits that allow guests of all ages to explore scientific concepts. Popular attractions include a WWII-era German U-boat, a 40-foot-tall tornado simulator and a confusing mirror maze. Take the kids for an afternoon of family fun, or bring a date and embrace your inner child.
If the Bears aren’t playing at Soldier Field, take a quick jaunt north to the Field Museum where you’ll find taxidermied grizzlies and polar bears lurking among a collection of more than 24 million historical artifacts. Plan your explorations in the lobby, where Sue, the world’s largest and most complete T. rex skeleton, guards halls containing Egyptian mummies, prehistoric fossils and precious gems. By the end of your visit, you’ll wish you had another week to spend wandering this massive institution.
Though it’s staffed by world-class researchers at the forefront of their field, the Adler Planetarium’s real draw will always be the virtual-reality trips through time and space in the Grainger Sky Theater, which features high-resolution images projected on a view-encompassing domed screen. Elsewhere in the museum, visitors can learn about our solar system, see a Gemini 12 capsule and discover the history of the known universe throughout a series of permanent exhibitions.
For those who have lived in Chicago for more than a few months, Navy Pier’s carnival rides and chain restaurants quickly lose their charm. However, the lakefront strip does house the only real IMAX screen in the city, the Chicago Children’s Museum and a variety of sightseeing boat tours. Plus, Navy Pier is the only place in town that puts on a fireworks display on the Fourth of July, which is enough reason for locals to tolerate it during the other 364 days of the year.
The Cubs are still chasing a third World Series win that has eluded them for over a century, but that hasn’t stopped fans from crowding into the “friendly confines” of Wrigley Field. In addition to serving as a venue for America’s pastime (pre-Netflix), the stadium also periodically hosts classic rock heavyweights like Billy Joel and Foo Fighters. An upcoming series of renovations should make the ballpark an even bigger draw, adding additional seating and a gigantic video screen.
When the Chicago Public Library moved into the Harold Washington Center, the city turned its former home into the Chicago Cultural Center. Visitors can take advantage of a variety of free programming, including free classical concerts, dance performances and exhibitions from local artists. It’s also worth stopping by to view the century-old building’s beautiful architectural flourishes, including the world's largest Tiffany stained-glass dome.
The ballpark formerly known as Comiskey now goes by U.S. Cellular Field and is the home of the Chicago White Sox (the only baseball team in the city with a recent World Series win). The South Side stadium is considerably more spacious than Wrigley Field, which means that snagging a pair of decent seats is never an issue. You also won’t have to settle for peanuts and Cracker Jacks—the Cell offers creative stadium fare like bacon on a stick and chicken and waffle sandwiches.
If you want to see the Bulls or the Blackhawks, you’ll need to make a trip to this sprawling Near West Side sports arena. When it’s not hosting hockey or basketball, the Madhouse on Madison is the venue of choice for gigantic touring acts like Beyoncé and Arcade Fire. Even if you don’t have tickets to a game or show, you can get a photo with the iconic statue of Michael Jordan located in front of the east entrance.
During football season, Bears fans file into Soldier Field and tailgate in the surrounding parking lots as the team tries to recapture its glory days of 1985. Completed in 1925, the oldest operating NFL stadium was stripped of its historic landmark designation in 2006 after the Park District decided to renovate the structure and expand its capacity. In the off-season, the stadium hosts the annual Spring Awakening Music Festival and serves as a venue for various events.
The Chicago Fire (the soccer team, not the catastrophic historical blaze) doesn’t command the same reverence as the city’s other professional sports teams, but it’s worth taking a trip to Bridgeview to see them play. The four-time U.S. Open Cup champs aren’t the only stars to take the field at the suburban stadium—touring acts like Bob Dylan, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Jimmy Buffet have also put on shows at the venue.
Every October, the streets of Chicago fill with 45,000 runners who put their endurance to the test during the Chicago Marathon. After beginning in Grant Park, the 26.2-mile course passes through the North and South Sides, where participants are greeted by crowds of spectators waving handmade signs in neighborhoods like Pilsen, Old Town and Lincoln Park. Whether you run or watch, it’s a great excuse to carbo-load with a pasta dinner.
If a trip to the beach isn’t in the cards, the next best thing is a relaxing dip in one of the Park District’s swimming pools. There is a variety of facilities available in parks all across the city, including lanes for lap swimmers, slides for the kids and concession stands for a post-swim snack. Whether you want to practice your dive or simply dip your toes, a day at the pool is a fun (and free) way to spend a hot summer day.
Described as “landscape art under glass” when it opened in 1908, the Garfield Park Conservatory is one of the largest of its kind in the nation. Inside, visitors will find 120,000 plants spread across 1.6 acres, including the popular Fern Room, which features an indoor lagoon and waterfall. A popular rain-or-shine destination for nature lovers, the conservatory hosts seasonal flower shows as well as occasional concerts and events.
One upside to Chicago’s freezing winters is the multitude of ice skating rinks that open for business once the temperature drops. The city offers rinks for skaters of all persuasions, whether you prefer the traditional, flat confines of the Millennium Park rink or the sloped circuit layout of the Maggie Daley Park ice ribbon. A word to the wise: If you want to skip long rental lines, invest in a cheap pair of used skates.
You don’t have to take a trip downtown to hang out in a world-class Chicago park and get back in touch with nature. If you’re on the the North Side, spend an afternoon amid the lagoons of Humboldt Park or flying a kite on Cricket Hill in Lincoln Park. The South Side offers ponds for fishing in Washington Park as well as the relaxing atmosphere of Jackson Park’s Japanese-styled Osaka Garden.
Take in some amazing views of Lake Michigan along the 18-mile Lakefront Trail. Run, bike or walk along the path, which connects attractions like the Museum Campus, Belmont Harbor, McCormick Place and most of the city’s beaches. Keep your eyes peeled for aggro cyclists.
Originally a hub of Chicago’s bustling railroad industry (and the home of the Pullman railroad car company) this southern neighborhood contains a large number of historic buildings that date back to the 1880s. A good place to start your visit is at the Historic Pullman Visitor Center, where you can set out on a self-guided walking tour which includes the Hotel Florence, the clocktower and Greenstone Church. Look closely and you may recognize a few landmarks from movies like Road to Perdition and The Fugitive.
If you’re tired of the city’s concrete expenses, take a trip to Lincoln Park, where visitors can learn about the natural world at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Outside, a series of nature trails take explorers past a lagoon and a prairie garden, while indoor attractions include interactive ecosystems and the 2,700-square-foot Judy Istock Butterfly Haven.
Water plants are in abundance at this beautiful site near the banks of the Skokie River, where the sprawling gardens are a series of islands. At the Chicago Botanic Garden, you can stroll through 24 landscapes, including the Japanese Garden and the Regenstein Fruit and Vegetable Garden.
Set on 216 acres, Brookfield is home to more than 2,500 animals representing nearly 410 species. Visit emus, wombats and wallabies at the zoo’s Australia House, or the orangutans, monkeys, gorillas and gibbons that populate Tropic World, one of the largest indoor animal exhibits anywhere. The rehabbed grizzly and polar-bear grottos, called Great Bear Wilderness, are among the many other attractions.
You could spend the next four years getting to know this encyclopedic institution, which owns more than 300,000 artworks and artifacts from all over the world and every era from antiquity to the present. Immerse yourself in classics by the likes of Seurat, Picasso and Van Gogh or take a walk through the Modern Wing to enjoy contemporary pieces and beautiful views of Millennium Park.
If you prefer looking at art that was created within the past century, the Museum of Contemporary Art is the city’s premiere destination for cutting edge retrospectives and world-class traveling exhibitions. The MCA’s theater periodically hosts innovative dancers, theater troupes and bands—often before they wind up on a larger stage. Visitors should also stop by the gift shop, which houses a treasure trove of interesting knick-knacks and souvenirs.
For one month spanning November and December, Daley Plaza becomes the happiest place on earth. Nearly 60 Bavarian-style wooden stands are set up to hawk German goods like beer steins and ornaments, and delicious food like potato pancakes, sausages and the holiday market’s signature drink, gluhwein (warm mulled wine). You’ll find Loop workers downing wursts on their lunch break, families visiting Santa, and canoodling couples all getting their fill of holiday cheer.
Like any good Midwestern city, Chicago is serious about commemorating this popular Irish holiday. Each March, organizers dump a bunch of yellow liquid into the river, shifting its usual murky hue to a dirty shade of green for the rest of the day. There are also two parades to attend: one in Grant Park and the other on the far South Side of the city.
As far as Midwestern pop culture–themed gatherings go, there are none larger than the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo—better known as C2E2. Each year, the convention attracts thousands of costumed fans to McCormick Place, where they can rub shoulders with legendary figures like Stan Lee and the cast of Game of Thrones. Of course, there’s enough merch, shirts and comic books for sale to bankrupt any fanboy or girl.