Millions of people come to Chicago each year and are content to spend the entirety of their visit in the Loop. While there's much more to our city, we'll admit that there is something captivating about the towering skyscrapers and pieces of public art that populate the dense downtown area. Explore the world's best museum by visiting the Art Institute or relax in the city's "front yard" as you stroll through Grant Park. Make like Ferris Bueller, take a day off and enjoy some of the best things to do in the Loop.
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Top attractions in the Loop
Though it’s staffed by world-class researchers at the forefront of their field, the museum’s real draw will always be the virtual-reality trips through time and space in the Sky Theater, which—thanks to a 2011 rehab—features the "highest resolution and quality possible." Themes usually center around the known and unknown universe and how humans have engaged with it throughout history.
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. Our favorite pieces include the Japanese prints, fragments of local buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Thorne Miniature Rooms. We’re also in love with Renzo Piano’s light-filled Modern Wing, which is the perfect place to enjoy the Art Institute’s architecture and design collection, modern and contemporary art, and gorgeous views of Millennium Park.
It doesn’t spew water in winter, but with its four Art Deco–style seahorses, Georgia pink marble and holiday light and music show, this fountain built in 1927 is still a sight to behold. From May through Labor Day, 20-minute shows every hour on the hour feature 14,000 gallons of water spouting from 133 jets. In summer, see the nighttime colored light shows, capped off with a center jet shooting 150 feet of water in the air.
Known mostly for its architecture tours, programming and bauble-filled design shop, the Chicago Architecture Foundation is worth visiting for its exhibits alone. In addition to creative rotating displays, galleries boast a highly accurate model of Chicago: Around 1,000 buildings in 400 city blocks glow under simulated sunshine.
Since being converted to the Cultural Center in 1991 (it used to be the Chicago Public Library), this city-block-wide institution now offers free classical concerts Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays. Most of the center’s classical offerings take place in Preston Bradley Hall on the second floor near the Washington Street entrance, but the Claudia Cassidy Theater (named for the Tribune’s venom-penned theater and music critic from the ’40s) on the Randolph Street side is used for experimental concerts, too. Concerts are always free.
The Loop’s 5,000-seat Chicago Theatre was the opulent French baroque-style flagship of the Balaban and Katz movie-palace chain when it opened in 1921. It’s still a beautiful venue (you’ve probably seen the famous illuminated “Chicago” marquee even if you’re from out of town) that’s surprisingly cozy for its large size. It has also hosted some phenomenal shows: We’ve caught everyone from Eddie Vedder to Coco O'Brien here, and we’ve never been disappointed.
As soon as you lay eyes on the elegant architecture and opulent lobby at this hall, you’ll realize that subtlety isn’t the order of the day at the Civic Opera House. The prestigious Lyric Opera of Chicago has made its home here since 1954, and now presents eight productions each season. It’s regularly ranked as one of the top opera companies in the country, boasting a talented stable of singers alongside an excellent orchestra.
Named for infamous Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, this large plaza is directly adjacent to a building (also named for the mayor) which houses several city offices. The courtyard contains an untitled Picasso sculpture that was given to the city by the artist in 1967. Throughout the year, Daley Plaza plays host to food truck meet-ups, cultural events, a farmers' market and the annual Christkindlmarket.
Founded to house the biological and anthropological collections assembled for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, this massive natural history museum still packs ’em in with more than 30 permanent exhibitions covering 300,000 square feet. Inside the permanent displays, you can see glowering dinos, marvel at ancient artifacts from a royal Egyptian tomb, undergo a lesson in cannibalism in the “Pacific Spirits” gallery or take a stroll through the newly rehabbed Halls of Gems and Jade.
Spanning 319 acres of lakefront property, Chicago's "front yard" is filled with notable landmarks like the Millennium Park, Buckingham Fountain, the Art Institute and Museum Campus. In the summer, Grant Park's sprawling terrain plays host to festivals like Lollapalooza and the Taste of Chicago.