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Chicago Botanic Garden
Photograph: Frank James Stocum

Where to go in Chicago to avoid the tourists

To avoid the crowds of visitors, check out these less popular gems instead of the usual Chicago attractions

Annalise Mantz
Written by
Annalise Mantz
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The typical itinerary for a weekend away in Chicago includes hitting the city's biggest attractions, checking out the best museums and nabbing reservations at the top restaurants. The only problem? You'll be rubbing elbows with dozens of other visitors trying to do the exact same stuff. For a much less crowded weekend, follow this guide to lesser-known places that will help you dodge tourists. There’s still plenty of things you can only do in Chicago on this list, including unique bookstores, interesting museums and gorgeous outdoor spaces.

Where to go in Chicago to avoid the tourists

  • Bars
  • Breweries
  • Suburbs

Tucked away in suburban Hodgkins, Blue Nose Brewery has a more low-key vibe than some of Chicago’s other craft breweries. Suds lovers could easily while away an afternoon touring the premises and sampling a flight or two. The list of beers on tap changes regularly, but recently included Two Fuses double IPA, Basic Bitch unfiltered wheat ale and Sticky Wicket English mild ale. Games of giant jenga, darts or pool will keep you busy between pints.

  • Things to do
  • Literary events
  • Gold Coast

There's no shame in exploring the city's excellent mainstream museums like the Art Institute or the Field Museum, but make time to check out a lesser-known gem while you're at it. Take the International Museum of Surgical Science, for example: It’s the only museum in North America devoted to surgery and holds a vast collection of medical equipment, anatomical artifacts and educational art. Peep the working iron lung, Civil War–era amputee kit, ancient trephined skulls from Peru and other medical oddities.

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Busy Beaver Button Company
  • Shopping
  • Jewelry
  • Logan Square

Since it first opened its doors in 1995, the Busy Beaver Button Company has been churning out unique pins and buttons for bands, political campaigns, nonprofits and local businesses. You can still design custom buttons, but visitors to the Logan Square store should also check out the accompanying museum. The collection of more than 9,000 historical pin-back buttons includes every style and design you could imagine. It’s like nothing else you’ll find in Chicago—or any other city, for that matter.

  • Restaurants
  • Hamburgers
  • Wicker Park

Next time a craving for that gloriously messy Au Cheval burger strikes, skip the hours-long line and instead head to Small Cheval. This stripped-down offshoot of the famed Chicago diner serves just two things: a slightly smaller and cheaper version of that burger (with or without cheese) and fries. Wash your meal down with a pitcher of beer or a creamy whiskey-spiked milkshake.

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  • Things to do
  • Schools and universities
  • Edgewater

Paint-and-sip classes are so last year. Get your creative juices flowing in the latest tipsy art class in Chicago: BYOB mosaics. The expert instructors at the Chicago Mosaic School will teach you the basics of this ancient art form and guide you through the creation of your first four-foot square. A bottle of your favorite pinot noir or a six-pack of a local lager would only make the class more fun.

  • Things to do
  • Literary events
  • Suburbs

Even on busy days, the 285-acre grounds of the Chicago Botanic Garden never feel crowded. Strolling through the collection of more than 2.6 million plants is a surefire way to banish your worries. Any lingering thoughts of the city’s bustling streets melt away as you inhale the sweet scent of the Krasberg Rose Garden or marvel at the eight-inch pale pink lotus flowers in the Aquatic Gardens. The Chicago Botanic Garden also offers classes in everything from floral arranging to backyard garden design, if you’re ready to cultivate your own green thumb.

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  • Music
  • Music venues
  • Loop

Unlike the jazz joints and comedy clubs that pop up on every “best of Chicago” list, the opera doesn’t attract too many tourists. It’s a pity: The world-class Lyric is heralded as one of the city’s best cultural institutions. The performers aren’t the only reason to spend a night at the opera, either: The Civic Opera House itself is nothing short of awe-inspiring. With fluted Roman travertine columns, detailed musical motifs and shining Tennessee marble floors, the interior alone will captivate you. Plan to arrive early so you can spend a proper amount of time admiring the architecture.

  • Shopping
  • Bookstores
  • Wicker Park

With more than 70,000 books crammed into its shelves, Myopic is a bookworm’s dream. You could get happily lost among the three floors of used cookbooks, religious texts, works of literature and tomes on every other subject matter imaginable. It’s quiet and peaceful inside—plus, the smell of old books is somehow comforting. The 25-year-old shop also hosts free poetry readings on select Saturday evenings and live improvisational and experimental music on Mondays.

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  • Restaurants
  • Tea rooms
  • River North

The State Street storefront of this high-end tea retailer almost looks like a fancy spa, thanks to all the blond wood and pale green packaging. Though you can’t book a facial here, you’ll feel equally relaxed during a 45-minute tea tasting. The expert “tea guides” on staff will pour you brews from around the world and help you detect the complex flavors and aromas in each cup.

Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co.
  • Restaurants
  • Pizza
  • Lincoln Park

This isn’t your grandma’s deep dish. Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co. specializes in pizza pot pies: a bowl of tender dough filled with homemade sauce, Italian sausage, whole mushrooms and plenty of melted cheese. It’s a truly unique pizza experience.

Looking for more things to do in Chicago?

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