The best things about Chicago are the lake and the weather – in the summer! The worst things about Chicago are the weather and the lake – in the winter!
Chicago is a pretty bi-polar place. There are many wonderful places to visit in Chicago and the list of top things to do in Chicago is a long and distinguished one. From the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to Deep-Pan Pizzas, Chicago is a clean and tidy city which can cater for any taste, and is full of beautiful places and beautiful vistas. But it is not called the Windy City in jest.
Try walking down Michigan in January with the snow curling in off the lake, and you will soon find out what to do in Chicago when winter sets in. You will discover why the city has so many places to snuggle into, for coffee to drink and Chicago’s own brownies to bite into, inside – out of the biting winds blowing down from Canada.
#1 Art Institute of Chicago
Of all the many wonderful things to do in Chicago, the Art Institute of Chicago towers above the rest as a place to visit for learning and for the appreciation of the Institute’s magnificent collection of fine art. Founded in 1879 the Institute was always intended to function as a museum as well as a school for fine arts – a dualism which was typical of the city’s dynamism and efficient creativity in the wake of the Great Fire – which destroyed much of Downtown Chicago in 1871.
The Art Institute, an absolute must see in Chicago, opened in its current (though now much expanded) location in 1893, when it moved into a building constructed for the Columbian Exposition, at Michigan Avenue and Adams. That original building still provides the main entrance to the Institute, despite more than 125 years of expansion and redevelopment.
The latest addition to the Institute is the Modern Wing, which opened in 2009, and which now houses the recently acquired Edlis|Neeson Collection, which includes works by Warhol, Rauschenberg, Murakami and Jasper Johns, and which symbolizes the ongoing energy and commitment of Chicago to the decorative arts.
The Art Institute of Chicago is not only one of the leading Chicago must see attractions, but it is also one of the great things to do in Chicago with kids.
#2 360 Chicago Observation Deck
Visiting 360 Chicago is quite literally one of the TOP things to do in Chicago. 360 Chicago is the new name for the observation deck on the 94th floor of one of Chicago’s tallest and most recognizable buildings, from which visitors have panoramic view across the city and the lake and can see 4 different states
Every city has its own unique skyline, some more recognizable than others, but whenever filmmakers or television producers want the audience to know they are in Chicago, they show a skyline featuring the building with the twin antennas on top. For many years this building was called the John Hancock Tower, but the naming rights agreement with the John Hancock Insurance company lapsed, and the building is now called simply 875 North Michigan Avenue.
The building itself remains a must see in Chicago, because of its height and instant recognition, but it is the view from 360 Chicago which makes this one of the top things to do in Chicago.
One of the great places to visit in Chicago is the Riverwalk. Riverwalk Chicagois an extended waterfront walkway running along about a three and a half mile stretch of the southern bank of the Chicago River in downtown Chicago. The Riverwalk runs from Lake Street down to Lake Shore Drive and features many restaurants, seating areas, gardens and play areas and many other facilities, so it is definitely one of the best things to do in Chicago with kids.
The Riverwalk is divided into four distinct sections each with a unique theme: Confluence, Arcade, Civic, and Market. All along its meandering course, the walkway is dotted with points of interest. These include the Chicago Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Plaza, interesting buildings such as the Wrigley Building and the Tribune Tower, a restaurant and food stall area called the Marina, the River Theater – an open-air amphitheatre construction, and the Cove – where it is possible to hire many different kinds of watercraft. If you are looking for places to visit in Chicago then simply take a stroll down to Lake Shore Drive to pick up the Riverwalk, and let it guide you through the heart of the city and show you lots of Chicago things to do.
#4 Field Museum
If you are looking for things to do in Chicago, then The Field Museum, more formally known as The Field Museum of Natural History or FMNH, is one of the biggest of Chicago must see attractions.
The Field Museum is by far the biggest museum in Chicago, and is actually one of the largest natural history museums anywhere in the world. As with many of this kind of entity in Chicago, FMNH grew out of the vast collections and displays from Chicago’s World Fair, the Columbian Exposition of 1893.
If you are looking for places to visit in Chicago where you can cheerfully spend all day looking around, then the Field Museum is certainly the place for you.The museum holds a collection of more than 24 million items and 275,000 books: a hugely diverse range of specimens and analysis which helps to provide research material for the museum’s many different on-going information development and analysis programs. The Field Museum attracts around two million visitors a year, who visit this vast and elegant structure to see anything from fossilized relics from the distant past to interactive investigations of the state of our planet today, and is certainly one of the great Chicago must see attractions.
(Basic admission costs $26 for adults and $19 for children. You can save a few bucks if you can show you are from Illinois.)
#5 Magnificent Mile
After the fire of 1871, State Street became the City’s main shopping district, primarily because of easy access by streetcar and ‘The L’ – the elevated train system installed in the city from 1892 and still very much in use today. The suggestion to turn the area into ‘The Magnificent Mile’ was put forward as early as 1909, but construction was delayed by the first World War and didn’t start until the early 20’s – during Prohibition. The area quickly took-off, though and property prices soared to match the soaring towers that were being built to create probably the top place to visit in Chicago.
Nowadays, The Magnificent Mile in Downtown Chicago is one of Chicago’s must see attractions, and consists largely of high-end retail chains, expensive dining options, and almost all the big-name luxury brand retailers, most of which we rarely see in typical urban retail developments. There are also a lot of luxury hotels, catering primarily to business visitors, and the more affluent sectors of the city’s ever-strengthening tourist market. The Magnificent Mile includes more than three million square feet of licensed retail space, over more than four hundred stores, and offers more than fifty hotels and three hundred restaurants.
On the Magnificent Mile, keen shoppers will find the likes of Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, Apple, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, and even Tesla, together with all of the familiar luxury retailers such as Burberry, D&G and Tiffany. The Magnificent Mile boasts the third highest retail rents in the US, after only Fifth Avenue and Rodeo Drive, and those costs continue to spiral upwards, which is reflected by room rates in the many luxury hotels and prices on the menus of the many up-scale eateries in the area. The Magnificent Mile is one of the great things to do in Chicago with kids because there is so much going on, but lunch for four or five won’t be cheap.
(Free, but keep an eye on the prices. Phew!)
#6 Lincoln Park Zoo
If you are in search of things to do in Chicago, and particularly if you are looking for things to do in Chicago with kids, then Lincoln Park Zoo Is a clear favorite choice.
Lincoln Park Zoo was founded in 1868, when the board of New York’s Central Park presented the Lincoln Park Commissioners with four swans in two mated-pairs. The thirty-five-acre site is situated in Lincoln Park and, as well as being one of the few zoos in the country which does not charge admission, it is also one of the oldest in the US – though it pursues a relentless drive to update facilities for both visitors and the animals they come to see.
In 2016, Lincoln Park Zoo launched ‘Pride of Chicago’ – a campaign which has raised upwards of $125 million: enough to allow the zoo to build the Regenstein Macaque Forest, Pritzker Penguin Cove and Walter Arctic Tundra display, and to start the very difficult task of renovating one of the top places to visit in Chicago. The Kovler Lion House renewal program has been long delayed because of the building’s popularity and its position as a Historic Landmark. A precise date for the reopening of this very popular exhibit has not yet been finalized, but this project is emblematic of the way Lincoln Park Zoo strives to keep up-to-date and relevant in this digital age.
The Lincoln Park Zoo animal family includes well over a thousand creatures from more than two hundred species and includes everything from the Aardvark to a tiny little fish called the Zebra Tilapia, and from the Cotton-Top Tamarin to the Cinereous Vulture. Lincoln Park Zoo is a must see in Chicago.
#7 Willis Tower Skydeck
One of the truly great things to do in Chicago is to visit The Willis Tower, which is still often known by its old name, the Sears Tower. The Willis Tower is the second tallest building in the Americas after One World Trade Center, but Skydeck – the observation area situated on the 103rd floor, at a height above the street of 1,353ft, is by far the highest tourist observation facility in the continental United States. The Willis Tower Skydeck is a Chicago must see attractions, where tourists and visitors can feel the building swaying in strong cross winds – Chicago is called the Windy City after all.
Somewhere in excess of 1.5 million tourists visit the Willis Tower Skydeck every year, and on clear bright days, visitors to Skydeck can see far out across the Illinois plain, or across the lake to Illinois’ distant neighbors -Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan. From 2009, visitors have been able to access ‘The Ledge’ – a series of all glass balconies which allow visitors to see straight down to the street far below. If vertigo is your thing, then perhaps ‘The Ledge’ represents one of your top things to do in Chicago.
#8 Navy Pier
Navy Pier is a 3,000ft jetty which sticks out into Lake Michigan from the Near North Side area of the Downtown Chicago shore. The pier has more than fifty acres of park, garden, retail, and food development areas, together with a wide range of exhibition spaces, outdoor live performance options and family-oriented entertainments and comfort facilities. It is one of the best free things to do in Chicago.
Navy Pier is named for those US Navy men and women who lost their lives in the first World War and, as well as being one of the top things to do in Chicago, is now one of the top tourist destinations in the whole of the American Midwest – attracting up to 2,000,000 visitors every year.
Originally known as the “Municipal Pier”, the jetty opened in July 1916, and was originally intended to be a commercial freight and passenger terminal, while also featuring areas for both indoor and outdoor events such as exhibitions and shows. The pier became a US Navy base during the Second World War, when more than 10,000 people worked and trained there, but after the war the pier saw a long slow decline until, from 1995, it was completely remodeled and reintroduced to the people of Chicago as a primary social and retail space for the city, and one of the key Chicago must see attractions.
From 2014, a second-phase redevelopment scheme called The Centennial Vision was introduced, with the intention of renovating the pier to allow for more late evening use, as well as making it more usable and attractive through Chicago’s harsh winters, thus re-inventing Navy Pier as an international-class facility for year-round entertainment. So, if you are looking for things to do in Chicago at night or things to do in Chicago in winter, then Navy Pier offers great alternatives at one of the top place to visit in Chicago.
#9 Children’s Museum
One of the truly great things to do in Chicago with kids is also now located at Navy Pier. The Chicago Children’s Museum (CCM), founded in 1982, was originally based in two of the halls of the Chicago Public Library, but eventually found its permanent residence when it moved into Navy Pier as one of the first-wave tenants when the Pier was re-launched in 1995.The new Navy Pier facility provided the museum with 57,000 ft2 of exhibition space covering three floors, making CCM the 4th largest children’s museum in the United States.
CCM works with more than 650,000 people every year, both through its Navy Pier presence and through direct community involvement throughout the Chicago local area. In late 2012, CCM announced a new, 90-year lease with the Navy Pier, to include a nearly 50% expansion of the museum’s footprint at this premier Chicago must see attraction. Chicago Children’s Museum is of course much more than just a museum of childhood. As the Museum itself says,
“We believe in the power of play. When we play, we learn. We create. We strengthen and grow. Chicago Children’s Museum’s mission is to improve children’s lives by creating a community where play and learning connect.”
(Costs vary, but book ahead to save a little.)
#10 Chicago Symphony Orchestra
If you are looking for things to do in Chicago music, then perhaps a trip to Chicago’s Orchestra Hall would be advised, where the CSO – the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – makes its home.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra works with many of the biggest names and greatest artists on the orchestral music scene, and is renowned not simply in America but around the world. Through its international tours and by inviting many of the world’s top composers, conductors and classical musicians to participate in its rich and varied US schedule, Chicago’s orchestra is recognized and applauded around the world. So, if you are wondering what to do in Chicago, and you like classical music, then an evening with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra might be just what you need.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) was started by Theodore Thomas in 1891, and although the orchestra’s home is Orchestra Hall in Downtown Chicago the CSO also plays a summer season every year at the Ravinia Festival at Ravinia Park, just outside Chicago. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra began performing at Ravinia Park in November of 1905, appearing their often until August of 1931 when the park closed down in light of the Great Depression. However, by August 1936 Ravinia Park had reopened, and the CSO went back as part of the inaugural season of the Ravinia Festival, now the oldest outdoor festival of music in the US. CSO has been in residence at Ravinia during each summer season since that time. So, if you are wondering about things to do in Chicago suburbs this weekend then just go online and check the CSO’s schedule.
Chicago is a great city, and if you ever ask yourself what to do in Chicago or what you must see in Chicago, then the answer you should give yourself is very simple – “Let’s go see!” The great thing about Chicago is that, although it’s a big city these days, the center is very compact. Almost everything is within easy walking distance, and if something you want to see or do isn’t so handy, then there are lots of low-cost travel options which will get you there as quick as you like.
Everything you must see in Chicago is right there. All the places to visit in Chicago, and all the top things to do in Chicago are within easy walking distance. And then there’s the lake. Chicago is about 900 miles from the sea, but it feels like a sea-side city for all that.
Looking for Chicago things to do? On a warm day – just hit the beach.
Frequently Asked Questions by Travelers
What should I see in Chicago?
This one is easy – you should see the City and you should see the Lake. All of the Chicago must see attractions are within easy reach of the city center. Just get yourself to DuSable Bridge and you are ten minutes from almost any of the top ten things to do in Chicago. And to see the lake, my advice is to pick a fine sunny summer day, and get yourself to North Avenue Beach well before lunch, stake out a spot and let Chicago and its lake-life come to you.
Is Chicago safe for tourists?
Yes, next question. – No seriously, like any US city there are good spots and bad. Chicago is on average, a very safe city. Stay in the south side tourist spots and you’ll be safe enough. Wander out to Englewood or Riverdale or Fuller Park and things get a mite more interesting – so don’t do that. Stay in the center, stay in the light, and stay with the group.
Top things to do in Chicago? – Stay sensible, stay safe.
What is Chicago famous for?
Well of course the obvious answer is that downtown Chicago is famous for Deep-pan Pizzas – but it is not at all clear that they originally come from Chicago, so here are a few things which definitely do.
Brownies – invented in Chicago in 1893 for the Chicago World Fair.
Yellow Pencils – Introduced into the US at the Chicago World Fair in 1893.
The Ferris Wheel – Introduced to the world at the Chicago World Fair in 1893 – built to rival the Eiffel Tower.
The Electric Dishwasher – first demonstrated at the Chicago World Fair in 1893.
The Telephone – Possibly an idea in-part stolen by Alexander Graham Bell from a patent lodged by Elisha Gray of Highland Park in 1876.
Skyscrapers – the Home Insurance Building built in Chicago in 1884 is generally listed as the first skyscraper.
As to the pizzas –word on the street is that deep–pan pizzas were never seen in Italy and were indeed invented in 1943 in Pizzeria Uno in Chicago.
What are the most popular tourist destinations in Chicago?
Simple answer to a simple question – the two top things to do in Chicago and the two primary Chicago must see attractions are the same two places: Riverwalk and Navy Pier. The great thing is that these two are not very far apart, and if you walk around the Chicago streets between them you will see many of the most interesting sights and sounds of Chicago. These two places and the beaches on a summer’s day are the tourist hotspot places to visit in Chicago.