by Rebecca Holland
In 2015, Chicago hosted more tourists than ever before. The city had 50.97 million visitors from the United States alone, and about 1.3 million from abroad. With so many visitors, it’s no wonder the city is full of ‘touristy’ things. Things like museums, tours, and chain restaurants. When you live somewhere, it’s easy to write off these touristy things as a waste of time. Something cheesy and not worth standing in a long line with people who don’t know the city as intimately as you do.
I lived in DC for two years and never toured the White House. I lived in Rome for two years and didn’t make it to the Colosseum until my brother visited and wanted to go. And now I’ve lived in Chicago for almost two years and didn’t visit many of the city’s most well-known attractions until writing a book about them. This, my fellow Chicagoans, is crazy. Touristy things are touristy for a reason! They’re really cool! Here are some of the most touristy, and most worthwhile things to do in Chicago, whether you live here or are visiting.
The Skydeck at Willis Tower
It’s not for the faint of heart, but it is the best view in Chicago. The Skydeck puts you 103-floors up in Chicago’s tallest building, then sticks you 4.3 feet out on a glass ledge. You’ll start with a 70-second elevator ride to the top of the Willis Tower (and yes, your ears will pop), where you’ll learn some facts about how the building stacks up to other skyscrapers around the world. Once you’re out of the elevator you can walk around the floor for city views in every direction. On a clear day, you can even see into neighboring states! Looking East will give you sweeping views of the lake, while North shows off some historic buildings. Step into the glass boxes, which stick out from the Skydeck, for a stomach-flipping view you’ll never forget, and a photo op of yourself floating above the city.
The Willis Tower was formerly the Sears Tower (a name we can’t seem to give up) and when it was built in 1973 it was the tallest building in the world, surpassing the World Trade Center towers. Sears, at the time the largest retailer in the world, needed more office space, and commissioned architects Bruce Graham and Fazlur Rahman Khan to design nine tubes, each almost like its own building, in a 3×3 matrix to form the final tower. It was the first building to use the tube structure, which became very popular in skyscraper construction. A sculpture of Khan stands in the Willis Tower lobby. Today, it’s the second tallest building in the United States (after One World Trade Center) and the 14th tallest in the world.
Most importantly? The views will make you fall in love with Chicago all over again, and getting scared on the Skydeck is really fun, and really worth the photo.
The Museum Campus Trifecta
I’d been to the Field Museum of Natural History and Shedd Aquarium as a kid on school field trips, and thought I didn’t need to go again. Wrong. They’re really amazing even as an adult, and with so many changing exhibits at the Field Museum you should probably go multiple times a year. The museum I hadn’t been to until moving was the Adler Planetarium. At the tip of the Museum Campus peninsula it often gets overlooked, but I think it’s one of the best things you can see in Chicago. I still haven’t made it to an Adler After Dark event, but they sound amazing. The perfect date night. Here’s more on each museum:
One of the world’s largest museums of its kind, the Field Museum of Natural History maintains an extensive permanent collection and traveling exhibit program. The museum, which was founded in 1893 and originally called the Columbian Museum of Chicago, holds more than 20 million artifacts, from mummies to precious stones, and of course Sue, the most complete and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus Rex ever discovered, and one of the museum’s main draws. Sue is 67 million years old! Because it’s an active research institution and based on the pursuit of knowledge, collections are constantly tended to by resident scientists, so information is always up-to-date, and staff is well informed on the collections should you have any questions. Recently, exhibits have begun to highlight the urgent need for conservation around the world. Popular permanent exhibits include ‘Inside Ancient Egypt’ where you can enter a recreated Egyptian burial chamber filled with mummies and other relics, and ‘Evolving Planet,’ which takes visitors on the journey of evolution through fossils. You can also watch paleontologists work in the fossil lab. In the Grainger Hall of Gems, set your eyes on the rarest of jewels from around the globe, and learn what makes you, you in the DNA Discovery Center. Rotating special exhibits are usually worth the extra admission, and with it you also get access to the 3D Theater. Dedicate a few hours to your Field Museum visit, and don’t forget to grab a map at the door. The museum also has a free app if you want to follow along on specific collection tours.
Shedd is one of Chicago’s most popular family attractions, but everyone can find something to marvel at in this sprawling aquarium, which is home to 32,000 animals and 5,000,000 gallons of water. The aquarium was the first indoor aquarium to have a saltwater collection, and for many years was the largest indoor aquarium in the world. The aquarium has received numerous awards from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for its exhibits, including the Amazon Rising, Wild Reef, and Seahorse Symphony exhibits. The museum was built in 1930 in preparation for the World’s Fair in 1933, the second time Chicago hosted the event. The theme was ‘Century of Progress,’ and the aquarium was front and center. In preparation, 20 railroad cars traveled between Key West and Chicago carrying seawater. The Shedd’s permanent exhibits are Waters of the World, Caribbean Reef, Amazon Rising, Wild Reef, Stingray Touch, and Abbott Oceanarium. Together, they give an overview of many of the world’s aquatic habitats, and allow visitors to gaze on species they never dreamed to see in person. In Stingray Touch, guests can get their hands on cownose and yellow spotted rays, and in Oceanarium dolphins, belugas, sea otters, penguins, and more frolic in what is the largest indoor marine mammal facility in the world. Little known tip: While most people opt for the Total Experience Pass in order to gain entry to all exhibits, there is a much cheaper ticket option (only $8 for adults and $6 for children), giving access to only Waters of the World, Caribbean Reef, and Amazon Discovery. It’s a nice option for travelers on a budget, or for locals on a time crunch.
Adler Planetarium, America’s first planetarium, was built with a mission to explore and understand the universe, and that’s still its mission today, inspiring millions of visitors with incredible shows and interactive exhibits. In 1930, Max Adler founded the Planetarium, which sits on the tip of Museum Campus. Because it’s on the end of the island it’s often overlooked, but this would be a mistake as it’s one of the most engaging museums in the city. The museum is extremely user-friendly, with three full-size theaters, interactive games and learning opportunities, and an extensive collection of antique instruments. It’s also home to the Doane Observatory, where you can see planets, stars, and galaxies up close. It’s one of the only active, public research observatories in the country. If you have kids, stop by the Planet Explorers exhibit, where they can launch a rocket, something that always thrills. For an extra price, visit the theater, where 3-D and other movies delve into some of the most exciting issues in space. The building itself is striking too. Architect Ernest A. Grunsfeld, Jr. won the gold medal of the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects for its dome structure, which has 12 sides for each sign of the zodiac. Outside, check out the giant sundial designed by sculptor Henry Moore, and the shiny bronze Copernicus statue in the front of the building. The museum was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987. One plus of the Adler sitting so far down museum campus? Shorter lines! And beautiful views of the Chicago skyline from the lawn, which is also the perfect place for a picnic lunch.
Architecture River Tour
A 90-minute tour along the Chicago River will tell you everything you need to know about Chicago’s rapid rise from small town to thriving city, a history deeply tied to its architecture. While there are numerous architecture river tours, the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s gives you the most information. Guides are certified by the architecture foundation, so they really know they’re stuff, and they’re endlessly excited about it. They’ll guide you through 50 buildings along the river while you sit in comfort on a Chicago’s First Lady vessel. Upper-air viewing decks, climate controlled cabins, and a full service bar make it the perfect after work activity.
I learned so much on this tour, and in case you don’t already stare in awe at the Wrigley Building every time you pass by (I do, and have more photos of it than I’ll ever need), you will after this.
Eat the Chicago Foods
When you visit a new country, you probably look up famous local dishes and make sure to try them. That’s what people do when they come to Chicago too, meaning they feast on deep dish and hot dogs (and hopefully also some Rick Bayless, Stephanie Izard, Paul Kahan, Grant Achatz, and our other incredible chefs who have turned Chicago into one of the best food cities in the world). So what should you do if you live here? Brave the lines at Portillo’s to eat a chocolate cake shake once a year. Indulge in deep dish (and the arguments that ensue about where does it best – I’m Lou Malnati’s all the way). And experiment with new cuisines from new chefs around the city. You’re lucky to live in a place where food is taken seriously and options to eat well are endless. Take advantage!
We have way more parks in Chicago than I originally appreciated. I live between Lincoln Park and Millennium Park, both fantastic but also fairly touristy. That doesn’t make them any less beautiful, any less exciting, or any less perfect for relaxing with a good book or taking in a free concert or yoga class. But there’s also Hyde Park, the new 606, and so many more. We have good weather (by my standards) only a few months a year, so embracing it and spending at much time outdoors in these glorious parks is a must. In the winter, ice skating and hot chocolate at some of them makes me almost forget how much I hate cold weather. Sure, Millennium Park is teeming with tourists at all hours of the day, but don’t you also love gazing at Cloud Gate, and seeing how many new angles and reflections you can see depending on the time of day or time of year? For me, Bean photos never get old, they only make me love this city even more.
This is just a tiny selection of Chicago’s offerings, I know, but they’re some of the most touristy yet also the most worth visiting. (Notice I didn’t even mention the lakefront, which is my absolute favorite thing about Chicago, but something I think those of us who live here already appreciate fully). What are your favorite touristy Chicago things? Let me know!