Checking off all the touristy things (or local gems) on your travel to do list often means taking guided tours, walks and bus rides. But here in Chicago, there’s no better way to spend a day than sightseeing via the CTA.
One of my absolute favorite things to do while traveling, both domestically and internationally, is to check out the local public transit system. Some might say, “wow that’s risky to do so in an international country you’re not familiar with.” To which I say, yes, it can be if you’re not careful. However, utilizing the local transit system is typically how locals get around and it can also save you some valuable coin that you can use elsewhere on your vacation. To this day, I’ve managed to navigate Tokyo, Moscow, Beijing, Berlin, just to name a few, all via their subway systems. I’ve not only seen some amazing things alongside the local commuters, but this method of getting around made for really interesting days wandering those cities, ones I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.
Chicago is no exception to my travel rule. As a lifelong Chicagoan, I’ve utilized the CTA on an almost daily basis to get to just about anywhere I want to go in the city. It may not be the best subway system out there, but it is pretty efficient and can get you from one end of the city to the other in a minimal amount of time — and avoiding all of that Chicago traffic makes it an even better option.
So get ready to buy your ticket and head to the nearest L stop, because I’m going to show you how to sightsee in Chicago using solely the CTA Trains and your two feet. How long you’re staying in Chicago will determine which CTA Ventra Pass to purchase. A one-day unlimited rides pass is $10 (additional increments available) and can be purchased at any Ventra Kiosk at any one of the hundreds of CTA stations throughout the city. Click here for more information on the CTA Passes.
The Blue Line
A good place to start, as this is the main line that can take you all of the way from O’Hare Airport to the South Side of Chicago on one train, with some amazing neighborhoods to check out in between.
This is just a few stops away from the airport and also the gateway to Rosemont, where our sister property, Loews Chicago O’Hare Hotel, is located, along with dozens of things to see, do and eat. If you head South (left) on River Road, along the way you will find “hotel row” and restaurants galore. Check out MB Park in Rosemont, the central hub for entertainment and dining in the area. Hofbrahaus, Park Tavern, Four Roses, Zanies, Bub City, Joe’s Live, iFly (just to name a few) all await your arrival and offer great entertainment for all ages. This is also where you’ll find the Fashion Outlets, the Midwest’s largest two-story outlet mall, with deals on high-end fashion as well as the staple department store retail outlets.
If you are interested in checking out one of Chicago’s newest and most up-and-coming areas, get off at the California stop and wander Logan Square. Logan Square offers the best of both worlds; a local neighborhood with delicious options for food and drinks. It’s a relatively easy place to navigate if you stay on Milwaukee Ave, where you will find the local Revolution Brewery Restaurant offering delicious food and a massive draft beer selection of their now-famous Revolution Brews. Other places to be sure to check out in Logan Square are Emporium Arcade, where adults can step back in time and play old-school arcade games while sipping on cocktails. Wicker Park, which is the neighbor of Logan Square, is just a couple stops down on the Blue Line at Damon. Similar in feel, this neighborhood also has lots of great restaurants and bars — and it was the backdrop for the movies Wicker Park and High Fidelity.
Clark / Lake Stop
Hop back on the Blue Line and head to the Clark / Lake stop if you are looking to get to the center of the city. This is the main commuter stop for anyone who works downtown and is an easy access point for all of the downtown attractions. Some of the local sightseeing nearby when you get off at this station are Millennium Park, The Bean, Grand Park, Crown Fountain, the Lakefront Paths and Navy Pier.
The Red Line
The Red Line is the train that runs parallel to the lake and offers some fun food and drink options in addition to the famous Wrigley Field, where our beloved Cubbies won the World Series last fall.
Some of the great areas to explore at this stop are Lakeview, Boystown and Wrigleyville. These three neighborhoods are worth checking out for a great cultural experience as well as their great history. Read up on the history of Lakeview before heading over; it will make for an even better experience wandering this area.
Simply put, get off here to visit the iconic Wrigley Field, home of the World Series Champs, the Cubs. Take a photo in front of the marquee and try and catch a Wrigley Field Tour (generally only on weekends, early morning).
If you head South on the Red Line you cannot miss Chinatown at the Cermack-Chinatown stop. Take in the culture, nosh on some of the mouthwatering, iconic food, and peruse some of the really cool shops that line the streets.
The Green Line
This is a good one if you’re in the mood to meander one of the many famous Chicago museums. Just a short walk from the station, you will find yourself on what we call the Museum Campus — home to the Adler Planetarium, Field Museum and the famous John G. Shedd Aquarium, where all of those adorable baby otters live! Insider Tip: Be sure to check out each museum’s “after hours” programs on their websites (just click on the links in this post). Some offer adult-style events after the regular operating hours. For example, Wednesdays is “Jazzin’ at the Shedd” — for $20 you can enjoy drinks and live jazz as you walk through the exhibits after hours from 5–10 PM. The Adler offers a similar program as well. It’s a really cool way to enjoy these places without the family crowd, if that’s not your thing.
If you’re a total foodie or just looking for a good spot to do lunch, be sure to check out the West Loop area off of the Morgan stop. All along Randolph Street, you will find some of the most famous Chicago eateries worth visiting like Au Cheval and Little Goat, just to name a couple. There are over 30 notable restaurants to check out and feed that hunger beast inside.
Of course, there are a couple of other CTA lines that can take you to other areas of the city, however these are the key players as far as I’m concerned. For a map of the city-wide CTA system, click here.
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