Chicago Visitor Guide

This post was originally written for the PLOS Neuro Blog for the 2015 Society for Neuroscience conference.

As a Chicago native, I am often asked for suggestions on where to go and what to do in the fine city I call home.  Lucky for you, I agreed to share some of my insider tips for this year’s SfN conference.  The one local tip is that you *must* venture into the neighborhoods of Chicago if you want to get a true sense of the city.

Museums – One of my favorite parts of Chicago is that there is easy access to cultural events and experiences. The museums are a great way to get a lot of experience packed into a small timeframe. If you think that you have time to visit a lot of the museums, the CityPass program is actually a decent deal . If not – one off tickets aren’t prohibitively expensive.

  • Museum of Science and Industry is the local science museum. Currently has the exhibit “Robot Revolution.” It is a SUPER Kid friendly place to visit.  For grownups it has a U-boat, a giant Tesla coil and lots of interactive science exhibits.
  • Art Institute of Chicago –  If you get a membership, you can bypass the main ticket line and go to the information desk – can save you a substantial amount of time in line. The $55 student membership gets you museum and special exhibit admittance for 2 adults.
  • Field Museum – This is Chicago’s natural history museum. It is home to Sue, the world’s most complete T-Rex skeleton and other dinosaur bones.  It also has an Egyptian tomb that you can walk though.
  • The Lincoln Park Zoo – A full zoo right on the coast of Lake Michigan. Two main draws – FREE & they have two red panda cubs!
  • The Shedd Aquarium – An aquarium in museum campus with a special exhibit on amphibians. There are ‘extraordinary experiences’ that let you feed sharks and meet beluga whales.  They are a bit expensive & need to be booked in advance.
  • The Adler Planetarium – Visit the first ever planetarium. Currently has the Mission Moon exhibit. Also they have a fabulous view of the city skyline!
  • Chicago History MuseumIf you really want to learn a lot about the distant and recent past of Chicago, this is the place to go. Currently they have an exhibition on Chicago Authors, so if you are a book-nerd this might be the place for you to visit.

Architectural TourOne of my go-to suggestions for those visiting the city.  I know it will be a bit chilly – but dress for the weather and sit up top on the boat. You will be rewarded with spectacular views.  Also they sell local beer on board! Also, I strongly suggest taking only the tour run with the Chicago architectural foundation.  The docents for their tours are all volunteers who absolutely geek-out on architecture & the city, they aren’t reading a script!

Parks – Chicago is one of the few cities which has kept a large part of its lake front as a huge public park.  This is segmented into a few smaller parks that have a unique character.  The city of Chicago hosts a ton of free events in these parks.  The city calendar is actually well maintained, so check it out for free events.

  • Maggie Daley Park – The newest addition to the lakefront, it is kid focused, but try and keep me off those giant slides!
  • Grant Park –Buckingham fountain.
  • Millennium Park –Pritzker Pavilion where you will find symphony & other events

Food – Chicago is now a culinary destination with world-class restaurants.  One of the unique things about Chicago food culture is that most places are very approachable.

  • Classic Deep Dish Pizza – Most people from Chicago can only eat this type of pizza a few times a year. It is just way too much cheese to have as part of your normal diet.
  • Chicago Hot Dogs – If you are from Chicago, you will have very strong opinions about putting ketchup on a hot dog. Chicago dogs are often described as a salad on a bun, including neon green relish, sport peppers, tomatoes and cucumber slices.
    • Portillo’s Hot Dogs – A classic spot to get a hot dog or Italian beef. If you are feeling brave try a cake shake, an entire piece of chocolate cake blended into a chocolate milkshake.
    • The Weiners Circle – A notorious hot dog stand in Wrigleyville known for delicious hot dogs and sassy service. One of the big draws is that the stand is open until 4am most nights.
  • Chicago Italian Beef – Growing up I was not aware it was abnormal to submerge your beef sandwich in a bath of au jus. If you want to try this Chicago specialty, ask for your sandwich to be dipped.  There are two Italian beef stands claiming to be the first, and best.  Try both & decide for yourself.
    • Al’s #1 Italian Beef on Taylor Street
    • Beef On Orleans

This is just a list of restaurants in Chicago which I enjoy, it is in no particular order.  Fair warning – I am a vegetarian so all of these places have accessible & delicious meat-free options.  Tipping in Chicago is between 15-20% of the check, before tax, depending on service.

Drink – Chicago also has a burgeoning craft beer & liquor industry.  In addition to bars, there are a lot of interesting brewpubs and taprooms in the city.  Many of the breweries offer tours, but these need to be booked in advance. Again, this list is in no particular order.

If booze isn’t your vice, perhaps coffee is?  The city is home to cozy coffee shops & amazing coffee roasters.  Again, this list is in no particular order.

Shopping – Chicago has always been known for its shopping – some of the main concentration of shopping in the city are as follows:

  1. State Street
  2. Magnificent Mile
  3. Armitage & Halstead Corridor – upscale boutique shopping
  4. Bucktown/ Wicker Park – Unique boutique shopping
  5. Old Town – Interesting shops on a quaint street

Miscellaneous – Some of my suggestions don’t fit neatly into one category.

  1. The Spice HouseA world renowned purveyor of spices. Their neighborhood blends make for unique gifts.  I live out of the country and still stock my pantry from here.
  2. Blommers Chocolate Factory Store – One of the true hidden gems of Chicago. This factory frequently makes the city smell like a giant brownie. What is not well known is they have a small warehouse store where you can buy massive bags of chocolate confections just hunks of chocolate.  If it is warm out – try one of their chocolate covered frozen bananas. Located at 600 W Kinzie St, Chicago, IL 60654. Open from 9AM – 5PM on weekdays.
  3. Vosges Chocolate – This chocolate makes wonderful presents, if you can resist eating it yourself. Their main draw is chocolate bars with bacon, but my favorite is the Sri Lankan Coconut Curry bar.
  4. Myopic Bookstore – one of the best used bookstores in the US. The top floor has science, the basement is where you will find scifi.  Everything else is in-between.

If you can’t tell already, I love Chicago and I hope you do too. I hope this guide will inspire you into the true heart of Chicago, the neighborhoods.  If you want other insider tips or suggestions send me at tweet@LDrogosPhD.

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