Chicago's Top Summer Offerings

With July 4th behind us, summer break can feel a little like a short downhill slide toward the beginning of the fall semester (just six weeks away). If you haven’t yet, it’s time to get serious about your summer. Whether this is your first summer in Chicago, your fourth, or your umpteenth, you’ll find more to do outside than can be crammed into your remaining free time: festivals, concerts, beaches, baseball games, day trips—from the city’s front yard on the lake to its back yard in the woods and everywhere in between, there are simply too many seasonal activities to add to your calendar.

Chicago’s best beaches

Whether you’re looking for beach volleyball, somewhere to sunbathe, dinner and drinks, or shade to hang your hammock in, Chicago’s lakefront is as varied as it is long–18 miles of beaches, parks, and trails. Here are a few of my favorite spots along the water:

  • Loyola Beach Take the Red Line to Rogers Park, get off at either the Loyola stop or Morse stop and walk east until you hit the water. This is one of the city’s most low-key and accessible beaches. You’ll find plenty of sand to spread out on, and plenty of shade, too. There’s a food stand at the north end of the beach, and a block west is Sheridan Rd., lined with quiet cafes and bars.
  • Montrose Beach The #78 CTA bus takes you right into the heart of Montrose Harbor, where you’ll find a huge stretch of sand facing north, and lots of lawns and woods facing south, with great views of downtown. Montrose Harbor is also home to a bird sanctuary and a patio restaurant, The Dock, where you can sip cold drinks with a view of the water.
  • North Ave Beach and Oak Street Beach These are the busier beaches of the northside, easily accessible via the #72 and #151 CTA buses. Beach volleyball, yoga, jet skis, kayaks, music and lots and lots of sunbathers; make sure to save your appetite for the Oak Street Beach cafe, some of the best fare to be found along the lake.
  • 57th and 63rd St. Beaches There’s a lot to cover down here; I recommend making a day of it. At the north end, there’s Promontory Point, a shady spot with a few swimmers and great views of the skyline. Continuing south, you’ll find two long and bustling beaches at 57th and at 63rd, both great for getting in the sun and the water. Behind you is Jackson Park, with lagoons, islands, and many hidden treasures left from the 1893 Columbian Exposition, including a Japanese garden, the Bobolink Meadows, and the 24-foot Golden Lady. If you need to get out of the sun, check out the Museum of Science and Industry, or take the #6 CTA bus up to the shops and cafes on 53rd St., Hyde Park’s main drag.
  • Rainbow Beach This might be the quietest beach in town. It’s a long ride on the #6 CTA bus to 77th St., but on a calm day, there’s no better beach to feel far from the noise of downtown. Pack a picnic and enjoy having plenty of space to yourself. Beyond this beach, there's only another mile or so of lakefront before Indiana; if you’re really serious about getting away from Chicago’s crowds, take a look at the NICTD train schedule. The quiet and remote Lake View Beach is a short walk from the Beverly Shores train stop.

The city of neighborhoods

Chicago’s bigger festivals get all the attention; everybody knows about Taste of Chicago, Pitchfork, Bluesfest, Jazzfest and Lollapalooza. But unbeknownst to most tourists, the city is throwing itself neighborhood parties all summer long. Here are a few to get you started:

  •  West Fest, July 8-10 on Chicago Ave. between Damen Ave. and Wood St. in West Town.
  •  Clark St. World Music Festival, July 16-17 on Clark St. between Morse Ave. and Estes Ave. in Rogers Park.
  •  El Gran Festival Colombiano, July 16-17 at the Copernicus Center in Jefferson Park.
  •  Chinatown Summer Fest, July 17 on Wentworth Ave. from Cermak Rd. to 24th Place in Chinatown.
  •  Wicker Park Fest, July 23-24 on Milwaukee Ave. from North Ave. to Paulina Ave. in Wicker Park.
  •  Reggae Fest, August 13 in Addams Medill Park on the Near West Side.
  •  Festa Italiana, August 18-21 at Taylor St. and Ashland Ave. in Little Italy.
  •  Albany Park World Fest, August 20-21 at Kimball Ave. and Lawrence Ave. in Albany Park.

Riding the river

Summer is the time to take Chicago’s boat tours. The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s First Lady Cruise may be the city’s best known architecture tour, but Wendella Boats and Shoreline Sightseeing also offer architecture tours on the river, as well as short cruises that take passengers out into the lake to view the skyline from a distance. Another easy way to spend time on the water is the Chicago Water Taxi, which picks up and drops off at locations along the river from Navy Pier to Lincoln Park and Chinatown.

Chicago’s big backyard

There are far too many forest and prairie preserves in the area to name them all here. For maps and more comprehensive information, visit the webpages for the forest preserves of Cook, Dupage, Lake, McHenry, Kane and Will counties. I’ll give you a few tips to get you started:

 - To the south, you’ll find a lot of marshes and preserves scattered among some of Chicago’s oldest industrial sites—an interesting mix of landscape. The largest sites are probably Eggers Grove and the Wolf Lake area, but Hegewisch Marsh, Burnham Prairie, Beaubien Preserve, and the Calumet and Kickapoo preserves along the Little Calumet River are all great places to stroll through some peace and quiet.

 - Cranberry Slough on the southwest side is part of one of the largest swaths of preserve in the area. Pulaski Woods, Cap Sauers, Tampier Slough, and the trails around the placid Saganashkee Slough offer plenty of room to wander around.

- Ottawa Trail Woods is one of many options due west of the city, and connects you to a string of woods along the Des Plaines river. Even further west, the East Branch of the DuPage River cuts through the Morton Arboretum and Greene Valley Forest Preserve.

 - To the Northwest, you’ll find a network of woods and preserves anchored by larger sites like Busse Woods, Spring Creek Valley, and Paul Douglas Preserve. Cuba Marsh is a smaller site with a beautifully maintained boardwalk and lots of marsh life to spy out.

 - Further north on the Des Plaines River, you’ll find Potawatomi Woods, Camp Pine Woods, and Kloempken Prairie. To the east, Skokie Lagoons, a great kayaking spot, abutted on the north by the Chicago Botanic Garden, a must-see for anyone living in the area. Beyond the Botanic Garden, a few stops up the Metra UP North Line, lies one of my favorite spots, a beautiful open stretch of lakefront and a fascinating piece of Chicago history: Fort Sheridan.

Hopefully, you already have some plans of your own. (And hopefully they include at least one free concert in Millennium Park–one last 'must' that I have to plug!) Add a few of these destinations to your agenda, and you'll be on your way to a full summer.