Top tips to see the Windy City on the fly
With world-renowned museums, lakefront living and celebrated architecture, Chicago offers a landscape ripe for travel adventures. But if you have only 24 hours to explore the city, you'll need to craft a well-balanced itinerary. Here are Chi-Town attractions you must see, tourist traps to skip and time-saving tips to make the most of your one-day Chicago vacation.
Impressionism on display: The Art Institute of Chicago
Widely considered one of the world’s finest museums, the Art Institute of Chicago showcases works by such luminaries as Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso. The museum gets extremely crowded on weekends, but it’s not as busy on Mondays and Thursday evenings, the one night the museum stays open late. While large crowds frequently gather around Edward Hopper’s "Nighthawks" and Grant Wood’s "American Gothic," fewer visitors linger in the galleries showcasing lesser-known African and American Indian artwork. Download the museum’s free app and use detailed maps to navigate your way around the Art Institute’s quirky layout, or listen to one of the 50 customized audio tours.
Millennium Park: Redefined park space
Set in the heart of downtown Chicago, Millennium Park mixes edgy artwork with inviting public space, as fountains with digital images form splash pads, and bean-shaped sculptures distort the city’s skyline. Learn all about the park’s Lurie Garden during the free tours offered every Thursday, Friday and Sunday from May through September. Explore the area by renting a bike by the hour, day or week from the McDonald's Cycle Center. The center also offers lockers to store personal belongings, plus parking spaces and a repair shop for bikes.
Science and fountains: Fun at Grant Park
The 319-acre Grant Park offers sweeping views of the city and showcases the iconic Buckingham Fountain, a 1927 landmark with elaborate hourly water and light shows from May through October. The park also features the Field Museum, which houses the best-preserved and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered. Save money by skipping the museum’s temporary exhibit halls – there’s plenty to see in the permanent exhibits – and maximize your time by creating a personalized tour on the Field Museum’s app. Free admission is offered a few days each year, but don’t visit the museum on those dates because the facility gets especially crowded.
Choosing the best observation deck
The Willis Tower is a fixture in Chicago’s skyline, but the famed building’s observation deck comes with long lines and hefty price tags. The 360 Chicago observation deck on the 94th floor of the John Hancock Center features better views, smaller crowds and specialty entertainment. On particularly clear days, the views stretch all the way to Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. The deck hosts a happy hour with board games and live DJs on Thursday nights, artists are encouraged to bring their materials and paint on Wednesday nights, and yoga classes are offered on Saturday mornings.
Ditch the pier for the park
The Navy Pier, a gaudy entertainment zone filled with generic souvenir shops and chain restaurants, is the ultimate tourist trap. For a more authentic version of Chicago, visit Lincoln Park and stroll along its lakefront trail, or stop by Lincoln Park Zoo, a 49-acre facility that’s free to the public and outfitted with some 1,100 animals. Get to the zoo when the gates open at 7 a.m. Not only is the place empty then, but certain animals are particularly active during the early hours. Also arrive early for the animal demonstrations, such as the seal training and feeding at Kovler Seal Pool or the great ape training session in the Regenstein Center for African Apes; otherwise, it’s sometimes difficult to see over the crowds of people.