IHG Travel Blog

Chicago travel essentials: First time in the Second City

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Sweet Stay Chicago

Located in northeastern Illinois and incorporated in 1833, Chicago experienced rapid growth in the 19th century, eventually becoming a major port for the shipping industry. This sparkling gem of a city borders 16 miles along the southwestern shores of Lake Michigan. As the third largest city in the United States behind New York City and Los Angeles, Chicago has more than 2.7 million residents.

The city has continued to evolve and has become an international center for commerce, finance, industry, transportation, technology, and telecommunications. Chicago’s central location makes it the top region in the nation for the number of highways and railroad freight entering into the area.

 “Windy City” quick facts

Chicago has a number of vibrant neighborhoods, including the lakefront community of Hyde Park–Kenwood– the home of President Barack Obama and the University of Chicago, the South Loop, Lincoln Square, and Wicker Park. Many people know of Chicago’s nickname –the “Windy City.”  The moniker has nothing to do with the fact that strong winds have a tendency to swoosh around the tall buildings in the downtown area, especially along the prestigious shopping district along referred to as the Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue.


It’s actually a reference to the past when the local politicians developed a reputation for being rather “long-winded” during city council proceedings.

Chicago has longed enjoyed a global reputation as a world-class city with all of the accoutrements one would expect to come with such recognition. It’s also the birthplace of famous American staples like Twinkies, Cracker Jacks and the “best” deep dish pizza in the country. Visitors to the city will discover a scintillating variety of activities, such as a symphony orchestra that is second to none, late night performances at a jazz bar or blues club, or catch a show in the theater district.

For those who enjoy sports, there are the professional sport teams, such as the Cubs, White Sox, Bears, Bulls, Fire and Blackhawks, as well as a number of collegiate teams. If you love design and architecture, Chicago has some of the most cutting-edge buildings, public art and monuments in the world.

Timing your visit to Chicago

According the U.S. News and World Report, the best times to visit Chicago are April through May or September through October. During these periods, the weather tends to be warmer and you can find reasonable hotel rates. In addition, most of the festivals and other events occur in the spring and fall.

If you decide to make a trip during the summer–the peak season between June and August– you can expect the laws of supply and demand to go into effect. You will compete with “staycation” residents and many more visitors, which drives up rates for hotel accommodations, airline fares and other services.

As it relates to weather, typically, summertime in Chicago produces comfortably warm, sunny days. If you should happen to arrive in the midst of a heat wave, you can expect temperatures to approach 100 degrees. A high humidity index sends the heat index soaring even higher.

Conversely, during the winter months you can expect cold and snow with daytime temperatures of between around 31 to 48 degrees November through March. An occasional stubborn polar vortex pushes down cold and wind from the north, which sends the thermometer plummeting and produces extreme cold, snow and ice.

However, if you want to experience the joys of Chicago and it happens to be in the winter–go for it. You will benefit from the lower airfare and hotel costs.

Those visiting the city have two major airports to choose from, but wherever you land, you’re never far from a comfortable Chicago hotel room. Visitors can fly into the O’Hare International Airport, which is located just outside the city and has been named the busiest airport in the world. Chicago’s Midway Airport, which is located on the southwest side of the city, offers closer proximity to the downtown areas and most of the major attractions.

Chicago’s Top 5 attractions

According to the city’s Tourism Bureau, a record number 46 million domestic and international visitors came to Chicago in 2012. Here are five of the top attractions you should consider on your trip to the Windy City:

1. Navy Pier

600 E. Grand Ave, (312) 595-7437

Navy Pier ended up being the only one of the five piers originally includes in the “Master Plan of Chicago” presented by architect and city planner Daniel Burnham in 1909. Intended for shipping, public entertainment and recreational purposes, the facility opened to the public in 1916. The 1.5 mile long pier has since morphed into an exceptional 50-acre amalgamation of activities, entertainment, museums, shops and restaurants.

The pier provides the perfect place for everyone–young people, singles, seniors and families. It is the number one destination in Chicago for local residents as well as visitors to the city.

Here are just a few of the activities offered at Navy Pier:

Pier Park – Take a ride on the 150-foot Ferris wheel for a breathtaking view of Chicago and Lake Michigan–opened year-round, the whimsical musical carousel, Wave Swinger lift-and-twirl ride or a round of miniature golf course.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Winner of the 2008 Tony Award for Best Regional Theater in the country, three Laurence Olivier Awards, and 70 total Joseph Jefferson Awards. The theater operates in a seven-story, glass curtain-walled structure that has a 500 seat courtyard and a 200 seat flexible black box, and offers performances and classics throughout the entire year.

Chicago Children’s Museum – Children will delight in the dozens of lively interactive exhibits such as the Inventing Lab, BIG Backyard, Dinosaur Expedition, and Kovler Family Climbing Schooner. You will have a hard time luring your kids away from the Amazing Chicago’s Funhouse Maze with its Spinning Tunnel, Mirror Maze, and more.

IMAX Theater – Take in a movie on Chicago’s largest movie screen at the Or. The Transporter FX provides exhilarating high-speed motion thrill rides to Antarctica, the moon, and more.

Boat Cruises – During the warmer months, you can take one of the many sightseeing and dining vessels like the Seadog, Shoreline or Odyssey to take in fantastic panoramic views of Navy Pier and the Chicago skyline for a memorable experience.

Closest IHG Hotel to Navy Pier: InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile

2. Millennium Park

201 E. Randolph St., Park, Free Admission, (312) 742-1168

Considered by many to be the city’s salient project since the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and located just off the shorelines of Lake Michigan is the public Millennium Park in Chicago’s Loop or downtown area. The park covers 24.5 acres of the larger Grant Park. It is bounded by Michigan Avenue, Randolph Street, Columbus Drive and East Monroe Drive.

Initially commissioned to celebrate the new millennium, construction on the project commenced in October 1998 and was completed in July 2004. It sits atop a commuter rail line and parking garage and has been billed as the largest roof top garden in the world.  Millennium Park ranks behind Navy Pier as the city’s most popular tourist attraction.

Jay Pritzker Pavilion – The innovative outdoor concert venue stands 120-feet high. Designed by National Medal of Art honoree Frank Gehry, the stage opening is framed with brushed stainless steel ribbons that connect to an overhead trellis of intersecting lines of steel pipes that support the sound system. There are 4,000 stationary seats, and the Great Lawn accommodates an additional 7,000 people. The first-of-a-kind sound-system in the U.S. offers the acoustical qualities of an indoor concert hall, which evenly distributes the sound across the seats and lawn.

The Pavilion hosts a number of free concerts and events, including the annual Grant Park Music Festival, which is an outdoor classical music series that takes place during the summer months

Crown Fountain – Adding to the city’s world famous public art collection, the Crown Fountain consists of two 50-foot glass block towers positioned at each end of a shallow reflecting pool.  The towers have a LED video screen that projects video images of a cross-section of 1,000 Chicago residents. In the traditional of the gargoyles often used in the design of many fountains, the video gives the illusion of water flowing through the open mouths of the people.

It operates between mid-spring and mid-fall, but is on display 365 days a year.

Lurie Garden – This 5-acre urban oasis gives tribute to Chicago’s motto “Urbs in Horto” (City in a Garden). It acknowledges the city’s maturation from flat marshlands to a dynamic and powerful urban metropolis. Visitors can learn about the garden’s design as well as the plant life.  Lurie Garden opens for self-guided tours 365 days a year, from 6am through 11pm. Besides the tours, visitors can also take advantage of lectures and hands-on family and adult workshops.

Closest IHG Hotel to Millennium Park: Holiday Inn Chicago-Mart Plaza River North

3. The Museum of Science and Industry

57th St. Lake Shore Dr., (773) 684-1414

After a visiting to the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany, Julius Rosenwald, chairman of Sears, Roebuck, and Company, developed a burning desire to create a similar interactive museum in the U.S.  Rosenwald chose as the location the Palace of Fine Arts –the only structure remaining from the World’s Columbian Exposition that had been held in Chicago in 1893, and the original location the Field Museum of Natural History until 1920. The badly deteriorated building underwent a substantial reconstruction from 1928 to 1932.

In 1933, the philanthropist and founder of the Museum of Science and Industry finally realized his dream when the doors of the institution opened to the public during the city’s Century of Progress Exposition of 1933.

Visitors quickly become enthralled with the major exhibits that cover a variety of industries, including mining, automobiles, telecommunications, aviation and aeronautics, space travel, agriculture, and medicine– many of them interactive.  Some of the most popular exhibits include a World War II German U-505 submarine and a 3,000-square-foot model railroad.

Closest IHG Hotel to The Museum of Science and Industry: Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites Chicago-Downtown

4. Lincoln Park Zoo

2001 N. Clark St, (312) 742-2000

Visit one of the few remaining free zoos in the United States.  Lincoln Park Zoo sits on 35-acres of park land in a tranquil setting that includes a blue lagoon, an abundance of mature trees and. historical architecture. The zoo houses more than 1,200 specimens of some 230 species of animals and other world-class wildlife exhibits. Opened in 1898, the facility is one of the most picturesque zoos in the United States, and one of the oldest.

Besides a superb collection of great apes living together in family groups, and a successful history of breeding gorillas, Lincoln Park Zoo also has an excellent compilation of cats and South American primates. Families can easily spend a full-day at the children’s zoo and the Farm-in-the-Zoo exhibit, which focuses on the animals and activities of a Midwestern farm.

Closest IHG Hotel to Lincoln Park Zoo: Hotel Indigo Chicago Downtown Gold Coast

5. The Art Institute of Chicago

111 S Michigan Ave, (312) 443-3600

This world class art museum has a diverse collection of artwork, which consists of more than 260,000 pieces representing more than 5,000 years of history from various cultures from around the world. The pieces range from Japanese prints and modern American art to architectural drawings and French paintings. The Art Institute of Chicago has a world-wide recognition for its superb collection of paintings created by Western artists, including a fine assortment of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art.

Artists who have work on display in the museum include Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, and Gustave Caillebotte.  Important works by American artists include: American Gothic by Grant Woods, Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, and The Child’s Bath by Mary Cassatt.

The Art Institute of Chicago is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

Closest IHG Hotel to The Art Institute of Chicago: Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites Chicago-Downtown

What will you uncover is this world class city? There’s only one way to find out. One thing is certain, you’ll have a new-found appreciation for this iconic town.

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