CHICAGO — New Yorkers flee the city during the summer for the Hamptons or the Jersey Shore. Bostonians leave for Martha’s Vineyard or Cape Cod.
Chicagoans, they stay put.
“We have three months where it’s more difficult to go outside,” says Craig Golden, principal at Blue Star Properties, which has developed many restaurants around the city. “It makes you really cherish the better weather. As soon as it hits 45 degrees out here, you start seeing people walking in shorts and T-shirts. They’re ready. I think that energy translates.”
It translates into a slew of travelers descending on this Midwestern metropolis to join locals in enjoying the many restaurants with outdoor patios, rooftop bars, parks, river cruises, and beaches.
And Chicago rolls out the red carpet for them.
“What makes summer in Chicago so special is simply the incredible variety of special events, festivals, performances and exhibits … set in one of the most visual and stunning backdrops of public space, parks and event venues,” says David Whitaker, president and CEO of Choose Chicago, the official tourism board.
Here’s what summer visitors can expect from Chicago.
Down by the river
Chicago’s buildings literally glow during the summer, and one of the most popular ways to gaze at them is on a cruise down the Chicago River.
The 90-minute twilight cruise by Chicago’s First Lady Cruises operates in partnership with the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
Docent Kathy Kurlick tells the stories of more than 50 buildings along the river, all built in less than 100 years.
“Chicago built more skyscrapers than anyone from 1934 to 1955,” she says.
The most famous are the Hancock Center, the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building and the Willis Tower.
But there are many other buildings that don’t get as much attention, such as the Poetry Foundation, a modernist building with a public garden and a 30,000-volume library.
This fall, the city will honor its skyline with the Chicago Architecture Biennial. June also marked what would have been the 150th birthday of icon Frank Lloyd Wright, who still has a presence in Chicago with buildings such as the Robie House.
Even Chicago’s 1.25-mile Riverwalk is an example of carefully orchestrated urban design. The downtown waterfront park and pedestrian trail runs along the south bank of the river. Its vendors debut their offerings each May. The promenade has restaurants, boat rentals, theater-style seating for performances, benches and other attractions such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza.
In late 2016, the walk was expanded to include even more attractions.
“It’s like a world-class theme park free and open to the public,” Whitaker says.
Up in the sky
On the 21st floor of the Conrad Chicago hotel is a new rooftop lounge called Noyane. It means “hidden roof” in Japanese.
It’s not exactly hidden, though, as even though it just opened in May, it’s quickly become known in Chicago as a place with city views to get high-quality sushi and sashimi by Chef Jordan Dominguez.
“Chicago is beautiful in the summer and a rooftop bar allows (guests) to soak in the downtown skyline and lake views,” says Gordon Taylor, director of sales and marketing.
One floor down is Baptiste & Bottle, which offers a unique cocktail program, including a $95 rare cask Macallan scotch mixed with sherry called the Macallan Rare Journey. After drinking the cocktail, patrons are invited to don a virtual reality headset to see where the scotch is distilled.
Not far away is Cindy’s at the Chicago Athletic Association hotel, the doyenne of the rooftop set. Its terrace has panoramic views of Millennium Park, the Art Institute of Chicago and Lake Michigan.
The LondonHouse hotel has the three-level LH rooftop. The highlight of the top tier is a Roman-style cupola, a popular spot for wedding proposals and private dinners.
The Virgin Chicago has Cerise, part rooftop bar, part nightclub. In keeping with its playful vibe, the Woman in Red, aka Nichole Villerot, who is dressed in Virgin Atlantic Airways’ color scheme, is often on hand to greet customers.
The Kimpton Gray Hotel, which opened last August in the historic New York Life Insurance Building, has the 15th floor Boleo with a retractable roof that on a recent rainy night meant I could still sip a cocktail and enjoy Peruvian fare while taking in a view.
For those who want to go beyond downtown, the hip Wicker Park neighborhood has The Robey hotel. It has not one but two rooftop bars, Up & Up and the Cabana Club. Up & Up has an enclosed area open year-round, while the Cabana Club has a pool for hotel guests.
Though it’s not a rooftop, the Hancock Center offers more activities than just looking through telescope lenses to see 360-degree views of the city.
On Saturday mornings, Ashley Christensen teaches the 360 Sky Yoga class on the Observation Deck 94 floors above ground. “It’s a good place to be every Saturday morning,” she says.
The great outdoors
Most people don’t think of Chicago as a beach town, but it’s got 26 beaches.
“Lakefront, Lakefront, Lakefront,” says Rob Zwettler, who recently moved from the suburb of Oak Park to the South Loop. “Chicago’s lakefront is spectacular and sets the tone and the scene for most of everything else that happens in summer.”
On a recent afternoon, Oak Street Beach, off the Magnificent Mile, is packed with people playing volleyball and Frisbee. The Oak Street Beachstro is crowded with women in bikinis and men in swim trunks eating French fries and drinking vodka cocktails over blaring music.
There’s a beach for every type of beachgoer in every part of the city.
North Avenue Beach in Lincoln Park draws visitors for yoga, volleyball, paddleboarding and kayaking. It too has a popular bar, Castaways.
57th Street Beach in Hyde Park sits across the street from the Museum of Science and Industry, so patrons can have an educational and recreational day.
Even dogs have space on the sand: the Montrose Dog Beach. Humans are allowed, too.
Another popular outdoor recreational area is the world-famous Navy Pier, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year.
And then there are dozens of parks, many with public works of art.
Maggie Daley Park, connected to Millennium Park, is one of Chicago’s newest green spaces. Open since late 2014, it has a rock climbing wall and a three-acre Play Garden inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The 606 is a 2.7-mile, elevated trail on Chicago’s northwest side. Built on a former rail line, it is is favored by runners and anyone else in search of open space.
Chow down Chicago
Chicago has become such a foodie town that the James Beard Foundation relocated its awards ceremony from New York to the Windy City.
Among its most notable chefs: Stephanie Izard, Rick Bayless, Art Smith and Graham Elliot.
And then there’s Grant Achatz, whose restaurant Alinea has three Michelin stars.
The Alinea Group opened a more casual spot almost a year ago. Roister, in the West Loop, is everything Alinea is not. It is loud, it serves large plates, it has a rustic décor and an open kitchen.
Executive chef Andrew Brochu has seen the restaurant scene grow exponentially in his 12 years in Chicago.
“You can get away with a little more risk-taking,” in Chicago than in other cities known for food, he says. “The architecture and culture, it really embraces being a little more abstract.”
On the more casual end is the new Revival Food Hall, a 24,000-square foot marketplace in the Loop with local vendors selling Hawaiian poke bowls, lobster rolls, Detroit-style pizza, gelato, wine and more.
“I always enjoyed it when I’d go to other cities and they would have something like that. I enjoyed it even more when it had a lot of local favorites so you have the opportunity to sample what a city has, as opposed to chains,” says Golden, who helped develop the project.
Sitting at a sandwich bar called Danke inside Revival, Laura Graiff, who is visiting from Houston, says she enjoys all the dining options in the city. But mostly, she enjoys the energy of the people.
“The friendliness of the people of Chicago, their pride in the city and the city’s history and the fact they want to share that with visitors like us was pretty awesome,” she says.
Nancy Trejos, USA TODAY