Chicago city guide
For all the wonderful things Chicago has to offer the visitor, sports will always be a primary reason for people to drop in. Home to no less than six professional teams across five major sports leagues, there’s reason for the sports fan to visit the Second City any time of year. And all of those teams have high profiles within their leagues and are part of fierce rivalries — including one fully contained within the city limits, as Cubs and White Sox fans can attest.
If you’re visiting Chicago to see some sports, you owe it to yourself to also spend some time taking in its culture, museums, food scene and so much more. There are far too many options to cram into one weekend, but read on for just a few humble suggestions.
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While Chicago has a central area, the Loop and Near North (we don’t often hear it referred to as “downtown”), that is usually the first stop for most tourists, only one of the city’s professional sports venues lies close to this area (see map above). That would be Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears, and even then it’s a pretty healthy walk from most Loop hotels. Indeed, many of the venues define the neighborhood in which it’s located, and especially where baseball is concerned, your neighborhood defines your fandom (ie. North Side and South Side). That makes things slightly harder on the sports-fan visitor to Chicago, but the city also mitigates that with an excellent public transportation system.
• Wrigley Field: Home of the Cubs, located on the corner of Clark and Addison Streets in Wrigleyville.
• Guaranteed Rate Field: Home of the White Sox, on 35th Street just west of the Dan Ryan Expressway (Interstate 94) in Chicago’s South Side.
• Soldier Field: Home of the Bears, located along Lake Michigan in Grant Park, just south of the city’s iconic Field Museum.
• United Center: Home of the Blackhawks and Bulls, located a few miles west of the Loop.
• Toyota Park: Home of the Fire, located at the corner of 71st and Harlem streets in the suburb of Bridgeview.
Chicago has two major airports, O’Hare (the more heavily trafficked airport) and Midway (popular to those travelers who prefer flying Southwest). Since O’Hare is northwest of the city center and Midway southwest, you may consider choosing to fly into one or the other based on which venues you want to see. But really, if you’re staying in the Loop/Near North area, either airport works just as well and both offer easy CTA access. Because of that, the price of your fare should probably be your main consideration when choosing between O’Hare or Midway.
If getting into Chicago by train or bus is an option to you, you will likely wind up in the Loop area, in or around Union Station. Most hotels, though, are several blocks away, so depending on when you arrive, you may want to hail a cab.
Where to stay
None of Chicago’s major venues is situated in what can be considered a prime tourist area — even Wrigley Field, a happening area anytime the Cubs are at home, is largely residential. So whether you’re there to see sports or not, the Near North and Loop are your best bets for good hotels. You’re in the middle of all the action and have easy access to public transportation that will get you to any stadium or arena.
If you’re looking to save on lodging, though, consider the hotels near O’Hare — usually, their rates are cheaper than those near the Loop, and if you choose the right one, you can give yourself easy access to the train via the Rosemont and Cumberland stops on the Blue Line. (The Chicago Marriott O’Hare and Renaissance Chicago O’Hare Suites, both a stroll across a parking lot away from the Cumberland station, are good places to start.) Good lodging deals can also be found in the western suburbs along the Tri-State Tollway (Interstate 294), but these are only convenient if you have a car.
We here at I-Fan love good subways almost as much as we love good stadiums, and Chicago certainly boasts one of the best subway systems in the country. The CTA (stands for Chicago Transit Authority), known locally as the “L,” can be used to get to any of the venues mentioned above:
• Wrigley Field: Use the Addison stop on the CTA Red Line (NOT the Blue Line — you’ll find yourself miles away). Depart the station on the north side of Addison Street and walk a block west.
• Guaranteed Rate Field: Use the conveniently named Sox-35th station on the CTA Red Line. Walk a block west and cross to the south side of 35th Street. (You can’t miss the ballpark, which is visible from the train platform.)
• Soldier Field: The nearest CTA station is Roosevelt, on the Green, Orange and Red lines. Another option is Metra, the local commuter rail service, with two stops nearby. But it’s only practical if you’re staying in the suburbs.
• United Center: The nearest CTA station is Illinois Medical District on the Blue Line, about a half mile to the south. We have made this walk in the evening and it isn’t too bad — read our United Center Itinerary for more info.
• Toyota Park: The nearest CTA stop is Midway on the Orange Line, which really isn’t that close. However, for Fire games and other events, the venue operates a shuttle from Midway. More info here.
Chicago is generally an expensive city in which to park, and stadiums are no exception. Parking at Toyota Park is $15, but everywhere else, expect $25 and up. If there’s one stadium in which you want to avoid parking at all costs, it’s Wrigley Field, which doesn’t have many large parking lots nearby — you’ll likely wind up in the lot of a small business or in a residence’s driveway and paying up the nose.
While you’re in Chicago enjoying the games, don’t forget to budget some free time for all else the city has to offer. We highly recommend the following activities:
Chicago has a well-deserved reputation as one of the country’s foremost food cities, so while you visit, sample some of the specialties you can’t get at home — many of which are available at the stadiums and arenas. You can find many places serving the Chicago dog, deep-dish pizza and the Italian beef sandwich, among other items, throughout town. For pizza, though, we like Gino’s East at the corner of Ontario and Wells streets, and for Italian beef we head to Al’s Beef, a chain with locations throughout Chicagoland.
If your budget calls for it, try one of the many high-end restaurants in the Near North — two of our favorites are the Chicago Chop House and Harry Caray’s (the latter if you want to keep your sports-themed trip intact). Or, if you’re headed south on the Red Line toward U.S. Cellular Field, get off one stop early at Cermak-Chinatown and get some Chinese food at one of the many eateries along Wentworth Avenue.
Chicago’s museums are first-rate and convenient even if your trip revolves around sports. The renowned Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium are just a few football fields away from Soldier Field, and the Art Institute of Chicago is in the heart of the Loop. For a different kind of viewing experience, don’t forget the two high-in-the-sky observation decks in the heart of the city: the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) and the John Hancock Center.
See the lake
Go for a stroll along Lake Shore Drive and see Lake Michigan. An easy way to do this is to check out Navy Pier, just a few blocks away from the Magnificient Mile (Michigan Avenue in the Near North). If you’re headed off to see the Bears at Soldier Field, you’ll probably be walking on the lakefront at some point, though if it’s a late-season game and the wind is blowing, it probably won’t be the most pleasant experience.
Allstate Arena in Rosemont (just east of O’Hare) hosts its fair share of minor-league sports and has a pretty strong sports history in its own right. If you want to see some college football, head north to Evanston, home of Northwestern University. For college basketball, check out Northwestern, DePaul (which plays at Allstate Arena), Illinois-Chicago, Chicago State and Loyola of Chicago. And there’s plenty of minor-league baseball offered in quaint stadiums in the suburbs and beyond.