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Chicago — the Windy City — is a great place to visit. But there’s a lot more to do and see than just Cloud Gate (also known as “the Bean”), the Willis Tower, and Navy Pier. Once you check those off your list, treat yourself to something authentic and under the radar. Chicago is home to magnificent public art, fascinating museums, quirky shops, remarkable architecture, and rich local history. From a chapel in the sky to an exquisite tribute to dollhouse furnishings, here are 19 underrated places to prioritize on your next trip to the Windy City.
National Museum of Mexican Art
The National Museum of Mexican Art is located on the Lower East Side in the neighborhood of Pilsen — an immigrant community rich with Mexican food and culture. The museum’s collection is a tribute to the Mexican immigrants who made Chicago home over the course of generations. The gallery includes a permanent collection of over 10,000 pieces, including paintings, textiles, and sculptures.
The museum itself is small — you can check it out in about an hour. But the collections are rich and varied, including pre-Columbian artifacts, works on paper, contemporary photography, folk art, and traditional block prints that depict Mexican history and culture, from stories of immigration to celebrations of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). And don’t miss the fabulous gift shop — it’s a true Mexican mercado (market) stocked with imported handicrafts.
Terra Cotta Row
Chicago is a mecca for architecture buffs — and for good reason. The city is home to several early skyscrapers that once held the title of world’s tallest building, not to mention Gilded Age monuments and works by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright. What visitors might miss, however, is Terra Cotta Row — a relic from the city’s days as a capital of architectural ornamentation. The stretch of homes, officially designated a Chicago historic landmark, is located in the neighborhood of Lakeview on West Oakdale Avenue between Sheffield and Seminary streets. They once housed the officers of the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company, and as such, are rich with earthenware detail.
The Northwestern Terra Cotta Company was active in the late 19th and early 20th century, and partnered with the region’s most influential designers on intricate architectural components fashioned from clay. The most notable of these artfully trimmed homes is the Henry Rokham House. Dating to 1887, the house displays a lavish assortment of decorative components and styles — a veritable portfolio of the company's most innovative designs at the time, including intricate relief sculptures etched directly onto the bricks.
Chicago Cultural Center
The Chicago Cultural Center is, in its own right, a magnificent spot to visit. Locals are drawn to its abundance of free public events, such as musical, dance, and theater performances; film screenings; lectures; and art exhibitions. But visitors should check out the space, too. Completed in 1897, the building served as Chicago’s first central public library. Designed to impress, the cultural center is made of imported marble and features brass and hardwood detailing, in addition to stunning glass, stone, and mother-of-pearl shell mosaics.
The Chicago Cultural Center is also home to the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome, spanning 1,134 square feet and composed of 30,000 individual panes of glass. Capping the center’s Preston Bradley Hall, this 200-foot-diameter dome is touted as the largest of its kind in the world — and was valued at $35 million in 1986. Designed by Tiffany’s chief mosaicist, J. A. Holzer, the dome utilizes multicolored, fish scale-shaped glass, and ornate iron framing to depict the signs of the zodiac. A protective outer dome was installed along with backlighting to illuminate the atrium in the 1930s, but the dome was fully restored in order to repair damage and bring natural sunlight back to this grand public space in 2008.
The Secret Mermaid
Cloud Gate, popularly referred to as "the Bean,” is the most visited piece of public sculpture in Chicago — but it certainly isn’t the only piece. Check out the Secret Mermaid instead: This life-sized piece, carved from local stone, depicts a lounging mermaid among waves and fish. She lives on the beach with sweeping views of Lake Michigan.
The sculpture itself is lovely, of course, but the story behind the piece is what makes it so interesting. The work was unauthorized, created in 1986 by local guerrilla artists Jose Moreno, Román Villareal, Fred Arroyo, and Edfu Kingigna in a semi-hidden spot by the water in Burnham Park. Over the course of two weeks, the group secretly carved the mermaid out of a stone outcropping. In 2000, during a restoration of Burnham Park’s shoreline, the local curiosity was discovered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A flurry of attention and speculation followed before the piece was put into storage. In 2007, the Secret Mermaid was given a permanent spot for all to enjoy along popular Oakwood Beach.
Woolly Mammoth Antiques and Oddities
One of the most unique shops in Chicago, Woolly Mammoth Antiques and Oddities specializes in objects and ephemera relating to, well, dying. Pop in for the unique and macabre — the shop specializes in vintage taxidermy, antique medical equipment, arcane anatomy texts, various skulls and bones, funerary memorabilia, natural history specimens, military tchotchkes, and assorted documents that celebrate the old, eclectic, eccentric, and amusing.
Part-shop and part-gallery, Woolly Mammoth is packed floor to ceiling and is fun to browse — especially if you need a one-of-a-kind gift or souvenir. Pick up antique doll parts, a taxidermied table lamp, vintage toys, or some other treasure that is both unusual and unique.
Concrete Traffic is a must-see for art lovers, automobile enthusiasts, and people captivated by local oddities. The vaguely car-shaped monument is an actual 1957 Cadillac DeVille encased in 15 cubic yards of concrete. It was the brainchild of German artist Wolf Vostell, a member of the Fluxus avant-garde art movement, and commissioned by Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in 1970. The piece was constructed by local artists over several weeks, and spent six months on display at the MCA. Eventually, the institution donated the piece to the University of Chicago and it was installed in Hyde Park.
Four decades of Chicago weather took its toll on Concrete Traffic, so the piece was moved to its current location — a parking space in the University of Chicago’s Campus North parking garage — in 2016. Be sure to crouch down when you check out the piece — you can still see the car’s undercarriage, whitewall tires, and hubcaps.
L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, lived in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood in the 1890s. To pay homage to the visionary writer, the city of Chicago purchased a tract of blighted land in the area in the 1970s, dubbed it Oz Park, and began transforming it into a greenspace, complete with a community garden (Emerald Gardens) and a playground (Dorothy’s Playlot).
Visitors will be most fascinated by the sculptures scattered across the greenway’s 14 acres. Created by local artist John Kearney, the life-sized bronze figures are a tribute to the book’s main characters, as depicted by the classic 1939 musical film that generations know and love. Look for the Tin Man, Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and Dorothy (with her buddy Toto).
Opened in 1860, Graceland Cemetery is a grand, Victorian cemetery and arboretum — home to a who’s-who of Chicago history. Architecture nerds will want to seek out monuments dedicated to the bold-faced names behind the city’s grandest buildings, including John Root and Louis Sullivan (fathers of the Chicago School of Architecture), Howard Van Doren Shaw (of the Prairie School), and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (leader of the International School). Don’t forget to check out the peaceful, wooded, private island in the cemetery’s lake — it’s the final resting place of Daniel Burnham, one of Chicago's original city planners.
Located in the city’s Uptown neighborhood, Graceland is also home to retailer Marshall Field, hotelier Potter Palmer, heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, and Alan Pinkerton — America’s first undercover agent. But Graceland Cemetery is the final resting place of more than just Chicago luminaries — many of the graves belonging to regular Chicagoans are the most inspiring. Look for elaborate stone statues, obelisks, tombs, mausoleums, and historic chapels — all gracefully laid out among more than 2,000 specimen trees. The cemetery is a beautiful hideaway from the hustle and bustle of the big city.
Thorne Miniature Rooms
The Art Institute of Chicago isn’t exactly off the beaten path, but one tiny collection within the venerable museum’s walls can be easy to miss. The Thorne Miniature Rooms are a set of intricately detailed model rooms created by dollhouse-obsessed heiress Narcissa Niblack Thorne, along with a slew of hired artisans and crafters. Built at a scale of one inch to one foot, the painstakingly detailed rooms date to the 1930s.
The story of these rooms is quite interesting: They started as a hobby — a way for Thorne to house her impressive collection of doll furniture, acquired over many trips overseas. Eventually, Thorne started recreating actual historical spaces, such as the grand library at Windsor Castle in England. Today, the collection at the Art Institute allows visitors a chance to experience period-accurate European and American interiors (both real and imagined spaces) from the late 13th century to the 1940s — all within one gallery.
Richard H. Driehaus Museum
The Gilded Age wasn’t relegated just to the cities of New York and Newport — Chicago was home to its fair share of the Captain of Industry class, too. To soak that in, check out the Driehaus Museum. Located just off the Magnificent Mile, the Driehaus was the home of Samuel Mayo Nickerson, a prominent banker who filled his immense home with Renaissance Revival furniture and treasures from Tiffany Studios and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The mansion, along with the decorative pieces within it, were preserved by philanthropist Richard H. Driehaus and opened as a museum in 2003.
Today, guests can explore the entirety of the preserved home by standing under an elaborate stained-glass dome or attempting to spot all 17 varieties of marble used in the main hall. In fact, so much marble was used in the construction of Nickerson’s grand mansion that the building earned the nickname “Marble Palace.”
There are only two spots left in Chicago that are still allowed to burn wood and smoke fish — Calumet Fisheries is one of them. Visiting the place requires a bit of a hike, but the fishery, located on the Calumet River between Lake Michigan and the Chicago Skyway on the city’s South Side, is worth the jaunt. It’s an institution — beloved by chef Anthony Bourdain (see his handwritten note on the wall) and a must-visit for lovers of fried and smoked fish.
Calumet Fisheries has been family-owned and operated since 1948 and offers some of the best fish in the city. The menu is spare and divided into two categories — smoked or fried. Go with the smoked: Salmon, trout, sturgeon, sablefish, giant shrimp, and eel are brined overnight and smoked for hours in a house around back. Packed in styrofoam, the oak-smoked delicacies pair perfectly with saltine crackers and hot sauce. The whole operation is old school — cash only, no restrooms, and no dining room. Try to nab one of a couple of picnic tables, or dine like a local — in your car.
Garfield Park Conservatory
Garfield Park is one of Chicago’s great, historic parks — visited by many and certainly not under the radar. That said, many visitors miss the Garfield Park Conservatory, a glass-enclosed oasis within the park’s green expanse. The brainchild of Jens Jensen — a Danish day laborer who worked his way up to superintendent and chief landscape architect for the entire park system — Garfield Park Conservatory opened in 1908. To differentiate his collection from other greenhouses and conservatories, Jensen firmly rooted the exotic plants directly into the ground, creating scenic landscape vignettes rather than just plunking down rows of potted palms and ferns. His meandering pathways through lush greenery — which revolutionized the way conservatories were designed and experienced — are still soothing and inspiring to visitors.
Today, the conservatory is community-run and features various gardens (including the Fern Room and the Palm Room), fountains, study spaces for botanists, light shows, and a series of art installations. But when you're looking to escape Chicago’s frigid winter air, that first wall of warm, humid air rising from the lush, tropical greenery might be the best part.
Old Town School of Folk Music
The Old Town School of Folk Music started as a series of in-home guitar classes during the urban folk revival of the 1950s. The instructors — including musician Frank Hamilton — taught an array of instruments utilizing a technique developed by singer Bess Lomax Hawes. Hawes encouraged her adult students to focus on uncomplicated standards by developing personal musicality and harmonizing by ear. This concept of self-made music appealed to Hamilton’s students, including performer Win Stracke, who was inspired to cofound the school using this informal methodology in 1957.
The school still thrives today, with two locations, a well-regarded performance space, dozens of teachers across various genres, and thousands of current and former students, including folk luminaries Steve Goodman, Bonnie Koloc, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, and John Prine — who praised the school’s methods for saving students from the confines of formal music education. Classes, jam sessions (bring your own instrument!), and free and ticketed performances run the gamut — look for Irish fiddling, Beatles tributes, banjo and ukulele concerts, African percussion ensembles, and even tango sets.
Chicago French Market
Founded in 2009, the Chicago French Market is located beneath the train platforms of the Ogilvie Transportation Center — Chicago's central hub for the city’s Metra train lines. Staircases from the platforms lead to a cavernous concrete space lined with dozens of independent vendor and restaurant stalls serving an enticing array of foods that are much more than French. The founders of the space were more inspired by the French concept of open-air markets featuring multiple independent vendors than by crêpes and macarons alone.
Of course, hungry visitors will find authentic French cuisine — from delicate pastries to heartier ham-and-cheese croque monsieurs and fine wine. But the market also offers Korean and Indian fare, empanadas, sushi, Belgian beer, top-notch coffee, local produce, and grab-and-go items. Seating is cafeteria-style, and don’t miss the Instagram-worthy mural of Paris.
McCormick Bridgehouse Museum
The Michigan Avenue Bridge is one of many bridges spanning Chicago’s waterways. The bridge is a double-leaf, double-deck bascule trunnion bridge; in other words, it’s a movable bridge that opens and closes to boat traffic by utilizing counterweights that lift by rotating around large, fixed axles called trunnions. The bridge is an engineering marvel, and a feast for the eyes — a Beaux Arts-style monument with Parisian flair, complete with a series of relief sculptures. But anyone can see that — it’s the museum most people walk right by.
The McCormick Bridgehouse Museum is housed within the lower level of the bridge’s southwest tower. Visitors are treated to views of this incredible bridge from below — including a glimpse of the inner workings of the dynamic span. But the museum also tells the story of Chicago’s intricate system of bridges and how that system enabled the city to grow and evolve as a hub of industry and transportation.
Big Joe’s is a dive bar in the neighborhood of Andersonville. It’s a good time — a classic corner bar with fair prices, a pool table, and darts — but there’s much more to this haunt than meets the eye. For starters, there’s the turtle racing. On Friday nights, Big Joe’s hosts races between six well-loved pet turtles.
Buying a pitcher, pint, or shot earns you a raffle ticket that is later drawn for the races. The derbies begin at 9 p.m.; if your number is called, you’re assigned a turtle. Watch as the turtles race toward the finish line. Winners receive a Big Joe’s T-shirt and a chance to enter a tournament. Losers — often those assigned to the notoriously slow Jolanda turtle — get a free drink.
Chicago is home to the world’s tallest church — Chicago Temple, or the First United Methodist Church of Chicago. It stretches 568 feet tall in downtown Chicago, reaching over 21 stories. However, the whole building isn’t a church. After World War I, the congregation was nearly forced to relocate to cheaper land out in the suburbs. Instead, a skyscraper was commissioned — in a church-friendly Gothic style.
The first floor is the church’s main sanctuary, with seating for 1,000 and stained-glass windows depicting Chicago’s famous skyline. The second, third, and fourth floors house offices and additional chapels. Floors five through 21 are leased to law offices and other businesses. And on top of all of that is the Sky Chapel, the highest church on Earth. The chapel hosts services three times a week — 400 feet above the city streets with some of the best views around.
American Writers Museum
Hidden on the second floor of an office building is the American Writers Museum, a celebration of American writing that was inspired by the famous Dublin Writers Museum in Ireland. The space is high-tech — featuring immersive, interactive exhibits exploring American arts and letters across various touchscreens and games. Highlights include a ceiling plastered with a rainbow of books, a timeline of American literary history, the interactive Surprise Bookshelf playground, the absolutely mesmerizing Word Waterfall, and a refreshing focus on female writers and writers of color.
The museum produces book podcasts and hosts author readings, storytimes, and rotating exhibits celebrating everyone from Ray Bradbury to the abolitionists. Visitors are even encouraged to write their own stories on a collection of vintage typewriters.
Although it's located outside Chicago proper in the northern suburb of Wilmette, the Bahá’í Temple deserves mention on this list. The magnificent structure is a Bahá’í house of worship — the only one in North America. Officially called the “Mother Temple of the West” and formally known as the “Bahá’í House of Worship for the North American Continent,” the temple honors a Persian prophet who founded the faith — based on racial equality, world peace, and the oneness of all religions — in the middle of the 19th century.
The ornate, domed temple, constructed from concrete and quartz, is the largest and oldest Bahá’í temple on Earth. Construction on the nine-sided, glowing white marvel began in 1921, but the temple wasn’t completed until 1953. Since then, the structure has received numerous design awards and a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, and was named one of the “Seven Wonders of Illinois.”