As one of the largest cities in the U.S. and also one of the most visited, Chicago needs no introduction to travelers. Home to icons like Wrigley Field, deep-dish pizza, Navy Pier and the Magnificent Mile, finding a more off the beaten path experience in the Windy City isn’t always easy for uncovering at first glance. However with a bit of digging, travelers can unearth a different side of Chicago, one of brand new elevated trails, museums where you can hold a million dollars and even trips back into Chicago’s 19th-century glory. While the rest of the city clamors to look at their reflection in a mirrored bean-shaped sculpture, you’ll be experiencing Chicago as locals would advise.
The Money Museum
In a city with loads of standout museums like the Field Museum or the Art Institute of Chicago, dodging loads of other travelers can be a challenge. While these museums should make your Chicago itinerary too, if you want to visit a lesser-known Chicago museum and also be thoroughly satisfied with quirk factor, head for the Money Museum. Located in the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, the museum features exhibits all pertaining to cold hard cash. You can marvel at a giant glass cube filled with one million $1 bills, spot counterfeit bills from real ones, snap a photo holding a million dollar stuffed briefcase or even design your own money. Ironically free to visit and open year round, the Money Museum also lets you take home a free bag of shredded currency.
Richard H. Driehaus Museum
When you want to time travel back to Chicago’s Gilded Age, you go to the Richard H. Driehaus Museum. The museum sets up in the former home of banker Samuel Mayo Nickerson. After undergoing a 5-year restoration effort, the museum opened to showcase one of the grandest residential buildings of 19th century Chicago. The home fills with important works by Herter Brothers and Louis Comfort Tiffany along with Moorish-inspired décor and period furniture. The house remains one of Chicago’s more offbeat attractions, despite being steps from the hustle and bustle of the city’s Magnificent Mile.
Parks and Gardens
Manhattan has the High Line and Chicago boasts its own version of an elevated park space, the 606. Named for Chicago’s zip code prefix, the 606 spans four different neighborhoods in the city. Heading through Logan Square, Bucktown, Humbolt Park and Wicker Park, the elevated trail measures 2.6 miles. The city converted the old Bloomingdale train line into green space to form the recreational and cultural trail. Slicing through the city’s Northwest side, the 606 remains a great place for cyclists, joggers, and walkers who want to soak up the sights and sounds of four Chicago neighborhoods along one route.
When you want to escape the noise of Chicago, Northerly Island is the closest you can get to a little quiet in the middle of the city. The hilly city park, while called an island, is actually a peninsula in Chicago. It boasts loads of walking and biking trails and also fishing and birdwatching opportunities. Photographers delight in the chance to snap some of the best shots of the Chicago skyline. If you are seeking the best and cheapest concerts in Chicago, you can find free shows at the park’s First Merit Pavilion. And perhaps the most interesting aspect of this city park is its beginnings. Mayor Richard M. Daley infamously bulldozed the commuter airport that once stood here in the middle of the night and despite opposition. Locals like to grill out at 12th Street next to the park for a classic Chicago experience.
The Garden of the Phoenix
Settled into Chicago’s Jackson Park, you can frequently have the Garden of the Phoenix all to yourself. Representing one of the best examples of Japanese architecture and garden design outside of Japan, the gardens feature enchanting lagoons, lush plants, islands and stone cut lanterns. With over a hundred cherry trees, you can roam the gardens, which are only accessed by bridge. The Garden of the Phoenix is also home to an exhibition by Yoko Ono, called SKY LANDING. Jackson Park as a whole also warrants a gander. Designed for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the one that brought us the Ferris Wheel and the zipper, the 543-acre green space sits on the borders of Hyde Park and proudly lords as the work of American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame.
Fans of the Wizard of Oz generally don’t pass up a visit to Chicago. The author of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Lyman Frank Baum settled in Chicago in 1891, just a few miles from what is now Oz Park. The park sits in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago and takes on a quirky theme, the Wizard of Oz. You can find statues of classic characters from the story like the Tin Man, Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Dorothy and Toto within the park. Other Oz elements include the Emerald Garden and Dorothy’s Playlot.
Henrickx Belgian Bakery
As a Chicago local confided to me, Henrickx Belgian Bakery is one of Chicago’s tasty secrets in a city filled with a rich food scene that has been heavily documented. The little-known bakery is tucked away off Michigan Avenue on Walton Avenue. Baking up artisanal bread, croissants, macarons, and pastries, all of the baked goodness is made from scratch on site by Belgian Chef Renaud Hendrickx. The bakery also boasts an open kitchen so you can take a peek at the Belgian brioche and croissants being made. Hendrickx Belgian Bakery even has savory dishes like sandwiches and soups if your sweet tooth is having an off day.
Chicago features countless neighborhoods, many of which tourists haven’t quite discovered. Logan Square is one of those neighborhoods that has remained decidedly local. With a true American roots spirit, the Northwest side neighborhood in the city fills with cheap eats, gourmet coffee shops, and bike friendly streets. The heart of the neighborhood is the actual square at Kedzie and Logan Boulevard. Home to an expansive system of parks and restored mansions, Logan Square also relishes in its galleries featuring local artists’ works, concerts and street fests with local bands and easily one of Chicago’s best farmers market. Logan Square is the place to try to be your best hipster while in Chicago.
Set in the Wicker Park community of the city, Myopic Books is a must-stop for book lovers. Considered one of the city’s largest and oldest used bookstores, Myopic Books buys and sells more than 70,000 books. Covered floor to ceiling with stories spanning three floors, the shop makes for a fun space to waste an afternoon. You can sift through everything from new bestsellers to more obscure titles within the bookstore. The shop also features live music on Mondays and poetry readings.
Do you have your own Chicago secrets? Share your favorite off the beaten path experiences and attractions in the city with us in the comments below.