Visitors to Chicago may be a bit overwhelmed when they find out that there are over 200 neighborhoods in the Windy City (we certainly were!). While the city offers an abundance of enclaves that encompass everything from elegant row houses to funky former-warehouse dive bars and legendary blues clubs, it can be difficult to decide which areas are worth a visit.
To simplify your itinerary, we’ve outlined some of Chicago’s notable neighborhoods.
Location: The heart of Chicago’s North Side, west of Lake Michigan and south of Wrigleyville
History: Lincoln Park was originally the site of Native American Indian settlements, but the U.S. Army staked its claim of the area in 1824 with a small wooden post. By 1837, the city of Chicago had been incorporated, and this neighborhood acted as its northernmost boundary. In 1868, it became the site of the Lincoln Park Zoo, and later, a small amusement park. A traditionally immigrant neighborhood, the district was often used for protests, marches, and other social causes. Today, it’s considered an upscale district and is home to a host of young professionals, college grads, and burgeoning families.
Why Visit: Outdoor locales, including Lincoln Park and Lincoln Park Zoo; music venues, such as Lincoln Hall and several fantastic blues clubs; and fine dining options like Michelin-starred Alinea and chocolatier Vosges Haut-Chocolat.
Location: Northern Chicago, west of Lake Michigan
History: Nicknamed “the Cabbage Patch,” Chicago’s Old Town was once humble swampland that German immigrants farmed for celery, potatoes, and cabbage. Prior to its European settlers, the area belonged to Native American tribes, such as the Potawatomi, Miami, and Illinois. Throughout the early 1900s, the neighborhood became the base? of social progress groups (including the country’s first gay-rights organization), an artist colony, and the city’s? center of hippie culture in the 1960s. Over the past 40 years, Old Town has played witness to extreme shifts in Chicagoan society, such as segregation and gentrification. Today, the neighborhood is home to a socio-economic mix with a variety of art and culture-based attractions.
Why Visit: Original Victorian-era architecture, including St. Michael’s Church (which survived the Great Chicago Fire; cultural sites, such as the Old Town Triangle Art Center and the Old Town Art Fair; comedy sketch shows and improv at the Second City; and restaurants like the Glunz Tavern and 1959 Kitchen & Bar.
Location: Northern Chicago, bounded by Lake Shore Drive, Oak Street, and Clark Street
History: Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the Gold Coast neighborhood originated and prospered due to the devastation of the Great Chicago Fire. After the South Side burned down, a host of millionaires — led by esteemed Chicagoan, Potter Palmer — built the area up. Accordingly, the neighborhood soon filled with towering mansions and the homes of Chicago’s most well-to-do residents (including playwright Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, President Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, and myriad other socialites). The neighborhood’s gorgeous Lake Shore Drive drew Chicagoans from across the city and became the go-to locale for magnificent views of the waterfront. Today, the area encompasses the Magnificent Mile, the famed Oak Street, and a great historical and architectural legacy.
Why Visit: Architectural wonders, such as Robie House, the Marquette Building, and Holy Name Cathedral; sites like the Garfield Park Conservatory, the Glessner House Museum, and historic Macy’s on State Street; iconic landmarks, including Millennium Park and Chicago Pedway; and shops on Oak Street.
Location: South Side, west of Lake Michigan and Washington Park
History: This relatively rural area was purchased in 1853 by Paul Cornell, who wanted to lure the wealthy elite to the area, which lay nearly seven miles outside of the city’s downtown. The district played host to the 1893 World’s Fair and remained independent of the city until it was annexed in 1889; shortly after, it became the site of the University of Chicago. Although Hyde Park has always been a relatively residential neighborhood, it struggled with racial tensions during the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Today, the area is one of Chicago’s most racially diverse and features a host of shopping districts, natural hideaways, and museums — and it’s also home to one of Chicago’s most well-known residents, former U.S. President Barack Obama.
Why Visit: Nature sites, such as Promontory Point and Jackson Park; museums like DuSable Museum of African American History, Hyde Park Art Center, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Smart Museum of Art; cultural centers, including Court Theatre; and shops like 57th Street Books.
History: Originally a four-acre park, this neighborhood became a haven for Chicago’s wealthy northern European immigrants following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the devastation of which encouraged the first rounds of development in the area. As the neighborhood was built out, more and more merchants settled there. Most notably, the city’s wealthiest brewers flocked to Hoyne street, which took on the appropriate nickname of “Beer Baron Row.” After World Wars I and II, Polish immigrants settled in Wicker Park in spades, though the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood changed greatly in the 60s and 70s, as an influx of Puerto Rican families relocated to the area. In subsequent years, Wicker Park became known for its artist communities, who restructured much of the area but were eventually displaced due to gentrification. Today, Wicker Park’s proximity to the Loop makes it a popular neighborhood for young professionals and those working in entertainment industries — i.e. it’s often considered one of the country’s most “hipster” neighborhoods.
Why Visit: City-wide favorite bars, including the Map Room, the Violet Hour, Rainbo Club, and Danny’s Tavern; restaurants like Club Lucky and Le Bouchon; shops, such as Saint Alfred’s and Myopic Bookstore; and attractions like the eponymous Wicker Park, the 606, the Wicker Park Farmers Market, the Den Theatre, and the Flatiron Arts Building.
Location: West of Lake Michigan, adjacent to the Loop
History: Previously home to an abundance of warehouses and factory buildings, the West Loop is one of Chicago’s newer residential neighborhoods. An industrial boom in the 1920s brought an influx of workers and immigrants to the area, and around the same time, the construction of a Chicago campus of the University of Illinois drew students and teachers to the new community. Still, the area was plagued with concerns about crime, safety, and quality of life for close to half a century. Over the past 20 years, however, Chicago’s West Loop has gotten a facelift — factory buildings have been converted into trendy, loft-style apartments and craft breweries and local coffee shops abound. Today, the area is a bustling, artsy neighborhood with a host of cafés, restaurants, bars, and art galleries.
Why Visit: Restaurants like Oriole, Roister, avec, Elske, and Proxi; bars, including the Aviary, the Press Room, and Fox Bar; and notable attractions, such as City Winery, Union Station, Randolph Street Market Festival, Mary Bartelme Park, the Chicago French Market, Aspect Ratio, threewalls, and Brooklyn Boulders.
Although there’s plenty to do and explore in these six neighborhoods, we encourage you to venture out to Chicago’s other districts as well — even if it’s just for a quick stroll and a bite to eat.
Header image by Tim Trad