Chicago Style Italian Beef

Today we’re examining Chicago Style Italian Beef including the history, the ingredients and most importantly where to get it. In the past we’ve broken down Chicago Deep Dish Pizza and it is probably more involved than you might think.

Chicago Style Italian Beef History

We’re not sure why we Chicagoans have such a hard time with history and getting stories straight. Who started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871? Where did we get our Chicago Nicknames? Italian Beef also has some debatable origins. Here are a handful of the most recognized theories.

  1. 1925 a company by the name of Scala’s Original Beef and Sausage Company started in Chicago. (Spoiler alert: it still does operate and supplies many Chicago restaurants with their meat for beef sandwiches). According to them the Italian Beef was introduced at weddings and banquets. The roasted beef was sliced thing and served on bread to help “stretch” the food to feed the many guests. It was, needless to say, a very popular item and the rest is history.
  2. Then there is the story of an Italian immigrant working in the Chicago Stock Yards in the early 1900s. (The stock yards were Chicago’s meat-packing district, and Chicago led the world in meat packing back then). The worker would take home the less desirable cuts of meat that the company sold and according to the story made literally the same exact thing that is served today: roast the beef in Italian spices and broth, slice it, serve on Italian bread. This one seems a bit far-fetched, but we love it.
  3. And while perhaps not the inventory of Italian Beef sandwiches we do have to tip our caps to Al Ferreri and his sister and brother-in-law, Frances and Chris Pacelli. Why? Because that trio is responsible for opening Al’s Beef in 1938. The restaurant is still open today and has expanded quite a bit. In fact there is one in Dubai now!

Regardless of who invented the Chicago Style Italian Beef when we know this much – it’s dang good. Let’s take a closer look at the ingredients used to make these sandwiches.

Chicago Style Italian Beef Ingredients

Al’s Beef Chicago Style Italian Sausage. Don’t you tell us this doesn’t make you hungry.

We like this part the best. So often we don’t know what were eating. A Chicago Style Italian Beef? Easy, it’s meat, bread, juice and maybe some peppers, right? Not so fast…

The meat used to make an Italian Beef sandwich is beef. Typically it’s one of three different cuts of meat: sirloin rear, bottom round or top round. Bottom Round is by far the most popular which if you look at the graphic below it would be a 32 lb. cut of beef just above the shank on the outside of the steer’s hind legs.

Study and remember these cuts the next time you are shopping for beef in the grocery store.                                                                                                                        Source: Yzmo at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

Most likely the cut used in Italian Beef is going to be from the Bottom Round because it’s lean and it’s the cheapest cut. However the meat isn’t as tender as some of the other cuts. To make the meat soft and delicious it’s roasted at a medium heat in a garlicky broth infused with Italian spices such as oregano. This style of roasting in a liquid is called a wet roast. Depending on the exact style of cut and how long the beef is roasted you could lose almost half of the weight during the cooking process. Yikes!

Once the beef is cooked it’s then sliced thin in a deli slicer and returned to it’s broth to cook some more before being served to you on an Italian roll with your choice of peppers – either sweet or hot.

You’re going to get your choice – sweet or hot peppers. Of course you could opt for neither, but if you take one or the other here is what you’re getting:

  • Sweet Peppers – the pepper is actually called the Friggitello, but you might here it in the streets called “Golden Greek”. We (Americans) will often times confuse this with a peperoncini – THIS IS NOT a peperoncini. Oh, and often times if you order sweet peppers on your Italian Beef you could get simply cooked green bell peppers, which is OK too.
  • Hot Peppers – Mmm. This is where it’s at! When you order hot peppers on your Chicago Style Italian Beef you aren’t simply going to get a couple of whole peppers thrown on there. You’re going to get a hot relish of pickled vegetables that INCLUDE peppers called Giardiniera. (Pronounced: JAR – DIH – NAIR – AH) This HOT style relish is a Chicago thing and we’ll often times add sport peppers to kick it up a notch. The remaining vegetables include carrots, celery, cauliflower, serrano peppers and gherkins. There can be an entire post on Giardiniera – which is a good idea…

Some places you can have them throw cheese on top, typically melted mozzarella. We’ve had it. It’s not bad – actually it’s quite good. However, there is just something that feels “right” about not getting cheese. No one is going to look at you crazy if you order a cheesy beef though.

And when you order you are definitely going to be asked “Wet or Dry?” This can throw a first-timer off. You might be wondering, “wait…what? it’s a sandwich..” Here is what you need to know to properly answer:

  • Wet: The beef gets pulled from the broth with tongs and is immediately put onto the Italian roll – most of the juices are soaked into the bread.
  • Dry: The beef gets pulled from the broth and the server gives the beef a chance to dry off. Most of the juices drip back into the pot and don’t make it to your bread.
  • Dipped: This is a thing. Beef sandwich is made and then with the tongs the ENTIRE sandwich is dipped into the broth. 100 out 100 in the flavor department, 100 out of 100 in the very soggy, kind of hard to eat department too.

Where to get Chicago Style Italian Beef

Johnnie’s Beef (Courtesy of TripAdvisor)

There are so many great places for Italian Beef in Chicago. We couldn’t possibly list them all. We’ll do our best to provide our favorites. If we forgot a place on this list add it to the comments section. In no particular order…

Al’s Beef – Many locations, one of the originals founded in 1938

Mr. Beef on Orleans – Another one of the originals – classic.

Johnnie’s Beef – One of our favorites – located just west of Chicago. Yum.

Portillo’s – A Chicagoland favorite – has a large menu of other foods too and many locations across the city.

Jay’s Beef – This place serves awesome beef sandwiches and is located in Wicker Park. So we like it. A lot.

Enjoy your Chicago Style Italian Beef sandwiches!

Chicago Neighborhood Guide: Lincoln Park

Lincoln Park really does have it all. Plenty of unique boutique shops, restaurants galore, a thriving nightlife, miles of park along Lake Michigan, North Ave Beach, Lincoln Park Zoo, a Nature Museum and more. It’s why we offer a Free 2 hour Guided Tour of Lincoln Park.

The easy part is deciding to visit Lincoln Park. The hard part is deciding on how long to stay and what exactly you should do. Let’s assume you have 1 full day to spend in Lincoln Park, here is what you should do.

Breakfast or Brunch?

breakfastLP

Orange Contemporary Brunch

First things first you’re going to need to get come food in your belly because you have a big day planned. If you’re visiting on a weekday we suggest stopping Orange Contemporary Brunch (2413 N Clark St) which is open everyday of the week at 8am. Make sure to try their orange peel coffee and a pancake flight. If you’re visiting on the weekends and want to try a special menu for brunch stop by Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba (2024 N Halsted St) which serves a Spanish-inspired sweet and savory brunch menu starting at 9am on Saturday and Sunday. Our favorite is the Breakfast Paella which serves 2-3 people.

Get your shop on.

Regardless of where you fill up to start the day you’re next stop is going to be the Chicago Landmark Armitage-Halsted District. This is the center of the main shopping corridor in Lincoln Park. If you find yourself on Clark Street for breakfast make sure to stop in Aaron’s Apothecary (2338 N Clark St) and check out their fantastic selection of high-end candles & skin care. Estheticians are waiting to help you with any questions and make sure you leave with the right product.

Once you’re at the intersection of Armitage & Halsted you’re just a short walk to many of our favorite shops. Just west on Armitage is a great little stationary and gift shop – All She Wrote (825 W Armitage Ave). Just north on Halsted is a very unique place specializing in one-of-a-kind fragrances. Aroma Workshop (2050 N. Halstead Street) offers their guests an opportunity to create their very own fragrance with workshops and classes. Check their schedule and make an appointment or walk-in and see how it works. Continuing up Halsted you will not only be walking along one of Chicago’s most beautiful retail streets but you will come across a wide variety of shops as well. Groshek Art Gallery (2136 N Halsted St), Read It & Eat (2142 N Halsted St), & Calvin Tran (2154 N Halsted St) all line the west side of the street.

But don’t just take our word for it, explore the area on foot and pop into all the wonderful shops that line the streets. Soon you will have worked up a hunger and if you’re still in the Armitage-Halsted District then you’re going to have lots of options.

Lunch in Lincoln Park

Butcher & The Burger

Butcher & The Burger

Let’s assume that you’re still in the vicinity, here are the best walkable options.

Cheaper/Fast Eats

Affordable Sit Down

  • Pasta Palazzo – Handmade pastas and tasty sangria – need we say more?
  • Athenian Room – Greek sit down with a patio and BYOB policy.

Mid-Range

  • Summer House Santa Monica – This LEYE takes you to California ..in Lincoln Park.
  • Chez Moi – Serving French classics in a casual atmosphere with outdoor seating.

Mid Afternoon in Lincoln Park

Are you full? We hope so. Time work off some of those calories you ate and probably drank. And luckily there is just the activity to do that. Free Chicago Walking Tours has a Lincoln Park tour at 2pm that will start near the intersection of Armitage & Halsted. This is the perfect way to really see Lincoln Park.

Your guide will share with you the history of Chicago & Lincoln Park while winding your way way east through one of the most beautiful residential neighborhoods in Chicago and concluding the tour with a stroll through the Alfred Caldwell Lilly Pool and leaving you just steps from the Lincoln Park Conservatory & Lincoln Park Zoo – both free!

From there you will not want to miss grabbing a drink, and maybe an appetizer, at one of Chicago’s best rooftop bars – The J. Parker. Opening their doors at 5pm during the week and 11:30am on the weekends this place is a DO NOT MISS when the sky is clear. Enjoy amazing views of Lincoln Park and the Chicago skyline from the north – a perspective you do not get with rooftops in the Loop and River North.

After a couple of drinks it’s time to head back to your hotel and get ready for the night. There is still a lot of left to do.

Dinner

Pizza

  • Pequods – Our favorite deep dish pizza. If you haven’t had deep dish and you want to then go here. Please.
  • Chicago Pizza & Oven Grinder Co – Unique potpie-style pizzas served upside down. Always a wait so you know it’s good.

Lincoln Park Specialties

  • Twin Anchors – The best ribs in Chicago. No reservations, expect to wait.
  • The Barrelhouse Flat – Arguable the best bar in Lincoln Park with a small dinner menu. Make sure you visit their upstairs.
  • Social Table – Learn how to cook and meet others at this communal dining spot in Lincoln Park.

Our Favorites for Special Occassion

  • Riccardo Trattoria – delicious regional Italian cuisine in an intimate setting.
  • Intro – the hottest chef’s rotate every 3 months making sure your dinners are never the same.
  • North Pond – Michelin-starred with romantic setting overlooking the Chicago skyline.

And finally, after your dinner it’s time for dancing. And there is no single place we’d rather get our groove on than the world famous blues club Kingston Mines (2548 N Halsted St). This place opens at 7pm every single day (and has for 40+ year) and goes until 4am. Cover to get in is $12 during the week and $15 on the weekend – but is well worth the price. The music is unbelievable. The musicians are the most talented blues musicians in the city. We absolutely love this place.

 

Your guide to getting around in Chicago

Chicago is the countries 3rd largest city (as of July 2014) which means that you have access to all the bells and whistles as it pertains to getting around. Bikes, cars, buses, trains, boats – all are available to help you get from point A to point B in Chicago. But all of these options can be confusing. We’re here to help you sort them out.

Chicago Public Transportion

Besides walking – which we we talk about a little later – using public transportation in the City of Chicago is the most economical way of getting around. And with hundreds of bus routes, high-speed rail and our famous “L” trains it’s convenient too. Chicago is home to the country’s second largest public transportation network (more than 1.7 million rides per day). This system is operated, managed and serviced by the Chicago Transit Authority.

bus

Here is a quick breakdown of your options provided by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA):

  • Buses – CTA operates 1,865 buses, 128 routes and 1,354 route miles.* The bus routes are all numeric (i.e. route 36 or route 151). Our favorite app to help you manage arrival times of buses at specific stations are Ridescout & Ventra. Speaking of Ventra, make sure you read this section below on what exactly Ventra is and how to use it.
    • Full bus fare: $2.00
  • “L” Trains – The “L” stands for elevated, as in the trains run above the ground. These trains are often the most efficient to connect commuters to long(ish) distances within the city. The lines are organized by color. Blue, Red, Purple, Pink, Yellow, Green, Orange & Brown. There are trains that run to O’Hare (Blue Line) and Midway (Orange Line). Check out this “L” train map to familiarize yourself with the routes.
    • Full “L” train fare: $2.25
  • Metra – This is Chicago’s high-speed rail that connects the city with the surrounding suburbs. Because of how much ground is covered with these trains,  your best bet to learn which route is for you is to visit the official Metra website or Contact Us with any questions on planning your trip.

Visit CTA Fares & Tickets information.

Now is a great time to talk about Ventra. Ventura is the contact-less payment system used by the CTA. Ventra has an app that allows you to purchase mobile tickets and track arrival/departure times for buses and trains.

Buses will still accept cash (exact change only, $2 per route) but you will have to purchase a Ventra ticket when you ride the “L” trains. There are two options:

  1. Purchase a disposable ticket. The cost is actually $3.00 when you buy a single ticket from the Ventra machine at the train station. This includes your ride, up to 2 transfers and a $.50 limited use media fee. We have no clue what the limited use media fee is.You can also purchase a 1-day pass (still disposable) for $10. This pass is good for unlimited rides on CTA buses and “L” trains for 24hrs. If you think you are going to ride the trains and buses a few times in a day this is a great option.
  2. Purchase a plastic Ventra card and load cash balance or longer-term passes. This will cost you $5 initially when you purchase at the vending machine or a local retailer – the good news is you can covert that $5 into a transit credit by registering your account online at Ventra.com within 90 days. This is a great option if you’re going to be using public transportation for a week or longer.
    • 3-Day Pass – $20
    • 7-Day Pass – $28 ($33 if you include Pace bus service that services the Chicago Suburbs)
    • 30-Day Pass – $100

Chicago by Bike

bikes

Depending on which blog/news outlet you read Chicago can rank anywhere from the #2 most bike-friendly city in America to #6. Either way that is pretty dang good. Currently Chicago has over 200 miles of protected bike lanes in the city, 18.5 miles of off-street bike lanes along Lake Michigan and more than 13,000 bike rack spots. If you’re a cycling enthusiast than we probably won’t tell you much that you don’t already know. But if you’re visiting the city sans bike and are interested in riding, then make sure you check out Divvy.

Divvy Bikes is Chicago’s bike-sharing program with 4,760 bikes spread across their 476 stations throughout Chicago. Divvy bikes are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  You will want to read the how-to-guide provided by Divvy for all of the important details, but the basics are this:

  • You either purchase an annual membership online or, most likely, you will purchase a 24hr pass at the Divvy bike station near you. $9.95 for 24hr pass, $75 for annual pass.
  • 24hr pass purchases receive a code they enter into the bike station that allows them to use the Divvy bike for 30 minutes. Riders need to return the bike to any Divvy station within 30 minutes. You will be charged ($2 – $8) for any overtime. See Divvy pricing schedule for more details.
  • Rinse and repeat – you can do this for up to 24hrs with the $9.95 pass. It’s unlimited.

Tip: You could theoretically return and re-rent your Divvy bike immediately for those trips that are longer than 30 minutes. But if you’re going to ride for miles and do not want to stop, you’re better off renting a bicycle for the day from a bike shop. Bikechicago.com (Bike & Roll) is a top-rated bicycle renting and tour company in Chicago. $9/hr, $30/half day and $36/full day.

Chicago By Car

uber

There are plenty of options for getting around by cars in Chicago – you can drive (if you’re brave or have to), you can hail a taxi (easy breazy) or grab an Uber or Lyft (our personal favorite).

Taxis
If you’ve taken a taxi before then you are in good shape. There aren’t really any curve balls that will be thrown at you unless you take a city-based taxi from O’Hare airport and they drive you to a suburb – then you will be charged time and half. Please find below the rate schedule for taxis in Chicago as of January 1, 2016.

  • $3.25 base fare
  • $2.25 each additional mile
  • $.20 for every 36 seconds time elapsed
  • $1.00 first additional passenger
  • $.50 each additional passenger after the first additional passenger
  • $50.00 vomit cleanup fee
  • $4.00 Illinois airport departure tax

Private Transportation
Technology companies such as Uber & Lyft are taking the country by storm offering customers the ability to quickly schedule a car to pick them up and take them to their destination within minutes from their smartphones – and most of the time it’s cheaper than a cab.  Our two favorites are Uber & Lyft.

Both Uber & Lyft work in the same way. You download the app, setup an account, add your credit card information and start booking your rides. It really is so easy. Once you try out one of the companies it will be hard to go back to the traditional hailing a cab – especially in bad weather. Some other aspects of this type of ride that we love is not having to exchange cash or even get your wallet out. The transaction is all handled through the app with the credit card information you provided and saved to your profile. The drivers are rated by users (on a scale from 1-5). If drivers are poorly rated they risk having their driving privileges suspended (i.e. – can no longer make money). Drivers are therefore have an incentive to provide great service and get great reviews.

If you haven’t tried Uber or Lyft we have a special new customer promotion for you. You can get your first Uber ride for free (up to $15) and you can get $50 in Lyft ride credits (5 separate $10 credits) by signing up and using their apps today. New customers only.

Driving & Parking
We’re not sure where to start with this one. Driving in any city, including Chicago, can be a pain in the butt. Traffic into and out of the city, especially in the rush hour morning and evening, can drive just about anyone crazy. If you have (or want) to drive we recommend downloading either Google Maps or Waze. These two transit apps will ensure that your drive will be as fast as it possibly can be.

Parking is an entirely separate can of worms. So you made it to downtown Chicago and you still are sane? Great, but now you much find where to park. Chicago is not making it easy on your either. We have free parking on the streets, we have paid parking on the streets and we have permit-only parking on the streets – so make sure you are paying attention!

For those of you that are less adventurous and want to be sure you’re in a proper parking spot we have some good news. Once again technology comes to the rescue with a couple of apps helping you find the closest and cheapest parking available in the city.

  • Parking Panda will help you locate a parking spot by providing an address, city, neighborhood or zip code. They bill themselves as the #1 Parking App.
  • SpotHero operates in the same fashion priding itself on how quickly you can find, secure and pay for parking on their app.

Chicago by Boat

That’s right, boats. Chicago Water Taxi operates between a few popular locations along the famous Chicago River in the heart of downtown Chicago. Chicago Water Taxi Day Passes ($8 on weekdays, $10 on weekend), 10 ride passes ($17.50 weekday, $30 weekend) and a monthly pass for $60.

*Chicago Transit Authority, Spring 2016

Great Chicago Date Nights that are NOT Dinner and a Movie

We don’t have anything against dinner and a movie. It’s a tried and true date night. But when there is so much more that you could do in a place like Chicago why settle? Whether this is your first trip to Chicago and you’re scoping out the Tinder scene or you have been married for 30 years these date ideas will help you step out of the box and create an unforgettable day.

Second City Chicago

One of our favorites. If you like to laugh – and you think that your partner will too – then this is for you. There are all different kinds of shows at Second City. From improv to standup to productions You will want to check their calendar and book your tickets in advance, especially if you plan on taking in a show on the weekends as this place will sell out.

Bar:  Good news the venue is located in the heart of Old Town that has no shortage of options to grab a before or after show drink(s). We recommend checking out the Old Town  Pour House with one of Chicago’s largest beer selections only a 5 minute walk from the stage.

Adler Planetarium

planetarium

We love this because it will give both of you the chance to walk around (which encourages conversation) and the sights themselves will be the topics of those aforementioned conversations. Plus you will get a chance to lay out on your backs and watch the stars. All this for $12 with their general admission, not bad at all. (Tickets can be much more expensive once you start tacking on shows and what not)

Bar: The Adler Planetarium is located on Chicago’s Museum Campus with it’s neighbors the Shedd Aquarium and Chicago Field Museum. The point we’re trying to make is there aren’t many good bar options within walking distance. If you are a rockstar and plan your date accordingly you could attend Adler After Dark and have your cocktails there. For those of us not as skilled in the craft of extreme planning pop into the Palmer House and visit their Lobby Bar at one of Chicago’s most famous hotels.

Kayaking

It’s probably not the activity that comes to mind when someone says “Chicago” – but when it’s summertime here in the Windy City taking an architectural kayaking tour along the Chicago River will be tough to beat. There are a handful of different tour companies operating in Chicago with slightly different itineraries. You can even rent kayaks and give your date a special one-on-one tour. And if kayaking isn’t quite your thing you can always opt for stand up paddle boards.

Bar: This one is a little tricky since you might be entering or exiting the river at different points. We certainly don’t recommend you pound drinks before getting in a kayak -so please, save these for after. One of our favorite spots that will give you views of the river, skyline and Lake Michigan is the Terrace at Trump Tower. Just be ready, this isn’t the cheapest spot – cocktails will set you back $20+ per. YOLO.

Adult Arcade

If you haven’t heard of these beer-serving, 21-and-older-to-enter, throwback arcades that are popping up in cities across America well then you are welcome. A favorite of ours also happens to be in our of our favorite neighborhoods of all time. Emporium Arcade Bar in Wicker Park.  TMNT – check. NBA Jam – check. Live music – check, although – check their schedule because it’s not every night.  And even better news too – most of the music events are FREE.

Bar: Hmmm. How do we handle this one? Technically Emporium Arcade Bar IS A BAR. If you think that you might need a bit of liquid courage before taking your date on in Mortal Kombat then you’re in luck. Up and down Milwaukee Avenue, Division and North Avenue are dozens and dozens of bars. Good luck making it into the arcade and not just bar hopping in this part of town.

Lincoln Park Zoo and/or Conservatory

Lincoln_park_conservatory

We sort of have you covered both summer and winter with this one. If you come in the summer, great – take a stroll through the park, the zoo and the conservatory. We call that the Trifecta. Here in the colder months? That’s OK too – a stroll through the conservatory is even more impressive this time of the year. Especially if you catch their seasonal decor before it’s taken down the first week of January.  Regardless there will not be a shortage of things to look at and do. You will be impressed with how quickly you escape the hustle and bustle of the city here.

Bar: So many great options here. The Barrelhouse Flat gets high marks for their unique cocktails and romantic setting. You can’t get more cozy than Chicago Pizza & Oven Grinder Company (good luck getting a seat though). And for those interested in a really late night cocktail Ravens is open until 4am on most nights.

Now that you know what date nights we like, what was your best date in Chicago?

Best Free Chicago Year-Round Things to Do

We operate a Free Chicago Walking Tours so it is only fitting that we present the best free things do to in the city of Chicago. And we live here, so we have a good idea. There are a lot of free things to do in Chicago – but not all of them are good for the winter. No beaches, outdoor concerts or farmers markets in January. Those have their place, just not on this all year, four seasons list of free things to do in Chicago.

1. Visit a brewery

brewery

Visiting a local brewery is a great way to get out of the cold and experience something that is truly unique to Chicago. We have no shortage of options in Chicago. Not all of them are free though. If you’re looking for the most economical tour of a brewery in the city you have two great options. Revolution Brewing located on Kedzie just north of Belmont. Your other option is Lagunitas and their huge tap room in Chicago’s Douglas Park neighborhood. Both offer great free tours and tasty brews.

2. Chicago Cultural Center

chicago cultural center

Located in the heart of Chicago near the Northwest corner of Millennium Park the 100+ year old gorgeous building has a storied past and was converted to it’s current use in 1991. Here you will find tons of free things to do from concerts to theatre to exhibitions from artists. The Chicago Cultural Center tends to fly under the radar – so both locals and tourists should seek this out.

3. Lincoln Park Conservatory

Lincoln_park_conservatory

Just about everyone is aware of Lincoln Park – both the actual park and the neighborhood. The Lincoln Park Zoo is an incredible free attraction best suited for warmer weather. (Although they do have a great winter light festival too). What you might not know is that the Lincoln Park Conservatory is a great safe haven in the colder months. Operated by the Chicago Park District, this free attraction has greenhouses and gardens under it’s roof. Seasonal displays make sure that whenever you go there will be something different. Stepping into this building after being in the hustle and bustle of the city streets is really incredible.

4. Navy Pier

navypier

Navy Pier advertises itself as a landmark – and well, we have to agree. Sure the summer time is probably the best time to visit (for just about anything in Chicago) but don’t let that stop you from visiting during the snowy months. Navy Pier is non-stop. There is no charge to get into and walk through Navy Pier, but some of their events will cost money. Make sure you check their calendar and sign up for their newsletter to keep up to date with all that is going on at Navy Pier.

5. Harold Washington Library

library

This very well could be #1. The library has an entire section of it’s website dedicated to planning a visit and their own top 10 things to do while there. Read a book, attend a wedding or visit their winter garden. Who would have thought that would all be under the same library roof?  Every single day there is something going on here. When we wrote this post there is a toddler story time and a how to make a small chair with a laser…so, who really knows what they will be up to when you visit. Check out the Harold Washington Library website before you go.

6. Chicago Botanic Gardens

botanicalgarden

Some would say that this botanical garden is even BETTER than a visit to the Lincoln Park conservatory but it’s a 17.5 mile drive outside the city in Glencoe. That being said it’s crazy to think that the incredible Chicago Botanic Garden is free admission (not pets allowed though). If you drive you might have sticker shock at the $25 per car parking charge but you will not be disappointed. For those bold enough to jump on our Metra trains you can hop on that and walk from the Braeside station to the gardens.

7. Eataly

etaly

A grocery store is on the top free things to do in Chicago? Well, yes – sort of. It’s part grocery store, part sit-down restaurant, part bar and part workshops and spectacles. There are only two locations in the U.S.  – Chicago and New York. Pop in for sandwich, some specialty meats, to visit their Nutella bar, a glass of champagne or their award-winning cheese shop. Located just east of Michigan Avenue on Ohio Street the location is ideal for anyone visiting Chicago.

8. Chicago Pedway

pedway

Or as it is technically known: Downtown Pedestrian Walkway System. This under and above ground (all enclosed) walkway connects more than 40 blocks of downtown Chicago real-estate with more than 5 miles of weather-safe paths. Private buildings, public builds and CTA transit are all connected. Look for the special Pedway symbol (shown above) to know that you have found an entrance to the walkways.

Did we leave something off the list? Help us make it right by letting us know in the comments below.

12 sites to help you plan an unforgettable visit to Chicago

Chicago is a massive city – covering over 237 square miles. There are roughly 2.7 million permanent residents and more than 48 million visitors to the city each year. There are almost 5,000 restaurants to choose from. You could visit a different museum every weekend and still have leftovers, because we have 60 of them – including the #1 Museum in the World. (spoiler: Art Institute of Chicago). There are over 200 theaters & over 225 music venues in Chicago. Getting around in the city can be a breeze or you could feel like it requires an advanced physics degree. Chicago has 28 bus routes & 8 train routes that connect 146 stations. Over 3,000 bikes spread amongst 300 stations are available to rent by the hour to help you tackle one of the countries most bike-friendly cities. And while Chicago ranks #3 by population in America we’re still home to 8,1000 acres of green space, 580 parks and 26 beaches.

Source: City of Chicago

So how the heck are you supposed to figure all of this out on your short weekend trip or heck, even week-long trip to Chicago? Free Chicago Walking Tours is going to help. We present to you the top 12 resources to “hack” your way to an unforgettable Chicago vacation. These websites are a special selection that will make you you make the most of your Chicago trip by having fun, learning & meeting people.

START HERE WITH THESE GENERAL TRAVEL & CHICAGO SITES

TripAdvisor Chicago – Hear us out first. Free Chicago Walking Tours recommends using TripAdvisor Chicago as a way to start the brainstorming process and see what other visitors did in the city.  There is so much information in one place. From things to do, to restaurants, hotels and short-term rentals. Free Chicago Walking Tours even challenges Chicago-area locals to take a look for themselves and find out what is hot in Chicago.

Wikitravel Chicago – Online since 2003, Wikitravel bills itself as the original crowd-sourced travel guide with over 300,000 destinations, including Chicago. There is so much information here. Free Chicago Walking Tours loves this information because it really doesn’t come with an agenda. It’s simply there – use it as you please. It coves topics you really won’t find on other travel sites. Topics such as staying safe within the city and includes a listing of all of foreign consulates located within the city as well as their address and phone numbers. But there really is so much more than this. if you have an hour or so to spare and have never been to or read about Chicago you must visit this page.

Choose Chicago – Yes, we know. Not really a hidden gem or a secret, but this is a catch-all site that is dedicated to Chicago and it didn’t feel right leaving it off. Choose Chicago has a little (OK, a lot) of just about everything. It can be a bit overwhelming because there is so much information, but used correctly and it can be a real asset. Their Chicago Trip Planner is an excellent place to start for those visiting for the first time or the fifth time.

OVER 30% OF VISITORS TO CHICAGO SAY “CULINARY EXPERIENCES” ARE THEIR PRIMARY REASON FOR THE VISIT. THESE SITES WILL MAKE SURE THOSE EXPERIENCES ARE UNIQUE AND MEMORABLE.

Eater Chicago – If you’re looking for the scoop on Chicago dining, drinking, food and nightlife check this site out. If you’re local and haven’t heard of it then you’re going to have some fun for a few hours. If you’re visiting and want to get down to the nitty gritty here are the best features for you:

  • Eater Chicago Essential 38 Restaurants (the answer to: “Can you recommend a restaurant?”
  • Eater Chicago Heat map (hottest Chicago restaurants)
  • We can’t link to this one, because it changes every weekend. But Eater Chicago has a feature every Friday & Saturday they present the best restaurants in Chicago with last minute reservations available from Open Table. Check it out when you’re in need of a place to eat but completely forgot to reserve your spot.

LTH Forum – This is a legit foodie website. It’s not flashy. It’s not sexy. It gets right down to business. The site is the work of Chicago locals who left another “more restrictive” food blog to start their own. Whether you want to meet up with locals to break bread together or you’re interested in getting the scoop on some neighborhood haunts – check this site out.

WEATHER AND TRANSPORTATION ARE TWO VERY UNPREDICTABLE ASPECTS OF CHICAGO LIFE. USE THESE SITES AND APP TO HELP YOU PLAN AND PREPARE FOR ANYTHING.

Spot Hero – For anyone that is going to be driving and parking in Chicago. This is the app for you. It’s almost too good to be true. You plug in where you need to park (an address, landmark, whatever) and the date range. Next thing you know it’s telling you all the spots – both public and private – that you can park at, their location and their price. That is it. Search for the spot, find the spot and pay for it.

RideScout – The all-in-one-whatever-mode-you-want-to-travel transit app has arrived to Chicago. Yay! This app will help you get from point A to point B. Whether you want to take a taxi, a bus, walk, bike, car share, park your care or whatever. All in one simple screen. This is great for those that want to take advantage of every single type of transportation possible in a city (you know who you are) and for those looking to take the most efficient route because they’re running late. Or for those that just want to see how close their friends can guess as to the time difference between taking a bike vs a ride share. Have fun.

Chicago Pedway – Wait, what’s a pedway? It’s a noun -a footway built for pedestrians in an urban area. In Chicago’s case it’s an underground pedway. But why you may ask? To help give you cover for our awful Chicago winters. Many locals don’t even know about it. Now you’re in-the-know. It’s sort of a tangled mess of underground walkways, but we have to admit it’s quite unique and if you have time (or for some reason you’re visiting in the winter) make sure you take a visit.

Dark Sky – Chicago is the Windy City. You have probably heard all of the silly one-liners. “If you don’t like the weather in Chicago, wait 15 minutes.” Chicago has four distinct seasons and then some. Cheers to Dark Sky and the technology behind it that can alert you down to the minute (not kidding) when it will rain or snow in Chicago.

CHICAGO ENTERTAINMENT. ENOUGH SAID.

Free Museum Passes from the Library – Sorry out-of-towners, this one is strictly for locals with a valid ID and Chicago address only. We just couldn’t leave it off our list though, it’s too good. This might even be the last drop in the bucket to motivate you to pack up and move to Chicago.

Just like the link says, if you have a Chicago Public Library card you can “check out” passes to the museum good for up to two adults. The catch? You MUST be accompanied by a child under the age of 18. And yes, the #1 Museum in the World is on the list.

ChicagoPlays – Remember those 200+ theaters that were mentioned in the opening paragraph? ChicagoPlays will make it much easier for you to navigate all that is happening in Chicago. Find a theatre. Find a play. Look by date. Look by what is hot. Buy Tickets. Have fun.

Did we miss a great site that needs to be added on this list? Let us know by adding your comment below.