Chicago is packed full of adventures beyond the Shedd Aquarium, Water Tower Place and Wendella boat tours. But sadly, for many of us, that is about all we seem to manage on our summer day trips up to the windy city. With or without kids, we spend hundreds of dollars on tickets, parking and food, and yes, we come away with pleasant memories, but somehow I think we often miss a very real and vibrant side of Chicago that sometimes lies only a few blocks away from the tourist attractions. Next time you visit, try getting off the beaten path and experience neighborhoods and places that make this city truly special. Here are some of our family favorites, and moreover, many of them are entirely free.
- 31st Street Beach. Just off I-55, where it intersects with Lake Shore Drive, is a great sandy beach with a skate park, playground, and concessions. The parking is free, although getting there before noon on a summer day is advisable. If you bring bikes, which I highly recommend, taking the bike path up to museum campus and Grant Park/Millennium Park is a fantastic option. You avoid paying for parking at the museums or Millennium Park and the views of the city are breathtaking. Plus, getting back on the highway at the end of the day is a breeze.
- Free concerts/festivals at Millennium Park. Yes, this is a touristy place, but it is also one of the best free concert venues in town. Pick up a schedule at the information booths, or on-line. But let me just say that almost every day during the warmer months you will find an events/activities/concerts scheduled. In July, for instance, there is the Family Fun Festival with free concerts and activities throughout the day — for weeks on end. And in winter, bring your own ice skates and skate for free (that’s the rub…rentals skates are pricey!)
- Experience diverse ethnic neighborhoods. Take the Pulaski exit, for instance, off I-55 and drive 5 minutes to Piotrowski Park (4247 W. 31st St.). Park the car (for free) and hang out at the public pool (all pools in Chicago are free!), playground, and tennis courts. I guarantee you will only hear Spanish spoken in this Little Village neighborhood, where you can buy watermelons from the back of pick-up trucks for only 2 bucks each. Buy a natural fruit bar for a buck from the dozens of pushcart vendors, or four tacos and a soda for three bucks at the dozens of storefront restaurants. If you need a change of venue, just walk down the block to the original Home Run Inn Pizzeria (4254 W. 31st. St, Chicago), still in operation after over sixty years.
- Other fun spots include Chinatown, where you can hang out on the Chinatown mall plaza (2130 S. Archer) among Chinese zodiac sculptures while sucking down bubble tea from Joy Yee’s noodle shop or Saint Alp’s Tea House, all the rage these days and a kid pleaser too. Try an inexpensive Dim Sum at Shui Wah, in the Chinatown mall plaza. Make sure to get there early (like, before 11 a.m.) to avoid unpleasant wait times. (I’ll share one of my parking secrets: drive up to Chicago early and arrive before 9am to get a free parking place on Cermak in Chinatown, just a block or two from the Red Line which will get you into the loop in less than 5 minutes)
- And there’s nothing like an over-the-top polish buffet. A perennial favorite, Czerwone Jabluszko (Red Apple) (3121 N. Milwaukee) serves up perogies of every variety, potato pancakes, sausages, etc. until you burst.
- Speaking of bursting at the seams, try taking a tour of Eli’s Cheesecake Factory at 6701 W. Forest Preserve Drive. Once a weekday at 1:00 p.m., you can still get somewhat behind the scenes at this Chicago institution, and get your fill of cheesecake too. A year ago or so they cut out about half of the factory floor tour (and we’re waiting for the day when they decide to just pop in a video and unveil a double-paned window to peer through, but thankfully that hasn’t happened yet), but it is still fun to check out the decoration room, where vats of whipped cream funnel through tubes poised above various varieties of cheesecake. Of course, it was better when you could check out the baking room, with its immense ovens and cooling racks. Not that I’m bitter about this. Nonetheless, for three dollars, you get a film, free cheesecake slices and a walk through the immense decoration room. And you get to wear a funky hairnet. But the tour guides never could answer my questions about cheesecake factory unions and living wages. Perhaps no one has been stupid enough to ask for fear of cheesecake slice withholding. But never fear, I did get my slice. And half of one of my kid’s too. Yikes.