The birthplace of the steel skyscraper allures visitors with its spectacular skyline, set against Lake Michigan. Not surprisingly, most Chicago attractions are located downtown, near Michigan Avenue: world-class museums, breathtaking observation platforms, parks filled with unique artwork, and incredible performance spaces.
If you find yourself in Downtown Chicago and are not sure where to start exploring the Midwestern metropolis, here are a few suggestions. These six popular Chicago attractions are well-worth a visit, even if it means dealing with crowds.
Since 2004, when Millennium Park replaced old railway tracks and parking lots, the 24.5-acre space between the lake and skyscrapers has been a Downtown Chicago favorite. Its standout feature is the 33-foot-high Cloud Gate (called “the Bean” due to its shape), a mirror-surface sculpture reflecting the skyline.
Walk around to take a look at various art installations, or relax in the Lurie Garden, filled with flowers, shrubs, and trees. If you visit in warm months, you may catch an outdoor concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion (overhead, steel pipes help with even sound distribution over the lawn). Kids will enjoy splashing in the Crown Fountain, where water from two video-projecting walls creates a pool. In winter, go ice-skating in front of Park Grill.
Maggie Daley Park
Connected to Millennium Park by a pedestrian bridge is the Maggie Daley Park (named after a former first lady of Chicago), one of the newer Chicago attractions. Opened in 2014, it features two rock-climbing walls, six tennis courts, several picnic groves, an adventure-focused play garden for kids, and a seasonal ice-skating ribbon.
Art Institute of Chicago
Among the best Downtown Chicago destinations is the Art Institute of Chicago in Grant Park, the second largest art museum in the country. It is known for housing one of the world’s biggest collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, including over 30 works by Claude Monet. The permanent collection also features Old Masters alongside American art (look for Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks), as well as African, Asian, and Egyptian works.
The Modern Wing, a 264,000 square-foot addition from 2009, houses early 20th-century paintings (including Pablo Picasso’s The Old Guitarist and Henri Matisse’s Bathers by a River), modern European art and sculptures, plus galleries of contemporary architecture, design, and photography. The airy top-floor restaurant, Terzo Piano, serves Italian fare made with locally-sourced ingredients. During the warmer months, you can eat in a terrace overlooking Millennium Park.
The second tallest skyscraper in the United States, Willis Tower offers 360-degree views of Chicago from the 103rd-floor Skydeck. If you like a thrill, step into the Ledge—one of four glass boxes extending 4.3 feet out from the tower’s wall. You’ll be able to look down to the street 1,353 feet below.
Among other exhilarating sky-high Chicago attractions is 360 CHICAGO, an observatory on the 94th floor of the John Hancock Center. It features TILT, a glass lookout 1,000 feet above ground that extends out and over Michigan Avenue. If you prefer a more low-key experience, enjoy views of the city and Lake Michigan from the on-site bar.
The castle-like structure near the Hancock Center is the historic Water Tower, one of the best-known Chicago attractions and survivor of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Nowadays, it houses the City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower, where the works of local photographers and artists are on display. Across the street is the Chicago Avenue Pumping Station, home of the award-winning Lookingglass Theatre (co-founded by actor David Schwimmer). Both structures were designed by 19th century Chicago architect William W. Boyington.