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So you've done the Art Institute and the Willis (Sears) Tower—now it's time to put away your tourist hat and make like a local. Luckily, it's not hard to figure out what Chicagoans like to do in their spare time. Here's how to follow in their footsteps.
Get out of Downtown
Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and in many of them you can see traces of each successive immigrant group. Each neighborhood in the city has its own flavor, reflected in its architecture, public art, restaurants, and businesses, and most have their own summer or holiday festivals. Here are a few standout 'hoods.
Little Italy. Though most Italians moved to the West Side a couple of generations ago, Little Italy's Italian restaurants and lemonade stands still draw them back.
Andersonville. The charming diversity of the Swedish/Middle Eastern/gay mélange of Andersonville means you can have lingonberry pancakes for breakfast, hummus for lunch, and drinks at a gay-friendly bar after dinner.
Chinatown. The Chinese New Year dragon parade is just one reason to visit Chinatown, which has dozens of restaurants and shops and a quiet riverfront park.
Devon Avenue. Devon Avenue turns from Indian to Pakistani to Russian Orthodox to Jewish within a few blocks. Try on a sari, buy a bagel or electronics, or just people-watch—it's an excellent place to spend the afternoon.
Pilsen/Little Village. The best Mexican restaurants are alongside Pilsen's famous murals. Be sure to stop into the National Museum of Mexican Art, which will give you an even deeper appreciation of the culture.
Bronzeville. Bronzeville's famous local historic figures include Ida B. Wells—a women's-rights and African-American civil-rights crusader—the trumpeter Louis Armstrong, and Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman pilot. The area has nine landmark buildings and is rapidly gentrifying.
One of the greatest surprises in the city is the miles of sandy beaches that Chicagoans flock to in summer. The water becomes warm enough to swim in toward the end of June, though the brave will take an icy dip through the end of October. Chicago has about 30 miles of shoreline, most of it sand or rock beach. Beaches are open to the public daily from 11 am (a handful at 9:30 am) to 7 pm, Memorial Day through Labor Day, and many beaches have changing facilities; all are handicap accessible.
The Chicago Park District (312/742-7529 www.chicagoparkdistrict.com) provides lifeguard protection during daylight hours throughout the swimming season.
All references to north and south in beach listings refer to how far north or south of the Loop each beach is. In other words, 1600 to 2400 North means the beach begins 16 blocks north of the Loop (at Madison Street, which is the 100 block) and extends for eight blocks.
Along the lakefront you'll see plenty of broken-rock breakwaters with signs that warn "No swimming or diving." Although Chicagoans frequently ignore these signs, you shouldn't. The boulders below the water are slippery with seaweed and may hide sharp, rusty scraps of metal, and the water beyond is very deep. It can be dangerous even if you know the territory.
Brave the Cold
The city's brutal windy winters are infamous, but that doesn't keep Chicagoans from making the best out of the long cold months. Throw on lots of layers, lace up your ice skates, and show those city dwellers what you're made of.
The rink at Millennium Park (55 N. Michigan Ave., Loop 312/742-1168 www.millenniumpark.org) has free skating seven days a week from mid-November to mid-March and a dazzling view of the Chicago skyline. Skate rentals are $10 a session.
On the snowiest days some hardy souls cross-country ski and snowshoe on the lakeshore—bring your own equipment.
Loosen up by playing outdoor paddle tennis at Midtown Tennis Club (2020 W. Fullerton Ave. 773/235-2300 www.midtowntennisclub.com). If it's snowing, they turn on the heated floors.
Holiday-walk Chicago's windows during the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, in November, the Saturday before Thanksgiving. The celebration includes music, ice-carving contests, and stage shows, and ends in a parade and the illumination of more than 1 million lights.
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