How can an old lady see downtown Chicago in a few hours?
July 3, 2009 10:42 AM   Subscribe

Downtown Chicago tour between trains?

My 81-year-old aunt is here in Massachusetts for a visit; she'll be returning to Southern California by train (a trip I'd envy her if Amtrak weren't so pathetic). She'll be taking the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, which arrives at 9:45 AM, and going the rest of the way on the Southwest Chief, which departs at 3:15 PM. She doesn't really want to spend five and a half hours sitting around Union Station, especially since she's never been to Chicago before and will probably never get there again, but she doesn't get around with much agility (she uses a cane). What would be ideal is a comfortable tour bus that she could easily locate at the station and that would give her a tour of the downtown area for two or three hours. I assume there are a number of companies that do such things; does anybody know of any that are particularly reliable/user-friendly and/or give particularly good tours? Thanks!
posted by languagehat to Travel & Transportation around Chicago, IL (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The #1 recommendation I give to anyone coming from Chicago is the River Cruise from the Architectural Society. It's 90 minutes long and goes up and down the Chicago river discussing the architecture and history of all the buildings along the way. It's a fabulous way to see Chicago and one that many locals don't get to see.

It doesn't leave from Union Station but she can grab a ~$6 cab ride over to the dock. Here is the page for people who need assistance boarding. Note that there is a special drop off area for taxis on the same level as the boat, so she should probably go there rather than have to take the stairs down. There's also a page there with specifics on how to get there from union station.

Book ahead - they do actually sell out in advance.
posted by true at 10:55 AM on July 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

I don't know about tours but one of the best breakfasts in town is Lou Mitchel's which is about a block from Union Station.
posted by Uncle at 11:36 AM on July 3, 2009

The Sears Tower is just a block east, if she can handle a short walk.
posted by zompist at 3:42 PM on July 3, 2009

I've done the river cruise noted above. It would be a great way to spend the time.
posted by raisingsand at 4:11 PM on July 3, 2009

Best answer: River cruise for sure. Keep in mind though, that the chances of her train arriving on time in Chicago are extremely poor... The average delay on the Lake Shore Limited is something like 3-4 hours.
posted by lazywhinerkid at 4:13 PM on July 3, 2009

Best answer: Seconding the Sears Tower recommendation. They have recently opened the glass enclosures for the Skydeck - views above/around and below - we went today and it is really something. I caught myself wishing my gma was still around to see what Chicago has become since she lived here in the 20's.

If the height or wait is a problem (the lines are long, expect a 2 hour wait from entry to Skydeck arrival), then the river cruise is a great bet as well. Perhaps better if she is really slow or unsteady. The view from the water is really something - especially since they finished the Trump tower here last year.

She could also take a 6-7$ cab ride to Michigan Avenue or State Street and just take that in if she is able. There are a number of outdoor cafes and restaurants on either State St or Michigan Ave. if she could do it and it wouldn't be too jarring. We sat for a couple of hours at a small-plate Italian place on State today and just watched everyone pass by. It was really nice.

The weather in Chicago right now is great for outdoor stuff - it is very cool and breezy, not the usual humidity and stale air that plagues a Chicago July.
posted by Tchad at 7:22 PM on July 3, 2009

Thanks for this thread, languagehat, and thanks, everybody for the tips: I'm taking this same trip with my family this summer. I've been assuming that the layover will be a lot shorter - it's a safe bet that the Lake Shore will be several hours late getting in.

I've promised The Youngest Member that I'll let her dip her toes in Lake Michigan (time permitting) - but this "river cruise" sounds great.

And it's always good to have local advice on dining.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 8:37 AM on July 4, 2009

I always recommend that anyone taking the train into the city from the south into Union Station take advantage of one of the best skyline views of the city ever.

I found out about it from one of the Amtrack employees:

When the train gets to the south side of the city, it goes along through some pretty rough looking neighborhoods. The grade changes slightly, then, if you are standing on the front (my train reversed directions and turned around just before Union Station) you see crappy neighborhoods and then, all of the sudden, the city rises out of it all and you see BOOM: all of downtown with the Sears Tower slightly off-center. Unless you are out on the lake it is hard to get a good full-range view, but because the rail right-of-way is fairly undeveloped it is open.
You are slightly below grade - it is just towering!

Like the whole city is playing peek-a-boo.
posted by Tchad at 9:41 AM on July 4, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks very much, everyone; I'm tentatively marking as best answers lazywhinerkid (for warning about the late arrival—3-4 hours?! Fuck you, Amtrak!) and Tchad (for detail), but I may well be adding more after I find out what she actually winds up doing. But boy, it was worth posting this just for the delay information. Jesus, I remember when the U.S. actually had a good passenger train system.
posted by languagehat at 10:36 AM on July 4, 2009


Actually, it's fairly unlikely the train will be delayed 3-4 hours in this economic climate. Let me explain why....but first!

Please do remember delays are completely out of Amtrak's control, as they operate (outside the northeast and a few other select places) on borrowed and shared freight rail infrastructure - there is no seperate passenger rail lines. The vast majority of Amtrak's delays are generally caused by the host railroad (CSX, Union Pacific, BNSF, etc) and are out of Amtrak's control. They do make accomodations (hotel, etc) if one misses a connection because of it. Also, on the freight rail issue: do keep in mind this is one of the few sectors of the economy where the government requires the private sector to host a public service on their own infrastructure).

However - freight traffic is way down as a result of the recession, and while I've been on delayed trains before (pre-recession), the 12 or so Amtrak trips I have taken since late 2008 have been delay free, from the short-haul to a 2 day trip. The reason? No freight trains delaying Amtrak trains.

If you are worried about delays, get the train number for your grandmother and go to You can see the delays for the last 4 weeks or so (for most long distnace trains like the SW Chief, they're -10 to 20 minutes late at most)

Also, if you can get a sleeper unit for your grandmother, please do. That's a long, long time to be spending in coach.
posted by waylaid at 3:39 PM on July 4, 2009

You might want to reconsider the River Cruise if your grandma walks with a cane. My mom has very bad knees and couldn't make it down the steps for the river cruise - we ended up giving our tickets away to a nice tourist couple. I walk by the dock every day and the steps are still there and still would be a problem for my mom.

An alternative is the big red double-decker tour that picks up at the corner of Jackson and Wacker. If she doesn't mind riding inside (meaning, not on the top) she can walk straight off the curb onto the bus - no steps.

Drop me a line if you have any questions or need me to investigate anything; my office is right across the street from this tour bus pickup and kitty-corner from the Sears Tower.

Good luck!
posted by MeetMegan at 10:00 AM on July 5, 2009

Oh, and there is a river cruise that boards down at Navy Pier, without concern of steps (provided she starts and ends there). A cab ride is necessary to get there from Union Station, or your grandma could wait for one of the free trolleys that run the circuit from Union Station to Navy Pier. There are three small (not high) steps for those trolleys. The timing might be difficult there, though, particularly if the train is late.
posted by MeetMegan at 10:02 AM on July 5, 2009

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