What should I do for 8 hrs in Chicago? (Difficulty Level: Polar Vortex)
January 22, 2014 7:26 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to have a long layover in Chicago next week, and will be able to spend about 8 hours in the city (daylight hours, thankfully). I have never been to Chicago before, and would like to take advantage of the opportunity to sightsee the key attractions. However I take it that this isn't necessarily the most clement time of year to visit that fair city, especially with the polar vortex returning. What are the key highlights of Chicago that I MUST see/do that are doable in sub-freezing weather? Alternatively, is there anything that this weather would actually improve (I saw some astonishing photos of Lake Michigan from earlier this month, for instance)? I will not have a car, and I also won't have a particularly warm coat. Any other tips?
posted by ClaireBear to Travel & Transportation around Chicago, IL (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Is your layover from Midway or O'Hare?
posted by aetg at 7:38 PM on January 22, 2014

Any other tips?

There's a chance your flight into or out of Chicago may be delayed due to weather or the airlines trying to run more planes through it than it can handle. In your shoes, once in Chicago I would try to fly standby on an earlier flight.

That said, it looks like you can take the Metro from O'Hare to the Chicago Art Institute.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:40 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hello! Chicagoan here. You can take the CTA blue line from O'Hare to the loop. The ride takes about 45 minutes and will drop you about 1/2 mile from the Art Institute. If you are coming from Midway, you would take the Orange line to downtown, in a roughly similar amount of time.

Keep in mind, though, that with the weather being as cold as it is, everything is more snarled. The trains run more slowly, and flights can get messed up.

There are a ton of mefites here in Chicago, and I'm sure you'll get lots of good suggestions, but please do keep in mind that the cold slows everything down. I hope you have time to have some fun, though!
posted by bibliogrrl at 7:46 PM on January 22, 2014

Museum of Science and Industry is wonderful.
posted by Quisp Lover at 7:55 PM on January 22, 2014

Go to the top of the Hancock building, not the Willy / Sears tower. There's a great bar and views of Chicago.
posted by xammerboy at 7:55 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, the Art Institute is the obvious day trip. The Impressionist collection is impressive, though I always like the modern art rooms, and I have a soft spot for the Thorne Miniature Rooms. Take the CTA Blue Line from O'Hare and get off at Jackson (or the Orange Line / Adams-Wabash if you're at Midway) and head east a couple blocks. There's a café in the museum, or look for something downtown.

The Willis Tower, tallest building in the US, is due west from the CTA stop about the same distance, in case you'd like a panoramic view. (John Hancock is good too, but take a cab for that.)

(In warmer weather I'd recommend a walk up Michigan Avenue, but not when it's so freakin' cold.)
posted by zompist at 7:57 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately right now is the time of year when even Chicagoans won't go outside. Everything is just bleak, dreary, covered in ice, and oh yeah we're expecting a -20F wind chill tomorrow.

The museums and observation decks will probably be your best bet. If you're a foodie you could try a kickass restaurant for lunch. But, especially since you mentioned your coat isn't quite ready for it, minimize your time outside. I personally wouldn't recommend going near the lake or the river - we just had a pair of awful deaths related to this.
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:31 PM on January 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't take warnings about the cold too seriously--you will almost certainly not die--but do be very conservative when estimating travel times if it's snowing and the roads are bad. Rush hour is a pain to navigate on a clear day, and bad weather can really foul things up. That said, I'm still riding my bike to work, and the city is far from deserted. Bundle up, wear warm socks inside waterproof boots if at all possible, and you'll be fine.

If you're coming down the Blue Line, another spot to consider is Wicker Park, which is off the Damen stop between O'Hare and downtown. It's all shops and restaurants (no museums etc.) but if you want a beer and/or a bite to eat there are dozens of possibilities within a few blocks.

If you're coming up the Orange Line from Midway to downtown, unfortunately, there are no stops with a comparable density of interesting stuff until you're in the Loop--the south side has things worth seeing but it's more spread out, harder to navigate on public transportation, and less gentrified than the north side.

Be aware that undiscounted admission to the Art Institute is $23, and the Museum of Science and Industry is $27.

Other attractions downtown include the Field Museum (basic admission: $18) and Shedd Aquarium (basic admission: $8; be aware that the Shedd only lets you see maybe 40% of its exhibitions on the basic admission, so if there's something you want to see, check the prices carefully--the "everything" pass is like $35). These two are close to each other and to the lakeshore, if you want to brave the cold for a look at it. Take bus 146 from downtown. To minimize time spent waiting outside, you can text "ctabus [the code on the bus stop sign]" to 41411 for estimated arrival times, or you can try one of the trackers on your smartphone.

Hyde Park is an exception to what I said about the south side's low density of interesting stuff, but is relatively isolated from the rest of the city. It's not well-served by the El and can be tough to reach on public transportation. If you're heading for the Museum of Science and Industry, you can take the blue line from O'Hare to downtown and hop on the #6 bus to Hyde Park (the Red Line, unfortunately, drops you considerably to the west of where you want to be).

If you're going from Midway directly to Hyde Park, skip the Orange Line and take the 55 bus, which runs along Garfield Blvd. all the way from the Midway Orange Line terminal (just across Cicero from the airport) to the Museum of Science and Industry's doorway. If it's snowing, keep in mind this trip could take an hour and a half, easy.

If you do go to Hyde Park, there are a couple of other places worth visiting, if walking outside isn't too intimidating. I love love love the Oriental Institute's museum, which has that enormous lamassu/sedu, and it's free. It's possible to get within three blocks by bus (also the 55) from the Museum of Science and Industry. The Smart Museum of Art is also free and worthwhile, but kind of across campus from the Oriental Institute.

Most of the restaurants in Hyde Park are near-ish to the University of Chicago campus and the Oriental Institute. The Medici is a few blocks away and has coffee, pizza, baked goods, and middle-of-the-road American food. Seoul Corea is also okay and right on the 55's route, as is Bonjour Bakery, which has coffee and, yes, French pastries and staff. If you're sensing a lack of enthusiasm in my recommendations, yep, I think the food in Hyde Park is below par for Chicago and would eat somewhere else if it's logistically possible.
posted by pullayup at 9:30 PM on January 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you're downtown on a weekday walk over to LaSalle Street and see the light court at the Rookery, bonus is the LaSalle Street canyon. Wear a warmer coat.
posted by IvoShandor at 11:39 PM on January 22, 2014

You can go to Millennium Park and take a picture in front of the iconic giant silver bean. Personally, I think you should do a bus tour and conveniently they all start at Millennium Park. You don't have to get off the bus if you won't have time. You can just ride through and check out the city. I did that when I had one day in Paris to see all the sites, and then walked around a little bit. I've done the Chicago bus tour too with guests, and we did this one. The full tour is about two hours, but maybe you'll be able to skip some stops, like the Aquarium which is out of the way, if you use any walking time to walk to a later-numbered stop. (i.e. on this "signature tour" map I'd skip stop number 6 if you want.) If you have time to eat, you can stop somewhere along the Magnificent Mile (N. Michigan Ave.) if you want to be where all the tourists and people are. Just don't order a Chicago-style deep dish pizza -- they take like an hour to cook.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:32 AM on January 23, 2014

the Metro from O'Hare

Just as a heads-up, don't call the L/subway (the color-coded lines: Blue Line, Red Line, Orange Line, etc.) the "Metro" in Chicago. Not for any parochial reasons, but because the commuter rail (the BNSF, UP-N, Metra Electric, etc.) in the Chicago area is called Metra and you're liable to confuse people or get wrong advice if you ask about the "Metro."
posted by andrewesque at 4:45 AM on January 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

Bundle up if it's in the teens or single digits. The wind chill here is no joke. I've lived in the upper Midwest my whole life, and I still forget just how freaking cold a wind chill of -17 actually is. I'm usually only out in it for 15 minutes or so to scrape off my car, but it can be really miserable. So:

Layer a hoodie or sweater under your "not particularly warm" coat.

2 scarves: one for around your neck to seal up the neck-hole of your jackets; another one that you can pull up over your face.

Hat or earmuffs, gloves.

Warm footwear, preferably winter boots (not fashion boots.) 2 pairs of socks.

All the museums in Chicago are awesome. You could spend all day at the Art Institute, not even come close to seeing everything, and not be out walking around in the cold. If it's not too freezing out it is always fun to watch the ice skaters at the rink near Millenium park. There is a nice little restaurant there too.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:13 AM on January 23, 2014

If the wind chills are going to be really vicious and you really don't have warm enough layers, you need to stay indoors because it is unsafe to be out in a light coat. From O'Hare, you can access the Pedway from the Blue Line and stay in the tunnels exploring for a few hours without having to go outside. There are sites you can access that are connected to the Pedway, like the Chicago Cultural Center, the old Marshall Fields (now Macy's but the interior architecture remains), City Hall, the Daley Center, and plenty of food options. While some parts of the Pedway aren't heated or are open to the elements, they are like little cold blasts at crossroads between heated areas. Pretty safe from the weather. The above posters are correct in that even natives don't go out in weather this cold.
posted by juniperesque at 6:04 AM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I understand that packing a warmer/bulkier coat is probably a non-starter, but if you plan to go outside in Chicago at all, slip a pair of mittens and a scarf or cowl you can wrap around your mouth and nose into your luggage. It will make a huge difference. Unless you yourself are from a cold weather climate, you should disregard the comments above that it's "not really that cold."
posted by telegraph at 6:50 AM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you go to the Art Institute, the Gage is a nearby restaurant that's very good.
posted by garlic at 7:56 AM on January 23, 2014

Forbes just posted some tips.
posted by eamondaly at 10:20 AM on January 24, 2014

Thanks, all! Really helpful suggestions, all of them! I decided that the biggest thing I wanted to do was to see Lake Michigan in this weather, which I did manage to do, and it was awesome. Due to a combination of not being able to handle the cold, as well as feeling a bit under the weather, I didn't get to see much else, but Chicago was a gorgeous city and I hope to go back (ideally in rather warmer weather!). Really appreciate the advice! (The mittens/cowl advice was particularly practically useful: I was unable to bring a warmer coat, but I think things were far better than they could have been since I brought those accessories...) Thanks!
posted by ClaireBear at 7:03 PM on January 29, 2014

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