Two slightly rainy days in Chicago during Covid
August 25, 2021 10:37 AM   Subscribe

I will have Friday and Monday free bookending a conference. I've not been to Chicago since I was a kid so I don't have a frame of reference for how crowded places typically are on weekdays. I have some risk tolerance for being in public spaces with masks (and don't involve eating or drinking indoors) if they're not too crowded but definitely don't want anything with a dense crowd. The current forecast is moderate rain Friday morning and likely scattered rain Monday.

I've read some previous Asks. I'll be staying right near the Millennium Park so there's obviously Lake Shore East Park and the Millennium Park for outdoor activities for when it's not raining. I won't have a car so I'm primarily interested in sticking near that area. I typically walk three miles or more a day so a little legwork is fine.

Things I might be interested in:
*The Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Photography, Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Museum of Science and Industry - how crowded are they likely to be? Are there less well known ones that are still nearby but less likely to be crowded? I don't need art to be famous as long as it's good.
*Rooftop bars near Millennium Park where I might be able to lure people from the conference to socialize outside that won't be too crowded/noisy.
*Are any of the fine dining places still doing takeout/delivery?
*Any fancy restaurants in the area have outdoor seating that are worth going to? A couple that I spotted online are Shanghai Terrace and Avli on the Park.
*Are the nearby beaches worth considering Friday afternoon?
*Nighttime boat tour if they aren't packed and require a mask. The one recommended previously ( is not requiring them on the boat.

Things I'm not interested in:
*The Aquarium or Planetarium - normally I would be, but I'm more interested in art than fish during what indoor time I'll allow.
*Architecture - if it were safe to take a motorized tour to see it, I might be, but not this trip (unless there's the uncrowded boat option).
*Shopping - I love record and book stores but again, not this time.
*Chasing legendary sausage stands/sandwich shops/etc.
*Any good local breweries to keep an eye out for at bars? I enjoy all styles as long as they're interesting.

I'm open to other ideas but the things above are the common recommendations.
posted by Candleman to Travel & Transportation around Chicago, IL (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I was in Chicago the weekend of Lollapalooza, but I did not go to Lollapalooza. I went to the Field Museum and the Art Institute while I was there - both places required you to buy a ticket ahead of time and were limiting capacity, so "crowded" isn't really a problem for them. Additionally, the Art Institute was requiring masks. Both places had restricted access to places where social distancing wasn't really possible. I was at the Field Museum on a Friday afternoon, Art Institute mid-day Saturday, and I didn't feel like either place was really crowded at all.

I also went to a jazz club in Streeterville (a bit north of Millenium Park by the Navy Pier) that required proof of vaccination to enter.

Generally, Chicago seemed to be pretty masked up and not stupid.
posted by LionIndex at 10:44 AM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Non-comprehensive answer, sorry! Note: masks are required in indoor settings in Chicago.

Museums: Some visiting friends went to the Art Institute last Monday during business hours and said it was not crowded. MCA is always quiet, in my experience; I haven't been since COVID, though. Not sure about the others.

Rooftop bars: Cindy's is the classic. Plymouth Hotel is near Millennium (and my office, ha) but haven't been there.

Boat tours: not sure about crowdedness. Confirmed that my other standard, Wendella, also does not require masks while outdoors.

Beers: my local favorites are Marz and Off-Color.
posted by quadrilaterals at 10:48 AM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When I was at the Museum of Science and Industry a month ago (so, before the indoor mask mandate mentioned above), it was busy, and although the sign said that non-vaccinated visitors should wear masks basically no one was, including many many under-12 children. It seemed very understaffed - I don't know how they would have enforced the mask rules, and several of the interactive exhibits were closed or unstaffed (the U-boat, the coal mine). Unless things have changed a lot in the last month I would not recommend it right now (and I *love* science museums and had really been looking forward to it).

The MCA, the Art Institute, and the Field Museum were bustling but not crowded, more masked-up and less chaotic.

For what it's worth, the architecture cruise was not crowded at all when I went (on a Wednesday or Thursday afternoon). There were lots of empty seats, it was breezy, the boat was moving. From a COVID perspective I would be much more willing to do the boat tour than anything indoors right now, honestly.

I wanted to visit the rooftop bar at the Carbon and Carbide building, Chateau Carbide, but I spent so much time at the Field Museum I thought my feet were going to fall off and I instead went back to my hotel to watch TV. It's only open Friday-Sunday.
posted by mskyle at 10:58 AM on August 25, 2021

Best answer: I live in Chicago. Local museums in my experience (Art Institute, The Field) have been very good with masking and require advanced tickets.

Cindy's in the Athletic Association hotel is a great rooftop bar. Fom what I understand, architecture boat tours should have room for social distancing and it's easy to stay outdoors.

Downtown's a little weird for dining right now because the office traffic that would usually be there is now at home. Perfectly safe, lots of things open, just a lot of higher-end restaurants closed. I'd recommend taking a car or the train to West Loop for fancy restaurants with outdoor seating. We recently had good outdoor meals at Andros Taverna (high-end Greek) and Cabra (Peruvian). Many places also have covered outdoor seating for rainy days; best bet is contacting them directly.

For beers I'm partial to Marz, Revolution and Solemn Oath. However, Chicago is a VERY active brewing city and you really can't go wrong with any local picks. Flo & Santo's is a South Loop bar that's not too far away from Millennium Park with a lot of outdoor seating and a great local beer selection.

Enjoy your trip!
posted by huskerdont at 11:20 AM on August 25, 2021

Best answer: +1 on the boat tour. If your tolerance is high - the architecture walking tours and bus tours are better - much better - as you get to go into some of the buildings instead of just looking at them.

The Starbucks Roastery on N Michigan Ave - long on my partner’s list - was a lot more fun than I expected. They have a rooftop terrace you can access if you sign up for the right tour or event. Think: temple to coffee with several one-of-a-kind concoctions. For minimal crowds, if you don’t do a tour, start on the 4th floor bar.

Also, I adore the Crown Fountain, especially in summer. I’d wear a swim suit and splash around in it on a warm rainy summer day. The Bean, er, Cloud Gate is also fun. In short, the Millennium Park is fun on its own. Also, check for concerts.

Finally, the Segway tours are fun, if they are still a thing.

Have fun!
posted by rw at 11:29 AM on August 25, 2021

Best answer: The MCA is generally not too crowded and weekdays will be better. Closed on Mondays. The Christina Quarles show on the first floor right now, is really incredible, and the comics show is also really, really good. If you just keep going north down MI Ave from the MCA you basically run into Oak Street Beach which might be crowded but also, I was at a beach further north last Sunday and it was definitely crowded, but not hard to carve out a little spot that wasn’t bad. If you just head to the lake from where you’re at, you can also just walk along the lakeshore. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Rainbow Cone now has a truck outside the aquarium, so even if you don’t want to see fish, it’s a nice walk along the lake and you can get a very Chicago-specific treat. Cindy’s is definitely the go-to rec for a rooftop bar and in normal times the Game Room/hotel lobby is a totally fine backup plan if it’s too busy, but I’m honestly not sure these days.

Edited to add that I’m sorry that I told you about a food truck.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 11:45 AM on August 25, 2021

Best answer: I’ve biked by the Starbucks roastery three times in the past month and saw lines of 50+ people waiting to get in and plenty of bustle inside. If you are being cautious I wouldn’t plan on it being uncrowded and see how it feels to you while you’re there if that’s something you want to go to based on the above suggestion. I second the recommendation to go to restaurants in the west loop instead of limiting yourself to the loop or river north.
posted by Bunglegirl at 12:40 PM on August 25, 2021

Response by poster: Edited to add that I’m sorry that I told you about a food truck.

No worries, stuff that's in the vicinity is fair game, just surveying things like the Eater list of the top 25 places or whatever will often have a beloved sandwich shop that's in the middle of nowhere that I won't have time to check out (and wouldn't want to spend time in shared transit to reach with Covid).
posted by Candleman at 1:27 PM on August 25, 2021

Best answer: The Museum of Contemporary Photography is a lovely space connected to Columbia College; it's been rather quiet the times I've been, and if I recall correctly it's also free (donations accepted). It's closed on Mondays.

I went to the Art Institute two months ago on a Monday morning and there were plenty of people but everyone was masked and giving each other space; if you make a reservation for an early time you should be fine!

As others mentioned, the Museum of Contemporary Art is likely to be less crowded than the Art Institute (*whispers* It's also not very big).

I wouldn't be too worried about taking the el, it's not very crowded when it's not weekday rush hour (and even then it's not nearly as busy as it was pre-COVID). Your experience may vary, of course.

There are a lot of very good (pricy) restaurants on Randolph west of the Loop (and the I-90/94 expressway); most if not all will need a reservation in advance.
posted by sencha at 3:10 PM on August 25, 2021

Best answer: The Chicago Cultural Center is nearby and free, and not likely to be crowded. It also has a great Chicago comics exhibition, curated by Chris Ware, that covers their origins. The Art Institute wasn't exceptionally crowded, and if you're here before the Bisa Butler exhibition closes Sept. 6, it's a knockout, though might be more crowded than the rest of the museum.

If you're looking for upscale carryout, Tock is what a lot of upscale restaurants around here use, since it was created by the Alinea Group. It has a map, so you can see how close the various options are. Good options include Avec and the Purple Pig. (Alinea is still listed as doing carryout, but it's designed to be reheated at home, so not so helpful if you're in a hotel.)
posted by carrienation at 7:58 PM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I ended up losing Friday to travel SNAFUs so I didn't get to do as much as I'd hoped. For anyone this might be useful for:

Just about every place that had outdoor seating in the Loop had plenty of capacity for walk-up customers. I did not try eating any place particularly fancy though. One annoyance when chasing late night dining I found is that many restaurants did not bother to list their kitchen hours vs. bar hours on the website.

I did a river architecture tour Sunday evening - it was probably at about 20% capacity so there was space to spread out but I was literally the only person on the boat wearing a mask.

The Contemporary Art Museum was very sparsely attended Sunday afternoon so that felt pretty safe.

The Art Institute felt like a Smithsonian Art gallery during normal times. The popular rooms (like the one with Sunday in the Park With George) were very crowded and I stayed clear. One guard and one guest were obviously coughing.

I caught some opera at the Millennium Park. Not a lot of mask wearing but there was plenty of space for people to spread out in and I didn't have an issue with that.

The museum of Contemporary Photography was closed between exhibitions and didn't do a great job of making that clear.

The local IPAs and Octoberfests I tried from local breweries were all pretty good. The letdown was a sour saison that wasn't vile but I wouldn't have described it as either a sour or saison.

I'll keep the rest of the suggestions in my pocket for next time. Thanks everyone.
posted by Candleman at 8:25 PM on August 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

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