Quiet Travel: What FREE Chicago Tourist Attractions Aren’t Too Crowded

These are the typical midday weekend crowds at North Avenue Beach.

Chicago is the absolute BEST in the summer.  While the winter is brutal, the absolute gem that is Chicago in the summer makes it bearable.  With street fests nearly every weekend, lovely beaches, and up to 15 hours of daylight, Chicago is a great city to visit in the summer. Unfortunately, everyone else thinks so too.  That’s why it is so challenging to find Chicago tourist attractions that aren’t too crowded.

Tourists seem to come from all over to experience Chicago summers.  This means you’ll need extra patience when trying to visit Chicago tourist attractions and popular restaurants.  I get pretty irritable when I feel crowded by a bunch of sweaty strangers.  Have no fear; I have rounded up a list of some of the less crowded Chicago tourist attractions to visit.

Instead of North Avenue Beach, Try 12th Street Beach

Whenever a day at North Beach is mentioned, my face grimaces as if an autonomic response. North Avenue Beach is an excellent place to visit if you play beach volleyball.  It’s also great for beach-goers under 30 years old and looking to party.  Unfortunately, it is also oppressively busy with thousands of daily visitors.  THOUSANDS. I cannot stress the overpopulation of this beach enough. This is one of the most visited of Chicago tourist attractions.

Imagine trying to meet up with a friend who has graciously gotten there early to claim precious beach space.  Call your friend to find where he/she is located and any dialogue over the phone will be drowned out by competing stereos and jovial laughter. Scan the beach and, with the absence of an eight foot tall marker of some sort, you will struggle to find your meeting spot.  To give you an example, the first photo of this post is a typical weekend at North Avenue Beach, courtesy of Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.

A beautiful day at 12th Street Beach, Chicago.
A beautiful day at 12th Street Beach, Chicago.

Now comparatively, 12th Street Beach is a breeze to visit. For the history buffs, 12th Street Beach is a bit of a treat as it’s been around since the 1920s.  When city planner/architect Daniel Burnham was designing modern day Chicago, he hoped to create a series of islands between Jackson Park and Grant Park, two grand city spaces eight or so miles apart.  While those islands never came to fruition, one peninsula did: Northerly Island.  Originally a park and public bathing beach, the island was converted in 1948 to a single strip airport known as Meigs Field. While it was a popular airport for smaller jets, the airfield was secretly bulldozed in 1996, in the middle of the night by former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.  You can read more about that controversy here.

In 1997, the 12th Street beach reopened with a brand new beach house.  With bathroom facilities, lifeguards, and ample trees for shade, the beach is a lovely spot for families and residents of the South Loop neighborhood. With the concert pavilion at Northerly Island right behind the beach, you may find yourself steps away from a Dave Matthews Band or Jimmy Buffet concert–for free!  A bit harder to find as it is tucked behind Museum Campus and east of Burnham Harbor, accessibility is limited to those who don’t mind paying for parking, paying for a taxi, or willing to walk about a mile from the Roosevelt train station.

The beergarden and patio at Del Campo's Tacos on 12th Street Beach. (C/O Facebook)
The beergarden and patio at Del Campo’s Tacos on 12th Street Beach. (C/O Facebook)

My Tips for 12th Street Beach

  1.  An UberX driver or Lyft driver will not know how to get to the beach. They can drop you off at Burnham Harbor just fine, but they will struggle to explain how to get to the beach. Have them search for directions to Del Campo’s Tacos at 12th Street Beach.
  2. Speaking of tacos, bring money for some tasty tacos, delicious popsicles and paletas to enjoy at the beach.  Interested in an alcoholic beverage and a seated meal? The patio at Del Campo’s Tacos is a can’t miss.
  3. Check the Northerly Island Pavillion concert schedule to find out when concerts are scheduled.  Bring earplugs should your visit coincide with the concert, just in case.

Instead of Blues Fest, Try the Millennium Park Music Series

I will preface this by saying that I adore Blues Fest.  A free music festival that lasts an entire weekend and exposes all generations to the magic of the blues?  It’s one of the great summer Chicago tourist attractions.  It is also very well attended as people come from across the country and throughout the state to see the many acts that perform.  A great, also free alternative is the Millennium Park Music Series.   The music series offers free concerts at the Pritzker Pavilion every Monday and Thursday between June and late August, excluding the Taste of Chicago and Lollapalooza. With international acts across various genres, the fest draws different crowds of people to each concert date. Where Blues Fest is simply one genre of music for one weekend, it is a busy event.  With 12 different acts across 12 dates, the crowds are much more manageable.

Even better, you are allowed (and encouraged) to bring outside food and beverages to concerts of the Millennium Park Music Series.  There aren’t too many Chicago tourist attractions that allow you to save some money on food. I tend to like a fruit and cheese tray or charcuterie as they are quick and easy.  If you want something a bit more refined, bringing takeout from one of the restaurants nearby would work.  My recommendations are the shishito peppers from The Gage, a burger and chocolate shake from Shake Shack, or the rigatoni from Acanto. Just don’t forget seating and the necessary utensils.

My Tips for the Millennium Park Music Series

  1. Don’t forget bug spray or bug repellant bracelets.
  2. Bring a blanket or mat on which to sit, or foldable chairs if you have them.
  3. Save yourself some money and bring your own food and drinks, including alcoholic beverages. Don’t forget utensils, cups, plates, napkins, and a bottle opener or corkscrew. 
  4. Remember ear plugs if you plan to sit close to the speakers or stage. 

Instead of Taste of Chicago, try Taste of Lincoln or Taste of Randolph Street

Marquee at the Taste of Chicago.
Marquee at the Taste of Chicago.

The Taste of Chicago spent much of the 90s as one of the foremost street festivals in the country.  Now, it is just another festival revolving around food.  With around a hundred vendors hawking three to five specialty menu items, patrons can buy tickets to spend at any of the participating stands.  There are also ticketed concerts and entertainment throughout each day.  It is quite expensive and, with a location at Grant Park, a bit far from air conditioned relief.  Personally, it is kind of a tourist trap as many of the vendors are local chain restaurants.

If you are looking for Chicago tourist attractions that aren’t too crowded but have phenomenal food, the neighborhood street fests are much better.  Officially, Chicago has 77 neighborhoods and it seems as if there are just as many neighborhood festivals. These festivals showcase the boutiques, restaurants, and activities of each neighborhood.  There are smaller music acts and smaller stages.  To buy food and drinks, you don’t need tickets, so you won’t pay for more than you can use.  These fests often include traditions of the major cultures of the neighborhoods.  In a nation full of the same trends and coffee shops with subway tiles, these traditions are a welcome change. Bonus: many of these festivals have vendors giving away free food and drink samples.  Just recently, I was at the Printers’ Row Lit Fest and got samples of Häagen-Dazs, Noosa yoghurt, and two different types of Kind bars.  Score for getting a delicious afternoon snack!

Taste of Randolph
Taste of Randolph, C/O Instagram

Ones I particularly like are Taste of Lincoln and Taste of Randolph. Taste of Lincoln runs July 29-30 this year, and is particularly good for families and children.  Although it has a $10 entrance fee for adults, it is free for kids and there are many giveaways like sunscreen, tote bags, and other promotional goodies.  The kids carnival is a block of activities strictly for little ones and includes rides, crafts, games, and prizes.

Taste of Randolph runs June 16-17—this weekend!— and is my favorite fest, strictly for the food and beverage. Typically a $5  donation is suggested for entry, and behold, access to the buzziest restaurant offerings in Chicago. Yes, this festival does get crowded.  The earlier you go, the less crowded it is, and mid-afternoon tends to be the busiest time.  Note: There are VIP tickets available to this festival because of the concert line-ups.  These tickets give you reserved standing space for concerts, discounted beer, and private trailer bathroom access.

My Tips for Taste of Lincoln, Taste of Randolph, and all Street Festivals

  1. Bring cash. ATM lines at these festivals are long, and fees are high.
  2. Don’t forget sunscreen.
  3. Take a lap to visit all food vendors before deciding what to eat.

 

Instead of Fourth of July Fireworks, see the Aon Summer Fireworks 

Independence day and fireworks go hand and hand, but I like fireworks any day of the week, no holiday necessary. While it’s true that the Fourth of July fireworks are set to music, they also bring loads of people with the day off, into the city.  Whether you see them from Navy Pier, Grant Park, the rooftop of the Loews Hotel or the “L” platform, you’ll be competing with lots of people for a spot to stand.  The good news it that the city of Chicago puts on a wonderful fireworks display twice a week during the summer.  Wednesdays at 9:30PM and Saturdays at 10:15PM, you can see an approximately five to ten minute fireworks display set off from a barge just northeast of Navy Pier.

Fireworks on the Chicago River.
Fireworks on the Chicago River.

 

My Tips for Experiencing Aon Summer Fireworks
  1. Bring bug spray if you plan on watching the fireworks from outside.
  2. Consider earplugs or headphones for noise sensitivity.
  3. Try to get a spot on a rooftop location  about 30-45 minutes before the fireworks start.

Instead of Movies at Grant Park, Head West for Movies  and Shakespeare in the Park

When I first moved to the city of Chicago after 22 years of living on the periphery, I visited places almost exclusively off the Red Line.  It was convenient, easy to get north and south, and near Grant Park.  I thought seeing a movie at Grant park would be the greatest.  The first time I tried to go, however,  it was so crowded we were forced far from the screen and couldn’t hear the audio no matter how hard we tried.  It was such a bust.

Since then, I’ve learned that the smaller, neighborhood parks are your best bets for seeing a movie at the park. Quiet neighborhoods away from the hotel hubs tend to be ideal, even if Movies in the Park are considered Chicago tourist attractions.   Just think of the old saying, “Go West, Young Man.”  For safety purposes, I recommend boundaries of 18th street to the South, Damen to the West, and Foster to the North.

If you are looking for some live-action performances, Shakespeare in the Park is back again this year for one month, from July 26th to August 26th.  Performing a 75-minute, all-ages version of Romeo and Juliet, I’ll be interested to see how they direct the ending.   Let’s hope that the Chicago performance is a bit less politically charged than that in New York.

My Tips for Movies and Shakespeare in the Park

  1. Bug spray is your friend.
  2. Try to get a spot on the lawn at least 20 feet away from the speakers, but no farther than 50 feet.
  3. Stay in well lit areas with a group when leaving and be aware of your surroundings.

 

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Free Chicago Tourist Attractions That Aren’t Crowded. Pin me!

Making the Most of Your Time

In general, I’d say arriving earlier in the day to any of these Chicago tourist attractions is a good rule of thumb. Also, don’t forget to put sunscreen on the part of your hair.  I forget that wayyyyy too often and get such an uncomfortable sunburn. Keeping sunscreen on your person is a just a good idea.  Of course, in the event of rain, none of these are good ideas, but lucky for you, I wrote a post on the least crowded places to visit in Chicago on a rainy day that you can read about here.

 

12 Replies to “Quiet Travel: What FREE Chicago Tourist Attractions Aren’t Too Crowded”

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  9. […] I have no firm plans for independence day, although I suppose I could go to the Taste of Chicago. I have to work on Monday, and honestly, probably Tuesday too, so other than hoping it dries out […]

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