Exploring Lincoln Square

The north side Chicago neighborhood is a family-friendly enclave.

I didn’t live in Lincoln Square, but I pretended to. For about 7-1/2 years, I lived a mile west in Albany Park, a wonderfully fascinating mixing bowl of international flavor. But Chicago's Lincoln Square just has a certain coziness about it that our slightly rougher community lacked. Hit the brick-paved block between Lawrence and Leland avenues, and you’ll see what I mean.

Lincoln Square archway

Way back when, this was prairie, just a rural outlier of the busy city. The neighborhood saw its first growth of European settlement in the 1850s, a large portion of it German, a legacy that still colors the neighborhood in its Dank Haus cultural center, the Bavarian dining at Chicago Brauhaus and a remnant of the Berlin Wall in the El station. A mural titled “Shades of the Black Forest," painted by German native Lothar Sanchez-Speer, backs up onto a parking lot where, from spring through early fall, the farmers market takes up residence. It's where we picked up Michigan blueberries and first tried ices with homemade Jo Snow Syrups.

In the early 1900s, electric streetcars gave this area a population boost and in the 1920s, it was sucked into the growing city limits of Chicago. These days, it’s quite the desirable, family-friendly district, with home prices in the reasonable range and public transportation a cinch by Brown Line El or CTA buses.

The focal point of Lincoln Square is quaint Giddings Plaza, where we would meet up with other friends with young kids to gather with blankets and water bottles during summer for the free concerts. We’d treat ourselves to cups of Paciugo gelato (my favorite was the simple coffee, but my little ones were always wooed by Bubble Gum flavor), then head back out. There’s always someone who brings a bucket of chalk to share, and the stone and cement surrounding the band bursts with imaginative kids’ creations.

At the east edge of the plaza stands an ornate street lamp, a gift from Hamburg, Germany. For better or for worse, the icon is like a magnet for kids—they can’t resist climbing on it, and parents mostly let them, although some are sorely unsupervised and I’ve seen a few fingers get squashed by big kids who rush to the top at the expense of slower little guys. On the opposite side, the octagonal fountain is where people toss wishing coins. Better not be caught with an empty change purse.

Lincoln Square fountain

Also bordering the plaza is one of the area’s longest standing eateries, the cheerful Café Selmarie, famous for its baked goods—tarts, pies, frosted cookies, breads and coffee cakes—and packed for its Sunday brunch, although the handful of stools that face out to the sidewalk are the best for people-watching, sipping a latte and reading the paper. We didn’t get a chance to visit Baker Miller Bakery and Millhouse before we left for the suburbs, but I have tasted their breads, and they are a must-try. Meat-lovers head across the street for lunch or dinner up on the beer- and wine-garden roof at Gene’s Sausage Shop, where I’ve also picked up some worthy dried and smoked meats that satisfy my South African husband. Down the street a few blocks at Fork, dinner is shared plates like kale and porkbelly salad, sweet potato gnocchi, root vegetable hash.

Sometimes, we want to make a special stop in one store here in particular—I’ve done it countless times for a homeopathic remedy at Merz Apothecary, a unique birthday present at Timeless Toys, a novel by a local author at the Book Cellar or a cheeky card from Enjoy, an Urban General Store—but sometimes it's a browsing kind of day. Because so many of these shops are indie-run, the selection is a refreshing change.

One of Lincoln Square’s most beloved stops is the Old Town School of Folk Music, founded in 1957 and debuted on Lincoln Avenue in 1998 with a concert by Joni Mitchell and Peter Yarrow. A recent expansion across the street added more concert and class space. As toddlers, my kids took music and dance classes there, along with pretty much everyone else’s kids I know; some of us have even taken private piano and harmonica classes for adults. A constant stream of world music concerts makes Old Town a music-lovers destination. In fact, there's rarely a quiet moment at Old Town, which also hosts one of the area’s favorite summer bashes, the Square Roots Festival. For several music-filled days, a portion of Lincoln Avenue closes to traffic between the expansive Welles Park and the old-and-creaky, but incredible Sulzer Regional Library. The other entertainment hub is historic Davis Theatre, a throwback movie theater where a much-needed renovation still retains the old-school charm.

Square Roots Festival

Welles Park is a destination in itself, given a shot in the dusty playground arm by a new-fangled, fenced-in, rubber-bottomed playground complete with spray feature. The Chicago Park District green space is also the site for another summer concert series—get there early, bring some food and a blanket, probably some bug spray, and enjoy music al fresco.

Abraham Lincoln statue in Lincoln Square

And, last but not least, at the intersection of Lawrence and Western avenues is ol’ Abe himself, a standing statue of the 16th president that lays claim to the neighborhood’s name.