Secret Chicago: Locals' Tips for Enjoying the Windy City

These hidden gems of Chicago take travelers far beyond the tourist staples; put them on your short list when you visit Chicago next.

Sure, the guidebooks can point out some of the best things to do in Chicago, but there’s a whole hidden side to the city beyond the touristy lure of Millennium Park and Navy Pier. So here you have it: secret Chicago restaurants, tours and attractions with locals-only flavor, from Kendall College’s test kitchen for rising chefs to Randolph Street Market’s vintage finds. Follow these tips for an authentic experience in Chicago:

1. Soak in the Culture at the Chicago Cultural Center
With flashy new attractions nearby and a shopping paradise up the road, the 1897 Beaux-Arts Chicago Cultural Center often gets overlooked, but we say take note: It boasts the world’s largest stained-glass Tiffany dome, among other exquisite handcrafted decor, and we truly love it for its endless offerings of free and inexpensive exhibits and performances. Like this month’s LiveWire Chicago Theatre presentation of “A Permanent Image”; frequent LunchBreak musical groups; and the ongoing “Chicago Landmarks Before the Lens,” depicting black-and-white images of 24 of the city’s historic buildings and districts. 78 E. Washington St., 312.744.3316

2. Take a Historic Hotel Tour
Guests and non alike have the privilege of touring the Mag Mile’s magnificent InterContinental Hotel, built in 1929 as the Medinah Athletic Club, replete with Roaring Twenties glitz and glamour—Spanish Majolica tile, crystal chandeliers, intricate wood carvings, knights in shining armor (seriously). After meticulous historic renovation, it got its new lease on life. Simply pop over to the concierge desk for a complimentary, self-guided iPod tour and explore. 505 N. Michigan Ave., 312.944.4100

3. Find Millennium Park’s Hidden Garden

Beyond the limelight of Millennium Park’s big, bold public art lies a peaceful corner of understated natural beauty. The Lurie Garden is separated from the city bustle by a 15-foot-high hedge of conifers and deciduous trees, serving a practical purpose as well as poetic reference—i.e. Carl Sandburg’s description of Chicago as a “City of Big Shoulders.” Within, it’s a thoughtful, but unfussy array of perennials, shrubs, grasses and trees, as well as seasonal splendor—for spring, tulips, cherry blossoms, daffodils and shooting stars. In Millennium Park between Michigan and Columbus avenues, 312.742.1168

4. Shop Local at the Randolph Street Market

Mag Mile sprees are convenient (after all, who doesn’t like a Burberry, Apple Store and Nike flagship within walking distance?), but there’s an e-commerce site for all that stuff. Stroke the local economy—and your relatives’ egos—with only-in-Chicago treasures from Randolph Street Market, which is host to several shopping events throughout the summer$8 advance purchase, $10 at the gate. 1340 W. Washington St.

5. Eat Michelin-Rated Cuisine on a College Campus
Chicago is a bona-fide culinary capital, meaning the next “it” restaurant is the one you haven’t been to yet. But great chefs have to start somewhere, right? So treat yourself to Michelin-rated deliciousness at The Dining Room at Kendall College, which became the first culinary school to receive Certified Green Restaurant status from the Green Restaurant Association for sourcing its seasonal veggies from its own herb garden and the nearby Green City Market. Bonus points for the jaw-dropping skyline views, the heavyweight visiting chef instructors (like former Aria chef and Kendall alum Beverly Kim) and a prix-fixe option for lunch ($18) and dinner ($29). 900 N. North Branch St., 312.752.2328

Valerie Moloney
About the author

Valerie serves as the Chicago editor for Where. “In this role, m...