There are so many things to do within walking distance of downtown Chicago, so it's easy to skip a trip on Chicago’s elevated trains (aka “the El”). But we’re here to give you a little nudge up those stairs, through the turnstiles and off for adventure. By the way, locals call the El, “the El” even if it’s not technically elevated—it’s just easier to use it as a catch-all that also encompasses the tracks underground and at ground-level. Get all the train fare and schedule info here.
Color-coded for simplicity, the El runs in all directions, covering 1,350 miles to dozens of city neighborhoods, both major airports and several suburbs. Here, we’ve selected a sampler package of six stops to areas full of cultural attractions, dining, nightlife and more. Take a seat and enjoy the ride.
Red Line to Belmont
Jump off at this Lakeview spot for the highlights of the eclectic Belmont Avenue. Start off with some vintage shopping at the five-story Belmont Army (855 W. Belmont Ave.) or Ragstock (812 W. Belmont Ave.) for true one-of-a-kinds. Refuel at Cesar’s (3166 N. Clark St.) with the Mexican restaurant’s renowned “killer margaritas” and solid classics like flautas and fajitas, before heading to any of the more than 30 theaters that make up the Belmont Theater District like The Annoyance Theatre & Bar (851 W. Belmont Ave.) for improv. Not tired yet? Head to tiki-themed karaoke bar Trader Todd’s (3216 N. Sheffield Ave.) to sing your heart out, and grab a late night bite at Cheesie’s Pub & Grub (958 W. Belmont Ave.).
Green Line to Morgan
The West Loop is all about trendy eats and drinks, so make sure to go with an empty belly. Check out City Winery Chicago (1200 W. Randolph St.) for its intimate concert venue (sit, drink, eat and listen) and varietals poured straight from the tap, including a very fitting “Morgan Station” sauvignon blanc. Head back east a bit for a full-blown, incredibly authentic Italian dinner at Formento’s (925 W. Randolph St.)—the insanely juicy Nonna’s meatballs are unlike anything we’ve eaten before. Night cap: RM Champagne Salon (116 N. Green St.) for bubbles and a selection of darling desserts.
Green Line to 35th/Bronzeville/IIT
Chicago may not seem like a college town, but there are plenty of them to qualify. Like this stop’s nearby Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), ranked one of the country’s top 10 engineering schools. Let a little of the brain power rub off on you on a self-guided audio tour of the campus (iPods available for rent with I.D. M-F, 11 am-3 pm; $10, $5 for students, www.miessociety.org). Why is this campus so cool? Its world-renowned architecture by Mies van der Rohe, Rem Koolhaas and Helmut Jahn. Directly east of campus is the venerable Martin Luther King Drive. On the north end, see the bronze "Monument to the Great Migration," honoring the journey thousands of African Americans made from the South to Chicago in the early 20th century. On the opposite end, wrap up your day at the classic Chicago’s Home of Chicken and Waffles (3947 S. Martin Luther King Dr.).
Brown Line to Sedgwick
As elementary school students growing up in the Chicago suburbs, a field trip to the Chicago Historical Society was always a highlight. Since then, it’s been updated, revived, revamped and even renamed: The Chicago History Museum (1601 N. Clark St.) is just a short walk from the El and provides a great view what makes Chicago tick. Don’t miss the perfect-for-kids “Sensing Chicago” exhibit and the history of Chicago created in diorama form, complete with faux fire. Make time to stroll around the park where an impressive Abe Lincoln statue reminds us where we are. Over on Wells Street, the shopping beckons at indulgent Cocoa and Co. and European-label women’s wear at Adelaide. Share charcuterie, deviled eggs and a cheese plate (tacos and burgers if you’re a little hungrier), and order up one of more than 180 craft beers at cozy-chic sports tavern Old Town Social before a night of comedy at Up Comedy, the famed Second City or Zanies for standup.
Blue Line to Damen
This stop lands you smack-dab in the center of everything Wicker Park and Bucktown. Stroll down Damen Avenue’s row of cool-kid boutiques, including Amsterdam-based Scotch & Soda (1639 N. Damen Ave.). Late-night music venue Double Door (1551 N. Damen Ave.) always has a stellar mix of newbies and big names on their roster. Nearby restaurants include everything from the classic Southern Lillie’s Q (1856 W. North Ave.) to the always-hectic (but worth the wait), taco-lovers’ Big Star (1531 N. Damen Ave.). And don’t skip refreshments: This hipster ‘hood calls for brews, like the never-ending list at Links Taproom (1559 N. Milwaukee Ave.), but high-end cocktails get the spotlight at James Beard-Award winning The Violet Hour (1520 N. Damen Ave.)—the experience is just beyond.
Purple Line to Davis
Die-hard city slickers who feel the urge to move to the suburbs often choose Evanston. The home base of Northwestern University, Evanston is accessible by El (there are seven stations here), still somewhat urban, but just beyond the clutches of city taxes, public school craziness and general city noise. The Davis station drops off in one of our favorite shopping and dining areas and close to the beautiful, lakefront campus whose Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art is always free. (Note: The museum is currently closed and will reopen January 21, 2017). Since you’re in a college town, go where the kids go: for breakfast, that would be Le Peep (827 Church St., Evanston), a chain, but locally owned and famous for its panhandle skillets. Up the street is the one-and-only Vintage Vinyl (925 Davis St., Evanston), forever memorialized in the film “High Fidelty.” Still roaming around for dinner? There are all kinds of options (another city-ish aspect), but had some of the best dumplings ever at Koi (624 Davis St., Evanston), so we’re steering you there.