On a bicycle, visitors can explore every inch of Chicago's lakefront.
© Beth Gauper
Chicago's skyscrapers are the backdrop for a bicycle ride on the 18-mile Lakefront Trail.
Everything that’s worth doing, you can do along Chicago’s lakefront.
Seniors in Speedos climb out of Lake Michigan after swimming laps. Chess players hunch over boards in a 1957 pavilion that looks like the Jetsons’ carport. College girls fumble with kayaks in the shadow of yachts, and boys play beach volleyball.
Overhead, a biplane pulls a flapping beer banner through the sky.
Is this Fort Lauderdale? No, but you couldn’t tell from the string of beaches, golf courses and marinas.
On fine summer days, the city and all its tourists converge on Lake Michigan and its bright Listerine-colored water, dotted by white sails. In its parks, people skate, bike, jog, fish, fly kites and play tennis.
When we were in Chicago one Labor Day weekend, we saw the whole thing on bikes, riding the 18-mile Lakefront Trail from end
to end. Mayor Richard M. Daley is an avid bicyclist and has tried to make Chicago “the most bicycle-friendly city in
the United States.’’
The first afternoon, we rented bikes at Millennium Park and made our way to the lakefront, passing gourmet picnickers with hibachis and tourists clicking away at Buckingham Fountain. Crossing the Chicago River, we threaded our way through crowds heading to Navy Pier and rode into Olive Park.
At an overlook, we gazed across the water at elegant high-rise apartments on shoreline that was underwater until a character named George Streeter paid contractors to dump their debris there and then, with his new land, seceded from the city. Many of the parks — Lincoln, Grant, Burnham — also were created from landfill.
From Ohio Street Beach, we rode to busy Oak Street Beach and Lincoln Park. Amid a stream of skaters and bicyclists, we passed
the Chess Pavilion and Theater on the Lake, where local troupes stage plays in summer. At Belmont Harbor, we circled the
marina and stopped to watch dogs playing on a spit of sand.
We found a bird sanctuary amid the dunes at Montrose Harbor and fly fishermen casting lines from concrete risers. But on the other side of the point, we lost sight of the downtown skyline and turned back.
Back at Belmont, the dogs had jumped into the water. At Oak Street Beach, the lifeguards still were out in rowboats, keeping an eye on swimmers bathed in golden light.
“With all these beaches, Chicago looks like Los Angeles, the Los Angeles of the Midwest,’’ my husband said.
© Beth Gauper
A family rides on the trail along Grant Park.
Even at dusk, Millennium Park was jumping. Crowds still circled the mirrorlike Cloud Gate sculpture, popularly known as the
Bean, and from a distance, it looked as if a squadron of ants was marching across its silvery surface.
In its reflection, the sky had turned a deep midnight blue, and the city lights had multiplied into a galaxy, but most onlookers had eyes only for themselves.
Returning the next morning, we rented the last two bicycles and headed south. We passed the Field Museum and then rebuilt Soldier Field, whose old Doric columns hug new blue stands for Bears fans.
At the entry to Burnham Harbor, alongside McCormick Place, we stopped and sat on a ring of limestone blocks, watching the
little dramas around us. A little boy dropped his fishing pole from the seawall into the lake.
Geese goose-stepped across the trail, trying to stay ahead of speeding cyclists. In the water, a young man gunned the engine of a ridiculously phallic cigarette boat, and we snickered as a svelte sailboat slipped easily past him.
The grounds of McCormick Place, called “Mistake on the Lake,’’ also have been redone, and now a waterfall
courses down its monolithic flank.
Department-store magnate Montgomery Ward spent 20 years fighting the city and his fellow businessmen to keep this lakefront open to the public, largely succeeding through the 1909 Burnham Plan; the convention complex was seen as the most notable betrayal of his legacy.
We pedaled south, past more beaches and children’s “playlots’’ to Promontory Point. In a handsome stone park house with a round tower, three young women discussed plans for a wedding. Water-skiers circled the point, and a sunbather stretched out on the limestone seawall, framed by the hazy downtown skyline.
We stopped to eat Polish sausages and freshly squeezed lemonade at 57th Street Beach, then rode on to 63rd Street Beach,
which included a palatial Arts and Crafts beachhouse.
Past the tree-shaded Jackson Park golf course, we rode through landscaped gardens up to the door of the South Shore Cultural Center, a 1908 Arts and Crafts manor with crystal chandeliers, French doors and bas-relief ornamentation.
Chicago loves its lake, obviously. Compared to this, our beloved Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis seemed like millponds, and its circling streams of joggers and skaters like gerbils on a tiny wheel. Chicago had more water, more views, more cool pavilions, more of everything.
“Well, our river’s better than theirs,’’ my husband said.
Looking at our map, we saw we could use bike lanes to get within a few blocks of Indiana if we kept riding. But we turned back, stopping to watch cormorants diving for fish and retrievers fetching rubber bones. At the Field Museum, we bought a Popsicle from a cart, near a long line of people waiting for the water taxi to Navy Pier.
© Beth Gauper
On a Chicago Architecture Foundation bike tour, bicyclists look toward Streeterville from Olive Park.
We couldn’t bear to return our bikes until we had to, so we rode back to Lincoln Park and took the North Avenue underpass to Old Town, where we ate seafood cavatappi and cannoli on the geranium-bedecked sidewalk outside Orso’s.
Chicago has come a long way since 1904, when muckraker Lincoln Steffens called it “unlovely and ill-smelling.’’ A century of sweat, slaughterhouses and sacrifices built this city, now overflowing with flowers. On this glorious day, the effort seemed well worth it.
Trip Tips: Chicago’s Lakefront Trail
Bicycling: You can download a Chicago Park District map of the Lakefront Trail,
though it's pretty hard to get lost.
Bike Chicago rents at Millennium Park’s McDonald’s Cycle Center, Navy
Pier, North Avenue Beach and Foster Beach. You'll save quite a bit if you reserve online and by the day, rather than by the
hour. Road bikes cost more and kids’ bikes less.
The best deal is for a four-day rental during the week. It also offers guided tours and rents tagalongs, wagons, tandems and
in-line skates. Get there early on fine-weather weekends.
Bobby's Bike Hike offers guided tours that include bikes. Reserve online and save 10 percent. The store also rents bikes and is on the North Pier Docks across Lake Shore Drive from Navy Pier.
Bike & Roll, in the boat house at North Avenue Beach, also rents bikes and offers tours.
Millennium Park Bicycle Station has secure parking, lockers, showers, towel
service and free valet parking.
Bicycle tours: During Bike the Drive, on the Sunday of Memorial Day
weekend, bicyclists get to ride on a car-free Lake Shore Drive.
On the Four Star Bike Tour in late August, formerly the Boulevard Lakefront Tour,
riders can choose routes of 12, 32 or 62 miles.
Cruises: Wendella Boats offers many cruises on the Chicago River and
along the lakefront.
Segway tours: Segway Experience of Chicago offers two-hour tours of
Architecture tours: The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers 2½-hour
Segway tours of lakefront architecture at 10 a.m. every Monday and Saturday through October.
© Beth Gauper
A woman basks in the sun at Promontory Point.
It also offers three-hour Bike the Lakefront tours several times a year. It leaves from Millennium Park, where bikes can be rented. No reservations are necessary.
Many other bus, train, trolley, boat and walking tours are offered. The foundation’s ArchiCenter is in the Santa Fe Building, across from the Art Institute, 312-922-3432, Ext. 240.
Beaches: Chicago's 29 miles of shoreline provides 15 miles of beaches. Swimming is allowed from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Millennium Park: Check the schedule for the many free
Free Greeter Tours are offered at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily through October from the park’s Welcome Center. Maximum group size is 10; first come, first served.
Grant Park: The Grant Park Music Festival, with free classical performances at Jay Pritzker Pavilion, are held most nights from mid-June to mid-August.
Navy Pier: Fireworks shows with music are held Wednesdays and Saturdays through Labor Day, and there are many free performances and events.
Theater on the Lake: The Chicago Park District sponsors eight plays in eight weeks, from mid-June to mid-August, at the park pavilion on Lake Michigan at Fullerton Avenue, Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday 6:30 pm. Tickets are $17.50. 312-742-7994.
Accommodations: Prices are high in summer, though bargains can be found for Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. For
more, see Cheap Chicago.
Dining: It’s easy to eat well for very little at delis. Cosi, the Corner Bakery and Chipotle all are on Michigan, as is L’Appetito, a great Italian place at the foot of the John Hancock Tower.
Information: Chicago tourism, 877-244-2246. And be sure to stop by the Cultural Center, on Michigan Avenue across from Millennium Park, to get the latest information.
For more, see our Chicago stories.
Sign up for our free weekly newsletter
Get our weekly stories, tips and updates delivered a day early directly to your Inbox. Wondering what you'll get? Take a look at our newsletter archive.