It was christened the “City of Big Shoulders” by poet Carl Sandburg. Frank Sinatra crooned that it was “My Kind of Town.” Legendary mayor Richard J. Daley’s “The City That Works” slogan has stuck around since the 1970s. And it could have been dubbed Title Town after Michael Jordan’s heroics in the 1990s. But many know it best as the Windy City.
While the nicknames may have changed, the name of the game hasn’t: Chicago remains a world-class city that stands tall when it comes to entertainment, culture, history, architecture, innovation and civic pride.
Yes, the 2016 World Series champion Cubs and their beloved venue Wrigley Field currently rule the roost in this 180-year-old metropolis, but Chi-Town also lays claim to 2.7 million residents, 369 landmarks, 26 miles of gorgeous lakefront, nearly 5,200 restaurants, more than 250 theaters and 125 art galleries, 56 museums and the second-tallest structure (Willis Tower, reaching 110 stories high) in the Western Hemisphere. With attractions like these, it’s little wonder that more than 52 million people visit Chicago every year—or that NACS chose this locale for its 2017 event.
ChooseChicago.com offers a comprehensive list of timely happenings and venues, but this handy guide cuts to the chase with speedy suggestions on where to go and what to see in mid-October.
Itching to investigate Chicago’s newest amusements while in town? Explore any of these recently opened attractions in and around the downtown area:
JURASSIC WORLD—THE EXHIBITION: The newest exhibition at Chicago’s famed Field Museum brings the “Jurassic” movies to life. Imagine traveling to Isla Nublar and gazing in awe at a deadly velociraptor, massive Brachiosaurus, intimidating Tyrannosaurus rex and other creatures from a lost world. Created with the help of paleontologist Jack Horner, this display features interactive educational elements, life-size props and real-life dinosaur remnants. And don’t forget to check out Sue: the biggest, best-preserved and most complete T. rex skeleton ever displayed. (From $30; 312-665-7956; fieldmuseum.org)
THE AMERICAN WRITER'S MUSEUM: Chicago has a rich literary heritage, having been home to revered authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow, Scott Frederick Turow and Sandburg. So it only makes sense that it’s the host city for the American Writers Museum, a first-of-its kind hall of fame of sorts dedicated to world-famous wordsmiths, which opened this year. Spanning more than 11,000 square feet, this shrine to celebrated scribes features the working manuscript and 120-foot scroll of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” works by Dr. Seuss and “Where the Wild Things Are” author Maurice Sendak, a manual typewriter and writing pads for visitors to craft their own stories on the spot, plus screenplays, memoirs, rap lyrics, advertising slogans and poems on display. (From $12; 312-374-8790; americanwritersmuseum.org)
MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART: The Art Institute isn’t the only place in town showcasing canvases, sculptures and creations by artistic giants. There’s also this mecca of modern masterpieces, which recently completed a stunning redesign that converted 12,000 interior square feet into public gathering spaces and made room for Marisol, a new gourmet restaurant on-site. Check out “I Am You,” which presents works by renowned artists such as Shirin Neshat, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Francis Bacon that are meant to question how we create and relate to our environments. This brand-new exhibit was created for the museum’s 50th anniversary in 2017. (From $15; 312-280-2660; mcachicago.org)
NEW EVENTS AT THE SHEDD AQUARIUM: No trip to Chicago would be complete without an outing to the Shedd Aquarium, one of the world’s largest indoor aquariums and often ranked as the city’s most attended attraction. This year, the Shedd has introduced several new standouts, including 19 gigantic sculptures of sea creatures crafted from plastic marine debris, such as a 12-foot shark, 8-footwide octopus (below) and 16-foot parrotfish. Traveling with children? Take them to the new Splash and Bubbles 4-D Experience, based on the popular PBS Kids show. A fresh addition to the venue’s Oceans Gallery is the Kelp Forest, featuring a ginormous viewing window that overlooks a large-scale kelp forest habitat populated by leopard sharks, urchins and various fish. And the Shedd’s Pacific white-sided dolphins and beluga whales are even easier to view, thanks to a new aquatic presentation designed to generate greater audience participation. (From $40; 312-939-2438; sheddaquarium.org)
Strive for Live
Eager to see an on-stage performance? Chicago is no slouch when it comes to live entertainment in the form of plays, musicals, concerts and comedy acts. While in town, check out:
JIM GAFFIGAN: He’s had his own self-titled TV show, appeared in dozens of movies, written two books and received Grammy nominations for his comedy albums. His observational humor attacks the funny bone without overreliance on profanity, and his routines—including his Hot Pockets shtick and high-pitched voice of self-deprecation—are legendary. Jim Gaffigan’s Noble Ape tour invades the Chicago Theater on Oct. 13 and 14. (From $39.50; 312-462-6300; thechicagotheatre.com)
HERBIE HANCOCK: Oct. 21 is the date to see jazz legend Herbie Hancock, as he brings his innovative musical stylings to the Symphony Center Orchestra Hall. As a member of the Miles Davis Quintet—considered one of the greatest jazz ensembles ever assembled—and a groundbreaking solo artist, this pioneering pianist is a born entertainer. See what all the fuss is about and get a chance to hear timeless tunes such as “Cantaloupe Island,” “Maiden Voyage” and his MTV smash “Rockit.” (From $86; 312-294-3000; cso.org)
HAMILTON: It took Broadway by storm, and now it’s become a Windy City phenomenon. Here’s an opportunity to catch the musical that everyone’s talking about. (Be warned, tickets sell out fast.) Using hiphop, jazz, rap, R&B, blues and Broadway showstopper tactics, “Hamilton” tells the tale of one of our nation’s founding fathers—a West Indies immigrant who served under Washington during the Revolutionary War and became America’s first treasury secretary. (Ticket prices vary; 312-977-1700; broadwayinchicago.com/theatre/the-privatebank-theatre)
THE CRUCIBLE: What’s Halloween season without a few witch sightings? Wicked may not be on tap, but on Oct. 13, 14 and 21, Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf Theatre will host a stirring rendition of Arthur Miller’s Tony Award-winning cautionary tale about the notorious Salem witch trials. (From $20; 312-335-1650; steppenwolf.org)
FANTASTIC SUPER GREAT NATION NUMERO UNO: Visit the Second City without visiting The Second City comedy club? That might just be a crime. Come to the place that made John and Jim Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, Chris Farley, Bill Murray, Joan Rivers and Harold Ramis famous and partake in the all-new revue, “Fantastic Super Great Nation Numero Uno.” Any guess as to which politician will be parodied here? (From $19; 312-664-4032; secondcity.com)
They say the key to life is learning to enjoy every minute. But enjoying learning also leads to happiness. Take time to tour Chicago’s plentiful museums, architectural wonders and rich history. Among the recommended options are:
SHORELINE SIGHTSEEING ARCHITECTURE RIVER TOUR: The best way to take in Chicago’s historic high-rise construction (short of an insanely expensive privately chartered helicopter) is by trekking up the Chicago River via boat and enjoying a 75-minute relaxing ride narrated by a knowledgeable tour guide. Learn the stories behind all the great skyscrapers and edifices, ways in which their designs were influenced, and how the city rebuilt itself after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. (From $33; 312-222-9328; shorelinesightseeing.com)
DESTINATION SOLAR SYSTEM: Who needs a science-fiction movie blockbuster laden with special effects when a live, interactive show offers an immersive tour of outer space right on the lakefront? Courtesy of the Adler Planetarium and its Grainger Sky Theater, Destination Solar System allows visitors to explore the sun and its eight planets. Liquid methane lakes on Saturn’s moon and scorching solar flares are among the stellar sights. (From $35; 312-922-7827; adlerplanetarium.org)
CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Now in its 53rd year, this internationally recognized October event is North America’s oldest competitive film festival, created to help expose audiences to movies beyond the mainstream and outside of Hollywood’s influence. Consider some of the cinema celebrities this festival has feted and introduced to viewers over the years: Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders and Krzysztof Kieslowski, among many others. (From $10; 312-683-0121; chicagofilmfestival.com)
MUSEUM OF BROADCAST COMMUNICATIONS: Not many know that there’s a Radio Hall of Fame. Or that its home is in Chicago at the Museum of Broadcast Communications, where visitors will find a lot more than antique radios, microphones used by famous announcers and bona fide Charlie McCarthy dummies on display. It’s also got the door Oprah Winfrey walked through on her show, the TV camera used in the historic Nixon-Kennedy debate, the entire set from NBC’s “Meet the Press,” a working TV studio, plus a plethora of props and sets from bygone TV shows broadcast in town, including the coffin used by horror movie host Svengoolie. (From $12; 312-245-8200; museum.tv/index.htm)
Adult Chills and Family Thrills
During Halloween season in the Chicago area, there’s never a lack of hair-raising diversions to discover. The following attractions are ideal for the scare season:
FRIGHT FEST AT SIX FLAGS GREAT AMERICA: Six Flags transforms into a beast of an amusement park every Saturday and Sunday in October when it unleashes Fright Fest, a Halloween-themed extravaganza that invites costumed creatures of the night to mingle with the living and visitors to attend one of the region’s creepiest haunted houses. But these thrills may pale in comparison to The Joker (pictured), the park’s new 4-D free-fly roller coaster. (From $72; 847-249-1776; sixflags.com/greatamerica/special-events/fright-fest)
13TH FLOOR HAUNTED HOUSE: Dare to up the scare factor? Get in the spirit of the season by braving this fan-favorite fright factory, deemed one of the 13 best haunted-house attractions in the country by USA Today. Renowned for its enthusiastic actors, detailed props, Hollywood-quality sets, spine-chilling effects and unpredictable twists, turns and shocks, 13th Floor Haunted House is not for the timid soul or faint of heart. (From $27; 708-571-3326; 13thfloorchicago.com)
WILLIS TOWER SKYDECK: While not a Halloween-themed attraction, the Ledge is just as thrilling. This transparent glass box Extends 4.3 feet from the side of Chicago’s tallest building, the Willis Tower (previously known as the Sears Tower). From that vexing but astounding vantage point, sightseers can overlook much of the city and feel as if they’re levitating 1,353 feet and 103 floors above the ground. On clear days, the Skydeck offers incredible vistas of up to four states, so bring a camera, binoculars and backbone. (From $23; 312-875-9447; theskydeck.com)
BOO! AT THE ZOO: This time of the year brings out the animal in all of us. And it can bring us closer to the animals too. Home to about 450 species, Brookfield Zoo hosts a series of family- friendly Halloween-inspired events Oct. 21 and 22, including a haunted hayride, bat zoo chat, creepy cowboy carousel, giant pumpkin carver and costume contest/parade. Visitors will also get an up-close look at snow leopards, gorillas, wolves, rhinos, wombats, giraffes, tigers, penguins and more. From $33; 708-688-8000; czs.org/boo
Visiting on a budget? Chicago has an array of built-in amenities, landmarks and events that are open to the public and free:
OPEN HOUSE CHICAGO: Want to get exclusive access to some of Chicago’s most famous downtown buildings? Thanks to the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the opportunity is there Oct. 14 and 15. Explore up to 200 different sites across 20 neighborhoods, including the Aon Center, Chicago Board of Trade Building, City Hall, Lake Point Tower and Orchestra Hall, plus theaters, mansions and private clubs. (312-922-3432; openhousechicago.org)
LINCOLN PARK ZOO: That’s right: There’s a zoo in the United States that doesn’t charge a dime for admission, and it’s right here in Chi-Town. Explore the penguin cove, macaque forest, primate house, waterfowl lagoon, swan pond, children’s zoo, seal pool and the arctic tundra, a new exhibit that is home to Siku and Kobe, a pair of crowd-pleasing polar bears. (312-742-2000; lpzoo.org)
CLOUD GATE AND CROWN FOUNTAIN: Buckingham Fountain may still be the city’s most beloved monument that isn’t a skyscraper, but Millennium Park’s two most talked about works of art arguably draw more crowds. Commonly called “The Bean,” Cloud Gate is a 110-ton elliptical sculpture wrought of polished stainless-steel plates that mirror everything around it; Crown Fountain, meanwhile, is composed of a pair of 50-foot-tall glass block towers—each displaying various videos of Chicago faces—that bookend a shallow reflecting pool. (tinyurl.com/mparkcloud)
RIVER NORTH GALLERY TOURS: Many prominent and up-and-coming artists alike put their works on public display in Chicago galleries. A great way to gander at these creations (and perhaps get a preview of a soon-to-be-declared masterpiece) is to arrive at Fabcakes cafe at 714 N. Wells at 11 a.m. Oct. 14 or 21 for a free 90-minute guided tour of four nearby art galleries, compliments of Chicago Gallery News. (312-649-0064; tinyurl.com/rngtours)
HALLOWEEN PARADE OF ARTISTS: Thanksgiving and Independence Day don’t have a monopoly on holiday parades. All Hallows’ Eve gets one too—at least in Chicago. To mark the occasion on Oct. 21, there will be imaginative floats, colorful costumes and puppets, live music and more. (tinyurl.com/chiparade1021)