Best Chicago Tourist Spots Aren't Where You Think

By Mark Konkol on May 2, 2014 6:56am 

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 The city is enjoying record-breaking tourism numbers. Here's where Mark Konkol would send them.
Where I'd Send Them
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On Thursday, City Hall touted record-breaking tourism numbers as the good news of the day.

That's right, despite the international attention from Chicago's troubles with street violence, our city attracted more out-of-towners — nearly 47 million — than ever before.

Most of those "tourists" visit for the day or come to Chicago for business — specifically trade show workers and patrons who have boosted hotel occupancy rates and filled tables at Downtown restaurants.

But last year Chicago also attracted a record number of "overnight leisure visitors" — about 18.7 million people, which is about 4 percent more than 2012. Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the spike in visitors last year was due to his "new tourism strategy"— that's mayoral slang for marketing.

For the most part, the tourist boon has focused on Chicago's Downtown and lakefront attractions.

By the city's count, most overnight visitors — and we're talking family road-trippers from St. Louis, newlyweds from Kansas City and grandmas from Des Moines, Iowa, among other places — flocked to all the places you might expect.

About 20 million tourists crowded Chicago's top tourist attractions: Navy Pier, Millennium Park, Lincoln Park Zoo and those double-decker trolley tours spoofed by Vince Vaughn in the movie "The Break-Up.”

And about another 7 million or so folks visited the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Science and Industry and the Sky Deck at the skyscraper formerly known as the Sears Tower.

While those fine hot spots keep out-of-towners Downtown, the numbers add to the false premise that there isn't much to our city if you stray too far away from the skyline.

But I think it's important to show tourists there's more to our city than what you see Downtown — and get them to spend some of their vacation cash at some authentic Chicago joints.

Here's where I'd send 'em:

The Funniest Dive Bars In Town

The Old Town Ale House: If you, like me, are attracted to old-school joints frequented by eccentric regulars and a revolving cast of improv comedy nerds, you can't beat The Old Town Ale House, where a shot and a beer can lead to some really weird conversations. It's across North Avenue from The Second City Theater. That place is funny, too.

Town Hall Pub: You never can tell what kind of weirdness might ensue on stage — or at the bar —at this improv-comedy hangout. Plus, it's one of the few places in Chicago where you can get booze-soaked gummy bears and Jell-O shots until 4 a.m.

Many regulars perform at the Playground Theater, a tiny improv and sketch comedy stage — home of some of Chicago's best up-and-coming comics — just down the street at Belmont and Halsted.

Real Chicago Blues:

Rosa's Lounge: If you want an authentic Chicago blues experience but want to avoid the frat boy scene, head to Rosa's Lounge in Logan Square. The tiny music room that bills itself as "Chicago's Friendliest Blues Lounge" is a Chicago treasure celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. 

The Most Beautiful Place in The Hood

Garfield Park Conservatory:  Don't be afraid of the West Side. Take the CTA's Green Line to Conservatory/ Central Park station for a stroll through the lush indoor gardens that are the home of rare tropical plants, including the rare double coconut palm. If it's not the best way to beat bad weather, it's certainly the most underrated. While you're there stop for lunch at Inspiration Kitchens. Thank me later. 

The South Side's Secret Hipster Hot Spot

The "Bridgeport Hipster Triangle" isn't on the map, but this micro-neighborhood at 31st and Morgan has become a destination for South Side flannel-wearing, tattoo-having and moustache-waxing artists and rockers who favor fancy beers, craft cocktails, fair trade coffee and meat pies. Yes, I said meat pies. Have a latte at Bridgeport Coffee Co., enjoy a savory steak and ale pie at Pleasant House Bakery and check out the intimate bar at Maria's Packaged Goods and Community Bar.

A Swim, a Stroll, a Swig and a Sandwich on 55th Street

Make your way to the eastern end of 55th Street and walk under Lake Shore Drive to Promontory Point to enjoy one of the best skyline views. If you're daring —  and can swim — carefully climb down the limestone shore for a refreshing dip.

Then, head west on 55th and stop for a drink at Woodlawn Tap — which locals know as "Jimmy's," an homage to the tavern's beloved late owner Jimmy Wilson. The crowd is a mixed bag of University of Chicago smart kids, neighborhood drinkers, federal judges and Nobel Prize winners, among others.

And if you're hungry, head west to The Nile for one of the best chicken shawarma sandwiches in town.

Jazz and Poetry at Capone's favorite bar

Green Mill: Al Capone drank there. The Art Deco decorated bar has a thriving jazz showcase and is home of the "Uptown Poetry Slam" the longest running show in Chicago — and a pioneer of spoken word poetry. It's not just for old folks. Chance the Rapper got his start performing there.

Cheap Beer, Speed Metal and Your Favorite Fetish

Exit: It's one of the last Goth metal bars in Chicago, and has a "counter-culture clubhouse" upstairs.

A Neighborhood Rock Joint

Martyrs: There's plenty of music venues to choose from, but Martyrs is one of those special stages that on any given day can book big name artists — Beck, Wilco and Los Lobos, to name a few — as well as hot local acts and rocking cover bands. "Tributosaurus" never fails.

The Ultimate Food Shack

Calumet Fisheries: The tiny fish house at 95th Street and the Calumet River became a foodie destination after winning the James Beard Award in 2010. Folks come for their specialty — a variety of freshly smoked fish and shellfish. If you go, remember this is a cash-only carryout joint with no public bathrooms.

History, architecture and ghosts, oh my.

Graceland Cemetery: Both the Chicago Architecture Foundation and the Chicago History Museum offer tours of Chicago's most beautiful — and allegedly haunted — burial ground that is the final resting place of prominent Chicagoans including four Chicago mayors, famed architects Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham, World Boxing Champion Jack Johnson and film critic Roger Ebert.

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