I was asked what the top 4 things were that someone has to see if they have never been to Chicago. There are a lot more than 4 things you can do in Chicago that are a lot of fun, and it can fill more than a weekend or a few days. For now, though, these are the top 4 things that people either want to see when they come to Chicago or should see when they come to Chicago. There is a slight difference.
1. The Sears Tower. Everyone seems to remember that from 1973 to 1998 the Sears Tower was the tallest building in the world. They think also that like the Empire State Building it somehow was built for tourists. In fact, it was not. It is more of a working office building than a tourist attraction, and is only open for tour visits during working hours.
What you should see instead: The John Hancock Building. The John Hancock tower is a tall enough building to get a good view of the city in all 4 directions. They also had the sense to make a restaurant on the 95th floor called “The Signature Room” in addition to the observatory level on the 94th floor. It is open until 11 pm and that is good because you want to be able to go in the evening to see the city lights. I feel like the John Hancock Center was more intended to be shared with the public and has a better consumer experience.
2. Chicago Pizza. Everyone has different ideas of what Chicago Restaurant has the best Chicago Pizza. There are several that seem to get the public buzz for being the best in Chicago and have regular crowds. Pizzarina Uno (good), Giordano’s (very yummy), Lou Malnotti’s (good) and Gino’s East (good). The deep-dish pizza is the standard for out of towners because you can’t find it in other cities, but thin crust pizzas at all these restaurants are great too. There is also a smaller local brand called Home Run Inn that just does the thin crust pizza, but I think it’s the best thin crust pizza because of their rich salty buttery crusts.
What you should do instead: If Pizza isn’t your thing, go to the original Billy Goat Tavern under Michigan Avenue and have a double or triple cheeseburger, or go to Portillo’s for a Chicago Hot Dog or a Maxwell Street Polish. (Notice none of the foods we are known for are healthy or expensive.)
3. The Art Institute of Chicago. It is the biggest and best Fine Art museum in the state and probably the Midwest. The museum is known for its collections of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and American paintings. There are special exhibitions several times a year ranging from Monet (they own over 30 Monet paintings from in addition to Van Gogh and Picasso) to Photography. You have the best in world of art from historical dark ages (swords, knight’s armor, ancient Chinese pottery and Egyptian jewelry are all there too) until the present (mid-century modern furniture and Georgia O’Keefe paintings) available to view at any time you visit the museum. The special exhibits are a bonus on top of that. The Art Institute of Chicago is located on Michigan Ave close to Millennium Park. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly and there is so much there to see that you can spend 2-3 hours walking around.
What you should see instead: They have this one right, there is no comparison. Go see the Art Institute of Chicago. If you like more modern avant-garde works, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is also good, but nothing compares to the Art Institute of Chicago.
4. The Shiny Coffee Bean thing. The bean is a very cool artistic monument type thing that you should go see, but it takes about 15 minutes to take it all in. Then what? Well you are in the middle of Millennium Park, which has some things to do, but I always have thought of Millennium Park as Chicago’s answer to New York City’s Central Park. It is about lounging on break from work and not really about tourism. The only things to really do there are to have lunch or dinner at the Park Grill (which is a little snobby if you ask me), go Ice Skating on the outdoor rink if it is winter time or go see a concert at Pritzker Pavillion. Most times, you need tickets for the concerts though, so if you are a tourist just here one day or weekend, you may not have anything to see there.
What you should see after the 15 minute Bean viewing and photo taking session: If there isn’t something going in Grant Park to see like Taste of Chicago, Lollapalooza or a Free Movie Night, you can always wander over to Summerdance in the evenings (Thursday-Sundays) all summer (just south of the Art Institute on Michigan Ave) or go on a Chicago Boat Tour of the lakefront and the Chicago River or a double decker bus tour of the downtown area.