The “Third Coast” is a vibrant landscape of towering Skyscrapers, public parks, and access to the 5th largest lake in the World, Lake Michigan. The Lakefront is Chicago’s greatest accomplishment and home to some of the best activities the city has to offer. No matter if you’re a born and bred Chicagoan or just landing for the weekend, there’s something along Lake Michigan to delight your senses and fill you with awe. This is our guide to Lake Michigan, Chicago’s Lakefront, to get you started.
The History of Lake Michigan and the Famed Chicago Lakefront
The story of Chicago’s lakefront starts in 1836 when Fort Dearborn was decommissioned and the lakefront which was previously under the Fort’s control now sat barren, a landscape of possibility. In an unprecedented move the city voted to preserve the lakefront as a park for the people. There would be a hiccup after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 when city planners would vie to develop along the lakefront ending the era of the Lakefront belonging to the people. Thanks to a retail industry mogul Aaron Montgomery Ward, however, the lakefront would be protected once again and preserved for future Chicagoans to partake in Lake Michigan’s splendor.
Exploring Chicago’s Lakefront
One of Chicago’s greatest attributes is the Lakefront Trail, which spans 18 miles of the 26 miles of shoreline and offers an array of activities for all tastes and walks of life. The Lakefront trail was originally built in the 1960’s when Chicago started to build out biking infrastructure. It wouldn’t be until 2017, however, that a separate bike path would be added separating pedestrians from cyclists. The lakefront bike path is for all wheeled passengers such as roller skaters, scooters, and e-bikes. This pathway serves as a commuter path for many locals, but has art installations along the way making a bike ride down the path an event all on its own. Biking along the lakefront trail is simply put, majestic. Here at Bobby’s Bike Hike most of our tours traverse the Lakefront Trail for part of our bike ride. You can learn from locals the history of the trail and what it has meant to Chicagoans while also sampling some of the food that has made Chicago…Chicago.
Along the Lakefront you can find beaches, beaches, and more beaches. Chicago has over 20 public beaches, with Ohio Street Beach, Oak Street Beach, and North Avenue Beach being the premier destinations for those close to downtown Chicago.
Sunbathing is a favorite pastime for city dwellers, and if laying out in the sand is not your jam then you can bring your chair or towel to some of the concrete steps and enjoy the beach away from the sand. The almost tropical colored water stays fresh year-round and is a favorite for water enthusiasts to take a dip in.
Although you will find a majority of swimmers wading in its depths during June-August, you can participate in Chicago’s Polar Plunge yearly in March. This fan favorite charity event helps support the Chicago Special Olympics as well as other programs and activities for Chicagoans of all abilities.
The stretch of water between Ohio Street beach and Oak Street Beach is a great place to swim laps and exercise during the warmer months of the year. Chicago beaches are open to swimming from Memorial Day to Labor Day while Lifeguards are on duty from 11am-7pm.
Alcohol is prohibited on Chicago Park District Property, and this includes the entirety of the lakefront. If you plan on going for a swim in Lake Michigan, you should be in good health and free of any substance use.
Chicago’s Water Playpen
Off the coast of Ohio Street Beach is an area affectionately known as the Playpen. This section of Lake Michigan is a no wake zone that has less waves thanks to the design of the surrounding break walls. It has become the area to charter a boat, play music, enjoy a beverage, and go for a swim. In short, it’s Chicago’s favorite place to party on the water. Just north of Navy Pier, this party goer’s paradise is hopping during the summer months particularly on the weekends.
Activities on Lake Michigan
Maybe a large charter boat isn’t what you’re looking for, maybe you prefer to be closer to the water in a kayak. Well, I’ve got spectacular news! You can rent kayaks at Ohio Street Beach and enjoy the aquamarine water and world class skyline views. You can either rent a solo kayak or rent a tandem kayak and share the experience. If I may, I highly recommend renting a kayak right at sunset so you can watch the sun go down behind the Windy City.
Chicago’s Museum Campus along the Lakefront
The Lakefront has offerings year-round and for all weather, down at the Museum Campus. Here you will find The Field Museum of Natural History which, fun fact, was built as a legacy to the World’s Fair of 1893. If you’d like to learn more about the World’s Fair of 1893 and its impact on the Lakefront and Chicago, then come book a tour with us! In the meantime, you will also find at the Museum Campus the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium as well as one of the best views of Chicago’s Skyline the city has to offer from land.
Dining Along Chicago’s Lakefront
For my foodie friends enjoying a day along the lakefront you have many options for dining during the summer months. There are seasonal restaurants and shacks lining the Lakefront Trail from Memorial to Labor Day. On Ohio Street beach you find Caffe Oliva, a Mediterranean style restaurant. On Oak Street Beach you’ll find another conveniently located beach bar called Whispers at Oak Street Beach. If you prefer to bike up and down the trail and stop when you’re hungry you won’t be disappointed as there are other beach shacks and food shacks periodically located along the trail.
If you’re looking for a spot to eat along the lakefront year-round, you will find one place called the Lakefront Restaurant at Theater on the Lake. The name gives it away, but this spot also serves as a theater and periodically puts on shows. For shows and tickets you’ll want to visit the Theater on the Lake’s website. This spot was first opened to be a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients but was converted to an open-air theater in 1953. In 2013 it was shut down for renovations and reopened in 2017 as The Lakefront Restaurant at Theater on the Lake. Since its reopening it has become one of the most popular spots for weddings here in the city, and if you’ve ever enjoyed a meal there you can see why. Due to it being a restaurant, theater, event space, and wedding venue I highly recommend checking ahead to make sure the restaurant is open to the public on the day you wish to dine.
Parks Along the Michigan Lakefront
Last but certainly not least, are the parks along the Lakefront Trail. You can access all of Grant Park from the Lakefront Trail. This includes Maggie Daley Park, opened in 2017 this park boasts the city’s finest playgrounds for Chicago’s Youth. Maggie Daley also has a rock wall, an ice-skating ribbon, and put-put golf.
Next door to Maggie Daley Park you’ll find Millennium Park and Chicago’s fan favorite sculpture “Cloud gate” or as it’s more commonly known The Bean. For a full guide to Millennium Park and what to do and see there, be sure to check out our blog on it.
A little further south, right across the street from the Lakefront Trail you can enter Grant Park’s jewel Buckingham Fountain. Buckingham Fountain was the largest fountain in the world when it was completed in 1927 and during the summer months has light shows that were designed by none other than Kate Buckingham, the woman responsible for the creation and funding of the fountain. No trip to Chicago would be complete without spending some time admiring this massive creation that was built to mirror the splendor of Lake Michigan right behind it.
Other parks along the Lakefront offer recreational sports leagues. North Avenue Beach hosts beach volleyball rec leagues you can join. Further up north by the Clock Tower are fields for softball where you can join a team and play in the spring, summer, or fall. There’s a public golf course by the Clock Tower as well where you can enjoy a round or two right along the coast. If you prefer to play tennis you’ll be able to find a few different tennis courts. You can also access Soldier Field via the lakefront trail if you prefer watching sports to playing them.
If sports aren’t your style at all, you can also find the Lincoln Park Zoo located close to the Lakefront Trail as well as the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, The Lincoln Park Conservatory, and the Chicago History Museum.
Whether you’re a sports aficionado, cycling enthusiast, foodie, appreciator of public art installations, or an intellectual museum lover there’s an activity along the Michigan Lake and the Chicago Lakefront Trail for you, your family and your friends. The Michigan Lakefront is one of Chicago’s most unique attributes filled with variety, beauty, history, and fun.