Known to many Chicagoans as the only cool suburb, the city of Evanston is a long but straight-forward trip from Hyde Park: just take the Red Line alllllll the way to the end of the line at Howard Street, then hop on the Purple Line or any of the northbound buses that leave from Howard Station. Or, if you’re coming from downtown, the far quicker option is to board a Metra North Line train from Ogilvie Transportation Center and get off at Main or Davis.
If you toured Northwestern before choosing in favor of the life of the mind, you’ll already know that Evanston’s lakefront is gorgeous and great for a long walk or bike ride. Venture just west of campus for huge houses, well-kept lawns, and an unfathomably high concentration of 19th century churches. Evanston has started to fight back and poke fun at its history of churchliness and once-resident temperance movement figurehead Frances E. Willard with a number of new local brewing operations, including Temperance Beer Company and FEW Spirits. However, the Frances E. Willard House Museum and Archives preserves her larger legacy as an educator and advocate for women’s suffrage and is open for public tours.
If you’re craving more bustle, keep this rule in mind: Evanston has several small business districts, each concentrated around its Purple Line stops and each with its own particular draws. Get off at Main to see cool geodes and a free geology museum at Dave’s Rock Shop or eat cheap and excellent Greek-American food at Cross-Rhodes; at Dempster, check out affordable and unpredictable boutique The Mexican Shop, shop for antiques at Secret Treasures, and browse a great collection of used books and music at Squeezebox. Davis Street is true downtown Evanston, where you’ll find familiar chain clothing stores, a large movie theater, and some great bars and restaurants. At a single street corner you’ll find Gigio’s Pizza, Vintage Vinyl, and Bennison’s Bakery, all of which are not to be missed, especially when the latter’s pumpkin cake donuts come into season. All in all, Evanston is a great weekend day trip, a chance to venture just outside the boundaries of the city without feeling that you’ve really left—just don’t fall asleep and miss your stop on the way home.
Pilsen is a fascinating study in Chicago history. Originally a Czech neighborhood, and still home to the incongruous Dvorak Park, this neighborhood is now best known for its high-quality Mexican food and has one of the largest Hispanic populations in the city. Recently however, in a strange twist of fate, the neighborhood is being gentrified and starting to show signs of its roots with restaurants like Pl-zen harkening back to its original Czech inhabitants.
However, the neighborhood is still a definite must-go for any and all varieties of Mexican and Tex-Mex, topped only perhaps by Little Village further west, where many ex-Pilsen inhabitants were driven once Pilsen started gentrifying. Tacos, burritos, carnitas, agua fresca, and Mexican pastries are to be had in droves, with restaurants offering varying styles and traditions.
Spend a day wandering the streets, admiring Pilsen’s fascinating and varied murals adorning many alleyways and buildings, stop in for free at the National Museum of Mexican Art on West 19th Street, and grab some traditional Mexican hot chocolate (if it’s cold, and let’s face it, it probably will be) at nearby La Catrina Café on West 18th Street. Pilsen has also recently become home to a strip of thrift and vintage clothing shops along West 18th Street, whose price and selection beat out many of the more touted spots further north. Knee Deep Vintage, along with Comet Vintage and Pilsen Vintage, will quell your hunger for quirky clothing and knick-knacks, and across the street, Cafe Jumping Bean (a Pilsen staple for 20 years) can serve a mean pick-me-up with their version of Mexican hot chocolate plus a shot of espresso.
For lunch or dinner there is no dearth of options: Head for tacos, traditional Mexican fare, or something a bit more Tex-Mexy at any number of spots along West 18th Street and the surrounding area. I’m not giving away my favorite spots; it’s best if you find some for yourselves.
Getting to Chinatown is easy: the Red Line drops off right in the heart of Chinatown at the you’d-have-to-be-asleep-to-miss-it stop, Cermak-Chinatown, just a few miles north of Hyde Park. Deciding what to eat, and where, once you get there is a slightly more Herculean task.
Compared to the Chinatowns in New York or San Francisco, Chicago’s Chinatown may seem a bit meager. The streets are rarely teeming, and the area, while certainly holding some of the best restaurants in the city, is far from expansive. That doesn’t mean choosing a restaurant is any easier. The roughly seven-block neighborhood is packed with delicious-sounding places promising all kinds of cuisine. Is the old Three Happiness on West Cermak Road better, or the New Three Happiness across the way on South Wentworth Avenue? How do you choose between Lao Beijing or Lao Shanghai or Lao Sze Chuan? Should you head to Chiu Quon Bakery or Tasty Place Bakery or Man Shi Da Bakery? What about a nice bubble tea post-meal?
Chinatown is a neighborhood that favors two kinds of people: those adventurous and decisive enough to blindly enter the first restaurant that takes their fancy, and those who like to do research and find exactly where they can find the best pork buns for their buck (hint: Chiu Quon on South Wentworth Avenue). The former can stop reading here, grab their jackets, and head for the Red Line. The latter might benefit from continuing.
The most important factor in navigating the culinary waters of Chinatown is knowing what you want. Like spicy food? Szechuan cuisine is famous for its spicy dishes with crunchy red peppers that will bring tears to your eyes, best served up at Tony Hu’s Lao Sze Chuan. Three Happiness (the original on West Cermak Road) serves up some of the best seafood and is open 24/7. Got a large group who can’t agree? Joy Yee’s vast picture menu includes dishes from all over China, not to mention Korea and other parts of Asia, along with a truly staggering collection of bubble tea flavors and combinations to please even the pickiest diner. But watch out, the portions are huge, and with its expansive menu and customer-oriented service, it can be easy to get caught up in the Joy Yee bubble; make sure to pop it every now and then.
Yes, Lincoln Park is home to some of the most expensive apartments, condos, and houses in the city, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to chow down on some of the best greasy tacos you’ve ever tasted at Allende Restaurant at 4 a.m., or listen to blues all night at the nearby Kingston Mines, one of the oldest blues joints still open in the city. The neighborhood boasts scores of restaurants and joints catering to high, low, and middling budgets, with the culinary range to match. Want a Korean barbecue taco? Hit up Del Seoul on North Clark Street. Or if that doesn’t make the cut, grab a hulking burrito at next-door Angela’s Burrito Style, or head a bit further north for hot dogs and embarrassment Ed Debevic’s style at The Weiners Circle. For a North Side neighborhood full of million-dollar condos, Lincoln Park can certainly dish out some affordable grub.
Though of course, if your student life is starting to feel a bit too starving artist or greasy spoon, you can hoof it up to Lincoln Park for a jaunt through the Lincoln Park Zoo and oft-overlooked, but wonderful, collections of flora at the attached conservatory (both of which are always free), take in some contemporary art at the DePaul Art Museum (also free), and finish it all up with tea, coffee, and pastries at Bourgeois Pig Cafe on West Fullerton Avenue. If that doesn’t have you purring like the city’s fattest of cats for the price of a metro fare and a few cups Darjeeling, I’ll eat my hat.
The best way to get to Lincoln Park is to take the Red Line to the Fullerton stop, which drops you off right near DePaul’s campus. However, during the warmer months, biking to Lincoln Park along the Lake Shore path is a delightful way to spend a few hours, not to mention the ride itself is spectacular, beaches filled with droves of Chicagoans and the sun, so absent during the winter, glinting playfully off the lake. The ride does take around an hour to and hour and a half, but in early fall or late spring is a wonderful way to bid goodbye, or hello, to summer.
This North Side neighborhood is famous for being one of the birthplaces of modern hipsterism. Originally a somewhat seedy area, the blocks surrounding the famous “six corners” intersection have long since started the tortuous process of gentrification, changing the area from cheap artist hangout to an expensive retail and restaurant haven. The old wave, however, is still putting up a fight, and in between high-end stores like Brooklyn Industries and Rag and Bone, coffee shops, record stores, and small pop-up vintage clothing sales still hold on.
The neighborhood has become a place where few working artists and musicians can still live, but the extensive collection of galleries, concert venues, and events still has the city’s creative types flocking to Wicker Park for culture and craft beer. For a student, Wicker Park’s greatest asset may be the stretch of Milwaukee Avenue including Myopic Books, Reckless Records, and Wormhole Coffee. Though the neighborhood is traditionally touted for its thrift stores and vintage shops, it is now a friendlier place for shoppers looking to splurge on new boots at the Doc Marten store or expensive jeans at, well, many, many different places.
Wicker Park, though in some areas less scenic than some of its North Side relatives, can still be a fun place to spend the day. The food scene is burgeoning and you can dish out a few bucks for an excellent taco at Flash Taco, conveniently located under the Blue Line stop, pizza by the slice (a surprising rarity in Chicago) at Demo’s on North Damen Avenue, or a prix-fixe dinner of modern American fare at the Trencherman on North Avenue, all within a few minutes walk of the Blue Line stop at Damen.
Logan Square, reachable by the Blue Line, a few stops past Damen at the eponymous stop Logan Square, has recently become a haven for some of the city’s most interesting restaurants. Waits can measure in the hours for popular spots like Fat Rice (an incredible Portuguese-Asian fusion joint worth waiting days for, in my opinion), and Longman & Eagle, neither of which accept reservations, but are still neighborhood, and city-wide, favorites. Lula Café, serving up bi bim bop or buckwheat pancakes for brunch, and offering a six-course vegetarian tasting menu for dinner, is another favorite. The list goes on and on.
Of course there are many other reasons to head up to Logan Square. The Logan Theatre hosts the yearly Reeling: The Chicago LGBT International Film Festival and the Chicago Underground Film Festival, as well as screening indie flicks alongside blockbusters and old cult-favorites. The theatre brings a little slice of old Hollywood glamour to Logan Square, with thick carpeting, old-timey soft yellow lights, a concession stand that looks more like a speakeasy bar than an overpriced popcorn counter, and old movie posters along the hallways.
Logan Square is a vibrant, artistic neighborhood, often cited as the area where ousted ex–Wicker Parkers move to escape the upscale chains and yuppies. The food scene is one of the best in the city, and is constantly changing, rent and attention still low enough for experimentation. The best way to explore Logan Square is to wander the streets and find your own favorite restaurants, shops, cafés, or bars. Logan Square is a neighborhood that rewards a little extra legwork.