Chicago may be famous for its architecture, but there's more than its awe-inspiring buildings. From towering dunes to sheer cliffs and glittering lagoons, this metropolis boasts unforgettable outdoor attractions to lose yourself in. For a comprehensive list of things to do in Chicago, let's somersault into 10 must-try Chicago outdoor activities.
1. Biking Along Lakefront Trail
There aren't many cities where you can pound the sidewalks one minute and sip cocktails in a beachside bar the next. Chicago's position on the banks of Lake Michigan lets you do that. No one should leave Chicago without exploring the Lake Michigan shoreline. And biking along the breathtaking Lakefront Trail is the quickest and most adventurous way to take it in.
It doesn’t matter if you own a bike or not. Bring yours, or rent a set of wheels from BFF Bikes, a full-service shop tailored for women.
Stretching from the edge of Ardmore Street to 71st Street, the 18-mile path winds through four beautiful parks along the lake's edge. As you walk, jog, or pedal along the trail, you can see stunning views across the lake and impressive panoramas of lush parkland and the city skyline.
When it's time to rest your legs, there are plenty of landmarks waiting along the route, including the historic Promontory Point.
While a human-made peninsula built on a landfill may not sound tempting, don't let Promontory Point's unusual foundations put you off. Trust us: This beloved landmark has gone from trash to treasure.
Nestled among the southside beaches of Burnham Park, the peninsula protrudes into the lake. It once housed a looming Cold War missile defense system. Nowadays, Promontory Point is a beautiful, secluded spot for enjoying water sports or relaxing with a cold drink surrounded by 360-degree cityscape views.
We like to keep the fun going into the evening by toasting s'mores over the council ring fire pits and watching the sun set over the lake.
If all this tranquility leaves you craving an adrenaline rush, a stop-off at the Navy Pier delivers thrills aplenty. Dubbed the People's Pier, the Navy Pier is one of the city's premiere recreational and cultural hubs and home to a traditional amusement park.
Here, you can take a ride on the iconic Centennial Wheel for a bird's-eye view across the lake. You can also test your nerves on the breathtaking S&S DoubleShot Drop Tower, or board a thrilling speedboat ride to navigate Lake Michigan by water.
2. Kayaking on the Chicago River
We hope you brought your sea legs, because a kayak is the most intimate way to experience the city's waterways and gain a new viewpoint on its buildings (and maybe even Logan Square). Become your own captain as you set sail on your kayaking adventure — whether you're a total novice and want a teacher to show you the ropes or have the experience to strike out on a solo expedition.
For a unique taste of Chicago's vibrant nightlife, schedule a sunset or nighttime trip to see the city light up as it transitions from day to night.
Several operators provide lessons and group tours to kick off your aquatic adventure. Kayak Chicago offers group classes to help you develop your paddling, balance, and safety skills in its outdoor classroom.
Once you've mastered the basics, you can schedule lake and river tours, including trips in an authentic Voyageur Canoe to retrace the journeys of Chicago's founders. Or embark on a historic kayak tour with Urban Kayaks to learn more about the city's rich heritage.
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3. Having Beach Days at Lake Michigan
Who said you have to choose between a beach and a city break? Chicago offers the best of both worlds, thanks to its miles of shoreline along Lake Michigan. The city is home to over 20 public beaches where you can relax, soak up the rays, and delight in Chicago's fun activities.
Ask any Chicagoan where to visit and they'll mention North Avenue Beach in Lincoln Park. This much-loved destination boasts expansive golden sands and sophisticated bars and eateries. It's perfect for sampling our famous Old-Fashioned cocktails after a day of sandy fun. Famous attractions such as Lincoln Park Zoo are also a short stroll away.
Oak Street Beach is another firm favorite. A hop, skip, and a jump from downtown, it provides an up-close view of the area's impressive architecture and is a popular beach volleyball hangout.
The beach also serves up a dose of culture with a 280-foot pop art-style mural by Jeff Zimmerman. This feast for the eyes was commissioned to raise awareness of beach safety and preservation.
Safety first: Remember to check beach signage to determine whether it's safe to swim before diving into the waters of Lake Michigan. You can find the best beaches for outdoor activities, sunbathing, and swimming with Choose Chicago's handy beach guide.
4. Picnicking in Millennium Park
Flanked by skyscrapers to the west and Lake Michigan to the east, Millennium Park is a green oasis crammed with attractions and natural beauty spots. Although you wouldn't guess at first glance, the park sits atop a railroad yard, making it one of the world's most extensive green roofs. Its gardens, art installations, and galleries fill an entire day, so pack a picnic to refuel as you explore.
While locals may roll their eyes, there's a good reason visitors rave about a Millennium Park mainstay called Cloud Gate, also known as "The Bean." This renowned sculpture is the brainchild of Anish Kapoor and measures 66 feet long and 33 feet high. Its stainless steel structure reflects the surrounding buildings, plants, and people, creating a dreamy microcosm of Millennium Park life.
Also not to be missed is the Crown Fountain, a shimmering pool between two glass brick towers dreamed up by artist Jaume Plensa. Here, you can get up close and personal with oversized portraits of the locals as they squirt jets of water into the pool below.
If you're visiting with kids, a stop at the Maggie Daley Park will let them burn off some energy running, jumping, and clambering through whimsical picture-book-themed play areas.
5. Experiencing Wildlife Encounters at Lincoln Park Zoo
Who would have thought that just two swans would evolve into one of America's free-entry zoo? The famous pair arrived from New York's Central Park in 1868, and the hard work of zookeeper Cyrus Devry and those who followed him developed Lincoln Zoo into one of the best-loved outdoor activities in Chicago.
Nowadays, Lincoln Park Zoo supports the conservation of over 500 species in America and abroad, championing the well-being of captive and wild animals and promoting recovery programs.
Visitors can explore 35 acres of landscaped grounds and greet creatures great and small. Over 200 species call Lincoln Park Zoo home. This includes endangered species, such as western lowland gorillas and eastern black rhinoceroses. You can combine your animal adventure with a trip to the nearby North Avenue Beach or come by bike from the Lakefront trail.
Visiting with kids? Little ones can run wild in the Houston Family Tree Playhouse or partake in special events for the whole family, including daily seal training and ape care sessions. Or clamber aboard the Lionel Train Adventure for a delightful journey through forest and canyon habitats.
Don't forget to check the Lincoln Park Zoo calendar for festivals, concerts, and educational activities.
6. Exploring the Chicago Botanic Garden
Whether you’re a visitor to Chicago or a native of Wicker Park, sometimes a moment in nature is worth everything. A trip to the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe is a great way to escape the rat race and refresh your body and spirit.
This 385-acre beauty spot features 27 gardens, including a calming Japanese garden, a traditional English walled garden, and serene meadows dotted with local plant species. The changing seasons transform the landscape, revealing new discoveries every time you visit.
The garden also has two beginner-level hiking trails for those who want to experience its beauty and serenity on a personal level.
Kids (and kids at heart) will explore the multisensory areas in the nature play garden and watch miniature trains trundle through the model railroad garden. Meanwhile, grown-ups can sip brewed beers surrounded by nature in the Rose Terrace Beer Garden.
The Garden Vine Restaurant serves mouth-watering homegrown produce picked from the Regenstein Fruit and Vegetable Garden.
The gardens are so vast and varied that it can be hard to decide where to start your journey. We love hopping on board the Grand Tram Tour for a view of the garden's highlights, peppered with fascinating facts about its history.
Check out the Chicago Botanic Garden for details of exhibitions and outdoor events to help you cultivate new skills and learn more about its urban gardening programs.
7. Hiking at Starved Rock State Park
You'll never run out of outdoor activities in Chicago, but going beyond the city shows incredible spaces and landscapes. Despite its name, Starved Rock State Park should recharge your batteries in nature, thanks to its 13 miles of wilderness trails.
The sights and sounds of Starved Rock change with the seasons. Visit in spring to see cascading waterfalls, or time your visit with a seasonal event to soak up fascinating facts about this unique habitat.
Whether you need to decompress after a busy working week or wind down during a hectic vacation, the park delivers the zen factor. It offers a program of calming activities to soothe even the most frazzled nerves, including wilderness yoga, historic trolley tours, and waterfowl cruises along the Illinois River.
If you prefer to stay on dry land, hop aboard a vintage trolley tour to discover the park's highlights in style and visit its resident bald eagles. Schedule a day trip to give yourself plenty of time to discover the park's treasures. You can even book a rustic lodge or cozy cabin to extend your stay.
For the hiking lovers in the house, there are also plenty of hiking trails near Chicago ready to be explored.
8. Bird-Watching in Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary
Set beside the Montrose Beach Dunes Natural Area in Lincoln Park, the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary has a curious feature that makes it a prime destination for migratory birds. During its previous life as an army barracks, officials planted honeysuckle shrubs to protect the land from prying eyes. Nowadays, these plants perform a very different purpose.
Known as "The Magic Hedge," the stretch of Montrose honeysuckle attracts over 300 bird species. Honeysuckle plants provide a hotel for birds, offering shelter from the elements and a source of tasty bugs and berries. The sanctuary's staff and volunteers have since added other plants to make it even more welcoming to its feathery guests.
Thanks to all this magic, you can observe a diverse range of migratory species, including owls, woodpeckers, and warblers.
The sanctuary is accessed via West Montrose Harbor Drive, and there's ample public on-road parking. Make the most of your trip walking along the adjacent fish hook pier to catch a glimpse of waterfowl, peregrine falcons, and snowy owls.
If you're new to bird-watching, don't be afraid to ask for advice from the seasoned birders who frequent the park. The sanctuary has a thriving community of bird enthusiasts who are more than happy to provide pointers on bird identification and protection.
9. Visiting Green Spaces at Humboldt Park
The historic Humboldt Park neighborhood is a celebration of Chicago's Puerto Rican community. It's the perfect place to dive into the area's rich history and culture. Even the walls themselves tell the community's story through a series of beautiful murals.
The neighborhood's Mercado del Pueblo is a foodie's paradise, serving up authentic Puerto Rican delicacies made by local artisans. Try the jibaritos — sandwiches made from meat, garlic mayo, and veggies wedged between slices of fried plantain. Or pack a picnic and bring some traditional take-out fare to the picturesque park grounds.
Humboldt Park is also a hotspot for Chicago outdoor activities. Catch some rays on Humboldt Beach, or head to the charming boathouse for spectacular views across the lagoon. You can also rent a paddle boat to venture further into the lagoon and explore the neighborhood from the water.
Humboldt Park's community spirit is tangible with its calendar of cultural events for visitors and locals. In June, over a million people take to the streets for The Puerto Rican Parade, one of America's biggest Latino events. The parade offers an unmissable opportunity to immerse yourself in traditional Puerto Rican cuisine, live music, and cultural performances.
Humboldt Park isn’t the only jade expanse in the city — Chicago’s Hyde Park, Grant Park,, and Lurie Garden all rival the experience here.
10. Urban Camping in Northerly Island
While camping and cities don't usually mix, Chicago's Northerly Island Park offers a unique way to relish a night under the stars. Once an airport, this man-made island in Lake Michigan connects to the shore with a causeway. It's transformed into an urban camping idyll.
If you've ever wondered what pre-settlement Chicago looked like, Northerly Island is the closest you'll get to a real-life time machine. While the island is artificial, its designers have recreated an unspoiled Illinois habitat complete with a natural-looking lagoon, rolling hills, and lush foliage.
Against the backdrop of the Chicago skyline, it provides the unique sensation of two moments in history joining.
For most of the year, the camping ground on Northerly Island serves local youth. It allows Chicago children to experience hands-on outdoor learning close to home. But don't despair, the campsite also offers family camping sessions on select dates.
No need to break the bank for expensive camping gear. The organizers can provide tents, provisions, and bathroom facilities, and they'll treat you to hotdogs and s'mores before you snuggle into your sleeping bag. Keep an eye on the Chicago Park District online calendar to prebook family camping events.
Explore All That the Windy City Has to Offer
From sandy beaches to leafy parks, Chicago's distinctive outdoor spaces fuse its unique lakeside geography with quirky man-made elements. Whether you're planning your first trip to the Windy City or know its busy streets like the back of your hand, there's always something exciting to discover.
Our suggestions for outdoor activities in Chicago can help transform your perceptions of the city while making unforgettable memories. For an even more complete experience of the city’s rich cultural and historical tapestry, check out what Chicago museums have to offer. You will not be disappointed!
Don't leave the city without experiencing one of our immersive shows in Chicago. We can't wait to take you on an otherworldly journey of awe and artistry.