A day of sun, sea and sand in Chicago
The Windy City belies its nickname in the summer months. In fact, it’s packed with beautiful lakefront beaches on which to soak up the rays, indulge in languid watersports and hang out at fun-filled beach bars, says local Rosalind Cummings-Yeates
Framed by 28 miles of sparkling lakefront and a towering skyline, Chicago is famous for its architectural beauty and iconic food and music culture. This is the city where you can experience signature activities such as sinking your teeth into deep-dish pizza, listening to live blues and viewing the world’s only backward-flowing river. I am a die-hard Chicagoan. I was born and raised here and I continue to be thrilled by my city’s beauty and culture.
Most would say Chicago is a good-looking city, but one of its main attractions is that it sits on the shores of the Great Lake of Lake Michigan. We love the lakefront for its breezes, its recreational options and its tranquil beauty. If you’ve never seen a Great Lake, they resemble the sea, with waves big enough for surfing and sizes that rival some small towns. We have 24 beaches that line the city from one end to the other. Like our neighbourhoods, each beach has its own personality. You can take a beach vacation in Chicago and never go to the same place twice. I’m a water baby, I grew up near the lake and spend time on its shores all year round. But not a lot of travellers realise that Chicago even has these stretches of sandy bliss – hardly surprising when a city is known for being a tad chilly.
Although the beach season officially extends from the end of May until the first week of September, it’s rarely warm enough to venture into the water until late June. To me, the water always feels like floating ice cubes and the humidity of the Chicago summer is the perfect way to offset the cool water temperature.
Perhaps the most popular shoreline is North Avenue Beach. Stretching along the Lincoln Park neighbourhood, it offers magical views of the skyline looming over the water. What makes it so popular is its proximity to downtown and the sheer number of activities on offer. I don’t think I’ve ever passed it during the summer and not seen clusters of people pounding volleyballs across the sand or primping on lounge chairs. This is the beach for people watching, flirting and water sports. It’s very much a ‘scene’.
Visitors must visit its centrepiece: Castaways Bar & Grill, which sits in a historic boathouse with two decks that serve cocktails, food and music. The top deck looks out over lovely views of the beach and the skyline and the first level offers ice cream and walk-up snacks. Visitors can rent wakeboards, paddleboards, kayaks and jet skis to ride the waves. If you want to stay on the sand, there’s sunrise and sunset yoga, dodgeball and volleyball. There are also bike rentals if you want to roll down the nearby scenic Lakeshore Trail. It’s a popular place, so arrive around 10am before the afternoon rush and, unless you’re a big fan, avoid it altogether during the August Air & Water Show and Summer fireworks. Parking can be tricky, so hopping on the 72 bus or the Brown line train to Clark & North Avenue is the no-fuss way to get there.
I remember realising there was a beach right next to our famous Magnificent Mile shopping area when I was browsing shops for a prom dress as a teen. I wandered to the edge of Oak Street and glimpsed waves splashing only a few feet away. It never occurred to me that the lake I gazed at while riding on DuSable Lake Shore Drive was also a beach. I walked over, threw off my shoes and waded in the water with the shadow of imposing architecture rising behind me. Oak Street Beach unfolds just off the sleek façade of Michigan Avenue and provides an underground tunnel decked out with murals to walk through. I like to go to this beach after a day of shopping to relax and lounge near the water. This is a much more laidback spot compared to North Avenue. The sand is pristine and the skyline is practically at your fingertips. A bike path wrapped around the beach is always filled with bikers, joggers and rollerbladers whizzing by, but that’s the most activity you’ll see. There are no watersports here, only volleyball, but I rarely see a game played during the early afternoon. Most people sunbathe, hang out at the vibey Whispers beach bar, sipping cocktails or opting for a professional massage on the sand.
I grew up near the lake and spend time on its shores all year round. But not a lot of travellers realise that Chicago even has these stretches of sandy bliss
When I want to escape the commercial overload of Navy Pier and downtown, I head to the serene oasis of Ohio Street Beach, grab fish tacos from the bar and sit near the shore with the water rippling over my feet. This beach is a tiny pocket of sand tucked behind Navy Pier’s tourist bustle. It’s secluded by a small park that you must walk through before the beach displays itself with turquoise waves hugged by high-rises. I love this area because not many people know about it and it’s rarely crowded. Caffè Oliva sits right on the sand, so you can fuel up before splashing in the water.
One of my favourite beach memories is eating a frosty coconut paleta (ice lolly) and clouds of pink candy floss from a bicycle vendor after frolicking in the water at Montrose Beach on a hot August day. It’s the city’s largest beach, extending over two miles, and it brims with an unfussy, community-focused feel. Families, teens, couples and seniors all flock here and there are usually top 40 tunes blasting and barbecue smells wafting from the grassy picnic area. I love it because there’s an adjoining nature preserve and bird sanctuary where I’ve spotted sandpipers floating around yellow wildflowers. Alongside the local beach bar, The Dock, are a variety of mobile vendors, selling candy floss, fresh fruit slices, tacos and ice cream so that you barely have to leave your beach blanket for refreshments. This beach is also flanked by a dog park where you can watch furry pets play in the water, and it’s the only beach where surfing is permitted. Skyline views and kayaking, volleyball and paddleboards are other highlights, as well as a tall stone wall that you can perch on when the sand gets too hot. This beach is a bit further away from downtown, so consider catching an Uber, although there is ample parking available.
So next time you’re craving some serious Vitamin D, give Illinois’ cultural mecca a go, and enjoy the rich array of cultural and gastronomic delights it has to offer, all after a delightful day on the sand.
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