Top Outdoor Activities and Recreation around Chicago

Top Outdoor Activities and Recreation around Chicago

Many travelers come to Chicago for its well known museums such as the Art Institute, its culinary offerings of iconic deep dish pizza and hot dogs, and great jazz music. Chicago may be known as a sprawling metropolis that is approaching 3 million people, but there is plenty of room to spread out and enjoy the great outdoors. Stop staring at your reflection in the shiny Cloud Gate sculpture and get out and explore the more natural side of America’s third largest city and all the outdoor recreation it offers.

Lake Michigan

It’s pretty hard to miss Lake Michigan when in Chicago. The only Great Lake fully within the United States, it is the main location locals and visitors look to for outdoor recreation. Over 20 miles of lakefront trails are open to bicyclists, runners, and walkers. Stunning views over the lake are endless and along the way you’ll pass beaches, parks, Navy Pier, and many of the city’s notable attractions.  


Arlington Park

When your hotel’s Wi-Fi is too slow to load your favorite online casino, why not head to Arlington Park. Arlington International Racecourse is one of America’s most beautiful horse racing tracks, hosting several notable races throughout the year.

Arlington Park is enjoyable for the whole family, especially on weekends when they offer a variety of activities for all ages, live music, and manicured grounds where you can rent picnic tables to enjoy a great afternoon outdoors. Of course the highlight is watching the beautiful horses and maybe being lucky enough to pick a winner.  

Lincoln Park Zoo

It’s very rare these days to find a zoo that offers free entry, but that is exactly what you get at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. You would think a zoo with no admission wouldn’t offer much to see, but Lincoln Park is actually home to a wide variety of animals from all over the world. See kangaroos, rhinos, zebras, polar bears, penguins, and much more. A highlight is seeing especially rare species such as the red wolf and snow leopard.

Lincoln Park Zoo is one of America’s oldest zoos, founded in the mid 19th century. Seeing rare wildlife in the shadows of skyscrapers is quite a surreal experience that has delighted visitors for decades. Plan a full day to take advantage of the many animal experiences and demonstrations to be had.

The 606

Once an abandoned rail line, the 606 is now a nearly 3 mile long elevated recreation trail. The 606 brings together art, history, trails for bikers and pedestrians, and event spaces. Similar to New York’s High Line, the trail offers elevated views over the neighborhoods you pass. There are plenty of entry and exit points as well as refueling stations at delicious local restaurants and many art installations to enjoy along the way.


photo by daniel x. O’neil

Kayak Tours

See Chicago in a unique and active way by taking a kayak tour on the Chicago River or Monroe Harbor. Paddling along Chicago’s lakefront offers great views of Grant Park and the city’s famous skyline to the west. You will also take in Navy Pier and the museum campus. Take to the River to navigate your way through the urban landscape of skyscrapers, learning about the city’s intriguing history along the way.

Book a sunset kayak tour for even more incredible photo opportunities or bring along your dog for a special puppy paddle tour. Alternatively, there is also the option of taking a paddleboard tour or doing a bit of paddleboard yoga on the lake.

Paddleboarding is becoming equally as popular as kayaking both on the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. The river is better if you have more experience, especially in the high-traffic areas, whereas beginners usually take to the lake in areas like Osterman Beach, Montrose Harbor, Monroe Harbor, North Harbor, or Diversey Harbor. During summer, you can even join a paddleboard sunrise or full moon group tour on the lake.

While no prior kayaking or paddleboarding experience is usually required to enjoy many of these tours in Chicago, most tour companies say you should plan on getting wet whether you plan on booking a kayak or paddleboard tour. This means you will definitely want to invest in a waterproof backpack, dry bag, or waterproof phone and documents bag to ensure any belongings you take with you remain safe. Many of the tour companies don’t always provide them or they can be costly to simply rent.

Millennium Park

Of course you can’t miss Chicago’s Millennium Park, the top rated tourist attraction in the Midwest. You’ll find all kinds of enjoyment in this 25 acre oasis in the city. There’s ice skating in the winter and the Crown Fountain to cool down in the summer. Get lost in the intoxicating smells of blooms in Lurie Garden and reach new heights by taking to the climbing walls of Maggie Daley Park. Listen to concerts, enjoy art installations, walk along really cool bridges, play a game of tennis or a round of mini golf, or simply relax in one of the many green spaces.


photo by David wilson

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Author: Michael Jerrard

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1 Comment

  1. We love going to the Lincoln Park Zoo. We recently went to an event with their holiday lights, ice carvings, brewpubs, and food. It is a great size zoo, that you can stay 1/2 hour or 4 hours at! Since it is free, you do not feel pressured to stay all day…unless you want. The animals are all in pretty comfortable enclosures. They have a nice assortment of large and small animals and a farm section too. The food vendors are very good and they offer several good vegetarian and vegan options. There are several indoor areas where you can warm up or cool off, weather depending. They have street parking or a lot- although that is pretty expensive 25-30 for 1-2 hours.
    Great gift shops with every animal represented. And it is next to the botanic garden greenhouses and a lily pond garden area- that are also free.

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