Chicago is a beach town. That’s something that comes as a surprise to visitors, but locals all have their favorite spot of sand among the 26 miles of beaches hugging the chilly rim of Lake Michigan. A path called the Lakefront Trail extends along the shore, and it’s perfect for biking, jogging, and strolling. Or bring a towel to spread on the sand or grass and watch the world go by. A quick note about safety: Beach season runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and beaches are open from 6am to 11pm. Swimming is allowed when lifeguards are on duty, from 11am to 7pm daily. The beaches are overseen by the Chicago Park District; learn more about individual beaches and swimming conditions at www.chicagoparkdistrict.com.
START: Hollywood-Ardmore Beach, Berwyn El Station.
1. Kathy Osterman Beach: Known to locals as Hollywood-Ardmore Beach, this lovely crescent of sand is less congested than many of the city’s beaches. If you’re looking for relative quiet and seclusion (relative because this is a big city, after all), you’ll find a like-minded crowd here, sunning themselves. The beach is gay-friendly but the south end is especially popular with the LGBTQ crowd. Facilities include bathrooms and drinking fountains. This is one of the city’s 16 wheelchair-accessible beaches. Time: 30 min. 5800 N. Lake Shore Dr. (at Hollywood St.). tel. 312/742-PLAY (7529). www.chicagoparkdistrict.com.
2. One of my favorite summer spots is Waterfront Café, about a mile north of Kathy Osterman Beach. The alfresco restaurant overlooks the lake, making it the perfect summer spot for beer, wine, pub grub, and live music (Wed–Sun night). 6219 N. Sheridan. tel. 773/761-3294. www.waterfrontcafechicago.com. $.
3. Montrose Beach: This unsung treasure is midway between Hollywood-Ardmore and North Avenue beaches. Long popular with the city’s Hispanic community, it offers an expanse of sand mostly uninterrupted by jetties or piers (unlike North Ave. Beach), a large dog beach where pups dart into the lake, a huge adjacent park with soccer fields, and one big hill that’s great for kite flying. If you’re interested in having some green space for tossing a baseball, or want to watch a soccer game, this beach is your best choice—no other beach in the area boasts such proximity to a park. Also worth checking out is Montrose Beach Dunes; its 11 acres of sandy, hilly terrain dip into wooded areas before guiding you to a large pier. The area is also home to a bird sanctuary, so keep your eyes peeled for sparrows, plovers, sandpipers, and more. You’ll find bathrooms, drinking fountains, bike racks, and concession stands. It’s also a popular spot for fishing. Time: 30 min. 4400 N. Lake Shore Dr. (at Montrose Ave.). tel. 312/742-PLAY (7529). www.chicagoparkdistrict.com.
4. Doggie Beach at Belmont Harbor: Chicago is a town of dog lovers, many of whom bring their pooches here for a dip. Nestled in a small corner of a harbor near Hawthorne and Lake Shore Drive, this is not so much a beach as an enclosed strip of sand where locals take their dogs to fetch sticks and play in the water. Facilities are minimal. Time: 10 min. 3200 N. Lake Shore Dr. (just south of Addison St.). tel. 312/742-PLAY (7529). www.chicagoparkdistrict.com.
5. North Avenue Beach: I’m one of many Chicagoans who can’t get enough of the view from the lakefront bike path here, looking south to the John Hancock Center—a view so famous it’s often featured on the cover of guide books. To get a snapshot of the picture-perfect scene, walk north, parallel to Lake Shore Drive to North Avenue, and take the tunnel to North Avenue Beach. Once on the lakefront path, turn south toward the city, and you will have your Kodak moment. (Just watch out for all the cyclists, skaters, runners, and dog walkers if it’s a nice summer day.) Accessible to both those with mobility impairments and families toting strollers, the beach also offers an array of facilities, including restrooms, concession stands, drinking fountains, bike racks, volleyball courts, and a chess pavilion. One of the most iconic beachfront sites resides here: Castaways, an enormous, blue-and-white boat-shaped bar and restaurant. It’s a spot that everyone must go, at least once. Time: 30 min. 1600 Lake Shore Dr. (at North Ave.). tel. 312/742-PLAY (7529). www.chicagoparkdistrict.com.
6. Oak Street Beach: The city’s best-known beach, which is oh so accessible from downtown, is a pristine place to relax. Its location, at the northern tip of the Magnificent Mile, creates some interesting people-watching moments: In season, check out the local sun worshipers wearing flip-flops and carrying coolers as they make their way up tony Michigan Avenue toward this curving slice of sand. The beach is accessible to families with strollers and those with mobility impairments, but this trendy spot can get crowded on summer afternoons. Facilities include volleyball courts and bathrooms. Time: 30 min. 1000 Lake Shore Dr. (at Oak St.). tel. 312/742-PLAY (7529). www.chicagoparkdistrict.com.
7. The warm-weather-only beachfront cafe Oak Street Beach Food + Drink is set right on the sands of Oak Street Beach. It serves decent beach fare, including tacos, sandwiches, and nachos. Beer and wine are also available. 1001 N. Lake Shore Dr. at Oak St. Beach. tel. 312/988-4650. www.oakstreetbeach.com. $.
8. Ohio Street Beach: If it’s a workout you’re seeking, you’ll enjoy Ohio Street Beach, an intimate slice of sand just west of Navy Pier. Thanks to buoys marking a 1-mile swimming course and a location in a protected harbor (making for calmer waters than you’ll find elsewhere on the lake), Ohio Street Beach is also the place for serious open-water swimming. On most summer mornings, you’ll see athletes (often in wet suits) training in the water, many of them preparing for the annual Chicago Triathlon in August. Time: 20 min. 600 N. Lake Shore Dr. tel. 312/742-PLAY (7529). www.chicagoparkdistrict.com.
9. For picnic supplies, do as the locals do and head to Bockwinkel’s. Known for its lunch specials (sandwiches, a superior salad bar, and good fruit), you’ll find it on the ground floor of the Park Millennium building, located 1 block north of Millennium Park and 1 block east of Michigan Avenue. 222 N. Columbus Dr. tel. 312/228-9920. www.bockwinkels.com. $.
10. Columbia Yacht Club: Farther south along the lakefront, you’ll find this yacht club, housed in a 372-foot Canadian icebreaker and ferry named Abegweit (often called Abby by locals). This private club dates back to 1892, and is now the premier spot for sailing lessons on Lake Michigan. Even if you’re not a yachting fan, the harbor area offers lovely views. Time: 5 min., unless you’re taking a lesson. In Monroe Harbor, at the foot of Randolph Dr. and Lake Shore Dr. tel. 312/938-3625. www.columbiayachtclub.org. Sailing school rates vary; contact the club or check the website.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.