Hyde Park, south of the Loop, is the birthplace of atomic fission, home to the University of Chicago and the popular Museum of Science and Industry, and definitely worth a trip. It's gotten an added boost of publicity ever since a certain former resident, Barack Obama, came to national prominence. The Obamas are such fans of the area that they've kept their house here. Allow at least half a day to explore the University of Chicago campus and surrounding neighborhood (one of Chicago's most successfully integrated). If you want to explore a museum or two as well, plan on a full day.
Some Hyde Park History
When Hyde Park was settled in 1850, it became Chicago's first suburb. A hundred years later, in the 1950s, it added another first to its impressive résumé, one that the current neighborhood is not particularly proud of: an urban-renewal plan. At the time, a certain amount of old commercial and housing stock -- just the kind of buildings that would be prized today -- was demolished rather than rehabilitated and replaced by projects and small shopping malls that actually make some corners of Hyde Park look more like a post-World War II suburb than an urban neighborhood.
What Hyde Park can be proud of is that, in racially divided Chicago, this neighborhood has found an alternative vision. As Southern blacks began to migrate to Chicago's South Side during World War I, many whites fled. But most whites here, especially those who wanted to stay near the university, chose integration as the only realistic strategy to preserve their neighborhood. The 2000 census proved that integration still works: About 40% of the residents are white and 37% are black; there is also a significant Asian population. Hyde Park is decidedly middle class, with pockets of affluence that reflect the early-20th-century period when the well-to-do moved here to escape the decline of Prairie Avenue. A well-known black resident from the area is the late Elijah Muhammad, and numerous Nation of Islam families continue to worship in a mosque, formerly a Greek Orthodox cathedral, that is one of the neighborhood's architectural landmarks. Surrounding this unusual enclave, however, are many marginal blocks where poverty and slum housing abound. For all its nobility, Hyde Park's achievement in integration merely emphasizes that socioeconomic differences are even more unwieldy than racial ones.
The University of Chicago is widely hailed as one of the more intellectually exciting institutions of higher learning in the country and has been home to some 73 Nobel laureates, including physicist Enrico Fermi, novelist Saul Bellow, and economist Milton Friedman. (Almost one-third of all the Nobel Prizes in Economics have gone to University of Chicago professors, twice as many as any other institution.) Another long-time faculty member was English professor Norman Maclean, author of A River Runs Through It. Though they may joke about the school's staid social life, U of C undergrads take pride in their school's nerdy reputation.
The year the university opened its doors in 1892 was a big one for Hyde Park, but 1893 was even bigger. In that year, Chicago, chosen over other cities in a competitive international field, played host to the World's Columbian Exposition, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in America. To create a fairground, the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was enlisted to fill in the marshlands along Hyde Park's lakefront and link what was to become Jackson Park to existing Washington Park on the neighborhood's western boundary with a narrow concourse called the Midway Plaisance. On the resulting 650 acres -- at a cost of $30 million -- 12 exhibit palaces, 57 buildings devoted to U.S. states and foreign governments, and dozens of smaller structures were constructed under the supervision of architect Daniel Burnham. Most of the buildings followed Burnham's preference for the Classical Revival style and white stucco exteriors. With the innovation of outdoor electric lighting, the sparkling result was the "White City," which attracted 27 million visitors in a single season, from May 1 to October 31, 1893. The exposition sponsors, in that brief time, had remarkably recovered their investment, but within a few short years of the fair's closing, vandalism and fire destroyed most of its buildings. Only the Palace of Fine Arts, occupying the eastern tip of the midway, survives to this day, and it now houses the Museum of Science and Industry. (For more on the behind-the-scenes drama at the Exposition, read The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, a nonfiction history book that reads like a thriller.)
Did You Know? -- The world's first Ferris wheel was built on Hyde Park's midway during the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. It was eventually dynamited and sold for scrap metal.
From the Loop, the ride to Hyde Park on the no. 6 Jeffrey Express bus takes about 30 minutes. The bus originates on Wacker Drive, travels south along State Street, and ultimately follows Lake Shore Drive to Hyde Park. The bus runs daily from early morning to late evening, with departures about every 5 minutes on weekdays and every 10 minutes on weekends and holidays. The southbound express bus fare adds a surcharge of 25¢ to the normal fare of $2.25 (there's no surcharge if you use a CTA transit card). The no. 1 local bus originates at Union Station on Jackson Boulevard and Canal Street and takes about an hour.
For a faster trip, take the Metra Electric train on the South Chicago line, which goes from downtown to Hyde Park in about 15 minutes. Trains run every hour (more frequently during rush hour) Monday through Saturday from 5:15am to 12:50am, and every 30 to 90 minutes on Sunday and holidays from 5am to 12:55am. Downtown stations are at Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue, Van Buren Street and Michigan Avenue, and Roosevelt Road and Michigan Avenue (near the Museum Campus in Grant Park). Printed schedules are available at the stations. The fare is approximately $2.50 each way.
For CTA bus and Metra train information, call tel. 312/836-7000, or visit www.transitchicago.com or www.metrarail.com.
For taxis, dial tel. 312/TAXI-CAB (829-4222) for Yellow Cab or tel. 312/CHECKER (243-2537) for Checker. The one-way fare from downtown is around $15 to $20.
A Suggested Itinerary
A long 1-day itinerary for Hyde Park should include the following: a walk through the University of Chicago campus (including a stroll along the Midway Plaisance); a visit to the Museum of Science and Industry (for families), Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, or one of the other local museums; and lunch or dinner in the neighborhood's commercial center.
Hyde Park Bites
When you're ready to take a break, Hyde Park has an eclectic selection of restaurants. As in any university town, you'll find plenty of affordable, student-friendly hangouts. The most famous University of Chicago gathering spot is Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap, 1172 E. 55th St. (tel. 773/643-5516). This 50-year-old bar and grill doesn't offer much in the way of atmosphere, but the hamburgers and sandwiches are cheap, and the person sitting next to you might just be a Nobel Prize-winning professor. Another casual spot near campus is Medici, 1327 E. 57th St. (tel. 773/667-7394; www.medici57.com), where a few generations' worth of students have carved their names into the tables while chowing down on pizza, the house specialty. About a block from the main Hyde Park Metra station you'll find La Petite Folie, 1504 E. 55th St. (tel. 773/493-1394; www.lapetitefolie.com), a French bistro that offers a refined escape from student life.
Exploring the University of Chicago
Walking around the Gothic spires of the University of Chicago campus is bound to conjure up images of the cloistered academic life. Allow about an hour to stroll through the grassy quads and dramatic stone buildings. (If the weather's nice, do as the students do, and chill out for a while on the grass.) If you're visiting on a weekday, your first stop should be the university's Visitors Information Desk (tel. 773/702-9739), on the first floor of Ida Noyes Hall, 1212 E. 59th St., where you can pick up campus maps and get information on university events. The center is open Monday through Friday from 10am to 7pm. If you stop by on a weekend when the Visitors Information Desk is closed, you can get the scoop on campus events at the Reynolds Clubhouse student center (tel. 773/702-8787).
Start your tour at the Henry Moore statue, Nuclear Energy, on South Ellis Avenue between 56th and 57th streets. It's next to the Regenstein Library, which marks the site of the old Stagg Field, where, on December 2, 1942, the world's first sustained nuclear reaction was achieved in a basement laboratory below the field. Then turn left and follow 57th Street until you reach the grand stone Hull Gate; walk straight to reach the main quad, or turn left through the column-lined arcade to reach Hutchinson Court (designed by John Olmsted, son of revered landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted). The Reynolds Clubhouse, the university's main student center, is here; you can take a break at the C-Shop cafe or settle down at a table at Hutchinson Commons. The dining room and hangout right next to the cafe will bring to mind the grand dining halls of Oxford and Cambridge.
Other worthy spots on campus include the charming, intimate Bond Chapel, behind Swift Hall on the main quad, and the blocks-long Midway Plaisance, a wide stretch of green that was the site of carnival sideshow attractions during the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. (Ever since, the term midway has referred to carnivals in general.)
The Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5757 S. University Ave. (tel. 773/752-4381; www.semcoop.com), is a treasure trove of academic and scholarly books. Its selection of more than 100,000 titles has won it an international reputation as "the best bookstore west of Blackwell's in Oxford." It's open Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 8pm, Saturday from 10am to 6pm, and Sunday from noon to 6pm.
Enjoying the Outdoors in Hyde Park
Hyde Park is not only a haven for book lovers and culture aficionados; the community also has open-air attractions. Worthy outdoor environments near Lake Michigan include Lake Shore Drive, where many stately apartment houses follow the contour of the shoreline. A suitable locale for a quiet stroll during the day is Promontory Point, at 55th Street and Lake Michigan, a bulb of land that juts into the lake and offers a good view of Chicago to the north and the seasonally active 57th Street beach to the south.
Farther south, just below the Museum of Science and Industry, is Wooded Island in Jackson Park, the site of the Japanese Pavilion during the Columbian Exposition and today a lovely garden of meandering paths. In the Perennial Garden at 59th Street and Stony Island Avenue in Jackson Park, more than 180 varieties of flowering plants display a palette of colors that changes with the seasons.
Kenwood Historic District
A fun side trip for architecture and history buffs is the Kenwood Historic District, a short walk north of Hyde Park. The area originally developed as a suburb of Chicago, when local captains of industry (including Sears founder Julius Rosenwald) began building lavish mansions in the mid-1850s. The neighborhood's large lots and eclectic mix of architecture (everything from elaborate Italianate to Prairie-style homes) make it unique in Chicago, especially compared to the closely packed buildings in Hyde Park. Although many of the fine homes here became dilapidated after the South Side's "white flight" of the 1950s and '60s, a new generation of black and white middle-class homeowners has lovingly renovated these one-of-a-kind mansions. Today the blocks between 47th and 51st streets (north-south) and Blackstone and Drexel boulevards (east-west) make for a wonderful walking tour, with broad, shady streets full of newly restored buildings.
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.