Strictly speaking, "downtown" in Chicago means the Loop -- the central business district, a 6*8-block rectangle enveloped by elevated tracks on all four sides. Here's where you'll find the city's major financial institutions, trading markets, and government buildings, making for a lot of weekday hustle and bustle.
Best For -- Visitors who want a real "city" experience, with dramatic skyscraper vistas. Loop hotels are also within walking distance of Chicago's major museums, as well as Grant Park and the lake.
Drawbacks -- Except for a few theaters and restaurants, the Loop shuts down at night. If nightlife is a priority, you won't find many options here.
The Magnificent Mile
The stretch of North Michigan Avenue that runs from the Chicago River to Oak Street is known as the "Magnificent Mile," and it's home to some of Chicago's most luxurious hotels. (You'll note from the addresses below, however, that most entrances are actually on side streets a block or two off the avenue.) Despite the high price of real estate here, a few moderate properties thrive among the glitz. The Magnificent Mile attracts visitors year-round, but is especially packed during the summer and Christmas vacation season.
Best For -- Serious shoppers, who can take advantage of everything from designer boutiques to large department stores. Travelers who like to be in the center of the action will enjoy the busy pace, as well as the easy access to bustling Oak Street Beach.
Drawbacks -- The crowds. If you're looking for a peaceful getaway, head further north to the Gold Coast.
North of the Loop and west of the Magnificent Mile, River North is a former industrial neighborhood that's been transformed into a thriving dining and nightlife district.
Best For -- Night owls. Restaurants in River North stay open late, and there are plenty of clubs and bars within walking distance.
Drawbacks -- Because of its large concentration of hotels, River North can feel overrun with tourists, especially in the summer.
The Gold Coast
Mansions from the 19th and early 20th centuries line the streets of this exclusive neighborhood. Peaceful and secluded as it feels, the Gold Coast is still within easy walking distance to Michigan Avenue and the lakefront.
Best For -- Visitors who want to escape the noise and traffic of downtown.
Drawbacks -- There are only a few hotel options in this largely residential district.
Lincoln Park & the North Side
The North Side is a general term that encompasses the residential neighborhoods north of the Gold Coast; Lincoln Park is the area that sprawls westward from the lakefront park of the same name.
Best For -- Experiencing Chicago as a local; few tourists hang out this far from downtown.
Drawbacks -- The distance from cultural institutions such as the Art Institute or Field Museum, both of which are a half-hour bus ride away.
Near McCormick Place
Although the sprawling McCormick Place Convention Center isn't far from downtown, it feels cut off from the rest of the city. The main reason to stay here is the easy access to the center.
Best For -- Business travelers attending a convention. The Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium are also close by. It's also ideal for bargain-shoppers looking for a good rate near downtown during the summer, when there are few conventions scheduled.
Drawbacks -- No restaurants or stores within walking distance; you'll have to take a taxi or bus to explore the city.