If you're in town for a limited time, an organized tour may be the best way to get a quick overview of the city's highlights. Some tours -- such as the boat cruises on Lake Michigan and the Chicago River -- can give you a whole new perspective on the city's landscape. Many tours go beyond sightseeing to explore important historical and architectural landmarks in depth. These specialized tours can help you appreciate buildings or neighborhoods that you might otherwise have passed by without a second glance.
Insider Tours -- Free!
Want a personalized view of the city -- aside from your trusted Frommer's guide? A program called Chicago Greeter matches tourists with local Chicagoans who serve as volunteer guides. Visitors can request a specific neighborhood or theme (everything from Polish heritage sites to Chicago movie locations), and a greeter gives them a free 2- to 4-hour tour. (Greeters won't escort groups of more than six people.) Specific requests should be made at least a week in advance, but "InstaGreeters" are also available on a first-come, first-served basis at the Chicago Cultural Center, 77 E. Randolph St., from Friday through Sunday. For details, call tel. 312/744-8000 or visit www.chicagogreeter.com, where you can browse a list of specific tour topics.
Noble Horse (tel. 312/266-7878; www.noblehorsechicago.com/carriages.html) maintains the largest fleet of antique horse carriages in Chicago, stationed around the old Water Tower Square at the northwest corner of Chicago and Michigan avenues. Each of the drivers, outfitted in a black tie and top hat, has his or her own variation on the basic Magnificent Mile itinerary (you can also do tours of the lakefront, river, Lincoln Park, and Buckingham Fountain). The charge is $40 for each half-hour, for up to four people. The coaches run year-round, with convertible coaches in the warm months and enclosed carriages furnished with wool blankets on bone-chilling nights. There are several other carriage operators, all of whom pick up riders in the vicinity.
It's a bit of a cliché to say that Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, but if you want to see what really makes the place special, that's where you have to go.
Sponsored by the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, Chicago Neighborhood Tours (tel. 312/742-1190; www.chicagoneighborhoodtours.com) are 4- to 5-hour narrated bus excursions to about a dozen diverse communities throughout the city. Departing at 10am from the Chicago Cultural Center, 77 E. Randolph St., every Saturday, the tours visit different neighborhoods, from Chinatown and historic Bronzeville on the South Side to the ethnic enclaves of Devon Avenue and Uptown on the North Side. Neighborhood representatives serve as guides and greeters along the way as tour participants visit area landmarks, murals, museums, and shopping districts. Tickets (including a light snack) are $30 for adults and $25 for seniors, students, and children 8 to 18. Tours do not run on major holidays (call first) or, usually, in January. Regularly available specialty tours include Literary Chicago; the Great Chicago Fire; Roots of Blues, Gospel & Jazz; Irish Chicago; and Magnificent Churches. These tours, which generally run about 4 to 6 hours and include lunch, are more expensive ($50 adults, $45 seniors and children 8-18).
On Saturday mornings in the summer, the Chicago History Museum offers 2-hour walking tours of the neighborhoods surrounding the museum: the Gold Coast, Old Town, and Lincoln Park. Led by museum docents, they average about four per month June through August. Day and evening tours are available, and a few specialty walking tours are usually offered as well. Tours are $15 per person, and registration is recommended but not required. Tours depart from the museum at Clark Street and North Avenue, and light refreshments are served afterward. In the summer and fall, the museum also offers a few half-day trolley tours that cover unique themes or aspects of the metropolitan area's history. Led by historians and scholars, they take place in the city and surrounding areas ($45). Tours depart from the Chicago History Museum at Clark Street and North Avenue. Call tel. 312/642-4600, or visit the museum's website (www.chicagohistory.org) for schedules and to order tickets online.
Groups interested in African-American history should visit Bronzeville (also known as the "Black Metropolis"), the South Side neighborhood where immigrants from the South created a flourishing business-and-artistic community in the 1930s and '40s. Walking and bus tours of the area can be arranged through the Bronzeville Visitor Information Center, 3501 S. Martin Luther King Dr. (tel. 773/373-2842; www.bviconline.info). A locally based company that specializes in black heritage tours, Black CouTours (tel. 773/233-8907; www.blackcoutours.com) offers a "Soul Side of the Windy City" tour, which includes Obama-related sites. Tour Black Chicago (tel. 773/684-9034; www.tourblackchicago.com) sells self-guided tours on CD, which are best if you're visiting with a car.
Don't be scared away by the creepy connotations. Some of Chicago's cemeteries are as pretty as parks, and they offer a variety of intriguing monuments that are a virtual road into the city's history.
One of the best area cemeteries is Graceland, stretching along Clark Street in the Swedish neighborhood of Andersonville, where you can view the tombs and monuments of many Chicago notables. When Graceland was laid out in 1860, public parks were rare. The elaborate burial grounds that were constructed in many large American cities around that time had the dual purpose of relieving the congestion of the municipal cemeteries closer to town and providing pastoral recreational settings for the Sunday outings of the living. Indeed, cemeteries like Graceland were the precursors of such great municipal green spaces as Lincoln Park.
The Chicago Architecture Foundation (tel. 312/922-TOUR ; www.architecture.org) offers walking tours of Graceland on select Sundays during August, September, and October. The tour costs $15 and lasts about 2 hours. Among the points of interest in these 121 beautifully landscaped acres are the Ryerson and Getty tombs, famous architectural monuments designed by Louis Sullivan. Sullivan himself rests here in the company of several of his distinguished colleagues: Daniel Burnham, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Howard Van Doren Shaw. Chicago giants of industry and commerce buried at Graceland include Potter Palmer, Marshall Field, and George Pullman. The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers tours of other cemeteries, including Rosehill Cemetery, suburban Lake Forest Cemetery, and Oak Woods Cemetery, the final resting place for many famous African-American figures, including Jesse Owens, Ida B. Wells, and Mayor Harold Washington.
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.