Chicago has shops selling just about anything you could want or need, be it functional or ornamental, whimsical or exotic. Although the following list only scratches the surface, it gives you an idea of the range of merchandise available.
If you think half the fun of antiquing is sorting through piles of junk to discover hidden treasures, you'll probably enjoy browsing the series of independently owned antiques stores along Belmont Avenue west of Southport Avenue. (Since it's a haul from the El, I'd recommend shopping here only if you have a car.) Chicago's best-organized and best-stocked antique shops are scattered throughout the city, but if you're willing to venture beyond the usual tourist neighborhoods, you'll be well rewarded.
Most of the city's major art galleries are concentrated in two neighborhoods. The city's original gallery district is in River North, within easy walking distance of most downtown hotels. More recently, galleries have been opening in the converted loft buildings of the West Loop, which is best reached by taxi.
Artistic Center Of The Heartland -- Chicago may have thrived as a business center and transportation hub, but it's also a gathering spot for artists from throughout the Midwest. In part, that's due to the presence of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, considered one of the best fine arts colleges in the country. The school produces a steady stream of arts-minded graduates, many of whom stay in town to work at local art galleries or fashion boutiques. Notable Art Institute alumni include painters Georgia O'Keefe and Grant Wood; iconic '70s fashion designer Halston; sculptors Claes Oldenburg, Jeff Koons, and Richard Hunt; alternative cartoonist and illustrator Chris Ware; and humorists Sarah Vowell and David Sedaris. Another downtown academic institution, Columbia College Chicago, also fosters an environment of creativity: The largest private arts and media college in the country, it offers undergraduate and graduate programs in film, arts management, creative writing, journalism, dance, and photography.
In the not-so-distant past, local fashion addicts had to head for the coasts when they wanted to shop for cutting-edge designer duds. Those days are over. While over-the-top outrageousness doesn't sell here -- this is still the practical Midwest -- stylish Chicagoans now turn to local independent boutiques when they want to stay on top of the latest trends without looking like fashion victims.
Shopping With The Pros -- Want to stay on top of the trends but have limited time to scout out hip boutiques? A guided tour of Chicago's coolest clothing shops is a great way to fit some concentrated shopping into a busy schedule. An added bonus: You'll hit the insider places only the locals know about and sometimes get exclusive discounts along the way. Shop Walk Chicago (tel. 773/255-7866; www.chicagoshopwalk.com), run by local image consultant Danielle Lutz, offers a number of different neighborhood tours (let them know the kinds of clothes you like, and they'll suggest where to go); there's also a "Made in Chicago" tour that focuses on local designers. Tours range from $50 to $90 per person for 4 hours of shopping. The company arranges custom tours on request, and for an additional fee, they'll arrange a pick-up from your hotel.
In Search of Specialty Foods
Chicago's got a huge variety of ethnic grocery stores, where you can sample authentic specialties from around the world and stock up on unusual cooking-related gifts. Because most of the shops are in residential neighborhoods far from the usual tourist haunts, the best way to get an overview of them is by taking a culinary tour, led by a guide who knows the cuisine (and, best of all, can organize tastings along the way). Ethnic Grocery Tours (tel. 773/465-8064; www.ethnic-grocery-tours.com), run by Evelyn Thompson, organizes half-day excursions for up to four people that stop at a variety of shops, from Russian to Jamaican, to Middle Eastern. Chef Rebecca Wheeler takes visitors to Southeast Asian and Indian stores and bakeries for her Ethnic Market Tours (tel. 773/368-1336; www.rebeccawheeler.com). She'll even share cooking tips so you can arrive home with a few new recipes to try out.
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.