Every fall, the Chicago Architecture Center hosts Open House Chicago, which lets everyday people get an inside look at 250 incredible spaces all over the city. From various buildings known for their architectural marvel to places of worship to gorgeous statues, Chicago has no shortage of wonderful places to see. But here’s the thing, if you aren’t here for the 48 hours when Open House Chicago takes place, does that mean you miss out on your share of sightseeing? Definitely not.
There are a number of historic landmarks you can visit while doing your own walking tour just outside of the front doors of the Chicago Athletic Association hotel on Michigan Avenue. Walk across the street and enter Millennium Park. While it’s just 14 years old, the park has given many people reason to stop and take pause. With the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (a.k.a. The Bean), Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain video sculpture and many more structures, Millennium Park has plenty to take in.
Just across the street, the Art Institute, which dates back to 1893, hosts one of the world’s most acclaimed collections of art and artifacts from around the globe throughout history. Walking its 273 galleries that span 562,000 square feet allows visitors an inside look at incredible art and history. Walk out in front of the main entrance to spot the Route 66 sign — yes, the historic highway that runs from Illinois to California begins right in the heart of Chicago at Michigan and Adams.
Head back toward and through Grant Park behind the art museum and find Buckingham Fountain. Dedicated in 1927, the fountain was designed in a rococo style by beaux arts architect Edward H. Bennett. It operates between April and October, offering visitors frequent water shows enhanced by colorful light shows. Off in the near distance, you’ll see the Museum Campus, comprising a triumvirate of historical buildings with the Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium and Field Museum.
Walking back toward Michigan Avenue, downtown’s towering skyscrapers, many designed by maverick architects like Sullivan, Burnham and Root, start to envelope you. Many of these buildings deserve your attention as you walk by and in some cases meander through. First, stroll through the majestic lobby of the Palmer House at 17 E. Monroe. Dubbed the longest continuously running hotel in North America, the property, built as a gift from owner Potter Palmer to his socialite wife, Bertha, dates back to 1871 (although that building burned down 13 days later in the Great Chicago Fire). The second property, designed by John M. Van Osdel, features a stunning lobby with a frescoed ceiling by French painter Louis Pierre Rigal as well as ornate carpeting, marble and fixtures. It’s truly a piece of Chicago history.
Walk down State Street to visit the sites of once-iconic department stores Carson, Pirie, Scott and Co (now) the Sullivan Center at 1 S. State) and Marshall Field and Co., which is now Macy’s. Up the street a bit at 175 N. State, you’ll find the Chicago Theatre. The former Balaban & Katz movie house, which was designed in the neo-Baroque French revival style by the Rapp brothers, today hosts live concerts, theater and other performances. Swing by at night to see the gorgeous marquee awash in light.
Next, walk up State to Wacker and head east toward Michigan Avenue. At the intersection of Michigan and Wacker sits the site of Fort Dearborn, a U.S. military outpost on the Chicago River built in 1804. It served as a protective fort for the civilian settlement that grew just outside the fort. While nothing remains, a few plaques mark its location. Your next stop, after all this walking and sightseeing, should be the Riverwalk just down the stairs from where you’re standing. There you’ll find an array of restaurants and bars set up along the Chicago River where you can get a bite to eat, a glass of wine and look up to take in all the gorgeous buildings that sprouted up along the waterway.