Chicago, IL and Lake Michigan

24 Things to Know About Living in Chicago Before You Move There

*Updated 10/3/16

The Second City—that is, Chicago, Ill.—has so many interesting things about it that make it one of the top cities in the United States. Rich in history, culture, and potential for the future, there’s no denying Chicago is a “place to be” for many Americans (around 2.7 million Americans, actually). If you’re moving or relocating to the Windy City, here are 24 things you should know about living in Chicago.

1. BIG CITY, BIG EMPLOYMENT.

Chicago Skyline
Photo by Dalton Reed

Chicago wasn’t called “The City That Works” for nothing! Home to 31 Fortune 500 company headquarters—including airplane manufacturer Boeing, family brand Kraft Foods Group, Inc., insurance giant Allstate Corporation, construction equipment manufacturer Caterpiller Inc., and even global fast-food chain McDonald’s Corporation—Chicago has plenty of employment opportunities for anyone looking to work with a big company in an even bigger playing field.

2. AFFORDABLE COST OF LIVING.

Apartment in Chicago
Photo by Jaysin Trevino

Despite being the third largest metropolitan area in the U.S., Chicago’s cost of living is just above the U.S. national average. So if you’re moving from a more modest city in the Midwest to Chicago, it’s an easy step up. Or if you’re moving from NYC or Los Angeles (the top two metros in the U.S.), it’s a great step down! In fact, let’s say you moved to Chicago from Manhattan. According to CNN Money’s Cost of Living Calculator, you’d spend about 20% less on utilities and a shocking 70% less on housing while still getting the “big city” experience. As for average rent, you’re looking at about $1,341 a month for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,744 a month for a two-bedroom apartment. Sounds like a good reason to move to Chicago!

3. UNIQUE AREAS WITHIN THE CHICAGO METRO.

Puerto Rican Festival in Chicago
Photo by TheeErin

Within Chicago’s 237 square miles of land, there are 77 communities and more than 100 neighborhoods, all with their own identities. For instance, the Puerto Rican roots in Humboldt Park in West Chicago run deep while North Chicago’s Uptown embraces its prohibition history with jazz and nightlife! For fine arts and museums, you’ll want Bridgeport and Hyde Park in South Chicago. And if you want the major tourist spots like “The Bean” in Millennium Park or the Chicago Theatre District, head to the Downtown Chicago Loop.

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4. CHICAGOANS LOVE FESTIVALS.

Jets flying in Chicago
Photo by Benjamin Lipsman

One of the most well-known festivals in Chicago is Lollapalooza—a three-day music event that takes place in the Loop’s Grant Park each August. Originally a concert tour in the ’90s, it became a bigger deal in 2004 and has featured hundreds of acts, including Red Hot Chili Peppers, Black Sabbath, and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. For something less musical, catch stunt pilots, parachuters, and water skiers at the Air and Water Show, a free summer event that’s entertained Chicago families and tourists for decades. Of course, you can’t forget the world’s largest food festival, Taste of Chicago, where millions of people try out local fare!

5. “DIBS” IS A REAL THING FOR PARKING.

Photo by vxl
Photo by vxl

Just like it sounds, the good people of Chicago claim dibs with parking spots on the street, particularly in the winter. The rules are simple enough. If you dig out a spot or find a place that’s been cleared, you mark it with anything you have on hand. Prime examples include lawn furniture, kids’ tables, or traffic cones. Other examples can be a bit stranger, like a walker or even a creepy doll with a note. Some Chicagoans hate it; others love it. Regardless of where you stand, calling “dibs” is a thing.

6. WHERE EPIC FOOD IS BORN.

Boxes of Cracker Jacks
Photo by Mike Mozart

Chicago was host to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, more commonly known as the World’s Fair. While the details of food firsts have been lost to the pages of history, this is where Cream of Wheat and Juicy Fruit gum first appeared. The World’s Fair is also said to be where Pabst got its namesake Blue Ribbon, Frederick William Rueckheim first sold Cracker Jacks, and Antonoine Feuchtwanger took his wife’s advice to serve his pork sausages in rolls (which you may better know as “hot dogs”).

7. KETCHUP IS A NO-NO ON HOT DOGS.

Chicago hot dog with pickles and tomatoes.
Photo by Ryan Ready

Speaking of hot dogs, don’t bother putting ketchup on them in Chicago. Seriously, you will get looks—both judgmental and concerned—if you’re seen placing ketchup on your hot dog. You can, however, get that tomato taste with fresh tomato slices combined with a kosher pickle, yellow mustard, onions, relish, and a sports pepper or two at places like Red Hot Ranch in Bucktown. Fancy or minimal, the point is ketchup isn’t allowed near your dog, dawg.

8. THE FAMOUS CHICAGO DEEP-DISH.

Deep dish pizza
Photo by Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar

Chicago is known for its deep-dish pizza. Chicagoans recommend spots like Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, Giordano’s, or Gino’s East. Rest assured, however, that there are places you can go to get a local Chicago pizza that isn’t baked with a three-inch crust, stuffed with “toppings,” and smothered in sauce, such as Piece Brewery & Pizzeria in Wicker Park for some New Haven-style pizza.

9. TWINKIES WERE A CHICAGO FIRST.

Twinkies
Photo by Christian Cable

Chicagoan Jimmy Dewar, manager of Continental Baking Company, invented the Twinkie in 1930 when he was contemplating what to do with machines for creating cream-filled strawberry shortcakes while strawberries weren’t in season. He named the Twinkie after seeing a billboard for “Twinkle Toe Shoes” and originally filled the golden snack cakes with banana cream. However, since bananas were rationed during World War II, he switched to vanilla, which has been used ever since. Despite a dark patch of time between 2012 and 2013 that we should never speak of again, the Twinkie is the iconic American snack.

10. TAKE IN A VIEW OF THE CITY.

Chicago's skyline
Photo by Monika Thorp

Chicago’s skyline is nothing if not impressive. It’s ranked among Emporis’ tallest skylines in the world and even made USA Today’s 10 Best Readers’ Choice best skylines in the U.S. The city has 1,180 buildings that stand more than 11 stories high, including the John Hancock Center and the Sears Tower (Don’t call it the Willis Tower unless you want to look like a tourist). Soon, the Vista Tower will take its place in the Chicago skyline as the city’s third tallest building.

11. SKYSCRAPERS STARTED IN CHICAGO.

Chicago Skyscaper
Photo by Kristina D.C. Hoeppne

Chicagoland has always been home to tall buildings, all the way back to 1884. Though nothing compared to today’s architectural heights, Major William Le Baron Jenney started the trend with the ten-story Home Insurance Building. It was also the first time a steel frame was used to support the entire weight of a building’s walls. This development helped spur future developments, such as Burnham and Root’s 1889 Rand McNally Building in Chicago—the first all-steel framed skyscraper.

12. THE FIRST FERRIS WHEEL.

First ferris wheel in Chicago
Photo by C.D. Arn

Daniel Burnham (of Burnham and Root) was one of many designers for the 1893 World’s Fair. At the time, they needed something to outdo the 1889 Paris Exposition’s centerpiece: the 1,063 foot tall Eiffel Tower. So they turned to American engineer George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. The original Chicago Wheel stood 264 feet high, rotated on a 71-ton, 45.5-foot axle, and weighed more than 89,000 pounds—not including the two 16-foot-diameter, 53,000 pound cast iron spiders. Sixty people could ride in one of the wheel’s 36 cars for 20 minutes, completing two revolutions for only 50 cents.

13. BULLS, BEARS, AND BLACKHAWKS.

Statue at Chicago Art Institute wearing Bears helmet
Photo by John Bracken

First and foremost, Chicagoans don’t all sound like Bill Swerski’s Superfans, but they are loyal to their teams. Both the NBA’s Chicago Bulls and NFL’s Chicago Bears have a long history of being predominant teams on the national stage, and the Chicago Blackhawks have won two NHL Stanley Cups since 2010. Pretty much everyone agrees on loving these teams. When it comes to baseball, however, things get crazy.

14. CHOOSE A BASEBALL SIDE.

Wrigley Field in Chicago, IL
Photo by aaronHwarren

Crosstown Classic, Windy City Showdown, Red Line Series—doesn’t matter what you call it, when the Cubs and White Sox play, lines are drawn. The rivalry goes back to the early 1900s when the American League was formed to challenge the National League. While both teams originally met in the 1906 World Series, most match-ups have been strictly for bragging rights. Cubs fans (a.k.a. North Siders) go to Wrigley Field in Chicago North Side while Sox fans (a.k.a. South Siders) meet at South Side’s U.S. Cellular Field.

15. CRITICALLY-ACCLAIMED THEATRE.

Oriental Theatre in Chicago, IL
Photo by Dylan Stark

The Windy City is home to more than 200 theaters, such as the The PrivateBank Theatre, Oriental Theatre, and the Broadway Playhouse. With so many venues, both large and small, you can find a show every night in any genre you can imagine. Whether it’s a Broadway production like The Book of Mormon, Wicked, The Lion King, and Hamilton or some hilarity with Chicago’s Second City improv group, there’s no lack of entertainment.

16. AN ARTISTIC PARADISE.

Interior of Art Institute in Chicago
Photo by Vasenka Photography

If you want to experience both local and international art, you’ll happy to know Chicago has hundreds of art galleries. Be sure to check out 2nd Fridays at the Chicago Arts District in the Lower West Side, where more than 30 galleries invite guests to take in new exhibits and pieces. You should also never miss a chance to visit the Art Institute of Chicago, home of the largest collection of impressionist paintings outside of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, France. Its collection includes Vincent van Gogh’s Self-portrait, Georges-Pierre Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, and Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

17. BIRTHPLACE OF MAJOR AMERICAN MUSIC.

Man playing saxaphone
Photo by Bryan Thompson

Chicago has been a hot spot for music since the early 1900s. In fact, the term “jazz” was coined in Chicago in 1914, and the city was home to the “King of Swing” Benny Goodman and legendary big-band drummer Gene Krupa. Other fun facts: In 1977, Chicago opened La Mere Vipere, America’s first punk rock club, and Chicago disc jockeys in 1984 played various dance mixes that eventually led to the birth of house music.

18. SHOP THE MAGNIFICENT MILE.

Magnificent Mile in Chicago, IL
Photo by Harry Pujols

The Magnificent Mile district stretches for 13 blocks of North Michigan Avenue from the banks of the Chicago River to the south and Oak Street to the north. Its history goes all the way back to 1871 when the Water Tower was one of the few buildings to survive the Great Fire. More than a century later, it’s now host to a number of great shopping spots, hotels, and attractions and is considered one of the most internationally recognized shopping districts.

19. NAVY PIER.

View of Navy Pier in Chicago, IL
Photo by Serge Melki

Another historic spot that has since become a modern tourist attraction is Navy Pier. Originally built in 1916 as a commercial pier and entertainment area, Navy Pier boasts an average of 3.2 million visitors each year. Some locals may think it’s just for tourists, but a ride on the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel is worth a visit for just about anyone. Not to mention, it has fantastic fireworks displays on the 4th of July and New Year’s Eve.

20. HEAD TO THE BEACH AT LAKE MICHIGAN.

People hanging out at the beach in Chicago
Photo by gezell river

Lake Michigan has about 26 miles of public lakefront property for residents to enjoy and about 15 miles of bathing beaches. Locals recommend Kathy Osterman Beach in the Edgewater neighborhood, Near North Side’s Oak Street Beach, or Lincoln Park’s North Avenue Beach. Though people don’t always take a dip in the lake (thanks to occasional contaminants), it’s a great place to soak up some sun.

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21. FUN AT THE CHICAGO RIVER.

Chicago River
Photo by vxla

The Chicago River flows through the city and into Lake Michigan, and it actually provides more than a nice view. For instance, the Chicago’s Plumbers Union dyes the river a shade of bright green each St. Patrick’s Day, and you can help raise more than $300,000 for athletes in the Illinois Special Olympics each summer by adopting a rubber duck in the annual Windy City Rubber Ducky Derby.

22. HANG OUT AT MILLENNIUM PARK.

Millennium Park in Chicago
Photo by calamity_sa

Sitting next to Grant Park on Michigan Avenue is Millennium Park, an iconic Chicago scene. The park was opened in 2004 and has a number of big attractions, like the Cloud Gate, more commonly known as “The Bean.” Locals enjoy seeing musical and entertainment performances at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion and cooling off at Crown Fountain.

23. ENJOY NATURE WITHOUT LEAVING THE CITY.

Flowers in Chicago
Photo by Ryo Chiljiiwa

If you’re looking to experience nature without actually leaving Chicago, be sure to visit the West Side’s Garfield Park Conservatory or the Lincoln Park Conservatory. Garfield Park is recognized as one of the largest greenhouses in the U.S. and has eight connected greenhouses that feature 2,000 different species of plants while Lincoln Park has four display houses that also showcase a variety of plants.

24. ONE OF THE LAST FREE ZOOS IN THE WORLD.

Lion at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, IL
Photo by Valerie Everett

Not only is the Lincoln Park Zoo one of the oldest in the U.S., it’s also one of the few remaining free zoos in the world. You can stroll through the 35-acre zoo and check out roughly 200 species, including polar bears, gorillas, and reptiles. A favorite for residents and tourists alike is the Kovler Lion House, which is home to the Eurasian lynx, the African lion, and other big cats.

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What would you add to our list of great things about living in Chicago, IL?

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All images have either been provided by a listed organization or are licensed under the Creative Commons.