Alternatives: Staying Outside Downtown Chicago

By AaronJB,

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While its optimal to stay within the city of Chicago when visiting the city, there are times when rates are through the roof due to conventions (such as the National Restaurant Association convention.) Additionally, those who are willing to trek a little bit in order to save money may also find the suburbs a worthwhile alternative.

For those who are flying into the city, it's generally best to stay right near the airport, given that it's not always possible to get to suburban properties from the airport - some more isolated properties are not easily accessible by bus and busses often do not run late.

Those staying by O'Hare have a wealth of different properties to choose from, such as the newer Hotel Intercontinental O'hare, which comes complete with art gallery. The CTA Blue Line runs from O'hare to downtown.

Those who are driving in can stay in the suburbs and get the benefit of lower prices and (in most cases) free parking. The latter is an especially nice bonus because hotels charge as much as $50 downtown (and city parking is generally around $20-25 per night.)

A look at some suburban areas closer to the city:

1. Evanston-Skokie-Niles.

Area: this area includes Evanston (a college town - Northwestern), which offers a wide variety of restaurants and shops, as well as easy access to transit (there is a CTA and Metra station.) Evanston is the first city North of the border of Chicago, right along the lake.

The other main city in this zone is Skokie, which is about 15-25 minutes to the West of downtown Evanston, and includes the very nice outdoor Old Orchard Mall, which offers similar stores that North Michigan Ave. offers and a very nice environment. There are also some terrific restaurants located in the area around Skokie, but Skokie is not walkable in the way that Evanston is. Niles also falls within this zone, but the hotels in this zone are primarily in the Evanston/Skokie areas. The Evanston hotels do charge for parking (although less than downtown), but the Skokie hotels offer free parking.)

A summer suggestion for those staying in this area is Homers in nearby Wilmette, an ice cream store that that has existed since the '30's, when Al Capone was rumored to have been a customer. The Ice Cream has been awarded best in Chicago by Chicago Magazine, top 10 in the county by Bon Appetit and Finest in the Nation by American Tasting Institute.

For particularly busy days downtown, the Skokie/Niles/Evanston area can be more expensive than usual due to overflow from downtown. In that case, the next zone below is a good alternative.

2. Northbrook (Hotwire zone), North Shore (Priceline zone), Deerfield (Priceline zone.)

Area: This is a particularly nice area just a bit further North of Evanston/Skokie/Niles and offers a more suburban feel, with some terrific restaurants and a number of attractions, such as:

A. Wagner Farm. This is an actual working farm in the middle of suburbia. There are a few exhibits, as well as a variety of animals. The Glenview Farmers Market also takes place at the farm during the Summer months. Not a big place, but a fun place to stop and browse around. The Farm was originally built in the mid-1800's, and was taken over by the local Park District. Free.

B. Chicago Botanic Garden. While the name is Chicago, this is actually a very large property in the North suburbs. This is an absolutely beautiful and magnificently maintained garden that stretches across 385 acres and is broken up into many different and varied garden areas. This is one of only 10 gardens in the US recognized by the American Association of Museums, and one of the most visited gardens in the US. It does include a cafe and indoor exhibits, so that one can get out of the sun and take a break. There are often garden shows, demonstrations and other special events going on at the garden. It is also open in the winter and has some impressive holiday displays. Free admission, but rather pricey parking. See also: Chicago Botanic Garden wiki

C. Ravinia Music Festival This is a famed outdoor Music Festival (the oldest outdoor music festival in the US) that runs from late Spring into the early Fall. Ravinia attracts a variety of major acts, although they are largely geared towards an older audience (acts such as Duke Ellington, Crosby Stills/Nash, Bob Dylan, Beach Boys, Steve Martin, Moody Blues, Sheryl Crow, Sting, Counting Crows and many others), with some exceptions (Carrie Underwood). There are reasonably priced family concerts during the day and a wide variety of local performers. The main difference with Ravinia versus most other venues is that it actually does allow guests to bring in outside food. During most major concerts, there are reserved seats available in the Pavilion area, and cheaper lawn seats. Parking is a bit of a nightmare if there is a big act, but if the lots are full, there are also park and ride locations nearby.

D. Long Grove is a particularly appealing stop just to the North of this zone. This is a quaint, old-fashioned little town (complete with covered bridge) that offers occasional festivities and popular stops, such as the Long Grove Confectionery Candy Store.

Additional notes: those up for a drive can head North along I-94 to the Premium Outlet Mall, just over the border in Wisconsin. Also just over the border is the famed Mars Cheese Castle. There is also a number of additional suburbs nearby that offer shopping and great restaurants, such as Highland Park, Highwood, Lake Forest and Vernon Hills.

Overall, the Northbrook/North Shore/Deerfield area is a fine choice and rates are often quite reasonable. Two different Metra lines run through this area, although the primary one is the Milwaukee District North Line.

3. Arlington Heights-Elk Grove Village & Schaumburg

Area: This is an area off to the Northwest of the city, and Metra is also the preferred mode of transit into the city from this area. Highlights nearby include the massive Woodfield Mall shopping center (which has an utterly giant Ikea store next to it), Legoland (right by Woodfield) and, in nearby Buffalo Grove, the Factory of the Long Grove Confectionery Candy Company (and tours are available - http://www.longgrove.com/acatalog/Factory_Tours.html.) This area is further from downtown than the 1st and 2nd areas mentioned above, but will work well for those coming in from the NW.

4. Oak Brook/Downers Grove/Naperville/Lisle (PRICELINE and HOTWIRE: Lisle/Naperville are one zone, Downers Grove/Oak Brook another)

Area: This would be the recommended area for those coming in from the South. The beautiful and gigantic outdoor gardens of the nearby Morton Arboretum are a must see and Brookfield Zoo is not far to the East of this area. As with Arlington Heights/Elk Grove Village, this area is a certainly a bit of a journey via Metra downtown, but it does offer a wide variety of hotels - everything from some very nice budget friendly properties to higher end hotels (such as the Westin Yorktown and the beautiful Hyatt at McDonalds Campus, which is located on the very pretty campus of the McDonalds Global HQ.)

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