Whatever your beach-bum inclinations, one of our favorite lakeside lounges will be worth your sand dollars
We love our beaches, but when they're covered by snow six months out of the year, it's hard to tell which ones are worth a visit during our fleeting summer days. Picking one to chill out at gets trickier when you consider the vast stretches of sandy shoreline here: The Chicago Park District recognizes and manages 31 beaches alone. So we've boiled down your lakefront options to six beaches with distinctive, lovable personalities, from the South Side's ginormous Rainbow Beach to dog-friendly Montrose Beach.
Wherever you choose to go, take note: Beaches are open from 9am to 9:30pm. The Park District tests waters for bacteria often, so check www.chicagoparkdistrict.com (and click on "Swim Report") for daily updates on weather and water conditions. And put on that sunscreen—the red-lobster look is so out.
One of Chicago's largest beaches might happen to be named for World War I's 42nd Rainbow Division, but it played a role in another battle, one for civil rights. It was the site of a "freedom wade-in" on July 7 and 8, 1961, by an interracial coalition of demonstrators and members of the NAACP Youth Council protesting de facto segregation at the beach. The civil-rights activists were pelted with rocks by hostile white bathers. Today, it's a peaceful though surprisingly not well-known gathering place for the South Shore community to gather in during the warmer months.
On hot days, the beach fills with several hundred sunbathers, swimmers and neighbors catching up on the local goings-on. For a peaceful dip, get to the beach before 10am. During the week, kids in various summer day camps practically rule the place.
Location:7600 South Shore Avenue between 75th and 79th Streets, 312-747-6628.
Amenities and facilities: The surrounding park boasts a community garden, baseball diamonds, a soccer field, bike racks, drinking fountains, tennis courts and a new, modern field house with an indoor basketball court that also functions as an event hall for weddings. The entire park is stroller-and wheelchair-accessible. This beach doesn't offer kayaks or canoes; you have to go to 64th Street Beach for that. Kiteboarding and kitesurfing are prohibited. The bike path runs between the beach and the parking lot. During the summer, free youth jazz concerts and screenings of popular films liven things up.
Where to eat: A concession stand called Les Eat, just steps from the sand, serves ice cream, drinks and hot dogs. There's also a popular sub shop called Maxwell's (773-734-9901) on 79th at the park entrance.
Parking and transportation: Follow the winding drive off 79th and you'll arrive at a spacious parking lot. Bus: 6, 26, 71, 79. Metra: Elec S Chicago Line to Cheltenham.—John Dugan
12th Street Beach
Snuggled between the Adler Planetarium and Northerly Island Park (formerly Meigs Field) is a cute little sandy cove. Empty in the early afternoon aside from a few beach bums and a family or two, this is the perfect place to play hooky with your sweetheart.
For privacy and a scenic view of the lakefront, head to the far north side and cast your towel on the sand under the shade of a tree. Better yet, bring a picnic and a citronella candle; you'll feel a million miles away from the city. This isn't just a lover's hideaway, though: It's also perfect for taking the kids on a safe and cheap outing, and BYOG (that's "bring your own grill") barbecues on the lawn. Although this strip of beach is small, there is plenty of room to play, judging by the endless sand castles and the smiling faces peeping out from buried bodies.
Location:1200 South Lake Shore Drive at Solidarity Drive, 312-747-2524.
Amenities and facilities: In keeping with the gentrified South Loop, this beach just got a face-lift. New landscaping provides gardens and walkways that add to the beach's simple charm. Facilities include no-frills bathrooms, showers, drinking fountains and a beach cafe.
Where to eat: To save a buck on that hot dog and Gatorade, bypass the beach cafe and go to the southwest side of the beach to the pretzel stand. For more variety, duck into the planetarium (you won't have to pay admission if you stick to the dining area) and get salads and sandwiches at Galileo's Cafe.
Parking and transportation: To go cheap, try the meters along Solidarity Drive (only 50 cents an hour). Or if you, like other families, want to tote the grill and a yard-full of outdoor furniture onto the beach, head to the Adler Planetarium lot on Solidarity Drive. It's a stone's throw to the beach and parking costs $13 a day, $7 after 4pm, $9 before 9:30am. Bus: 12, 127, 130, 146. —Madeline Nusser
You may find a random Red Dog bottle bobbing in the lagoon and a dryer sheet caught underneath a fallen sand castle, but that won't detract from the vast beauty, history and neighborhood character of the place. Kids still splash each other and gleefully drop fishy crackers in dug-out holes where ducks and gulls meander at the pool's edge.
The beach was built in the early 1970s out of concern that West Side youth didn't haveaccess to Lake Michigan, says Chicago Park District historian Julia Bachrach. It hugs a three-to-five-feet-deep lagoon and is surrounded by grassy lawns, playing fields and Sacramento Boulevard—creating a lively community watering hole for swarms of neighborhood kids and families.
But the man-made sand berm seems out of place among Humboldt Park gems like the adjacent Prairie River, a project of one of the park's principle designers and grandfather of landscape architecture, Jens Jensen. The beach was not part of the early plans of the park, created as one of Chicago's largest in 1871. One survey likens the sandy addition to when the original refectory was demolished and replaced with the out-of-sync English Tudor-style field house in 1927, where the lifeguard rowboats now dock.
But the beach is a peaceful retreat in the early hours when your company is nothing more than migratory and native birds. And on the hottest days and weekends, kids and locals pack the chlorinated lagoon (which is drained at the end of the season), while local vendors peddle elotes nearby. If you have to hit the bathroom, you may pass through an aerobics class in the main hall of the field house or a basketball game in the gym.
Location:1440 North Sacramento Avenuebetween North Avenue and Division Street, 312-742-7545.
Amenities and facilities: There are bathrooms in the adjacent field house, which also has a swimming pool and gym. Surrounding Humboldt Beach are tennis courts, playing fields, gardens and playgrounds.
Where to eat: La Palma in the Park (1390 N Humboldt Dr, 773-227-8222) serves Puerto Rican staples like pasteles (pork tamales) and arroz con gandules (rice and pinto beans).
Parking and transportation: There's some free parking in the field house lot at 1440 North Sacramento Avenue. Bus: 70 Division, 72 North. —Leah Pietrusiak
North Avenue Beach
Seething with sexy singles playing beach sports and muscle-bound men cycling down the lakefront path, North Avenue Beach is the West Coast minus the surf. But if you're not into scoping and getting scoped, you might find this strip of sand—the most crowded in the Chicago area—a bit run-down and dirty. Don't mind that occasional stale beer and fish smell? Then spread your towel at sunset: This spot provides one of the most beautiful skyline views of the city.
Location:1600 North Lake Shore Drive at LaSalle Drive, 312-742-7725.
Amenities and facilities: That big boat-shaped building on the beach houses bathrooms, showers and a host of services. Get a beach towel or an umbrella for $10 a day, or rent a bike for a beachfront ride. You'll also find a newspaper stand, a counter-service cafe called Beachside Burger that offers hot dogs and standard beach fare, and Castaways Bar & Grill (773-281-1200) with a rooftop view of the bikini– and board-shorts–packed beach. Head to the latter for nearly daily cover bands happy to butcher classic rock tunes for your inebriated pleasure, plus daily drink (read: alcohol , legally provided) and food specials. Farther north along the beachfront path is an outdoor Bally's Total Fitness, complete with cardio equipment, free weights and group classes (think Venice Beach, Cali)—all available for free to members and for $15 a day for nonmembers. But by far, the biggest attraction on this beach is volleyball. The Chicago Sport and Social Club provides more than 50 nets for registered league play and a few for walk-ons. If volleyball is too soft for your style, NAB Sports features fight-to-the-death dodgeball tournaments and roller hockey on the north end of the beach. Drinking fountains are scattered throughout. This beach is wheelchair- and stroller-accessible.
Where to eat: After a long day in the sun, you don't want to exhaust yourself by hunting down a meal. Castaways is open until 11pm for late-night snackers, but if you want to nosh on the beach, be sure to pack a picnic—all the cafes and hot-dog stands close at 5pm.
Parking and transportation: Just east of Lake Shore Drive, LaSalle Drive dead-ends at the parking lot. Parking is expensive (one hour is $6, every additional hour is $2, three or more hours is $11), and if you can't find a space in the lot, you'll be hiking from the metered parking along LaSalle. Bus: 22, 36, 72. —Madeline Nusser
The first thing to know about Montrose Beach is that it's a misnomer. The lakefront activities stretch from Montrose Avenue all the way to Wilson Avenue, and, to further complicate matters, you'll see signs all over the place at the northernmost end that say lawrence-wilson ave. Get over it and roam around—you'll stumble on loads of fun activities. This swath of lakefront attracts more doers than spectators: Most prominent are the Latino families cooking out and Eastern Europeans who've brought their tradition of promenading to the Midwest. The dog-friendly beach closer to Wilson Avenue is always bustling, too. The good news is the water is surprisingly clean; the bad news is that, other than the breakwater rocks, it's not enclosed. There's probably enough stimulation for the doggie set to keep all but the most renegade pets from bolting.
But Montrose's lake waters hold more than just a beach. Montrose Harbor is home to the venerable Corinthian Yacht Club, which regularly hosts races. Fishermen can be seen wetting a line at the Montrose Pier thanks to its proximity to the Park Bait Company (600 W Montrose Ave, 773-271-2838). Closer to Wilson Avenue, there's a six-lane launch for boats and personal watercraft. Landlubbers love Cricket Hill, a popular runner's course. Early risers will find little Asian ladies practicing tai chi under the sun.
Location:4400 North Lake Shore Drive at Montrose Avenue, 312-742-7526.
Amenities and facilities: Bike Chicago (312-595-9600) rents hybrids and cruisers from $8 to $9 per hour, and surrey bikes, or canopied quadracycles, from $20 to $25 an hour. Kayak, sailboat and paddle boats are available through h2ofun.com. There are also bike racks and drinking fountains scattered throughout, seven soccer fields, and a nature area with bird sanctuaries and dunes. The Montrose Beach Field House (between Wilson and Montrose) has clean restrooms that actually stock toilet paper and have working sinks.
Where to eat: On the beach side is LA Concessions (312-782-9855) for snacks like ice cream, chips and hot dogs. Siam Cafe (4712 N Sheridan Rd, 773-769-6602) serves good, cheap Thai and wine and beer.
Parking and transportation: Beware of the luscious parking lot at Wilson—it's permit-only. Just east is nonmetered, legit parking right along the lake. Bus: 78, 145, 147, 151. El: Red to Wilson. —Rose Spinelli
Kathy Osterman Beach (a.k.a. Hollywood Beach)
First of all, nobody calls it Kathy Osterman beach. That's what the Park District renamed this secluded stretch of sand in Edgewater in 1992, after the late 48th Ward alderman and director of the Mayor's Office of Special Events.
But anybody who's anybody still knows it as Hollywood Beach. It's definitely more fitting, because, just like Hollywood, this beach is a little glamorous, a little tacky and ultimately too fabulous for words. The view depends on who you are: Some will take in the cityless view of the bright aquamarine water, the waves tumbling gently onto soft, warm sand; others will note the extreme thong action, which at this beach benefits gay men and straight women, because these bums belong to the boys. Don't get the wrong idea: There are plenty of other folks here, too, including families building sand castles, a bunch of volleyballers and sunbathing gals relieved they don't have to worry about being hit on. When a beach is this tranquil and idyllic, they're not going to let the gay guys have all the fun.
Location: 5800 North Lake Shore Drive at Hollywood Avenue, 312-446-4737.
Amenities and facilities: Volleyball nets are set up near the back of the beach. Bathrooms, benches and drinking fountains are all available, and the beach is wheelchair- and stroller-accessible. Shopping on Michigan Avenue may be the best prebeach activity, because the 147 bus takes off from Michigan Avenue and Delaware Place and goes straight to Foster Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, about a five-minute stroll from the beach.
Where to eat: Del Lana's Deli (773-294-4601), a cute little stand in the back of the beach, serves typical beach grub like burgers, ice cream, juices and Chicago-style hot dogs. And you can get a veggie burger if you're vegetarian or are watching your beach figure.
Parking and transportation: Street parking is highly coveted but may be found on and around Foster Avenue. El: Red to Bryn Mawr. Bus: 146, 147, 151 (24 hrs). —David Tamarkin
Oil, bake, repeat
And now for the rest of the city's lakeside retreats—beach-comb at your own pace
Juneway Terrace Beach, 7800 North (312-742-7864).
Rogers Beach, 7700 North (312-742-7864).
Howard Beach, 7600 North (312-742-7864).
Fargo Beach, 7432 North (312-742-7864).
Jarvis Beach, 7400 North (312-742-7864).
Leone Beach, 7032 North (312-742-7864).
Hartigan Beach, 6800 North (312-742-7873).
Pratt Beach, 6800 North (312-742-7873).
Columbia Beach, 6726 North (312-742-7873).
North Shore Beach, 6700 North (312-742-7873).
Albion Beach, 6600 North (312-742-7873).
Thorndale Beach, 5934 North (312-742-7523).
Foster Beach, 5200 North (312-742-7507).
Fullerton Beach, 2400 North.
Oak Street Beach, 1000 North (312-742-7890).
Ohio Street Beach, 400 North.
31st Street Beach, 3100 South (312-747-2417).
49th Street Beach, 4900 South (312-747-7610).
57th Street Beach, 5700 South (312-907-3571).
64th Street Beach, 6400 South (312-907-3592).
67th Street Beach, 6700 South (312-747-6664).
79th Street Beach, 7900 South (312-747-6628).
Calumet Beach, 9800 South (312-747-6041).
Calumet North, 9600 South (312-747-6041).
South Shore Beach, 7100 South (312-747-6664).