In Chicago, a Lake Shore Dive

Try this in Manhattan: Chicago's Ohio Street Beach is one of the spots where you can jump into Lake Michigan.
Try this in Manhattan: Chicago's Ohio Street Beach is one of the spots where you can jump into Lake Michigan. (Chris McGuire - City Of Chicago)
By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008

Chicagoans are a little like Northern Europeans: After the snow melts and the sun comes out, they go outside and stay there all summer.

That's a visitor's impression, anyway, on a sunny summer day, when swarms of bikers, in-line skaters, joggers, volleyball players and swimmers hit the shore, taking advantage of the city's splendid bike path along the lake and, of course, its beaches.

Come again? Yes, for a city awfully windy about its charms, Chicago doesn't crow too much about the miles of sandy beaches on its beloved Lake Michigan, which is known for changing colors -- sea-foam green one minute, purplish blue the next. The lake is also clean (thanks to a 1900 engineering feat that reversed the flow of the Chicago River so it no longer dumped waste into the lake) and warm enough for swimming.

Maybe Chicagoans don't boast about their beaches because they want to save them for the locals. But that's a shame for visiting museum-goers, Magnificent Mile browsers and discerning diners who might never think to take along a swimsuit when packing for a business or sightseeing trip there.

Make no mistake: There are beaches near some of the most popular tourist destinations in the city, all of them free and patrolled by lifeguards from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Some beaches have bathhouses, restaurants and equipment rentals; others have little more than a strip of sand along humming Lake Shore Drive. Still, a trip to the beach in the middle of such a bustling city is a seasonal pleasure no traveler should miss.

Some sandy pearls along the tourist trail:

South Side: Where the University of Chicago and Hyde Park now sit, there used to be only swampland. But when Chicago was chosen to host the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, the land was filled in and filled up with buildings by America's foremost architects, its grounds landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted. When the exposition opened, they called it the White City and millions flocked to see it; afterward, most of the plaster-faced buildings were lost.

A survivor was the Palace of Fine Arts, now the huge, kid-friendly Museum of Science and Industry, to which visitors should devote the better part of a day. Nearby are the university, Frank Lloyd Wright's low-slung Robie House, the DuSable Museum of African American History and the Oriental Institute. But any summertime trip to the South Side should include the 57th Street and 63rd Street beaches, the latter with the ivy-covered 1919 Jackson Park Bathing Pavilion Beach House, whose splash fountain in the flower-filled Serenity Courtyard gives a modern touch to the once-elegant landmark.

Museum Campus: Clustered within walking distance of one another are some of America's finest museums: the Field Museum, the natural history museum with Sue, the most complete T. rex ever assembled, a permanent exhibit on the Aztec world and such temporary shows as "Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns and Mermaids" (through Sept. 1); the John G. Shedd Aquarium, with sharks, seahorses and a turtle named Nickel; and the Adler Planetarium, which has a virtual-reality movie theater and lots of interactive exhibits about space. After logging museum time, venture south of the planetarium and slip onto the 12th Street Beach for a swim.

Navy Pier: If you hate crowds, this is your worst nightmare. Yet Navy Pier, which juts out into Lake Michigan just north of the Chicago River, has plenty to recommend it: fireworks every Wednesday and Saturday night in summer, the Children's Museum of Chicago and a 150-foot replica of the original Ferris wheel, which debuted at -- you guessed it -- the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Before or after a trip to Navy Pier, pop over to the Ohio Street Beach for a little back-to-nature fun. The beach is barely out of earshot of the frenetic pier and Lake Shore Drive, but it feels as if it's worlds away.

Magnificent Mile: Cheery palm trees lend a tropical air to the Oak Street Beach, where kids romp and locals sun just blocks from the 100-story John Hancock Center and other downtown skyscrapers. The beach's cafe and bathhouse offer a break from the sun and sand, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, the historic Water Tower and the shops of Magnificent Mile are all mere blocks away. In training? The Oak Street Beach has a half-mile-long stretch of lap lanes parallel to shore for serious swimmers.

Lincoln Park: Need to kill time between meals or window shopping in the trendy Lincoln Park area? The North Avenue Beach is the place to show off those tan lines, where singles on the prowl share sand with neighborhood tykes. Amateur volleyball leagues commandeer plenty of sand for games, Bike & Roll rents bicycles and skates (helmets and locks included), and there's an in-line hockey rink, too. The boat-shaped beach house has a restaurant, concession stands, bathrooms and outdoor showers.

Zoo break: Two free activities in one day: The beach and Lincoln Park Zoo. The zoo is nestled in lush Lincoln Park, and you can see a wide range of critters, including flamingos, pythons, gorillas and polar bears. Cross the Diversey Harbor Lagoon on the Fullerton Parkway, then park yourself on the northernmost sandy strip of the North Avenue Beach.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company