Actually Cool Things You Can (Still) Do in Chicago Right Now

You can still have fun.

Will this be another fall full of raging football tailgates and crazy Halloween parties? Most likely not. But that doesn’t mean you still can’t have a good time. As Chicago continues to adapt to our ever-evolving new reality, mass gatherings remain on hold, yet the majority of the city’s attractions and businesses have reopened in some form in accordance with Chicago’s Phase Four reopening plan. What does that mean for you? It means a fall season filled with nature hikes, virtual festivals, and new discoveries.

Swing from the trees at the largest aerial adventure course in North America

A gigantic new 300-acre outdoor adventure park called The Forge: Lemont Quarries has recently opened in Lemont, featuring the largest aerial adventure course in North America with four ziplines, kayaking and canoeing, five miles of hiking/biking trails, laser tag, augmented reality games, an open-air market with beer garden and outdoor dining, plus an amphitheatre (on pause until 2021) for concerts and films. 

Hit up Chicago’s newest food hall (inside an old hospital)

A new food hall has recently been added to the mix as part of the massive $1 billion renovation of the historic Old Cook County Hospital building and surrounding area. Dr. Murphy’s Food Hall, Chicago’s first post-pandemic food hall, features 12 restaurants -- many of which are minority-owned -- with a diverse array of offerings from pizza and BBQ to Nepalese and Vietnamese cuisine.

Discover a cool new museum

Most of Chicago’s major museums -- including the Art Institute, Museum of Contemporary Art, Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Museum of Science and Industry -- have recently reopened. And you should definitely check them out. But for a bit more of an off-the-beaten path experience, now is the perfect time to discover a new lesser-known museum such as Columbia College’s Museum of Contemporary Photography (reserve a free ticket in advance), Intuit Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art (advanced, timed-entry tickets required), or the highly underrated American Writers Museum. The equally underrated Chicago History Museum’s new exhibit, Millions of Moments: The Chicago Sun-Times Photo Collection, is also highly recommended.

Help fight violence through the arts at Peacebook

Returning for its fifth year in 2020, rarely has the annual Peacebook festival been more essential. In the face of rising crime across the city, Collaboraction Theatre Company’s annual fall arts showcase seeks to combat violence with live performances from Chicago artists in a variety of genres. Instead of taking place in the parks and neighborhoods, this year’s performances will be held virtually with dates TBA. In its effort to unite Chicagoans of diverse backgrounds while engaging with the local peace movement, each performance is followed by a “crucial conversation” designed to inspire social change.

Wander the city on a walking tour (virtually or IRL)

Chicago Detours is offering both public and private group tours including architecture tours of the Chicago Pedway and financial district. If you’re not yet ready for that, they also offer virtual tours including a virtual Chicago boat tour. And while in-person tours from Mysterious Chicago are currently suspended, they still offer virtual tours highlighting Chicago ghosts and other creepy sides of the city.

Get lost in some local nature

The Chicago Lakefront Trail has finally reopened, but it’s not the only place to get some fresh air in the city. Did you know the entire Chicago metro area is surrounded by a 210-mile nature trail complete with Cook County Forest Preserve campsites and lakes? How about a 2.7-mile urban hiking trail along a former railway corridor? How about one of America’s newest national parks just across the Indiana border? A new section of paved trail has also recently been added to the Poplar Creek Trail, while the Chicago Botanic Garden and Garfield Park Conservatory have both recently reopened with limited capacity.

Support Chicago’s Black Community

Whatever else you do this fall, be sure to do your part and make the community we live in a better place for all its residents. Join in on some of the ongoing protests and demonstrations for racial justice and social equity taking place across the city on a regular basis, while also supporting Chicago’s Black community from nonprofits and community organizations to restaurants and bookstores. Here's our guide to doing just that.

Do some fall leaf peeping at the Morton Arboretum

No matter what is going on in the world this fall, you can always count on Mother Nature’s vibrant display of fall foliage to provide some wholesome family-friendly entertainment. Feed your soul while boosting your mental health with an autumn outing to the Morton Arboretum, a gorgeous 1,700-acre outdoor “tree museum” in Lisle. Advance timed-entry passes are required, which seem particularly useful for the busy fall leaf peeping season. (For more ideas, check out some of the rest of the city’s best nature spots.)

Take a quick road trip to discover some Illinois hidden gems

With air travel down and car travel up, it’s no secret that the Great American road trip has made a spectacular return in 2020. Luckily, you don’t have to travel too far to check out some amazing spots right here in Illinois -- from the quaint small town vibes of Galena to the sprawling Shawnee National Forest near Carbondale. Check out some more options here and, if you’re looking to cross state lines, we’ve got you covered here.

Go see some live music (virtually or IRL)

While we aren’t yet ready for packed sweaty shows in crowded clubs, a number of Chicago music venues have been slowly making cautious reopenings in recent weeks. See live music on the outdoor patios at FitzGerald’s and SPACE, hit the rooftop at Reggie’s for some live acoustic action, or check out limited capacity shows at venues including Constellation, Wild Hare, and City Winery. Have a great time by all means, but be sure to check for the latest covid restrictions and policies before you rock. (In the meantime, there are plenty of excellent virtual options from The Hideout, Empty Bottle, Experimental Sound Studio, and more.)

Try to laugh during a pandemic

If Netflix reruns of The Office aren’t quite as funny as you remember them, you might need to venture into the world for your comedy fix. Zanies has recently reopened with limited capacity, while @North is also hosting live comedy on Thursdays and Saturdays. In the virtual world, Second City has teamed up with Topic to present the new remote comedy series The Last Show Left on Earth, while ComedySportz Theater continues to stream its infamous improv battles online.

Go see a movie (or stream some local theater)

From sci-fi shows and nerd comedy to adapted Dracula performances and Improvised Dungeons and Dragons, Chicago’s independent theatre community has been working hard to continue to deliver you entertainment you won’t find anywhere else throughout the pandemic. Pay them back with a quick remote viewing and donation of local virtual performances from members of the Belmont Theater District, or go see a movie IRL at the newly reopened Music Box.

Book your own private escape room

We’re not sure why anyone would want to voluntarily trap themselves inside an escape room after six months of living a real-life escape room experience. But hey, to each their own. We don’t judge. Popular local escape room Fox in a Box offers private escape room experiences including a bank, prison, and bunker for teams of 3-6 players.

Two words: floating cinema

While one positive byproduct of covid has been the Chicago area being flooded with new outdoor cinema options throughout the summer months, come fall get ready to hear the words “floating cinema.” Yeah, you heard that right. Floating Boat Cinema: Chicago sets up shop in the city September 9-13 with 12-24 socially distanced mini boats, each holding up to eight people. Movies are set to be a mix of classics and new releases, with free popcorn for everyone and other movie snacks and drinks available for purchase before you set sail.

Feast on a virtual food festival

Chicago Gourmet may not be happening IRL until September 2021, but this fall the city’s annual outdoor epicurean feast will be taking place online with a few intimate experiential events being held in person at local restaurants and small venues limited in size. New in 2020, Chicago Gourmet will also be unveiling Go Gourmet, the festival’s virtual program featuring livestreamed discussions and demonstrations.

See live “mobile performances” at Hyde Park Jazz Fest

The annual multi-venue Hyde Park Jazz Fest is planning its triumphant 2020 return for September 26-27, with livestreamed concerts and live in-person “mobile performances” by local Chicago artists. All programs will comply with the latest state and city health and safety recommendations.

Admire cool Chicago architecture (from afar) at Open House Chicago 

A fall tradition, the Chicago Architecture Center’s annual Open House Chicago is returning October 16-25 with some significant modifications. No interior tours of the various buildings will be allowed, with visitation instead focused on the building exteriors and surrounding neighborhoods. The good news? The event is expanding to 10 days across more than 20 different neighborhoods.

Get boozy at a virtual beer festival

Fall beers are always a highlight of November’s annual Festival of Barrel Aged and Wood Beers (FOBAB), which is going virtual for 2020. While the in-person festival portion of the event has been cancelled, FOBAB 2020 will still include the annual competition and awards ceremony, as well as innovative ways to get FOBAB beers into your greedy little hands.

Party hearty with a boozy cocktail kit from a local bar

It’s no secret that it’s been a rough year for Chicago bars. And while they are currently being forced to close at midnight due to covid, you can still mix a cocktail at any hour of the night from the comfort of your home -- from upscale offerings by folks like The Aviary and Violet Hour to more down-to-Earth booze creations such as Big Star margaritas and Twisted Spoke Bloody Marys. You can also go tiki with tropical creations from 3 Dots and a Dash. All four bars are also currently serving drinks on their outdoor patios and rooftops, so go check 'em out.

Order in Chicago’s holy trinity of hot dogs, pizza, and Italian beef

While we can’t be out at the stadium munching on hot dogs and pizza, we can still recreate the holy trinity of signature Chicago foods thanks to the miracle of takeout. Order delivery from old-school Al’s Beef for your Italian beef fix, dial up Pequod’s for some amazing caramelized-crusted deep dish delights, or make your way over to Superdawg for the classic Chicago-style hot dog experience -- the drive-in is still open.The Superdawg drive-in is also open, and Pequod’s is one of hundreds of restaurants currently open for socially distant dine-in (with masks required when not seated).

Prepare for your at-home power meeting Zoom session with a Manny’s Deli order

It's been a last meal request. It's been a hangover cure. President Obama dined there. As did President Clinton. As did just about every politician who ever set foot in Chicago. And so should you. Power lunch on a Reuben or beef pastrami with a takeout order from this legendary cafeteria-style diner where business (and the occasional shady deal, of course) gets done in Chicago. Who cares if you’re still not in an actual office and your suit is now a pair of flannel pajamas? No one. The deli grocery counter is also open for regular walk-in business.

Go on the ultimate Chicago outdoor mural crawl

One thing Covid can’t stop is the city’s thriving street art scene, which can best be enjoyed IRL via an urban mural crawl. Start your excursion in Pilsen, where dozens of vibrant murals turn the neighborhood’s streets and alleys into an outdoor feast for the senses. Check out standout options like the Hector Duarte Studio at 1900 W. Cullerton before making your way to Logan Square to marvel at the famous Robin Williams mural outside Concord Music Hall and the nearby “Greetings From Chicago” mural at 2226 N. Milwaukee. Finish the mural crawl with a trip to Rogers Park, where you can see a mile-long stretch of wall art along the Red Line path as well as the brightly colored seawall of murals off the lake at Tobey Prinz Beach Park.

Check out the public art downtown (while social distancing, of course)

Looking to get out of the house and stretch your legs a bit? Yes, you can go see The Bean, but don’t stop there. Swing by the “Chicago Picasso,” or the Calder “Flamingo.” Head down to the southern end of Grant Park to walk among the giant, headless sculptures that make up “Agora.” Take a selfie with the Art Institute lions. And be sure to check out the new “People in Your Neighborhood” installation along the Chicago Riverwalk between Lake and Franklin. The concentration of world-class public art in downtown Chicago is astounding and not to be missed. And, most crucially of all, still open during a pandemic. Just keep your six feet, okay?

Recreate your own date night at home

When it comes to dating at home, there are options besides pizza delivery and Hulu. (But if you are getting takeout, hit up the fondue from Chicago’s romance mainstay Geja’s Café.) Otherwise, you can nerd out with some digital cosplay with GeekHaus, get creative at a virtual paint and sip party with VIP Paints, or get a little naughty with Michelle L’amour’s sexy Quarantine Cabaret. You can also virtually party with drag queens at the weekly Drag Mati-Net if that’s your thing.

Cruise Chicago’s Emerald Necklace

A scenic drive around the city is never a bad idea, especially before winter kicks in.Yes, you could certainly cruise Lake Shore Drive. And by all means, you should. But for a lesser-known option that allows you to see the actual beating heart of the city instead of just highway, seek out Chicago’s Emerald Necklace, a 26-mile network of interior city streets and wide boulevards. Linking together some of the city's most grandiose parks like Humboldt, Garfield, Washington, and Jackson parks, this is the way Chicago was meant to be seen -- with the added bonus of being excellent quarantine therapy.

Make a mental health pilgrimage to the Shit Fountain

If you’re in the Ukrainian Village area and looking to do the whole public art crawl thing, you may not have as dense of a concentration of murals as Pilsen or as many fine art sculptures as downtown. But you have one thing those other places can’t touch: the one and only Shit Fountain. The human feces-shaped sculpture is located on a residential front lawn just off Augusta and Wolcott, created by a Chicagoan fed up with dog poop. Cheers.

Smoke some of Illinois’ “essential” legal green

Who knew that just a few months after Illinois became the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana that a full-blown public health emergency would bring our society to its knees? Can you imagine dealing with the current situation without a little green? We don’t even want to imagine it -- and you don’t have to either. Deemed essential businesses, Illinois marijuana dispensaries are still open for business, with certain restrictions depending on the business. Check out our full dispensary rundown for details.

Listen to a local podcast

Finally, you have plenty of time to catch up on that podcast you’ve always been meaning to listen to. Luckily, Chicago is rife with an array of interesting options. Get your politics fix with David Alexrod’s The Axe Files, nerd out on music with Greg Kot & Jim DeRogatis’ Sound Opinions, learn about unique aspects of local city life with WBEZ’s Curious City, drink virtual beer while exploring the brewing industry with Good Beer Hunting, or give Hollywood a lesson or two via Chicago-based Please Make This. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Take a virtual tour of Chicago filming locations

Chicago has long been a popular TV and movie filming location, and the City of Chicago has assembled some of the finest spots to appear on both the big and small screen that you can visit during the age of coronavirus. On the tour of movie filming sites, hit up outdoor screening locales from Blues Brothers, High Fidelity, The Untouchables, and more. On the tour of TV filing sites, check out Google Street View images of sites such as the Gallagher House from Shameless, Molly’s Pub from Chicago Fire, District 21 Police Station from Chicago PD, and more.

Discover a new cool neighborhood

While you’re cooped up during Covid, it can be tempting to never leave your six-block radius. But if you look at things another way, there’s never been a better time to discover a new favorite 'hood. As any Chicagoan knows, the real heart of the city lies within Chicago’s spectacularly diverse 77 neighborhoods. From the laid-back residential enclave of Norwood Park to the cool historic sights of Bronzeville, there’s always a new neighborhood to explore in a city that’s meant to be explored on foot. Yes, even during a pandemic.

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Jay Gentile is a Thrillist contributor, and he always hits the Times Square Sbarro with Michael Scott whenever he’s in NYC. Follow @thejaygentile.