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Downtown Chicago Neighborhoods
The city’s business is conducted in downtown Chicago. The “City that Works” is my beloved city’s motto. And boy do we know how to work! But we also know how to live well, treat our neighbors with respect (but who am I kidding we don’t always agree) and deal with the cold.
Twenty-one thousand people call the downtown area home. The downtown area of Chicago is made up of several neighborhoods:
- South Loop
- West Loop
- Lake Shore East
- River North
- Gold Coast
In this article, I focus on the downtown Chicago River North neighborhood. The River North neighborhood is bordered west and South by the Chicago River. The region bumps up against the area of Streeterville on the east side (Michigan Avenue or Rush Street depending on who you speak to). Chicago Avenue is the northern border.
I will discuss:
- history of Chicago’s River North
- where to stay
- what to do
- where to eat
What should you know about Chicago River North
When I first moved to Chicago in the 80s, River North was very shady. Frankly, it was an area of downtown where people, looking for a good time, engaged in illicit activities after dark.
Who can forget Clearwater Suites (hourly…wink, wink…hot tub suite rentals)? Or T-Jays’ Adult Bookstore with the peep show entertainment in the back and all kind of kinky shenanigans that the River North neighborhood was known for?
The River North area was the Red Light district of downtown Chicago
Chicago’s River North neighborhood. You’ve come a long way, baby.
It’s humble beginnings of Chicago River North Neighborhood
With its location on the Chicago River, it was the home of many factories and a major railroad hub during the beginning of the 20th century. Factory worker and their families lived in the River North neighborhood to be close to work
In the 1920s during prohibition River North’s most important call to fame was bootlegging and mob activity. Due to an increase in crime and other nefarious activities in the neighborhood, many residents decided to move.
The River North neighborhood then became the Red light district – seedy. It was a picture of urban decay.
This area languished for decades. Several buildings were torn down to make way for parking lots. It was not an area you wanted to be caught hanging about at night
The gentrification of the Chicago River North Neighborhood
The 1970s brought change to the neighborhood. Renovations of factories into residential space and repurposing of old warehouses into office space were happening all over the place. Art galleries began migrating to River North neighborhood and artists called the area home because properties were dirt cheap back then.
High-rises were built to contain businesses such as law offices, architectural firms, and ad agencies.
The rise of the Chicago River North Neighborhood
Over the years, River North metamorphosed time and time again. Since the 1990s, River North has become known for being trendy, artsy and the center of nightlife for downtown Chicago.
Fast forward to now. The River North neighborhood is still red hot but not because it’s still the Red Light District.
If the Loop is the center of business, then River North is where the city puts down it briefcase and hard hats lets its hair down and have fun.
Things to do in the River North neighborhood
River North nightlife
This neighborhood has the largest concentration of bars, clubs, and restaurants in the city. River North comes alive at night. You will find something here that tickle your taste buds or move your feet. If you love the nightlife, you will love River North!
Here are my suggestions for the best venues for drinks and music in the River North neighborhood – click on each link for more information:
- Redhead Piano Bar (16 West Ontario)
- Pop for Champagne (601 North State Street)
- Blue Chicago (536 North Clark)
- Andy’s Jazz Club (11 East Hubbard)
Daytime in the River North
During the day, you will want to browse the many art galleries. The River North neighborhood has the largest cluster of art galleries in the United States, outside of New York City. Even if you don’t plan on buying; it’s pretty cool to browse.
Here are my suggestions for River North art galleries that you shouldn’t miss:
- Melanee Cooper Gallery (740 North Franklin)
- Jean Albano Gallery (215 West Superior)
- Stephen Daiter Gallery (230 West Superior)
The Merchandise Mart (222 West Merchandise Mart Plaza) is the world’s largest commercial building. It spans two city blocks and up until a decade or, two had its own zip code.
It is an exciting piece of architecture – it looks like a fortress surrounded by a moat (the Chicago River). On the Chicago River side of the Merchandise Mart, you will find the busts of the early 20th-century captain of industry. The Kennedy family owns the building.
I’m in love with its food court, where I use to take my lunch breaks when I worked at the Merchandise Mart. Check out Mezza Grill (OMG, the chicken shawarma was divine) or the Habanero Baja Grill (my favorite was the rice bowls).
My favorite way to view the Merchandise Mart is aboard Chicago’s First Lady. The Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise (I think cruise season is over in October or early November – depending on the weather). Click here for more information on tickets.
River North Architecture
The architecture in the River North neighborhood reflects its “phoenix rising from the ashes” symbol of rebirth and renewal. You will find the architecture of the River North neighborhood to reflect its artsy, somewhat glitzy and re-purposed vibe.
To learn about the River North neighborhood and its architecture, check out the Chicago Architecture Center walking tour, ” River North: Transformation of a Neighborhood.” Please note that this tour is only offered seasonally.
To be notified about when tickets are sold for this tour, email the Chicago Architecture Center at email@example.com.
Where to eat
If you’re a foodie, you will love the River North neighborhood. It’s hard to settle on a favorite spot, but here are my picks:
- Shaw’s Crab House (21 East Hubbard)
- Portillos (100 West Ontario)
- Purple Pig (444 North Michigan)
- Gene and Georgetti Steakhouse (500 North Franklin)
Where to stay in the Chicago River North neighborhood
My hotel pick for the River North Area is the beautiful Westin River North. It is located on the Chicago River (the Riverwalk) at 320 North Dearborn Street; right across the street from the House of Blues and Marina Towers (the twin corncob buildings). Gorgeous, gorgeous hotel with amazing views of the city. And within walking distance of tons of eating options.
* If you’ve ever watched the movie “Hunter” with Steve McQueen you will see the famous car chase shot on location at the Marina Towers. I won’t give away what happens next but check out this article about Marina Towers >>>>click here. And of course, watch the movie. It’s a good one.
Another option for accommodations is Airbnb. Hotels can be expensive in the Chicago River North neighborhood. But man, scoring a gorgeous, reasonably priced studio from Airbnb is a cheaper (and absolutely cool) option. Click here to check out prices on Airbnb accommodations in the River North area.
Is the Chicago River North neighborhood safe?
Like all downtown Chicago neighborhoods, the River North neighborhood is heavily patrolled by the Chicago Police. You will find plenty of foot traffic in this neighborhood, even after midnight and early morning. A lot of bars, clubs, and restaurants in this area have late hours. It’s a beautiful neighborhood, especially at night.
However, like any big city, please exercise common sense when exploring the River North neighborhood, especially if you find yourself out and about after dark.
Getting around the River North neighborhood
Exploring by foot is the best way to check out the River North neighborhood. Other options are public transportation (for more information, go to transitchicago.com), Uber, taxi or bicycle (divvy bike).
If you decide to drive be ready to be stressed. Driving downtown Chicago can be hair-raising. And OMG – parking your vehicle will be expensive. Metered street parking is available, and there are plenty of high-priced parking garages in Chicago River North.
I recommend reading “Parking in Chicago” by Local Tourist for a great breakdown of parking in the downtown area.
How to get to Chicago
Two airports service the Chicagoland area; O’hare Airport (ORD) and Midway Airport (MDW). You are going to have plenty of ground transportation options once you land. However, the fastest and cheapest way to get downtown is by public transportation. Both airports are easily accessible by public transit; the Chicago ‘L’ trains.
Traffic from the airports is horrible unless you fly in very early or late (after 7 PM). Unless you love sitting in mind-numbing traffic, I recommend taking the ‘L.’ During rush hour (6 AM- 10 AM and 2 PM – 6:30-7 PM), it can take up to 2 hours to reach downtown from either airport (even though MDW is a lot closer to downtown).
Three expressways run through the Chicagoland area: Interstate 90/94, Interstate 55, Interstate 290.
Stay safe in Chicago
Yes, parts of Chicago can be dangerous. But don’t most cities (both U.S. and abroad) have elements that are considered not safe? With a little street-savvy and awareness of how you’re presenting yourself, you will be fine.
- Just like any city that you visit, always be aware of your environment.
- Try not to appear touristy.
- If you’re like me and love carrying huge-ass purses, make sure the bag has a shoulder strap that you can wear across your body.
- Never leave your purse on the back of your chair. Especially if you are enjoying a meal at one of Chicago’s many sidewalk cafes/restaurants.
- Do not take shortcuts through alleys. No matter how tempting.
- When going out at night, stick to well-lit sidewalks, main streets, and parks. The lakefront is gorgeous at night. Full of good people with neighborly and friendly mid-western values. Join them and enjoy the amazingly beautiful city that is Chicago. I never get tired of the welcoming energy of my city.
- Enjoy yourself.
The City of Chicago Police heavily patrols the downtown area and all neighborhoods. University Police also patrol some neighborhoods such as Hyde Park and parts of Lincoln Park. So like I said…feel free to enjoy yourself but do it safely.
For more information on Chicago neighborhoods, check out the following articles:
- Where to stay in Chicago: An Insider’s Guide to Chicago Hotels
- 17 Chicago Festivals and Events You Don’t Wanna Miss
- What You Wanna Know About Where to Stay in Chicago Downtown Loop
- Why You Will Love Wacker Drive As I Do
- Chicago’s Streeterville: Hot Chicago Neighborhoods You Should Visit