How to Get Around in Chicago (By a Local)
There are five main ways to get around Chicago: public transportation, driving, rideshares (Ubers, Lyfts, and taxis), walking, and biking. Public transportation is by far the most popular method for getting around Chicago, but the type of transportation you choose will depend on the activities you’re doing, your budget, where you’re staying, and your general travel style.
I’ve been all around Chicago, exploring tons of different neighborhoods and parts of the city. Every type of traveler will want to navigate a little differently, but I’m here to help you figure out the best way for you. Chicago has tons to see and do, and each way of getting around will give you a different experience and way of seeing the city.
Stick around till the end for extra tips on getting around — they will save you a lot of hassle.
Table of Contents
- 5 Ways to Get Around in Chicago
- 5 Tips For Getting Around Chicago
- FAQs about Getting Around Chicago
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5 Ways to Get Around in Chicago
Below, I’ll cover public transportation, driving, rideshares, walking, and biking in the Windy City, as well as the pros and cons of each. Take them each into consideration and depending on your itinerary, a combination may be the best approach.
🚍 Best for: saving money, freedom to explore, no hassle
💵 Cost: $
👉 Where to Book: CTA Website (CTA is short for Chicago Transit Authority)
Using public transport is the best and easiest way to get around the city. Chicago has the third-largest public transportation system in the U.S., and because all the train lines meet downtown to form a loop (hence the name “downtown loop”), it’s easy to navigate and access different parts of the city.
Train and bus lines are laid out like a grid, with 8 train lines and 129 bus routes in total. Throughout the city, there’s usually a train station every few blocks. This system is great for tourists because the train stations and bus stops are close to all of Chicago’s main attractions.
If you’re coming from Chicago O’Hare International Airport, the blue line will connect you to downtown Chicago. If you’re arriving from the Midway Airport, the orange line will bring you into downtown Chicago as well.
Pros of Public Transportation:
- Cheapest transportation option
- Generally hassle-free
- Easy to navigate
- An unlimited ride pass, as well as one-day passes and three-day passes are available
Cons of Public Transportation:
- Trains have occasional delays, buses are delayed more often
- Practice extra caution at night
👉 Pro Tip: Get a Ventra card on the app, or at one of the many train stations or convenience stores that sell them. You’ll need this to use any CTA trains or buses.
🚍 Best for: saving time, comfort, freedom to explore
💵 Cost: $$-$$$
👉 Where to Book: Discover Cars
For being a large city, Chicago is actually quite driveable. Many locals drive as a main mode of transportation. Getting a rental car and driving is a decent option for visitors, but by no means is it necessary for getting around Chicago.
If you’re visiting Chicago on a road trip or plan on taking Chicago day trips during your visit, then it may be an option worth considering. The main caveats of driving are finding parking spaces and dealing with heavy traffic at rush hour. Parking garages can also be expensive. For more information, read our driving in Chicago guide.
Pros of Rental Cars & Driving:
- Saves time
- Is comfortable
- Offers freedom and flexibility for exploring
- Cheaper than rideshares
Cons of Rental Cars & Driving:
- Finding parking spaces can be a hassle
- Need to know how to parallel park
- Routes, traffic rules, and general driving etiquette is a little different
📚 Wondering what to bring? Read our Chicago packing list.
🚍 Best for: saving time, comfort, accessible
💵 Cost: $$-$$$
👉 Where to Book: Uber, Lyft, taxi apps
Rideshares are largely available throughout the city at any time of day. This includes Uber, Lyft, and Chicago-based taxi services like “Curb,” which can all be booked through their respective apps.
I recommend this method of transportation if you’re heading somewhere out of the way of train and bus routes. It’s also a good option if you plan on going out at night, and want to air on the safe side.
Just know that fares fluctuate depending on location, distance, and time of day. If you have a larger group, then rideshares can be a little pricier, too. This, in conjunction with taking public transport and walking, are the most popular methods of transportation for tourists.
Pros of Rideshare:
- Generally safe
- Saves time
Cons of Rideshare:
- Pricier than public transport
- You need a smartphone
📚 Related Reading: Is Chicago Safe for Travel?
🚍 Best for: saving money, freedom to explore
💵 Cost: Free!
Walking is one of the best ways to explore Chicago. Luckily, Chicago is quite walkable with tons of wide, designated walking areas. If you plan on staying in the main neighborhood areas of Chicago (as most tourists do), then you should be able to walk between different neighborhoods, too.
Chicago also has scenic walking trails like the Lakefront Trail along Lake Michigan and the Riverwalk on the Chicago River, as well as sprawling parks like Grant Park, Millennium Park, and Lincoln Park, which are great for walking.
The city is mostly flat, so keep in mind that walking will be more about distance than difficulty. Wearing good shoes is a must. As with anywhere, practice general caution and adhere to crosswalks and other pedestrian rules.
Pros of Walking:
- Flexibility and freedom to explore
- Can go at your own pace
- Great way to see the city
Cons of Walking:
- More time consuming
- Weather permitting
- You need to be physically able
📚 Related Reading: Walking is great in the warmer months. Read our guide for more on the best times of year to visit Chicago.
🚍 Best for: saving money, saving time, freedom to explore
💵 Cost: $-$$
👉 Where to Book: Divvy Bikes
If you visit during the warmer months, biking is a great way to explore different parts of the city. Faster (and frankly more fun) than walking, biking gives you the freedom for exploration that driving and public transport don’t.
In Chicago, the main form of bike rentals are Divvy Bikes (by Lyft). Download the Divvy Bikes app to locate nearby bikes, and then you can unlock them from your phone. For a classic bike, it costs $1 to unlock and $.16 per minute of your bike ride. Bikes need to be docked back at Divvy stations when you finish.
Lastly, know that cyclists are treated like drivers by Illinois law. Only bike in designated bike lanes (this often doesn’t include the sidewalk), bike on the right side of the road, and adhere to signs and traffic lights.
Pros of Biking:
- Fun way to sightsee and great for exploring
- Faster than walking
- Environmentally friendly
Cons of Biking:
- Routes and rules can be a little confusing for tourists
- You need to be physically able
- Weather permitting
5 Tips For Getting Around Chicago
Decide the best transportation method for you
Needs and priorities are going to vary based on a variety of factors. For example, taking trains, buses, and walking are great ways to get a local feel for the city, whereas driving and taking rideshares may be more comfortable and convenient.
📚 Related Reading: 33 Best Chicago Festivals
Consider the Weather
Chicago weather can have a big impact on how you’re able to get around. For example, taking trains and buses in the winter may be safer than driving on icy roads. Walking and biking are also obviously more enjoyable in the warmer months.
Think about safety
Taking the CTA train and buses are generally safe, but if you’re out late at night, then I recommend taking rideshares just to air on the safe side. If Covid is a particular concern, renting a car may be a safer choice over using public transport.
Know the accessibility options
Chicago trains and buses are situated with ramps and other accessibility features including priority seating, wheelchair areas, and voice announcements for stops and routes.
📚 Related Reading: 33 Best Restaurants in Chicago
Consider driving differences
Driving in Chicago is a bit different than driving in surrounding suburbs and other areas. Things are a bit more fast-paced, and there are more distractions and factors to consider. For example, Chicago drivers don’t always adhere to lanes. For more information, read our driving in Chicago guide.
Take the Metra from the suburbs
If you’re traveling into the city from the surrounding suburbs, taking the Metra rail is a great option. If you’re coming from the northwest, you’ll likely ride the Union Pacific North Line down to Ogilvie Transportation Center near Union Station. If you’re arriving from the south, LaSalle Street Station and Millennium Station are the most central stations.
👉 Read Next: 20 Useful Chicago Travel Tips
FAQs about Getting Around Chicago
What is the best way to get around Chicago?
The best way to get around Chicago is by taking the CTA trains, or the “L trains” throughout the city.
Is getting around Chicago easy?
Chicago is fairly easy to navigate, especially for those who are familiar with train systems and public transport. If you aren’t familiar with this kind of transportation, apps like Google Maps and Apple Maps make this easy.
Do you need a car to get around Chicago?
You do not need a car to get around Chicago. Unless you are planning on taking a day trip outside the city, you should manage just fine by taking trains, buses, and walking.
Is Chicago walkable?
Chicago is walkable. Areas like downtown Chicago and other popular neighborhoods are extremely walkable and have tons of designated sidewalks and crosswalks.
What does the “L” mean?
Most people in Chicago refer to the train as the “L train,” which is short for “elevated train.” Most of the train system in Chicago is elevated above the ground, hence the nickname.
What’s the difference between CTA trains and Metra trains?
The CTA train is the main train for downtown Chicago and nearby communities. This is the train system that people refer to when they say the “L train” and talk about the Loop. The Metra train is different—it’s a commuter train that reaches nearby Chicago suburbs.
Map of Chicago
That’s it on getting around Chicago. Hopefully, this guide made understanding Chicago transportation a little bit easier, so you can hit the ground running once you arrive. If you’re looking for more Chicago fun, then check out our guide on the best Chicago beaches.
Have fun getting around Chicago!
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