Lake Michigan is not the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, but it’s big enough so that all you can see is undulating water abutting the horizon as you gaze east. It serves as our sublime spot of zen as well as a ridiculously populated place for people watching, especially in the summer. This town can brag about having one of the most attractive and accessible shorelines in the country as well as fine beaches that remain free.
Oak Street Beach
1000 N. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60611
If there’s a movie shooting in town and the director needs a beach scene, Oak Street is the money shot with Chicago’s magnificent architecture serving as backdrop and sailboats bobbing on the lake. You can shop Michigan Avenue and Gold Coast shops, lunch in the Streeterville neighborhood and walk off the calories with a stroll to the summer hotspot. Why walk? Grown men have been known to weep trying to find a place to park. Amenities include chair, bike and volleyball rentals, facilities to change clothes and rinse off after a sandy afternoon and sustenance at Oak Street Beach Café (drinks can be pricey). Stop by during one of many amateur or professional volleyball tournaments that are held here during the summer months.
North Avenue Beach
1603 N. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60614
Situated at the easternmost end of Lincoln Park, this beach has location on its side: you can visit Lincoln Park Zoo (still free), meander through the park, picnic and then dig your toes into the warm sand at the beach. Nosh at Castaways Bar & Grill for beachside ice cream, appetizers, burgers, sandwiches, salads and refreshing cocktails. Rent a bike or get your’s fixed right on the beach; compete in roller hockey, dodgeball and more at the open-air sports facility; play chess at the sturdy stone tables; fashion your best downward dog with outdoor beach yoga seven days a week; and make your own fun with wakeboard, kayak, jet ski, volleyball and paddle board rentals. There is an ADA accessible beach walk, plenty of restrooms, the historic Boat House, ATM machines and a smattering of paid parking in an adjacent lot.
4400 N. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60640
Generally less crowded than Oak Street and North Avenue beaches, Montrose can also boast some free parking in the Uptown neighborhood as well as an adjacent area for pooches to splash in the chilly Lake MIchigan water. Amenities include food and beverage concessions, full service restaurant with live music, kayak, jet ski and volleyball rentals, showers and restrooms. If the beach house looks familiar, it was designed to mimic the facility at North Avenue Beach. You’ll see more families with kids running in glee than fashionistas and flexing body buiders, however, aforementioned families can leave a grimy carbon footprint. Check out the dune habitat south of the beach that attracts migratory birds during fall and spring.
5200 N. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60640
Move north and find a more peaceful alternative to the college hi jinx going on at North Avenue. That’s not to say Foster is not abuzz and swarming with kids, especially on a hot weekend. Canines love their little slice of heaven on northeast end, too. Amenities include a newer beach house with food and drinks, bike rentals and restrooms. Bring a picnic and stake out a spot under the trees in the southern end of the beach.
Kathy Osterman Beach (Formerly Hollywood Beach)
5800 N. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60626
This is a tale of two beaches. The northern section has shallow, kid-friendly water and boardwalk ramp allowing strollers and wheelchairs to get close to the water. The south end of what is still called “Hollywood Beach” is the place where the city’s gay citizens congregate. Located at the northernmost tip of Lincoln Park, the facility boasts a silver LEED certified beach house which opened in 2010 and offers restrooms for men and women, a separate family restroom, first aid station and a concession area. Locals like it for its cleaner sand and water, natural area that attracts migratory birds and concessions which are reasonably priced.
5491 S. Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60615
We have to give the south side some love, especially when it’s the gorgeous Promontory Point in Hyde Park – peaceful, well-maintained and offering one of the most breathtaking views of Chicago’s notable architecture. The man-made peninsula is located in Burnham Park and is accessed by the Lakefront Trail and a tunnel that takes you under Lake Shore Drive. You won’t have to dig sand from your folds since you’re lounging on rock, but swimmers have been enjoying the “rock beach” at the Point since 1937. The north side offers shallow water, perfect for kids and waders. Serious swimmers jump in off the rocks on both the north and south sides — just be sure to look for the swimming area buoys. The Point is also a perfect place to relax, read a book and listen to waves lapping at the rocks.
Jacky Runice has been a columnist with the Daily Herald Chicago since grunge music and flannel was the new black. Her fingers and gray matter have been busy as travel editor of Reunions Magazine; penning a column that was syndicated around the nation via Tribune Media Services. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.