Where to Start
First things first: where are you? There are eleven lines and a lot of stops on each, making it easy to get them all confused. Don’t only figure out where you’ll be leaving from though, make sure you know where your train ends. The last thing you want to do is get on a train, only to realize the directions you have to Millennium Park from the Millennium Station don’t work anymore since your train ends at the Ogilvie stop. Do you even know what an Ogilvie is? I don’t…
Our best tool here is Metra’s map on their website. It allows you to type in your address, showing you the closest stations to your home. For example, I type in my parent’s home in the ‘burbs and Metra’s map tells me what three Union Pacific Northwest (UP-NW) stops are closest. I can then follow the route downtown by dragging my cursor across the screen, finding out what intersection I’ll be closest to when I get out to visit the Cook County Circuit Court (I hear the kids dig it).
Parking & Schedules
For those of you driving to your station, you should take a look at the Metra parking page. Not every station has convenient parking, nor is parking always free. Making sure you have somewhere to put your car before you leave for the big city is one way to prevent a situation that could easily become a headache.
Also, the Metra doesn’t run all day long. Each train has a different schedule, so make sure to know not only when you want to get downtown, but when you need to leave too. My aunt didn’t bother to look at the schedule a few years ago when she took her then three-year-old on a Metra ride for some ice cream to Des Plaines. After some tasty treats she found herself stranded, the trains had stopped running for the day. Trust me, you don’t want to get stranded in Des Plaines. She may still be there for all we know, unable to get home. To ensure this doesn’t happen to you, make sure to double check any plans you have with Metra’s Maps & Schedules page. Just click on the line you’re taking for it’s schedule!
Downtown is big. Like. Really big. Which is probably why there’s four spots Metra ends instead of one. Before getting on a train, you should know everything your stop has to offer. Thankfully, Metra supplies travel guides, detailing what is where and how you can get to everything. You should definitely take a look at the guides, but here are some highlights for you to consider for each stop:
This is the endpoint for the Metra Electric District Line (ME), which comes from South Chicago, Riverdale and University Park, among other places. Immediately South of this stop is, surprise surprise, Millennium Park. You can watch a free concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavillion here, then check out the giant metal bean (or Cloud Gate, if you prefer) just West of it. If you want to find out more about Millennium Park, then check out Guide To: Millennium Park & Navy Pier. Want to escape downtown to explore some of the neighborhoods Chicago has to offer? Then walk a couple blocks West on Randolph to Wabash Avenue and hop on a Brown, Green, Orange, Pink, or Purple Line ‘L’ train. Walk one more block West to State and take a right and you can hop on the Red line. A little further West on Randolph, then South on Dearborn to Washington, will take you to the Blue Line. From any one of these stops you can make it almost anywhere in the city.
LaSalle Street Station
LaSalle Street Station is the endpoint for the Rock Island Line (RI). This train starts in Joliet and travels through the Southwest suburbs up to the heart of Chicago. You end up on LaSalle street between Van Buren to the North and Congress to the South. Walk three blocks East on either Van Buren or Congress and you’ll find yourself at Harold Washington Library, which is big enough to get lost in for days. Want to hop on the Chicago El from here? You can jump on a Blue Line train right out of the LaSalle Metra station. Take the Blue Line all the way to the North suburbs, or better yet, get off at Jackson where you can switch to the red line.
Union Station, the biggest of all stops, is home to, Milwaukee District North (MD-N), North Central Service (NCS), Milwaukee District West (MD-W), BNSF Railway (BNSF), Heritage Corridor (HC) and SouthWest Service (SWS). It reaches in all directions. Literally. Whether coming from the Southwest, or far North, this just might be your end point. Letting you off on Canal between Adams to the North and Jackson to the South, Union Station is perfect for visiting Sears (or Willis, if you’re evil) Tower. Simply walk East on Jackson over the river to Wacker Drive and look up. If you can’t see it, you might want to talk your optometrist. Walk West to Clinton and head South a couple blocks to make it to the Blue Line. Keep walking East on Jackson and take a left at Wells to get on the Brown, Orange, Pink, or Purple Line.
Ogilvie Transportation Center
Ogilvie Transportation Center Station is the end for Union Pacific North (UP-N), Union Pacific Northwest (UP-NW), and Union Pacific West (UP-W). These trains come from the far North and Northwest suburbs, even passing the suburbs up and going into the wild territories of Kenosha (another world, which may or may not have bears. I’m not sure, I’ve never been). If you’re feeling pretentious and / or arty, you can hop on the number 14 or 56 bus East at Clinton and Madison, get off at Wabash, and head a block South and a block East to the Art Institute of Chicago. Stop by soon and you can check out the Uta Barth exhibit! Walk East across the River on Washington from the station and you’ll find yourself at the Brown, Orange, Pink, and Purple Lines at Wells, or keep going till you hit the Blue Line at Dearborn.
Ticket prices range from $2.25 to $8.50 one way, depending where you’re coming from. There are twelve different zones that have different ticket prices, which you can check out on the Metra website for a better idea of the price. One tip for those in a group: get a ten ride pass. It’s cheaper and you can share it with other riders. Also make sure to carry cash with you, since not all of the stations are able to charge credit or debit cards. If you do find yourself cash-less with only your Visa card, you can stop by a downtown CVS and buy a train ticket.
The CTA fare costs $2.25 one way for both the train or the bus. Again, having cash on you is a plus, though some stations have machines that can charge a fare fee to a card. Even if you don’t plan on taking the CTA while you’re downtown, keep it in mind. According to Craigslist, it just might get you a date.
Food & Libations
Pack your own lunch if you want, but you’ll be passing up the chance to eat at some truly tasty restaurants. Here’s a couple downtown you can eat at after gettin’ off the Metra.
339 N. Dearborn
Chicago, Il 60610
If you’re a wine connoisseur (I stick to Grape Soda, personally), then walk over to Bin 36, just North of the river at Dearborn and Carroll. Their menu is contemporary American cuisine, pairing their dishes with great wine. To read more about it and other great restaurants, check out Best Places for Post-Graduation Dinner.
29 E. Ohio Street
Chicago, Il 60611
Pizza! Chicago! Need I say more? Just hop over the River to Ohio and State street to enjoy a delicious slice of heaven. Don’t eat too much though, Chicago Pizza has been known to cause even the hardiest of men’s stomachs to burst.
11 North Michigan Ave.
Chicago, Il 60602
If you’re visiting Millennium Park then stop by this convenient restaurant for a burger or a hot dog. Kid friendly and outdoors, it’ll fit in well with your day of fun!
Sometimes you’re just too lazy to take an extra bus or ‘L’ ride back to your Metra station. If night comes, your stomach is stuffed and you’re dead tired, you might want to give in and take a cab ride. Rates may vary, but good or bad, sore feet don’t like walkin’. Before you come into the city, make sure to familiarize yourself with the cab services offered. Sure, you can hail one off most major streets, but will it be from the company you prefer and trust? Check out these cab companies.
And, if you get stranded here overnight, or maybe you choose to stay here overnight (it is quite nice), you should familiarize yourself with the downtown hotels. There’s a lot of them, and they’re not all pretty. Make sure to decide which hotel offers exactly what you’re looking for, not all of them have vibrating beds. Check out these hotels.
Let’s Go Downtown
At the end of the day the city can be a daunting place. Make sure you do your research before embarking on an adventure downtown, lest you want your adventure to turn into a got-tired-of-walking-around-aimlessly-venture. If for whatever reason you can’t decide where to visit on your trip, here are a few examples and guides that might help you out: Guide to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Guide to the Field Museum, and Guide to U.S. Cellular Field. If that isn’t more than enough for you to do while in the Windy City, then you have too much time on your hands. See ya soon!