The first thing we realized when planning our trip to Chicago was how much there was to see. Four days wasn’t going to be nearly enough time to make it to our long list of “must-dos”: The Art Institute, Millennium Park, the Navy Pier, Shedd Aquarium, Lincoln Park Zoo, The Museum of Science and Industry, Willis Tower, the Magnificent Mile, and much more.

Chicago, with it’s insane layers of overpasses, underpasses, bridges and tunnels (not to mention one-way streets) is not a city you want to drive in. And the El, while offering impressive to the airport and outlying neighborhoods, doesn’t cover the city center well. Upon arrival, though, we discovered the secret to getting around Chicago efficiently: go by bike. It’s enormous, of course, and the rivers divide it into multiple slices so that it’s not always easy to figure out how to get from point A to point B.

On a bicycle, though, you have your own private escape routes; a number of bike paths cross the water independently of the traffic. It’s pretty satisfying to whiz along the lakeshore bike path while watching the stopped traffic honk its way along Lakeshore Drive a few feet away. Also, Chicago is flat. Really flat. Look down from the Skydeck at Willis (formerly Sears) Tower and you can see 50 miles on a clear day, and the horizon is still flat. You can easily get away with a seven-speed cruiser; we rented 21-speed “comfort bikes” but never needed the lower or higher gears.

Visitors can rent bicycles easily and conveniently from Bike and Roll Chicago, which has stands at Millennium Park, Navy Pier, and at several of the lakeside beaches. The bikes come equipped with a pouch on the front for your wallet and camera, a rack on the back for your packages, and a lock so you can park your bike safely wherever you want to stop and stay awhile.

The cost is $30 to $40 a day, depending on the type of bike you want, and you can save $5 by reserving online ahead of time. The city of Chicago prides itself on its bike-friendliness, and a map of bike routes is available on the city’s web page.
A network of wide, divided, nicely maintained bike paths makes it easy to get to the museums and other cultural attractions scattered up and down the lake shore and throughout Grant Park and Lincoln Park. And there’s so much to see along the shore of Lake Michigan that you’ll miss from a speeding car, from volleyball rivalries to muscle men to sandcastle competitions.

Well-signed bike lanes are available throughout the city as well, although Chicago’s notoriously aggressive drivers make it a little hairy to ride on crowded streets or during rush hour. In addition,  Chicago has a great public transit system made up of both trains and buses and bikes are allowed on both except during rush hour (7-9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m.) The train-bike combo is the perfect way to check out some of Chicago’s eclectic neighborhoods like Wicker Park/Bucktown, Andersonville, and Logan Square.

Midwestern visitors to Chicago got smart some time ago and started bringing their bikes when they visit the City; you can watch families unloading copious bike gear in outlying park and ride lots around the city. Those of us flying in don’t have that option, of course, but renting by the day is definitely the next best thing to being local.

The best place to stay while cycling Chicago? The Wyndham Grand Chicago Riverfront, formerly Hotel71, which has the personality of a boutique hotel but a convenient central location right on the river. Which happens to be just a few blocks from the Bike and Roll rental kiosk on Randolph Street.

Chicago Family Vacation