What To Do In Chicago With A Few Hours

A few weeks ago, I went to visit my family in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Yes, Chicago happens to be about 3 hours away on a good day. With traffic it ends up being 4 hours in a hot, sticky car with screaming children. But hey, I got the cheapest flight anywhere from Seattle to Chicago through Spirit Airlines. If you must know, it was $162! More on this in another post, and why you need to read ALL THE FINE PRINT!

With a few hours to spend in Chicago, here’s what I ended up doing with my time:

The Harold Washington Library Center

As I walked towards the general direction of the piers and Millennium Park, I was arrested by the view of a large, gorgeous, redbrick building crowned with magnificent acroterium on each top corner of the building. I was so enamored with its beauty that I asked a random person, “What is that building!?”*(See footnote). He told me, “Oh, that’s the library.”

The Harold Washington Library is so beautiful! I stopped in awe as I was walking by on the street.

Instead of going to The Fine Arts Building as I planned, I walked into the maze of this massive library only a few blocks from Millenium Park at 400 South State Street. The owl at one corner of the acroteria stood out to me as I made my way towards the beautiful building.  


The library is truly a work of art, with eleven floors that showcase unique art pieces at every turn of the escalators leading up to each floor. The walls are painted with beautiful quotes from famous writers throughout time, elaborating on the power and importance of words and books.

I stopped in on the ninth floor because there was a special art exhibit of Harold Washington’s artifacts. The ninth floor is also where the Winter Garden is, a stunning marble room with living trees and windows as the ceiling to the blue sky above.

I wish I could dance in that room like Belle and the Beast.

On the ninth floor I learned that Harold Washington was the first African American Mayor, elected in 1983. Before that, he had served as a Congressman and in the House of Representatives, and he was also responsible for instating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday.

Past the exhibit room I came to the The Chicago Library Special Collections and Reading Room, where the archival librarian kindly explained to me that I could request anything to read or view in their vast collection, simply registering as a researcher! This got me excited and thinking about what I might want to study the next time I come through town.**


A quick Google search told me that The Fine Arts Building is a cool old historic site featuring an ancient elevator, some beautiful art alongside many active artist lofts and studios, with much of the original trim and décor still intact.

Fine Arts Building, Marble
It really is gorgeous inside this building.

After the library, I ran over to this old building to have a look around and I was not disappointed. The building has that old feel to it, with turn of the century wood trim, creaky wood stairs and beautiful paintings that can be seen from certain floors. The place houses several art studios for mediums ranging from tap dance, violin, luthier workshops, painting and much more.


Chicago Fine Arts Building
These paintings alone are worth the price of (free!) admission


My favorite novelty in the whole place was the old elevator, a tiny box with an old man sitting on a stool in the corner near the door, turning a wheel to make that little box go up or down! You climb in, tell him where to go, and then he has to crank that wheel hard to right or left, sometimes over turning, necessitating a hard back turn to move up from a “half floor.” It was awesome!


This looks like a fun job!


After these two gorgeous buildings (both free!), I booked it to the Chicago “L” and hopped on the Blue Line to Chicago O’Hare Airport. If I had time, here’s what I would have done.


What I’ll do next time:

A Walk Through Millennium Park 

This park is beautiful, with manicured gardens, perfectly trimmed or arranged into a calming atmosphere, and works of sculpture art everywhere. Here, too, you can find the now iconic Silver Coffee Bean, whose real name is Cloud Gate.

It’s a big silver coffee bean!

Check out Buckingham Fountain, a bright spot in my childhood, where one especially muggy afternoon my siblings and I raced around the fountain to catch a spray from the water as the wind whipped it this way and that.

If you need a few minutes to chill out, Millennium Park is the perfect place, with lots of mellow little spots, especially on a beautiful, sunny day. Or take a walk down to the beach and enjoy the waves of Lake Michigan.

The Art Institute of Chicago

I meant to visit this place the last time I flew through Chicago since I haven’t been in since I was a teenager. It’s also right next to Millennium Park. By the time I walked across the canal from Union Station, found a bathroom and some semblance of a bubble tea drink, I had wasted a half hour debating on what to do. I realized I only had an hour left to see everything at The Art Institute of Chicago, and for $25 that didn’t seem like a good deal. Note: there are discounts for students and Illinois residence. I decided against it this time, but if I had more time, I would have.

river tour and Lake Michigan loop

Once I realized I wouldn’t have enough time at the Art Institute, I turned around to try a boat tour, but that didn’t leave enough time for me to catch my plane, and it was also $23. It wasn’t a very economical tour if you’re traveling on a budget, which I usually am, but at another time it might have been worth it. I know, I’m really selling these things.

The Chicago History Museum

This place just sounds cool! I like to learn about the history of a place, and I expected to find a lot of history about early Chicago and even race relations there. It’s on my list of things to do.

The DuSable Museum of African American History

This is another museum on my list for the next time I visit Chicago. The reason should be obvious from the name. I could learn about African American History while in Chicago! And maybe even learn about the history of Chicago through an African American lens.

I’m starting to realize I need to spend a whole day in Chicago next time!




*Something I’ve been practicing lately is to stop and ask random strangers for directions or just common knowledge of the area. Like, “Hey, am I going the right way to get to Hale’s Ales?” Or, “Hey, do you know of a good Mexican restaurant around here?” Rather than looking it up on my phone, it gives me an opportunity to interact with the people around me, a genuine point of human contact, that after living in Seattle for almost fifteen years, I desperately need as a human. The Seattle Freeze is a real thing and I’ve been thoroughly frosted over there. That’s why it’s good to get out as much as possible.

**In further research for this post, I’ve also learned that after Harold Washington’s death, there was quite a controversy over an art student’s poor taste in a portrait he did of Washington only six months after his death. It’s quite fascinating and brings up issues of free speech that I would like to explore further in another post.


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