Chicago’s heartbeat is strong. From its 26 miles of scenic lakefront, varied culinary delights and thriving music scene to the iconic skyscrapers, prairie-style architecture and abundant green spaces, Chicago blends big-city style with Midwestern soul.
Voted Best Large U.S. City three years in a row by visitors, Chicago is also a livable city made up of diverse neighborhoods, each with its own distinct vibe. Whether you’re moving to Chicago from across the country or across town, finding the right neighborhood to meet your needs can be an adventure, considering Chicagoland covers 14 counties spanning three states – Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
To help get you started, our guide to the best neighborhoods in Chicago covers the core of Cook County, plus a quick introduction to the area.
ABOUT LIVING IN CHICAGO
Located in northeastern Illinois, Chicago sits on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan, a location that contributes to its Windy City nickname, fueling both frigid gusts in winter and cool breezes in summer. While nearly 3 million of us call the city home, almost 10 million residents live in the larger Chicagoland area.
The nation’s third largest city, Chicago truly is a melting pot. On any given day, depending on what streets you walk, you could hear locals speaking English, Spanish, Polish, Italian, Greek, Arabic, Tagalog, Mandarin, Russian, or 100 other languages. Nearly 80% of those living in Illinois speak English, but there are definitely areas throughout Chicago that feature cultures near and far in Chicago’s bustling Chinatown, Little India on Devon Avenue, and Mexican quarters in Pilsen.
Chicago Food Scene
All that cultural diversity mixes in with fresh, locally sourced food from Midwest farms to make Chicago a diner’s paradise. The birthplace of the deep-dish pizza, the city is also known for the Chicago style hot dog (seven toppings, no ketchup), and the hearty (and messy) Chicago Italian beef sandwich.
Don’t get us started on the amazing Greek restaurants (oompa!) or the sweet delicacies you’ll find in all those Polish, Greek and Swedish bakeries. Beyond the comfort food and border-crossing tastes, Chicago chefs have established the city as a leader in food innovation. As testament to the city’s reputation as a culinary capital, Chicago has hosted the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards since 2015. Be sure to sample the restaurants and street food while exploring Chicago’s neighborhoods.
If you’re into pro sports, it’s hard to find a better place than Chicago. You can watch the Bulls (basketball) and the Blackhawks (hockey) dominate the court and ice at the United Center. And cheer on the Bears to a touchdown at historic Soldier Field, which also hosts the Chicago Fire, the city’s pro soccer team. Baseball fans have two teams to choose from – the Cubs or the White Sox.
COST OF LIVING IN CHICAGO
While some feel Chicago is relatively affordable when compared to cities like New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles, others will find the cost of living high — especially for housing, and transportation. On the plus side, the city has a lot of free or low-cost entertainment and attractions including a free world-class zoo, low-cost storefront theater performances, and a robust library system.
Living costs in Chicago:
|1-bedroom apartment average rent||$2,210|
|Cost to buy a 3-bedroom, 2-bath home||$514,000|
|Cost of living relative to the U.S. average||6.5% higher|
|Sources: Nerdwallet and Best Places|
The table above gives you a quick snapshot of what it costs to live in Chicago. Keep in mind that housing costs are considerably higher for newer buildings, as well as in the more popular neighborhoods, which tend to be closer to Lake Michigan or downtown.
Chicago commuting and transportation
When you’re deciding where to live in Chicago, commuting time and access to transit can be a major factor. Depending on where you live, commuting to downtown and other areas takes a little forethought in order to avoid spending precious time sitting in congestion. To help keep your bearings, keep in mind that Lake Michigan is always toward the east when you’re in Chicago.
While Best Places cites the average commute as under 35 minutes, this will vary widely based on where you work and live. Thankfully, there are several ways to get around sans car – including the elevated (L) trains, subway, biking, or walking. In fact, our Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) operates the nation’s second largest public transit system. You’ll need these Chicago transit maps and details on fares and passes.
Here’s a quick snapshot on Chicago transit from the CTA:
- Serves the city plus 35 suburbs in the six-county Chicago metro area
- More than 1.6 million rides a day
- Nearly 1,500 rail cars operate eight routes and 224 miles of track
- Over 1,800 buses operate 129 routes covering 1,536 route miles
- Provides rail service to both Chicago airports
- 24-hour service on some routes and “night owl” service on others
If you like biking, you’ll appreciate the fact that Chicago has the second-highest percentage of commuters riding bikes to work. Here are some fun facts from Chicago.gov on what makes Chicago a biking city:
- Bicycle commute times in the region average only 23 minutes
- 303 miles of bike lanes
- 19 miles of lakefront bicycle paths along Lake Michigan
- 13,000+ bike racks
Where are the safest neighborhoods in Chicago?
Chicago realtor Gary Lucido writes that he often gets asked to name the safest and most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago.
“The problem is that it’s certainly not possible to give our stamp of approval to any particular neighborhood. There are few absolutes in this world and ‘safe’ and ‘dangerous’ are not among them. And even relative comparisons are difficult except at the extremes,” writes Gary, president of Lucid Realty, in his blog, Getting Real. Instead of classifying neighborhoods as safer or more dangerous, Gary uses Chicago police statistics to create maps and charts for an annual report on crime and suggests readers draw their own conclusions.
Chicago Neighborhoods With The Lowest Homicide Rates
While Chicago has been struggling with high crime rates for years, when you’re looking at neighborhoods, it’s important to put all the news about the bad parts of Chicago in perspective. According to crime statistics, the violent crime that grabs headlines is extremely concentrated in a relatively small number of communities, which also suffer from high rates of poverty.
For homebuyers and renters, finding a neighborhood where you feel safe is always a high priority. But Chicago locals will tell you that statistics and headlines only tell part of story. For instance, gentrification is changing the fabric of many city communities, and reduced crime is a part of that. The best advice is to ask realty and rental agents, as well as friends you know who live in different areas.
CHICAGO NEIGHBORHOOD GUIDE
Wondering where to live in Chicago? Finding the perfect home that fits your personality and preferences among roughly 77 Chicago neighborhoods can feel like a challenge. But if you know what you’re looking for and what you’re prepared to spend, you can narrow the field.
Start by asking yourself what you value most in a neighborhood. Is it…
- Ability to walk to work downtown
- Access to a large park
- Proximity to public transportation
- Living close to a running or bicycle path – especially along the Lakefront
- Quiet and tree-lined streets
- Good public or private schools
- Other family-friendly characteristics
With your criteria clear, you’re ready to start exploring…
MAP OF CHICAGO NEIGHBORHOODS
IF YOU WANT TO BE IN OR NEAR DOWNTOWN…
If you’re moving to Chicago or want to move closer to the downtown area, there are several neighborhoods worth exploring.
Downtown Chicago (The Loop)
Named for the L, which forms an elevated rectangular loop around the area, downtown in Central Chicago is mostly home to the financial district and high-rise offices. But The Loop is also becoming more popular for residents who want to live within walking distance of their offices, or college students who want to be near their schools since several universities are nearby. Among the benefits of living in these high-rise apartments are the cultural attractions within a few blocks, from the Art Institute of Chicago and Lyric Opera to Broadway in Chicago theater performances.
Since most of the housing is designed for one or two people, you won’t find many families with young children living downtown. As a result, there aren’t any public schools within walking distance for downtown residents.
South Loop and Printers Row
South Loop, which includes Printers Row, features a mix of mostly high-rises with a handful of lower-rise buildings in the Printers Row area. Many come equipped with luxury amenities such as on-site spas and multi-room fitness centers, outdoor terraces, and private dog parks. Another part of their appeal is their location and easy access to the Loop, all the major expressways, and CTA buses and trains.
Since more families are moving into the neighborhood, more private schools are opening to meet demand, as only a handful of public schools are located here.
While a lot of new high-rise development is taking place here, West Loop really began emerging as a trendy neighborhood when former warehouses were converted into condos about two decades ago. The area is also really well-known for its restaurants along Randolph Street, also known as Restaurant Row. Since some don’t accept reservations, either head out early or grab a seat at the bar and wait for a table to open at many favorites including Top Chef Winner Stephanie Izard’s Girl & The Goat or gourmet burger joint Au Cheval.
Since the West Loop is adjacent to other neighborhoods that are more established, there is access to some public schools, but – similar to other neighborhoods in and around the Loop – private schools are meeting growing demand.
River North, Gold Coast and Streeterville
Just north of downtown, the River North and Gold Coast areas are filled with an eclectic mix of high-rise dwellings as well as townhomes and some single-family homes. Streeterville is mostly high-rise housing, which includes the iconic, 100-story 875 N. Michigan Avenue (formerly named the John Hancock Center), a mix of condos, office space, shops and restaurants.
Streeterville’s well-heeled residents have access to a number of dining and shopping opportunities, including Michelin-star restaurants and flagship retail along the Magnificent Mile, a 13-block stretch of high-end shops like Burberry, Salvatore Ferragamo, and even the new 35,000-square-foot Starbucks Reserve Roastery along Michigan Avenue.
Historically, these neighborhoods were home to older residents, but now with younger individuals and some families moving in, private schools are supplementing some of the public schools, all of which are west of Michigan Avenue.
IF YOU WANT TO RAISE A FAMILY…
Chicago is a family-friendly city, but some neighborhoods are better known for welcoming the stroller-set than others. Here are a few favorites:
Bridgeport, Beverly, Morgan Park
On the city’s south side, the Bridgeport, Beverly, and Morgan Park neighborhoods are stroller-friendly with a strong community feel to each of them. With a mix of blue- and white-collar residents, the friendly Midwestern vibe welcomes neighbors new and old. Strong public schools are also an attraction.
Rogers Park, Edgewater
Along Lake Michigan and on the far north side, Rogers Park’s tree-lined streets and access to quiet beaches make this neighborhood particularly appealing to those who want to be further from the hustle and bustle of downtown Chicago while still enjoying easy access to culture and nightlife. It’s also home to Loyola University, which means plenty of coffee shops and casual dining opportunities.
A mix of public schools and faith-based private schools are available throughout both the Rogers Park and Edgewater neighborhoods.
Andersonville, Lincoln Square, Roscoe Village
Within the city’s north side are several family-friendly communities, including Andersonville, Lincoln Square, and Roscoe Village. Like many other neighborhoods throughout the city, each has its own personality and a “Main Street” with independent restaurants and shops.
Lovely two- and three-story brick apartments sit alongside single-family homes to create a longstanding tradition of neighbors helping neighbors. Many families also build strong community spirit around their local public and private schools in these areas.
IF YOU WANT TO ENJOY THE NIGHTLIFE…
Whether you’re moving to Chicago to experience its culture or its nightlife scene, you’ll find there’s no shortage of opportunities. You can enjoy listening to live music playing every single night throughout the city — from Chicago Blues and jazz to alternative and more — as well as watching live theater performances, comedy, and improv. If you prefer to participate, you’ll find many spoken word venues, as well as nightclubs where you can dance your way into the wee morning hours.
Lakeview is a large geographic area that encompasses several different communities and neighborhoods, including Wrigleyville and Boystown. Wrigleyville comes alive all hours of the day and night when the Chicago Cubs are playing, which is part of why it’s so popular with the just-graduated-college crowd. Boystown throws one of the best Pride parades in the country and was the first officially recognized gay village in the U.S. It’s a vibrant and welcoming neighborhood filled with Chicago-style eats and alternative indie boutiques.
Just west of East Lakeview is West Lakeview, where Southport Avenue is the main drag. You’ll find plenty of independent boutiques and restaurants like Tango Sur, the Argentinian steakhouse popular among couples and groups, as well as the family-friendly Crosby’s Kitchen and Coalfire Pizza. Another local mainstay is the historic Music Box Theatre, where independent films play throughout the year.
Nestled among those high-rise buildings and art galleries throughout the River North area are also a ton of nightclubs and bars, where it’s a full-on club scene complete with roped-off lines and bouncers in shirts tight enough to show off bulging pecs. With patrons wearing outfits that could do double-duty as beach attire, it can be a fun place just for people-watching.
Popular spots include The Underground (which is, quite literally, underground and doesn’t open until 11:00 pm), TAO Chicago, where one comes to see and be seen, and Disco, complete with a wall-to-wall LED dance floor.
IF YOU CRAVE GREEN SPACES…
While Chicago is a large metropolitan city, it’s hardly a cement jungle. Thanks to some forward-thinking urban planners and leaders, Chicago has more than 570 parks that cover upwards of 7,600 acres of land. As their names suggest, these two neighborhoods have an abundance of parkland and trees.
Hyde Park on the south side is home to the University of Chicago, Museum of Science and Industry, and Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed Robie House. Find stately mansions along mature tree-lined streets, as well as condos and apartment buildings on any given block. It’s one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods and near Jackson Park, a 500-acre park.
Hyde Park neighborhood dining runs the gamut, from the Valois Restaurant, famed as one of President Barack Obama’s favorite breakfast spots, to The Promontory, which features “hearth-to-table” cuisine and offers a sprawling outdoor patio in addition to a popular music venue upstairs.
With 1,208 acres, Lincoln Park is Chicago’s largest, and comes with its own zoo and conservatory (with free admittance!). It’s also the namesake of this well-to-do neighborhood. A mix of families and singles who love living near downtown and Lake Michigan, the neighborhood has a high density of restaurants and other attractions, including a lakefront trail to go running or biking.
Lincoln Park’s dining scene is renowned for its breadth and diversity, with everything from Alinea, rated as America’s best restaurant multiple times, to Lito’s Empanadas, a tiny spot that only serves the classic Latin American turnover for which it’s named.
Making your move in Chicago
While you’re neighborhood- and home-shopping it’s a good time to start getting ready for your move. Get our ultimate Moving Checklist, our week-by-week guide to stay on track, plus these tips for packing like a pro.
Megy Karydes is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Rodale’s Organic Life, Forbes, and USA Today.