Chicago, IL + Lake Michigan

Melissa Milne Berg is a lifelong family friend, author, wife, mama, dog-mom, and lake-lover. She was one of my sister’s best friends growing up, and while I couldn’t totally relate to their “horse girl” ways, Melissa and I were (still are) kindred spirits in our love of mischief. Sorry to any we’ve offended over the years - that’s probably just you, Laura.

Favorite Lake? Picking a favorite lake is as difficult for me as picking a favorite ice cream flavor or favorite bad Hallmark Channel movie. But Lake Michigan will always hold a very special place in my heart, as I spent my first five years post-college living on its shore in my VERY favorite city, (that one’s not difficult) Chicago. Plus I love not being able to see across it…it feels like the Midwest’s very own ocean.

My experience with the lake in Chicago pretty much starts and ends with the lakefront trail. I lived there for almost exactly 5 years, and I think 4 of them were probably spent walking. My favorite place to do this was as close as I could possibly get to the water, so the lakefront trail made that easy for me – 18 miles of lakefront walkability!

Closest Major City and Airport? Chicago! O’Hare Intl. Airport and Midway are both an easy cab ride, or hop on the El! The Blue Line can get you from O’Hare to the city in about 45 minutes.

Distance to nearest Grocery Store? Skip the groceries and just go straight to Sweet Mandy B’s on Webster. You won’t regret it.  But if it’s real groceries you’re after, I always shopped at Big Apple Foods on Clark in Lincoln Park since it was right around the corner from my apartment. I’m sure I paid about $13 for a gallon of milk, but you can’t put a price on convenience.

Reason the lake is important? I can’t even explain what the lake meant to me in my Chicago days, especially early on. Despite the size of the city, it can get lonely when you’re a young 20-something living in a one-bedroom apartment. I lived in Lincoln Park, and it was just a short walk across the park to get to the water. My favorite thing to do after work was put in some earbuds and head over to the lakefront trail and run (well let’s face it, walk). Most days it was like a game of frogger, trying to avoid getting hit by the actual runners, or the bikers. Especially the bikers. You certainly didn’t feel lonely for long. Guarantee I was the only one there listening to Peabo Bryson, but that’s the beauty of earbuds.

Some days I’d walk all the way from Lincoln Park to downtown and back. I think it was about 5 miles round trip, but it’s hard not to get lost in the beauty of that skyline walking South. I think that’s what I loved most about Chicago’s lakefront – you have this beautiful lake and this beautiful skyline combined, and you just can’t beat the majesty of it.

Favorite lake activities/foods/traditions? This would be a good time to admit that I may be the only person alive who hates beach volleyball. That said, beach volleyball seems to be all the rage along the lakeshore in Chicago. North avenue Beach especially has quite the beach volleyball scene. So, guarantee that’s someone else’s favorite lake activity.

Since I wasn’t going to be exercising on the lakefront, I did a lot of picnicking there. I’d go to the Bourgeois Pig Café on Fullerton and get the East of Eden, hands down my favorite sandwich in the city, and take it to a bench right on the lake.

At night, you had the fireworks – every Wednesday and Saturday night in the summer they’d shoot fireworks off the edge of Navy Pier. You could see them from all over the city, and who doesn’t love a good fireworks show? Oh and speaking of shows, the Air and Water show was another great lakefront activity. There’s certainly never a shortage of things going on on this particular bit of lakefront which is exactly what I loved about it. Everyone talks about the energy of Chicago, and its lakefront is kind of the heart of that.

If you venture off the lake onto the river, you can see some amazing examples of Chicago’s diverse architecture.

What do you do when it rains? Rainy days were my favorite, hands down. These were the best days to take a stroll down the lakefront trail … watching the buildings appear out of the fog was truly incredible. Summers in Chicago could get pretty touristy (though I can’t really talk since now I’m one of them) but on rainy days you’d have the trail to yourself – just the hearty locals who were out jogging and biking rain or shine, so these were my favorite days to get out for a stroll.

Local joints to check out? Dunlays on Clark in Lincoln Park also has some of the most amazing food. I’m only slightly biased since I worked there for three years, but they really do. Their breakfast potatoes and turkey burger are especially insane. You can get this to go, and take it to the lakefront too, because the best food tastes even better when you eat it on the water.

I couldn’t even begin to name all the great shops in Chicago, but my favorite was a little Antique housewares shop on State Street called P.O.S.H. They have lots of vintage European finds. I spent way too much money there on things I didn’t need (name one single 20-something who needs 16 coordinating madame/monsieur napkin rings), but I could never just browse.

As for Dives … I hate to call it this, but Castaways comes pretty close in that it’s a beach bar and grill right on North Avenue beach, so if you’re looking for a real spring-breaky feel, this is your place. Also it’s built to look like a big boat, so you can’t miss it even if you’re trying. The view got a whole lot better once I got past this thing.

Where to get a fish fry? My favorite fish fry in the city was at Duke of Perth … but then again they also had an incredible whiskey selection so I can’t promise I was the best judge of the food’s quality.

Fish that are prominent in the lake? I went salmon fishing once, which was a lot of fun, but that is the official extent of my knowledge about fish in lake Michigan.

Lessons learned at the lake? I grew up in a community where there were a ton of inland lakes. I wasn’t on one of them, and always felt a little bit landlocked, knowing there was all this water nearby but I couldn’t see it or be on it. Each one was kind of its own community and there was really no breaking in. I mean I’d sit on the public beach if there was one, or if there wasn’t I’d take my dog swimming at the public boat launch and just wait for someone to boat by and ask me to join them, but no one ever did. I can’t imagine why.

Chicago’s lakefront was different – show up and you were just a part of it, that’s all there was to it. Turn onto the lakefront trail and you just become part of the pulse of this beautiful city. And you certainly never felt landlocked – look just about anywhere and you could see water.

When I left Chicago, it was to move back to Milwaukee, then onto Whitefish Bay, and now in a few weeks we’ll be moving even farther North, to Cedarburg. The towns keep getting smaller as I move North, the skylines a little less majestic, but the one thing they have in common is the lake. I just have to be near it!