One way to get to know a city is through its attractions – the monuments, museums, biggest and best local marks of distinction. We seek out the “talkers” and will wait in long lines to take selfies to prove we were there.
That’s fine, fun and logical for a first-time visit, but then what happens? Do you simply move on to a different city, revisit what you already know or aim to dive deeper?
A neighborhood tour is one option for getting acquainted with an area in a more personal way and going beyond the obvious while traveling. Might save you a few bucks too.
Fans of AirBnB.com already know this. Book a room or apartment in a safe and interesting area that is near public transportation to heavy-traffic tourist areas. It opens the door to living like a local and adds a dimension to what you learn about a city’s personality.
Neighborhood tours do something similar: They can broaden our views and bust our stereotypes about what we think we know, especially with regard to a major metropolitan area.
In Chicago are dozens of neighborhood tours that examine architecture, history, ethnic heritage, food, quirks and more. That’s how we were introduced by Chicago Detours this month to Wicker Park, a neighborhood where a majority of residents is 20 to 39 years old.
It’s hip, trendy, pretty and the site of remarkable transformations.
Germans and Scandinavians landed on the former prairieland after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. What developed as an enclave for well-heeled business owners – clothing manufacturers, cigar rollers, blacksmiths, brewers – soured because of the Great Depression.
Grand mansions turned into low-income apartment buildings. Construction of the Kennedy Expressway displaced families. Drug lords, prostitutes, the Latin Kings and other gangs compromised quality of life by the 1970s.
Designation of the once-grand neighborhood as a National Historic District in 1979 was the beginning of another rebirth. It nudged investors into the area, so now there’s an unusual mix of the old, the new and the truly unusual.
In the latter category: A Walgreens occupies all of the 1921 terra cotta Noel State Bank, prime real estate that sat vacant for seven years. Look for vitamins inside the former bank vault, and full restoration of the oversized windows and looming skylight.
At Wicker Park, the green space, is a bronze statue of Charles Wicker, a real estate developer and state legislator. Less obvious is the entrance to The Violet Hour, an edgy craft cocktail lounge with an all-senses experience: A mural (which changes frequently) marks the North Damen Avenue spot, and a single outdoor bulb is lit when the business is open. There is no signage.
Fans of edgy music head to Double Door, a venue that hosted the Rolling Stones for a secret concert in 1997, and Sonic Youth for a Lollapalooza after-party in 2006.
Ambling on your own through this neighborhood works, but a guided tour – especially along mansion-filled Hoyne Avenue – adds context and a few backstories.
The first part of this 2.5-hour excursion began one “el” stop away, along the Chicago Transit Authority’s blue line, in the Old Polonia working-class neighborhood that has deep Polish roots.
The only signage at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, built in 1906, is in Polish. Sunken-house architecture, whose entrances are below street level, is a reminder of homes that existed before the city’s sewer system was installed.
Pay attention to West Division Street, nicknamed “Polish Broadway” during its heyday (before Poles began migrating to the suburbs). Count Podhalanka among the area’s last authentic Polish restaurants; the fare is tasty, hearty and no-nonsense.
That means plates of pierogis, one type filled with mashed potatoes and cheese, the other sauerkraut and mushrooms. We also savored our choice of soup: white borscht with a little kielbasa, a brothy cabbage with a little chicken and a tomato with rice.
It all comes out of a small kitchen, where the longtime cook is Halina, who nods with a smile if you try to compliment her.
Nearly one-third of Chicago residents are Hispanic, and that also is evident in Old Polonia. Our guide takes us to La Pasadita, where a fat chile relleno taco is the specialty. We balance the spice with a serving of horchata, a mix of rice, milk, cinnamon and vanilla.
The Old Polonia and Wicker Park Tour with Food costs $45 through Chicago Detours, which offers other types of small-group tours too. chicagodetours.com
Boggle your mind with other walking, bus, boat, bike and Segway tours that are offered by additional companies, via Chicago tourism at choosechicago.com.
The city’s year-round Chicago Greeter program matches visitors with a volunteer guide for a free tour of two to four hours that is customized to personal interests. Make a request at least 10 days in advance, through chicagogreeter.com.