By Zoe Huettl
Walking around River North, you don’t need to know Chicago to know this is the heart of it. The skyscrapers, wide streets, tourists, and plentiful traffic all give the distinct vibe of the center of the city. And while many of the spots seem distinctly commercialized and geared towards tourists, there are still plenty of unique pockets that feel fresh. It's true that River North can sometimes seem plastic, but there are ways to both lean into this feeling and to avoid it in the places you visit. Whether you’re looking for the quintessential Chicago downtown experience or a more offbeat trip, River North can satisfy.
For a more traditional downtown trip, River North offers some iconic spots for food, shopping, and good, old-fashioned tourist photos. From Harry Caray’s to the Hampton Social, lots of classic spots are within walking distance of either the Red Line (Chicago or Grand) or the Brown line (Merchandise Mart). Just off the Chicago stop is the Holy Name Cathedral, a beautiful building and a great stop for a quick picture. In addition to its striking aesthetics, the cathedral also has a rich history. The original church was burned down in the Chicago Fire and rebuilt in 1874. Since the, it has undergone several renovations, but the design and architecture are still a stunning legacy of Catholic immigrants in Chicago. Another classic is Trump Tower, a favorite middle-finger photo opportunity and protest spot.
Michigan Avenue’s iconic shopping is also not to be missed, and it happens to boast a great T.J. Maxx if designer brands aren’t quite your speed. If you're looking for some entertainment, House of Blues is a great place to see a show; they have blues, burlesque, and some unique bands (they recently hosted COIN) all in a chill, laid-back atmosphere. These tried and true favorites of River North makes for a fun, if slightly tourist-y experience.
But there is more to this neighborhood than its most popular spots. Right across from the classic Hampton Social is 3 Greens Market, a hybrid cafe, lunch spot, and grab-and-go with some serious 60s vibes. The decor is funky but cozy, complete with a mini putting green and table tennis. The food variety is perfect for indecisive friends or groups with diverse tastes - one person can get coffee and a pastry (the croissants are patiserie level) while another can get a burger. The vibe is warm and comfortable, making it a great place to hang out for an afternoon. It’s also remarkably close to the Ohio Street dog park, which is great for anyone dealing with some serious pet withdrawal. If the hipster levels of 3 Grains are a little too high for you, consider the more traditional Hutch American Cafe, a more conventional brunch spot. Walking around Hutch or 3 Grains, you’ll pass lots of cool furniture stores that make for some fun window shopping.
For a more upscale dinner, consider Mercadito, a Mexican restaurant with lots of variety and a good sharing menu. Another high-end option is PRM Italian, a modern take on traditional italian food. While the vibe is distinctly upscale, they make all of their pasta by hand, resulting in dishes that taste authentically delicious. But the night life of River North is not limited to its restaurants; there’s also a fair number of clubs in the area, from Sound Bar, with different floors for different types of music and an impressive sound system, to Studio Paris, which is a solid DJ spot.
River North is much more eclectic than it may seem, and has much to offer in the forms of food, entertainment, and sightseeing. It may be best known for its tourist attractions - which have their merit - but it deserves some additional exploration too.