Some cities have a Chinatown and others have a Little Italy but Chicago has a whole world map of exotic neighbourhoods. Renting accommodation in one of Chicago’s ethnic quarters and visiting one of the many ethnic festivals and restaurants gives you a taste of local life and a chance to experience firsthand the numerous rich cultures and communities that have shaped this vibrant city. Don’t know where to begin? Next time you visit Chicago put one of the below colourful neighbourhoods and cultural attractions on your itinerary.
Chicago’s Chinatown is home to the second largest Chinese community in the U.S. that celebrates its rich heritage with a whole array of festivals throughout the year. A Dragon and Lion Dance Procession marches down the streets of Chinatown during the Summer Fair, while the Dragon Boat Race sees a fleet of richly decorated boats race for the final on the Chicago River in June.
Later throughout the year entertainment continues with the Temple Street Market and Autumn Moon festivals, and ends with the Chinese New Year celebrations. All of these events feature colourful floats, folk dance and music, and, of course, endless open-air markets offering a range of traditional foods, herbs, teas and gifts.
Throughout the rest of the year, tempting eateries and funky shops lure you in on every corner of the hood. Take your time to enjoy a picnic in the Ping Tom Memorial Park and marvel the beautiful pagoda and peaceful pond or learn about the history of Chinatown by taking a guided tour around the neighbourhood and visiting the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago.
Greektown in the West Side District of Chicago is a popular hangout spot for locals round the clock and it isn’t hard to see why. An array of Greek cafes, bars and taverns serving traditional food in authentic settings under the motto that no client should leave hungry make visits to Greektown quite memorable.
In the area, you will also find the National Hellenic Museum. Here you can see ancient artefacts celebrating thousands of years of Greek history, as well as more recent exhibits documenting the lives and achievements of Greco Americans. Expect meet-ups with ancient Greek gods, language classes and lots of hearty koftas and warm cheese-filled gyro pitas.
Gangsters, athletes and chefs in Little Italy
Today Little Italy is bustling with students attending the University of Illinois, so the area has become much more diverse but beyond this quarter there are a few places that are dedicated to all things Italian. The name of Al Capone inevitably comes to mind when one thinks of Chicago and if you are lucky you might see some exhibits about his life at the city’s history museum.
Beyond the infamous reputation that Capone casts over the community, Italian settlers have shaped Chicago in many positive ways. The pride and joy of the community, the American Italian Sports Hall of Fame celebrates the achievements of great sports stars of Italian-American origin, and the iconic sculpture of Joe DiMaggio in front of the venue is one of the city’s much-loved landmarks.
Another truly Italian destination in Chicago not to bypass is Eataly. This food emporium draws thousands of visitors with its artisanal products sourced from Italy’s finest producers and a range of restaurants and cafes where one can indulge all senses. The focus at Eataly is on good Italian food, whether it is being sold in the form of fresh ingredients or served as skillfully prepared meals, drinks and desserts.
A Little Mexican Village
La Violetta (aka Little Village) is home to some of the best Mexican restaurants and food outlets in Chicago. The aroma of warm corn, tortillas and tacos wafting in the streets beckons you to grab a seat inside one of the tempting eateries. Later you can wrap the meal with dessert at Dulcelandia, a Mexican candy shop that is a real treat for little visitors and sweet-toothed adults.
In September, the streets of La Violetta are flooded by a colourful parade procession celebrating Mexico’s independence from Spain with Mexican fare, music, dance and amusements for the whole family. For more cultured entertainment, pop into the National Museum of Mexican Art that boasts the largest collection of Mexican artworks in the entire U.S.
Traditional and modern Ukraine
Unlike other ethnic neighbourhoods, the Ukrainian village is a rather tranquil, tree-lined residential hood but this uneventful atmosphere hides some real gems of cafes serving Ukrainian food and a number of amazing cultural venues and events that combine the best of Ukrainian traditions and modern Ukrainian life.
You can see traditional Ukrainian attire, music instruments and folk art objects at the Ukrainian National Museum or experience cutting-edge art, film screenings and literary events at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. In September, the Ukrainian Village Fest brings to the streets folk dancers and performers in traditional Ukrainian costumes and a large market selling ethnic food and products.
Taking the time to explore all these vibrant neighbourhoods is one certain way to get to know Chicago inside out, so plan your visit and accommodation ahead to make the most of your stay.