Chicagoans complain about winter like we invented it, but it’s just something you live through to get back to the beach. Chicago has 33 beaches, covering the entire 28-mile stretch of its lakefront shoreline.
I normally go to Osterman Beach — also known as Hollywood Beach — because it’s steps from my high rise building and is one of the cleanest in the city. Because it’s often enjoyed by many members of Chicago’s LBGTQ community, Hollywood has become known as “the gay beach.”
I went there with a group of friends on the Fourth of July. Like many others, we all packed coolers of snacks and alcoholic beverages to share. You can’t have glass on the beach so I packed red Solo cups. The sky was partly cloudy and the water was too chilly to plunge into, so we camped out on our towels, drank spiked sweet tea and gossiped. I caught a whiff of pot in the air and noticed nearby a “bear” tent, which made me laugh a little. I had no idea there was a particular flag for that, but there it was — a Blackhawk flag, an American Flag and a Chicago flag.
Later, I checked my phone and realized that a couple of neighborhood friends were also at Hollywood. I went in search of them to bring them back over to my group, but just as I found them, my other friends packed up to leave. This rotation of people coming and going is standard. You can go to the beach with one group of friends and leave with another. I hung out for a couple more hours to catch up with them and oddly discovered that one of my fellow rugby buddies owns and operates the new stand up paddle board company on Hollywood, though I didn’t have enough time to try it. The clouds didn’t subside as I headed home to shower and change before going to a friend’s house for a cookout. On the way, I noticed that the beach’s green areas were packed with people camping out for the fireworks from Navy Pier later that night.
On Saturday of the same week, I biked six miles south to Lincoln Park’s North Avenue Beach. Bordering Lakeview— which is one of the largest neighborhoods in Chicago — it’s one of the city’s most popular beaches. North Avenue receives a heap of suburban traffic too, so the first thing I noticed was the multitudes of people.
The day was humid and I was already sweaty by the time I got there. The beach’s volleyball area by the entrance was already packed with many games in session. A little further in, there’s also a rink for roller hockey and other arena sports. The main attraction, though, is the beach house, which is shaped like an ocean liner. Music was pumping from Castaways, the beach house’s bar and grill. South of the boat house, there were avid chess players of all age and ethnicities. Many of them had come early to set up their tables and the games were drawing a crowd. You’ll usually hear some heated discussions and colorful language — after all, it is street chess.
North Ave. isn’t the cleanest beach, due to the number of people who flock to it, so I’d encourage wearing sandals. If you’re extroverted, this is the beach for you. North Ave. is loud, vibrant and youthful with plenty of people to meet or gawk at. Just try not to be too creepy about it.
Thankfully, the crowd thins out after Navy Pier at Illinois Street. The air becomes easier to breath and the tree-lined lanes make it a pleasant ride. The crowd condenses once again around the museum campus with the Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium and Chicago’s Field Museum crowds. As I made my way through that smaller crowd, I hit the underpass leading to Soldier Field — home to the Chicago Bears football team. Further south, the path unfurls into Burnham Prairie parkway, which is brimming with assorted prairie grasses and wild flowers. The air is dense with the scent of greenery, making the ride more peaceful.
When I finally made it to 63rd Street and the Bath Pavilion — Chicago’s oldest beach house — they didn’t disappoint. Renovated in 1999, the Pavilion is covered in the same green ivy that blankets Wrigley Field’s back wall. The ivy is a lush, deep green thanks to all the late spring and early summer rains. There is a parking area for this beach, which is great if you’re going to trek there via car. Although there was house music pumping from a nearby SUV, the general surroundings were quiet and serene. I tried entering the beach house, but it was locked up with a fence around the west side. The concession stands were also closed, which means you may need to pack your own food and beverages. When I stepped onto the clean, sandy, brown beach it was fairly empty at 12:50 p.m. I can only surmise that there was a festival going on — or the beach just isn’t used much on the South Side — which makes me a little sad.
From 63rd, you can see a number of other northern beaches — like 57th with its famous Promontory Point — and of course the Chicago skyline from the south is just as inspiring as from the north. There was a haze in the air that weekend, but the view was still enjoyable. If you don’t want to hang at the beach you can find other things to occupy your time, which is something that you can’t always do at the northern beaches. It’s a short walk from 63rd over to the beautiful McCormick Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary, which is part of Burnham Park’s 600 acres on Chicago’s lakefront just south of Grant Park.
After, I pedaled back north to Hollywood and plunged into the icy waters because of how filthy I felt from the journey. I hooked up with some other friends and told them about my experience, noting that the north side beaches appeared to be more crowded than their southern counterparts. However, there seems to be more of a variety of things to do at the south side beaches. If you want a change of scenery or more room to spread out with family and friends, I’d recommend the south side beaches. If you enjoy the frenzy of youth, alcohol and sand then north side is the way to go. Whatever mood you’re in, there’s a Chicago beach for you.