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Chicago certainly comes close to rivalling New York’s cultural, culinary and nightlife scene. Boasting stunning architecture, some of the best restaurants in the country and unstoppable theatres, it’s no wonder that it carries the label of America’s ‘Second City’. With so much on offer, the city’s surroundings are often sadly overlooked. But Chicago does serve as a great base from which to do some independent exploring, and many car rental companies are on hand to equip travellers with the perfect vehicle.
Who to Book With
Travellers can expect to find the usual international rental companies like Budget, Avis, Dollar and Hertz located in the city, usually at Chicago O’Hare Airport and several other places around the city itself. Online booking is highly recommended, especially during peak tourism seasons, when the rush for vehicles is great.
Best time to go
All four seasons can be enjoyed in Chicago, although the height of summer brings sweltering conditions and the depths of winter see below-freezing temperatures. Peak season in the city is during summer, but the best time to go is actually in autumn, when temperatures drop a bit. During winter, the streets are often covered in a thin layer of snow, which can be a driving hazard.
Need to Know Essentials
On collecting your vehicle, the following will need to be presented:
- An International Driving Permit or a valid United States driving licence
- The credit card used when making the initial booking
- Another form of photographic identification, such as an ID card or a passport.
Driving in Chicago city centre is generally reserved for the brave or the insane. Congestion seems to be a natural condition of the Downtown area, and one way systems dominate most of the roads. Most areas in the city can be explored by foot, but there is also an extremely reliable public transport system that takes the stress out of navigating the city by car.
Street parking is available, but drivers will be required to feed a meter. In the busier areas, the rates are higher. There are also a few parking garages in the city centre, but they can be quite expensive, with daily rates amounting to as much as $40. Outside of the centre, parking is also a bit tricky. Many residential areas require vehicles to have a permit, while in other areas, streets are closed for cleaning during certain hours.
Operated by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), the integrated public transport system in the city is of top quality. The city centre is generally quite difficult to navigate by car and, while walking is an option, the trains and buses are most popular for getting around and seeing the sites. Many of the local networks don’t extend too far outside of the city, however, which means travellers wanting to explore the outskirts will need to hire a car.
Tickets are also managed by CTA and are available from metro station ticket offices, information centres and official CTA ticket machines. Single-journey tickets are valid for 24 hours and must be paid for with a transit card or a Chicago Card. Travellers who plan to be in the city for longer can invest in one, three, seven or 30-day passes. These passes are valid on both buses and train services.
Chicago has an extensive network of trains in the city, but most lines operate on what locals call the ‘El’ (or the elevated rail), which circles above the city. All of the seven lines are colour coded, with each colour running to a different destination. All trains operate until midnight, at which point so called ‘Night Owl’ services take over until 05:00.
The bus system in the city is just as extensive as the train lines, running on almost every important street in Chicago. A ticket for any journey costs $2 if passengers pay with a transit or Chicago Card. There are bus stops dotted all over the city; at each one there should be a white and blue sign displaying the route. Travellers will probably be most interested in the free of charge trolley bus that operates between the city’s popular sites. This bus only runs during the peak tourism seasons, however.
Hailing a taxi, especially in downtown, is quite easy, but travellers should keep in mind that all official taxis are restricted to the city boundaries. The fares are quite reasonable for a city in the United States, but a tip of about 10 per cent is usually expected. All metered taxis have a starting fee of $2.25. Travellers can also call ahead and book a taxi from one of the many companies in the city, including Checker Taxi Association and Yellow Cab.
Central Chicago is bursting with historical and cultural attractions, but the city’s surroundings are just as appealing. Less than an hour away lie cultural gems, natural wonders and several famous scenic drives. Hiring a vehicle and exploring some of Chicago’s less-beaten paths is definitely a good idea.
Ernest Hemingway House - Bookworms will appreciate a trip to the birthplace of legendary author Ernest Hemingway. Located in Oak Park, just 15 minutes from Chicago city centre, the three story house is the site of many a literary pilgrimage. The house has since been turned into a museum, where visitors can explore the various rooms and artefacts that remain intact.
Brookfield Zoo - A great place to visit for those with children. Located only 20kms outside of Chicago, the zoo is home to such exotic animals as dolphins and polar bears. Families can spend a day exploring this massive enclosure.
Chicago Botanic Garden - For a taste of nature, head to the Chicago Botanic Garden in Gelencoe. The garden, only a 25-minute drive north of Chicago, is one of the most famous botanical gardens in the world. Spanning no fewer than 155 hectares, it is comprised of nine islands and 24 distinct gardens.