Want to spend a day in Chicago? Top attractions have changed in light of COVID-19

  • A tour guide speaks on board a Wendella Sunset Cruise on the Chicago River.

    A tour guide speaks on board a Wendella Sunset Cruise on the Chicago River. Washington Post photo by Andrea Sachs

Posted8/9/2020 7:30 AM

When Marianne Goss led her first tour of Chicago since the pandemic hit, she faced more obstacles than usual. In addition to the narrow sidewalks and construction noise, the Chicago Greeter guide had to stay six feet away from her guests and speak for several hours while wearing a face covering. The mask also interfered with her hearing aids, so she left them at home.

"I am sorry for asking you to repeat yourself so much," she said apologetically.


After months of cave-dwelling, travelers have discovered that while they were hunkered down, tourism changed. No longer can you appear at the gates of an attraction without a ticket. And if you are struggling to hear a guide's muffled words, don't even think about leaning in closer.

For suburbanites who want to spend some time in Chicago, things have changed as well. While you won't be competing with loads of out-of-towners, you do have to plan ahead if you want to check out an attraction. And you have to familiarize yourself with safety precautions in advance.

Boat cruises

Chicago's tourism office, Choose Chicago, maintains a running list of open attractions and activities on its website. The cruising category featured a number of companies with similar outings, so I let my mouse decide for me. The cursor drifted onto Wendella and, with a little help from my index finger, landed on the sunset cruise.

Phase 4 restrictions required the company to operate at 50 percent capacity or 100 passengers, whichever is less. (For Wendella, the latter is.) However, on a balmy Tuesday evening, the number was nowhere near the maximum allowed. To ensure proper spacing between guests, the staff had removed three rows of seats and placed orange cones on two benches. I chose a spot near the tour guide, Sarah, who had drawn an invisible line around her space and warned us to not cross it.

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Before tossing off the lines, the captain shared a few heartfelt words: "We had no idea who was going to show up, but you keep on showing up night after night. Thank you for helping me pay my rent." He then addressed "the elephant in the room" -- face coverings. He said we could remove our masks to eat or snap photos but "encouraged" us to wear them at all other times. We respected his request and tried not to provoke the pachyderm.

Sarah narrated the first leg of the trip, from the Chicago River to the Chicago Harbor Lock. At the locks, we bobbed in place while waiting for the water levels to rise high enough to enter Lake Michigan. I used the calm spell to explore the ship, following the arrows directing traffic down, around and back up. Inside the empty lounge, I approached the shuttered bar, which looked haunted, like a set piece in a seafaring remake of "The Shining." I dashed back to the bow in time to watch the locks creak open and Lake Michigan rush in.

During the lake portion of the cruise, Sarah laid down her microphone and pulled up her mask. The crew cranked up the tunes, which became the soundtrack for a selfie photo shoot. Passengers momentarily forgot their pandemic manners as they angled for an image of the downtown skyline silhouetted against the ombre sky. Sarah resumed the tour once we were back on the river. I listened but didn't look, preferring to gaze at the glittery sky instead of the glitzy apartments.

At Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, a visitor stands on a red rectangle -- really, a mouse pad -- to aid social distancing.
At Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, a visitor stands on a red rectangle -- really, a mouse pad -- to aid social distancing. - Washington Post photo by Andrea Sachs
Robie House

The last time I was in Chicago, I visited the Robie House and had to dodge crowds clogging nearly every pore of Frank Lloyd Wright's masterwork. Less than a year later, I was alone in the courtyard and one of three people who had signed up for a guided tour. Previously, the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust scheduled tours for up to 16 people; now the organization has no more than eight visitors in attendance.


After checking in with a staffer seated in a tent, our guide debriefed us. Joe warned us to not touch or lean on the UNESCO site, partially for health reasons but mainly for preservation purposes. We would socially distance and wear a face covering at all times, even during the outdoor portion of the tour. "If your mask slips," he said warmly, "I will kindly remind you to pull it up."

Inside the house, we took our positions on red rectangles that resembled Wright's logo. "They're mouse pads," Joe said. "We use them for training, to show guides where to stand." At the landing to the second floor, a bottle of hand sanitizer sat on a table, an aesthetic intrusion that would have probably upset the fastidious architect. Instead of stopping in the narrow passageway, Joe led us directly to the living room, one of several edits to the route. I hopped from pad to pad inspecting the light screens, inglenook and couch with trays as arm rests. He showed us the main bedroom but skipped the guest room, because of its tight quarters.

"We've been closed for months," Joe said at the end of the tour. "It's nice to have life back inside the house."

But not too much life.

Millennium Park

"Hey, guys, please put your masks up," a Millennium Park employee called out to a family. "You can put them down for a photo."

The "social distancing ambassador" wore a lime-green polo shirt that read on the back, "I am here to help." She was also here to enforce the rules at what Chicago officials say is the city's most-visited attraction.

The 24.5-acre park has several entry points, but for security reasons we were funneled through one gate, at Michigan Avenue and Madison Street. If the park reaches capacity, officials close the gate and visitors must wait for the numbers to decrease, which could be a while: Picnicking and napping aren't really speedy endeavors.

The Great Lawn, the centerpiece of the park, was lightly occupied by friends and family members who carved out small fiefdoms with their blankets and towels. I wandered over to the viewing platform for Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate, better known as "the Bean." A sign said Cloud Gate Plaza was closed, which meant that I could not take the requisite photo of my reflection in the sculpture's mirrored skin. But from behind the barricade, I noticed a little figure in a peach dress raise its arm. I waved with my free arm, and the little figure waved back with her free arm. And then, one, two, three, we snapped a photo of us in the Bean.

At Navy Pier, I flitted between emotions. Hearing the music streaming from outdoor restaurants and the clicking of cocktail glasses, I felt carefree and untroubled. But then I would see a stretch of closed shops or the motionless Centennial Wheel and I would jolt back to reality. I followed the outdoor walkway to the tip, passing empty chaise longues with premium views of Lake Michigan. At the Offshore Rooftop and Bar, the nation's largest rooftop venue, tall windows framed scenes of private revelry. At the end of the pier, I climbed the giant anchor and waited for the sun to call it a day.

At the Lincoln Park Zoo, one-way arrows direct visitors through the outdoor exhibits.
At the Lincoln Park Zoo, one-way arrows direct visitors through the outdoor exhibits. - Washington Post photo by Andrea Sachs
Lincoln Park Zoo

I suffered only one bump on my trip. The Chicago Architecture Center canceled my art deco tour, and I had to scramble to fill the hole. The Lincoln Park Zoo had reopened, but with tight limits on admission. Though it's free, visitors must make a reservation in advance. Additional time slots are released at 4 p.m. every Monday and Thursday. Also, face coverings are required for those older than 2 who are medically able, and guests must observe social distancing between parties, which may only include up to 10 people.

To plot my route, I asked a staff member for a map. She said they had eliminated the paper version and pointed to its replacement, an enlarged copy pasted on a sign propped on the sidewalk. Only the outdoor exhibits were open, so I followed the arrows to the zebras, giraffes and rhinos. I missed the turnoff for the penguins and, because I couldn't U-turn, I had to complete the loop and start over. (After all that, I still didn't see the birds, which were hiding from the humans.) To watch the sea lions darting around the pool, I climbed the stairs to the stadium seating, where the only other spectator was a sea gull. In the south end, I said hello to the camels, red kangaroos and takins before circling back to the main entrance. En route, I passed by the children's zoo, which was closed for an unexpected reason: Black-crowned night herons, which are endangered in Illinois, had decided to nest here.

I considered looking for the penguins again, but after two hours I decided it was time to leave. On my way out, I realized that I was the only person besides the staff. I mentioned this to an employee standing by the exit. I asked him: Because of the pandemic? No, he replied, the zoo was closing. This kind of empty was normal.

• • •

Touring Chicago

Chicago Greeter

The program matches visitors with local guides who create personalized itineraries based on the guests' interests. The organization limits groups to four people from the same family or social bubble. Visitors must apply online at least 10 days in advance. Free; tips not accepted. See chicago greeter.com.


400 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, (312) 337-1446, wendellaboats.com

The boat tour company offers architecture tours on Lake Michigan and the Chicago River, as well as sunset cruises. Tickets cost $39 per adult and $18 for children. The bar is closed for safety reasons, but passengers can bring nonalcoholic beverages.

Robie House

5757 S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, (312) 994-4000, flwright.org/visit/robiehouse

The Frank Lloyd Trust leads 45-minutes tours of the UNESCO site every half-hour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday through Monday. Visitors can also tack on a self-guided audio tour of additional buildings in the Hyde Park neighborhood. The combined tour costs about $33, with service fee.

Lincoln Park Zoo

2001 N. Clark St., Chicago, (312) 742-2000, lpzoo.org

The zoo is free but requires reservations. Some time slots are sold out, but the zoo releases additional tickets at 4 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays for future dates. Guests can explore the outdoor exhibits and enclosures, but the indoor facilities are closed and all animal programming has been temporarily suspended. Limited food and beverages are available; the gift shop is open and plans to sell animal-themed masks. The zoo is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Millennium Park

Enter at Michigan Avenue and Madison Street, (312) 742-1168, chicago.gov/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/millennium_park.html

The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Group size is limited to 10 people. Most of the attractions are open, such as the Great Lawn, Lurie Garden and Chase Promenade, which overlook the Cloud Gate sculpture.

Navy Pier

600 E. Grand Ave., Chicago, (800) 595-7437, navypier.org

Many of the restaurants along the waterfront are open, and several provide outdoor seating. Guests can also hop on a sightseeing cruise or cool off with a Rainbow Cone. The amusement park rides at Pier Park, including the Centennial Wheel, are closed.

Information: choosechicago.com

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