Clutching our program guide, earmarked and highlighted, my husband and I shuffle through a secret hallway crafted of glass block and brick in the historic Florsheim Mansion in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood. “Please don’t touch the water buffalo,” our guide says as we find ourselves face-to-face with an imposing, life-size, stuffed creature—the latest of many surprises in a striking modern-art-style home designed in 1938.
These unexpected finds are exactly why we’ve attended Open House Chicago every year since the Chicago Architecture Foundation began the event in 2011, offering access to places usually off-limits to the public. For one inspired weekend every October (in 2017, October 14–15), Open House Chicago gives us a free peek inside 200 public and privately owned buildings and residences. Each year we use our printed program to create a self-guided tour of neighborhoods we’ve never explored before. We’ve Divvied (Chicago’s bike share) throughout the city to take skyline shots from places we wouldn’t normally have access to, like a 1960s Airstream perched above an office building, or the Suite of Presidents at The Blackstone hotel. We’ve driven to the Bronzeville neighborhood to bask in the history of Chicago’s oldest existing ballroom dance floor, and we’ve taken the bus to the Gold Coast to soak in Romanesque, Queen Anne, Tudor, Art Deco and modern gems.
Almost 100,000 people flock to Chicago each year to create their own adventures during Open House Chicago, one of 30 Open House events conducted worldwide. By most measures, Chicago’s tour is the largest event of its kind in the world. And even for lifelong residents like us, it still produces surprises (openhousechicago.org; openhouseworldwide.org).
Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church, a past tour favorite. Photo courtesy of Chicago Architecture Foundation.
Priority Access Long waits are rare, but lines do form at a few popular sites. A Chicago Architecture Foundation membership (from $55 annually; architecture.org) lets you step into shorter lines and also gets you into a few members-only sites.
Sumptuous Views Keep the visual feast going when you stop for a sip or a bite. At 3rd Coast Cafe, a Gold Coast neighborhood favorite, works by local artists adorn the walls. In the Loop, Cindy’s restaurant atop the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel offers panoramic views of Lake Michigan and the Art Institute of Chicago below.
Pedal Power Rent a bicycle from Divvy ($9.95 for 24 hours) to make your tour double as a workout.