Between Chicago and Evanston, Illinois, there is a public beach for everyone. Play beach volleyball, rent a sailboat, or relax with a cocktail and a book.

By Jacquelyne Froeber; Photographer: David Nevala
May 27, 2015
Chicago's long stretches of sandy shoreline beckon swimmers, sunbathers and photo-takers.

We can't quite claim it's always 5 o'clock somewhere along Lake Michigan. But we can promise that whenever the mood strikes, there's a nearby beach that'll suit you like a Jimmy Buffett song. Here's our guide to Chicago's and Evanston's public beaches.

1) City and sand, 12th Street Beach Coast and culture connect along the curved shoreline of 12th Street Beach, which anchors the Chicago Museum Campus in the South Loop. Parkland ties the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum and Adler Planetarium to the beach. Break up a day exploring the museums by walking the wide paved path south from the Adler to the shore. Here, children bury each other in the golden sand and lifeguards watch over swimmers in the shallow, timid surf. For snacks and rehydrating after a day in the sun, the beachside Del Campo Tacos sells bottled beverages, chicken quesadillas and spicy carne asada tacos.

2) Happy hour, Ohio Street Beach Nestled in the elbow created by Lakeshore Drive and Navy Pier, this wide stretch of beach is home to Caffe Oliva, one of just a handful of Chicago restaurants located right in the sand. Although alcohol is not permitted on public beaches, you can kick back with a cocktail here. Try the refreshing Cucumber Summer Fling with cucumber vodka, San Pellegrino and fresh lime juice, and nosh on light beach bites like the coconut shrimp with mango-habanero sauce. After lunch, rent a luxe lounger in the sand in front of the cafe and unwind to the sound of the lapping waves.

Oak Street Beach.

3) Lazing about, Oak Street Beach A mile north of Ohio Street Beach, the 1.5-mile-long Oak Street Beach is home to the city's best stretch for all-around beach lazing. Plant yourself under one of the many palm trees-yes, that's right, palm trees in giant containers-and people-watch (the popular beach sits near The Magnificent Mile and 18-mile Lakefront Trail). Hone your checkmate strategy in the Chess Pavilion, and discover a plea for conservation in the vivid 260-foot mural You Know What You Should Do.

4) Sand sports, North Avenue Beach One of the city's most popular beaches, North Avenue awaits at the northern end of the Oak Street Beach. Rows of beach towels color the sand, and rows of volleyball nets invite spikes and saves. The huge ship-shape bar and grill Castaway's anchors the shore's social scene. Kayak, Jet Ski and wakeboard rentals round out the water activities. And for one weekend each August, all eyes turn toward the sky to watch the twists and turns of jets soaring directly above the beach during the (free) Chicago Air and Water Show. The long, wide stretch of shore is accessible via a pedestrian walkway under Lakeshore Drive.

Montrose Dog Beach.

5) Dogs and birds, Montrose Dog Beach Also called Mondog by locals, the dog-friendly shoreline of Montrose Dog Beach on the city's north side is the only off-leash beach in Chicago. (Note that all dogs need a tag from a Chicago vet to use the beach.) Even if you arrive sans dog, it's fun to watch big pups leap through the waves after a tennis ball, or just take refuge at the adjacent Montrose Beach (for people only). The south end of the beach caters to water sports: It's also the single Chicago beach that allows kiteboarding, and kayakers and other paddle-sport enthusiasts flock here, too. At the far southern end, sand dunes populated by native grasses transition to the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, where migrating songbirds stop in spring and fall.

6) Family fun, Loyola Beach Past the busy playground in Loyola Park, people line up for a true Chicago dog-with a pickle, yellow mustard, tomatoes and onion-at tiny red-and-white Heartland Cafe. Nearby, children clamber on the undulating, 100-foot-long concrete sculpture Windform while grown-ups perch on its molded seats. A quieter scene awaits beyond the paved walking trail that separates the park from one of the city's largest beaches, where sun-seekers laze and families find plenty of room to spread out across the sand of Loyola Beach.

7) Easy access, Greenwood Street Beach If looking for a parking spot near Chicago's beaches causes stress, head to Greenwood Street's large (and free) parking lot adjacent to the shore. Green Street's stretch of coastline makes for the longest swimming beach in Evanston. Boulder-size outcroppings protect the shoreline, and waves are tame and great for swimming.

Rent a sailboat or kayak at the Dempster Street Beach.

8) Boating, The Dempster Street Beach This stretch of shore at the southern end of Evanston marks the start of many sailing adventures-you can launch single- and double-hull boats from here. No vessel? No worries. This is the only Evanston beach that rents nonmotorized sailboats and kayaks. Or try your hand as captain of the ship and sign up for sailing lessons.

9) People-watching, Clark Street Beach Given the proximity to Northwestern University's campus and the deep horseshoe of sandy beach, the Clark Street area buzzes with action: high school teams practicing volleyball and cheerleading, college students hanging out and families playing in the water. A large park with paved running and biking paths separates the shore from the road, and the new public bathroom is spacious and clean-a total upgrade from the facilities of recent years.

10) New adventures, Northwestern University Sailing Beach Construction over the past year led many to believe that the Northwestern University Sailing Beach was closed. But the Sailing Center, visitors center and beach on the northern edge of Clark Street Beach remain open to all. People do lounge in the sand here, but the waterfront typically caters to the center's classes: windsurfing, sailing, stand-up paddleboarding and SUP yoga. Bonus: The new parking garage has free public parking on weekends (permit required on weekdays).

11) Sunset views, Lighthouse Beach: Walk through the park and descend onto the shore surrounded by dune grasses and native plants. As dusk turns the sky shades of orange and gold, the scent of toasted marshmallows wafts through the air as groups make s'mores over fire pits (call the city of Evanston to secure a fire permit and reserve a pit). The 1873 Grosse Point Lighthouse just beyond the beach provides another sunset vantage point.

NOTE: Evanston beaches require a daily pass.