Chicago's lit history runs deep. But don't just read about it. Take a bookish getaway to the Windy City.
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Nestled between the Chicago River and Millennium Park, the American Writers Museum has a room filled with old typewriters. On some, blank pages await musings from visitors curious to punch the stiff keys. One already holds a message: "City of the Big Shoulders," a reference to Carl Sandburg's poem "Chicago." Meanwhile, 5 blocks away, Sandburg fans can stroll across the bustling Clark Street Bridge that inspired him, still a place of "Dust of the feet/And dust of the wheels."

American Writers Museum
Word Waterfall at the American Writers Museum
| Credit: Bob Stefko

Many legendary writers have dredged Chicago's streets for ideas and placed the city at the center of their tales. But a book-lover's visit here isn't just about retracing their steps. You also can geek out over quirky libraries, brainy drinking holes and glamorous stacks of books in unexpected places.

To grasp the breadth of the city's (and country's) literary history in an hour or two, begin at the American Writers Museum, which opened in 2017. In the Mind of the Writer gallery, quotes, mad-lib word plays and fun lessons fill the walls. A touch tablet reveals the writing routines and rituals of iconic penmen: Walt Whitman fueled himself on oysters; Kurt Vonnegut hammered out lines before breakfast; Ernest Hemingway wrote in the company of a six-toed cat (you can visit the writer's birthplace in Oak Park).

The rest of Chicago's literary fun unfolds like a choose-your-own adventure. So settle in and get lost in a city of good books.

Where to Drink and Eat

For Irish fare and craft cocktails inspired by writers, try Wilde or Lady Gregory's. At Moody Tongue Brewing, you'll find America's largest collection of brewing and beer books on display behind glass. Beneath Tudor-style beams, shelves at The Red Lion Pub hold the owner's collection of British lit and history.

The Albert Chicago
The Albert, Chicago
Left: The Albert | Credit: Bob Stefko
Right: The Albert | Credit: Bob Stefko

Science buffs should visit The Albert in Hotel EMC2 (named for Einstein and his genius equation, respectively). Some 12,000 tomes, mostly science- and math-related, line the wall. At The Promontory, the restaurant's upstairs theater hosts occasional literary events and open mic poetry readings.

The Publishing House
Publishing House Bed and Breakfast
Left: The Publishing House | Credit: Bob Stefko
Right: The Publishing House | Credit: Bob Stefko

Where to Stay

In West Loop, sleek fixtures, hardwood and modern art reclaim the former Free Methodist Publishing House. The Publishing House Bed and Breakfast offers 11 luxurious rooms named after Chicago-based novels and authors. You can curl up with a book in the inn's scattered mini libraries and reading corners, including a favorite nook tucked under the staircase.

Where to Buy and Browse

Chicago Public Library Chinatown Branch
Credit: Bob Stefko

Chicago Public Library

Chicago's 81 branch libraries host all sorts of literary events. The Chinatown location is especially worth a visit, with a stunning glass-curtained exterior.

Powell's Books Chicago

Chicago's largest dealer of out-of-print, used and antiquarian books sits on 57th Street in Hyde Park. Founded in 1970, it's an ancestor to Portland's famous Powell's bookstore.

57th Street Books

A few blocks from Powell's, get lost in this shop's labyrinth of homey, unpainted shelves that wind under low ceilings.

Open Books

Open Books stores (in Pilsen and West Loop, with a planned opening in Logan Square) sell donated and used titles; sales fund local youth-literacy programs.

Poetry Foundation

In River North, peruse the Midwest's only library dedicated to poetry. Gallery visits and all the foundation's events are free for the public.

Semicolon Bookstore and Gallery

This bookstore-gallery space debuted in 2019 as Chicago's only bookstore owned by a Black woman. DL Mullen made art and literature accessible by welcoming visual artists of color to two-month residencies, featuring self-published authors and helping fledgling writers print their own works in-house.

Essential Reads

Pick up any of these Chicago books to inspire a visit.

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger The Newberry, where protagonist Henry DeTamble works as a librarian, is a real place.

The Devil In The White City by Erik Larson Several tours visit key spots from this gripping true-crime tale of the 1893 World's Fair.

The House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros The real house was on North Campbell Street, in a now much-changed part of Humboldt Park.

Native Son by Richard Wright The once controversial book highlights race and class issues that are still pressing today in Chicago's South Side.