Chicago On The Cheap: Lots To Love In Lincoln Park

The more I travel, the more passionate I get about walkable neighborhoods, affordable attractions and great parks.

I believe that everyone should have access to green space. I believe that everyone, regardless of income level or mobility, should be able to take advantage of the beautiful spaces and attractions that a city has to offer. I’m finding myself increasingly drawn to an older style of neighborhood, ones that are centered around pedestrians instead of cars, a layout that has served us well for centuries.

Capitalism can make it difficult for all income levels to actually live in neighborhoods like this (and that’s another issue, for another time, to be tackled by people much smarter than I am), but when I travel, I seek out neighborhoods where simple (and free) pleasures like window shopping, lazy strolls and parks are accessible to all. So when I spent a little time in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, I didn’t want to leave.

First off, this North Side neighborhood is gorgeous. We stayed in the Chicago Getaway Hostel, where we gave up a little sleeping room space and a TV (two things I really don’t care about anyway) in favor of a super affordable price, a cool patio commons area and a killer location right in the center of a pretty residential neighborhood.

This is one of the most sought after addresses in Chicago. The shaded sidewalks are lined with historic brownstones with their stoops obscured by bursts of flowers, their postage stamp front yards overflowing with ivy that spills out onto the curb. The neighborhood felt and smelled fresh and green in a way that you normally associated with hiking in the park — definitely not a scent I associate with urban America.

We set out intending to find a particular restaurant, but we quickly realized that wandering was a much better plan. We stumbled upon some seriously delicious looking cupcakes at Molly’s Cupcakes Clark Street location, which just happened to be the original location for the Cupcake Wars winner’s franchise.

Once again, Naomi proves that she is much more fun than I am.

The idea of eating a particularly epic cupcake for dinner (on a swing mounted from the ceiling, no less) was just too good to pass up, so we quickly instituted out new vacation philosophy, which my friend Naomi and son E immediately coined “dessert for dinner and dinner for dessert.”

It was an excellent plan. The cupcake place would have been closed by the time we were done eating and I’m a firm believer that you should do what feels right in the moment and doubly so on vacation, since you might not be back this way again soon — or ever.

The cupcakes were excellent too. I liked the Boston Cream Pie a lot, but my son’s chocolate chip cookie dough cupcake was even better, easily among the Top 3 Cupcakes Of My Life. (I didn’t know I was keeping a list, but I guess I have been. My brain is weird like that.)

Then it was off for something more recognizable as dinner. Naomi (easily the most enthusiastic person in my life, other than my child) squealed when she realized that Del Seoul, her favorite Korean barbeque place was right in front of us. All plans to eat anywhere else were immediately scrapped and we filed in to the quick serve restaurant to place our order.

The food was stellar. This place does hearty Asian fusion with flair. E. took a bite and sagely proclaimed his gigantic kids meal of tender, flavorful beef and rice “the best thing ever.” My Bahn Mi sandwich featured bulgogi beef and lots of picked daikon and carrots on a huge baguette. We all got stuffed at a great price.

The next morning we set off to see the free attractions in Lincoln Park. Our neighborhood was within an easy walk of the Lincoln Park Conservatory and the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Photo by Naomi Orre. It’s nice to be in a photo every now and then.

Since we were in town for our first ever Cubs game later that afternoon, we didn’t get to spend as much time here as we wanted. So sadly, the conservatory will have to wait until next time.

But we had plenty of time to stroll through the park, watching the joggers, dog walkers and kids at play. There were lots of little spots to rest, pretty gardens and fountains to explore.

Since we had a five-year-old leading the charge, we were shortly off to the zoo. I’m usually pretty “meh” about about zoos, but E. has become interested in and passionate about animals. The Lincoln Park Zoo was definitely worth a stop. There was plenty here to occupy little ones, but us adults found lots of things to check out and photograph too. (All the baby primates were everybody’s favorites.)

I didn’t really research the zoo before we set out, partially because I wanted Naomi and E. to lead and partially because I really wanted leave something to chance. When I travel for a story, most of my time is really scheduled and I come into a place with pages of notes. That makes me maximize my time really efficiently, but that’s not really representative of how the travel experience feels for most people. So I guess I wanted to just be a traveler, not a travel writer, at this point in my trip.

Because I’m a good researcher, I’m rarely surprised by a destination. (It’s a hazard of this line of work, I guess). So turning a corner and stumbling upon the nature boardwalk made me grin.

It’s a beautiful little place. I love the juxtaposition of skyline and sky. We watched a fat turtle swim with grace and speed under the bridge and off toward the Chicago cityscape. When a turtle lumbered toward our feet as we stood on the path, we wondered aloud if it was the same one, noting how elegant these animals look in the water and how adorably ungainly they move on land.

That’s not the kind of conversation I imagined having in the middle of a city, which is exactly why places like this are important. As our country grows to be more and more urban, it can be hard to find ways to connect with natural landscapes. I love the way this space offers a respite within the city limits and also preserves native habitat.

We took a few photos, taking advantage of the designated spot designed to maximize views of the skyline. Then it was off to the Farm-In-The-Zoo to see a few more hands-on exhibits, pet a couple of animals and check out the garden.

E. helps in our garden at home, so it was fun to watch him grab a watering can and jump in. This is place where everybody can help water, weed or harvest the herbs, produce and flowers, providing an unexpected but welcome opportunity to get your hands dirty and be productive on vacation. (You’ll get some good photos here too.)

There were lots of shaded picnic spots around the farm and garden, which is definitely where we’ll be dining the next time that we come. I’ll make sure to allow a few more hours when we come back.

What about you?
What do you love about the Lincoln Park Zoo or Conservatory?
What do you like to see and do when you’re in Chicago?
What free attractions (anywhere in the world) are your favorites?
Which free spots are next on your to-do list?
What kind of places and neighborhoods do you seek out when you travel?
What makes a neighborhood feel comfortable and livable to you?

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One Reply to “Chicago On The Cheap: Lots To Love In Lincoln Park”

  1. This is making me want to go back to Chicago now! Loved reading this and I can feel Naomi’s joy. We randomly stayed in Lincoln Park our last couple visits to Chicago (a while ago now) and loved it. Never visited the conservatory or zoo before, though.

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