Chicago Nightlife and Performing Arts Planner
Chicago Blues Festival. The Chicago Blues Festival leaves no doubt about it: Chicago still loves to sing the blues. Each June, the city pulses with sounds from the largest free blues festival in the world, which takes place over three days and on five stages in both Grant Park and Millennium Park. The always-packed open-air festival has been headlined by blues legends such as B.B. King, Koko Taylor, and Buddy Guy. Illinois. 312/744–3315; www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/chicago_blues_festival.html.
Chicago Improv Festival. The springtime Chicago Improv Festival, the nation's largest festival for improvisers, has stages devoted to group, pair, and single improv; sketch comedy; and more. Illinois. 773/875–6616; www.chicagoimprovfestival.org.
Lollapalooza. The current incarnation of Perry Farrell’s famed festival takes over Grant Park for three days in August. Lollapalooza boasts a packed slate of big-name musicians (past editions have included the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, and Pearl Jam). Tickets typically sell out before the lineup is even announced, but many turn up on Craigslist and third-party websites in the days leading up to the event. Illinois. 888/512--7469; www.lollapalooza.com.
Pitchfork Music Festival. This three-day indie-oriented festival brings a diverse array of top and emerging talent to Union Park each July. Although smaller than Lollapalooza (it has three stages compared to eight-plus), devotees say the acts are more eclectic and the environment more comfortable. Artists including Beck, Kendrick Lamar, The National, and St. Vincent have played Pitchfork. Illinois. 312/746--5494; www.pitchforkmusicfestival.com.
You can save money on seats at Hot Tix (www.hottix.org), where unsold tickets are available, usually at half price (plus a service charge) on the day of the performance; if you go on Friday you can buy tickets for Saturday and Sunday, too. Hot Tix booths are located across from the Chicago Cultural Center at 72 East Randolph Street, in the Chicago Water Works building at the southeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Pearson Street, and in the Block 37 shopping complex at 108 North State Street. Only the last of these is open on Monday. Full-price tickets can be purchased by phone or online through Ticketmaster (800/745–3000 www.ticketmaster.com).
For a cheaper, more intimate, and—arguably—equally rewarding theater experience, Chicago has a lively fringe theater scene. You'll find smaller storefront theater spaces scattered across the city (but concentrated on the North Side), where you can catch everything from dramatic classics mounted on tiny stages to edgy works by emerging writers. Best of all, tickets often go for $20 or less and are usually available at the box office on the day of performance.
For hot, sold-out shows, such as performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the Lyric Opera of Chicago, call a day or two before the performance to see if there are any subscriber returns. Another option is to show up at the box office on concert day—a surprising number of people strike it lucky with on-the-spot tickets because of cancellations.
Small fees can have big payoffs! Many of the smaller neighborhood street festivals (there are hundreds in summer) request $5 to $10 donations upon entry, but it's often worth the expense: big-name bands are known to take the stage of even the most under-publicized festivals. For moment-to-moment festival coverage, check out chicago.metromix.com, do312.com, or www.timeout.com/chicago.
To find out what's happening in the Windy City, the Chicago Tribune's Metromix Chicago (chicago.metromix.com) is a good resource. Head to www.timeout.com/chicago or do312.com for club listings, rotating parties, and DJ appearances. The Chicago Reader and Metromix also dish on the hottest bars and clubs. (You'll find theater and music listings in these publications as well.) Centerstage Chicago (www.centerstagechicago.com) has a calendar of music and theater events.
Live music begins around 9 pm at bars around town. If you want to guarantee a seat, arrive well before the band's scheduled start and stake out a spot. Most bars close at 2 am Sunday through Friday and 3 am Saturday. A few dance clubs and late-night bars remain open until 4 am or 5 am (Berlin and Transit are very popular). Outdoor beer gardens such as Sheffield's are the exception; these close at 11 pm on weeknights and midnight on weekends. Some bars are not open seven days a week, so call before you go. Curtain calls for performances are usually at 7:30 or 8 pm.
Parking in North Side neighborhoods—particularly Lincoln Park, Lakeview, and Wicker Park/Bucktown—is increasingly scarce, even on weeknights. If you're going out in these areas, take a cab or the El. The Red, Brown, and Blue lines will get you within a few blocks of most major entertainment destinations downtown and on the North and Near Northwest sides. If you do decide to drive, use the curbside valet service available at many restaurants and clubs for about $7 to $10. If you're headed to the South Side, be cautious about public transportation late at night. It's best to drive or cab it here.