Beyond the beaten path: Experiencing Chicago as a tourist

 In Chicago

I’m a tourist.

No, not the fanny-pack wearing type who pulls out his big printed map from 1990 looking around the city for the best tourist traps to hit.

I’m a tourist, who happens to also be a photographer.

You see, Chicago’s not my hometown — I’m from Grand Rapids, Mich. But I do visit the Windy City quite often. I come once a year with my family, once a year for the Out of Chicago Conference in June, and usually at least one more time just for the heck of it.

So when I do come to Chicago, I try to squeeze as much photographing in as possible. And while I’ve certainly loved spending time at “The Bean,” Michigan Avenue and the Macy’s Christmas displays, I enjoy taking my photography a bit off the beaten path.

Whenever I leave my Michigan roots, I try to at least have somewhat of a plan in place, trying to find unique locations to photograph. Sometimes I shoot cityscapes, other times I shoot graffiti and people.

And while I’ve by no means been able to work my way around Chicago as much as I have liked over the years, there are a few key places I’ve found offer a different experience for tourist photography.

I haven’t been to all these places. But they’re on my shortlist for sure. And with a little assistance from my Chicago friends, these are my top five places to check out when visiting the Windy City:

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1. Wicker Park Architecture and Alleyways

Wicker Park was introduced to me just last June, on a photowalk with Giulio Sciorio during the Out of Chicago Conference. It’s a completely urban atmosphere, far from the skyscrapers you’re used to seeing in the heart of downtown.

I found a lot on this two hour photowalk. Everything from stickers on light posts to a really cool vintage photography store.

My favorite, though, was the graffiti. We found a lot of it. And it was truly a work of art, stationed behind retail stores and underneath bridges. It was colorful, unique and super interesting. So much so that this is probably my number one recommendation to any photographer. If you haven’t explored the streets of Wicker Park, you’ve gotta check it out.

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2. Chicago Pedway

This is truly a hidden gem. It’s a network of tunnels, connecting buildings all over the Loop. I caught a brief glimpse of this during a December 2014 trip, when I visited the James R. Thompson Center (above) for lunch.

The fact that these tunnels run all throughout the city is reason enough to check it out. You never know what you’ll find. It covers more than 40 b locks in the Central Business District!

3. Pilsen Neighborhood

There are several reasons why the Pilsen Neighborhood sticks out.

Walk down any street and you’re sure to see murals and street art galore. There are tall churches, theatre, art and really unique and diverse restaurants.

Everything’s colorful, making for absolutely breathtaking images that you probably won’t be able to find anywhere else in the Chicago area.

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4. The University Club of Chicago

The University Club is truly a gem. I was lucky enough to gain access to this, courtesy of a bellhop and Levi Sim, in June 2014.

The architecture is absolutely breathtaking. It actually reminds me of a Harry Potter novel…without the wizards.

But the University Club has magic in its own right. The details in the building are fragile yet amazing. The light fixtures, the carpet, the ceilings, the stained glass windows…I could go on. There’s a library that is unlike everything I have ever seen. And the views here are absolutely incredible, overlooking Millennium Park.

It’s like taking a step back in time…and it’s a step you’re sure to never forget.

5. Big Monster Toys

This is the spot I’m most excited to check out. Just a short walk from the Loop, BMT is a huge space where toys are designed and invented.

In terms of photos, there’s only one thing to see — a giant door.

That’s right — BMT isn’t actually open to the public. But outside of its offices sits a giant door, with a huge monster standing behind the glass looking out on to the street.

Now that might not seem like much. But if you go to BMT’s Facebook place page, you’ll see picture upon picture of people trying to turn the doorknob, with the monster looking on. It makes for a rather cartoony and magical experience — one I can only relate to Toon Town at Disney World.

I could go on. The CTA stations, Lincoln Park, Kinzie Street Bridge…there are so many things in Chicago to photograph, and I discover something new every time I visit.

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