A Beginner’s Guide to Chicago’s Underrated Beaches

Kiteboarding and frozen margaritas…on Lake Michigan?

May 12, 2023 6:53 am
Swimmers and sunbathers at Oak Street Beach in Chicago, one of the best Chicago beaches on Lake Michigan
No, this isn't Cancun — it's Chicago.

Chicago has a little secret that most locals don’t share.

The beaches here are some of the best in the country. I may be biased as a Chicagoan, but I’ve traveled the globe as a travel writer, and my favorites are right here at home on Lake Michigan. The lakefront spans 18 miles, with more than two dozen free beaches offering spectacular views of the city. Each stretch has its own personality — and everyone seems to swear by a different favorite. Even better: Many of the beaches here have bars and restaurants attached, so you basically never have to leave. Here are some to try.

Kathy Osterman Beach

5800 N Lake Shore Drive

Located on the north end of Lake Shore Drive in Edgewater, this is truly a neighborhood gem. It’s quiet on weekdays, but on the weekends, it gets filled with locals who gather to play beach volleyball, swim and throw beach picnics. There isn’t parking, so you’ll have to walk, Uber or take the 147 bus here (it drops you two minutes from the beach). It’s worth it, as the water is very calm, and you can easily find a nice sandy spot to yourself. 

Montrose Beach

4400 N Lake Shore Drive

It’s all about the dogs at this pooch-friendly beach, but there’s way more on tap as well. Come here to kiteboard, watch the Navy Pier fireworks, go fishing, eat hot dogs, get some ice cream and drink beer, plus visit a bird sanctuary and two restaurants serving everything from tacos to traditional beach fare. Paddleboards and kayaks are available to rent, there’s a lifeguard on duty, and there’s even live music at the bar. There is parking, but if you want to score a spot, you should get there early in the day. The beach is large, so it can accommodate the masses who adore it, but those parking spots aren’t as plentiful. 

Oak Street Beach

1000 N Lake Shore Drive

One of the most popular beaches in Chicago, this is a see-and-be-seen sort of place. The free beach feels like a resort, although it’s smack dab in downtown Chicago. There are chairs to rent, concessions to eat, volleyball to play and bikes to ride. There’s even wifi, if you want to go that route (a better option: logging off and getting a beach massage under the tent from Coup De Main). When you get hungry, head to Oak Street Food and Drink, Whispers Restaurant or Boucher Brothers, all of which are fantastic summer options. This beach is on the smaller side, so be prepared to become friends with everyone around you, which is sorta the point of Oak Street Beach. It’s truly an Instagrammable scene. 

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12th Street Beach

1200 S Linn White Drive

This is such a great location, especially for anyone who wants to divide their day: the morning at the Museum Campus checking out the Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium and Field Museum, and the other half just down the street at the 12th Street Beach. Make sure you come hungry: Del Campos is the beach restaurant, and they’ve got a full Mexican menu, along with the Chicago-style hot dog (because of course they do). This beach is one of the tiny but great ones. It’s not typically crowded, even on weekends, as it’s a little off the beaten path. And it doesn’t have volleyball or loud partying. If you’re looking for a quiet, cozy beach with fantastic tacos, calm water, families and parking, this one may become your fast favorite. 

Fullerton Beach

Post-pandemic, Fullerton Beach isn’t what it once was. While we were all sheltering at home, Lake Michigan’s rising waters took over the location, destroying it. Not to worry. Today, it’s not a traditional beach, but if you’re looking to relax without sand everywhere, then head here — because Chicagoans know how to make the best of every situation. It’s all grass and cement, so lots of people head here to relax in the sun, cycle and have picnics. It’s right on the water, but it’s more of a chill-out spot than a place to take a dip. But it has one of the best views of the city and of the lake, so it’s also a nice place for a photoshoot. When you get hungry or thirsty, you can still partake at Sandbox Beach Cafe, which has the best homemade guac in the area. Or head to Castaways, just down the lakefront on North Avenue Beach, where you’ll find live music and a big party scene (you’ll probably also spot some of the beachgoers who were getting their tan on at Fullerton). The frozen pina coladas, mai tais, margaritas and craft beers at the bar are worth a trip here on their own, but a beach where you don’t have to wipe yourself down at the end of the day? This is a true Chicago unicorn.


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