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All you need to know about living in Chicago. Photo by David Burke.

What It’s Like Living in Chicago

BY HEIDI MITCHELL
Lake beaches fronting a sea of skyscrapers, a world-class food scene, a breeding ground of theatrical (and political) talent, and something called a “char dog.” If you’re thinking about moving to Chicago, here’s what to expect.
This is your unofficial guide to what it’s like living in Chicago.

LIVING IN CHICAGO: THE BASICS

Chicago may have earned its windy reputation, but it’s worth braving the weather to live in such a vibrant city. Photo by David Burke.

CHICAGO’S VIBE IS…

…authentic. People in this most Midwestern of cities seek a true work-life balance, which means that rush hours start at 4:30 p.m. and locals prioritize being genuine, nice, and city-proud. The
city’s flag
is found everywhere — most often tattooed on residents’ bodies.

THE WEATHER IN CHICAGO IS…

…exactly as windy as its nickname suggests. Though the cold months aren’t as brutal as outsiders will have you believe, they do last until May. Fortunately, denizens of the Windy City suffer from a condition called “Winter Amnesia,” in which they are so dazzled by the 12-plus glorious weeks of summer (the average temperature in July is 82°F) that they forget about the 35 inches of annual snow. Once the cherry blossoms bloom, the city transforms with locals bar-hopping in bikini tops, sailors boat racing on Lake Michigan, and the sounds of cheering from north to south when Chicago’s two baseball teams play home games.

YOU’LL NEVER SEE A CHICAGOAN…

…put ketchup on a hot dog. A “char dog” is the city’s classic late-night indulgence: a charred Vienna dog lying prone in a soft, seeded bun overflowing with mustard, neon-green relish, “sport” peppers, a pickle, onions, tomatoes, and celery salt. When asked by Anthony Bourdain if it is ever acceptable to douse a dog in ketchup, former President Barack Obama, who spent years in Chicago (and still has a home here) quipped, “No.” 

COST OF LIVING IN CHICAGO

The cost of living in Chicago is either surprisingly affordable or steadily getting more costly, depending on where you’re coming from — it’s
25% cheaper than New York City
While locals may grumble about the much-derided sales tax, which adds 10.25% to literally everything, and the property tax (even though it’s actually two-thirds of national average at 1.3%), Chicago doesn’t crack the top 10 most expensive cities lists. 
The average one-bedroom rental is around $2,200 per month, according to
rent.com
, though it really depends on your neighborhood and your amenities. With lots of corporate headquarters (McDonald’s, United Airlines, Blue Cross Blue Shield) based here and a low city income tax rate of just 4.95%, apartments are in high demand, but there are a lot of new-construction residences going up as well as amenity-rich spots like
Sentral Michigan Avenue
. Buying a house is also more attainable than elsewhere: the average home sells for around $274,000, which is $20,000 lower than the national average. Utility expenses are also
10% lower than the national average

THE BEST NEIGHBORHOODS IN CHICAGO

The Great American City (to quote Norman Mailer) includes 77 distinctive neighborhoods, each with its own personality. Everyone knows the monied Gold Coast on the Northside or the erudite Hyde Park (home to the University of Chicago and the Obamas) on the Southside, but there’s a lot in the middle. (Here is a
breakdown of some favorites, courtesy of Choose Chicago
, our tourism folks.)
Naturally, we’re smitten with the South Loop — home of
Sentral Michigan Avenue
— which sits steps from Lake Michigan and the city’s major parks. It’s one of the few residential neighborhoods with loads of lively bars, coffee shops, and restaurants that are open for lunch — making it popular for young professionals who plan to work from home for good. Other go-to hoods include bougie Bucktown, artsy Logan Square, family-friendly Lincoln Park, hipster-filled Pilsen, authentic Chinatown, or gay-friendly Northalstead. For going out fun, the former meat-packing district, the West Loop, is now one of the city’s hottest hoods for dining.

TRANSPORTATION IN CHICAGO

Get to know Chicago's "L" train and you'll be zipping around the city like a local in no time.
According to
WalkScore
, Chicago has a walk score of 77, a bike score of 72, and a transit score of 65. That said, many of the neighborhoods don’t really join up, so walking between them can take time and might be tricky (it gets icy!). Chicago’s extensive
transit system
syncs up easily and gets you all the way out to the airport with little effort or cost. Typically people take the El or “L” (short for the “elevated train,” though most refer to their route by its color) or the bus to get around. You can also rent a
Divvy Bike
or hop on a
water taxi
. To get out to the suburbs, you have to switch to
Metra
, which is a totally different system, but fortunately uses the same Ventra card/app. 
Parking can be as little as $2.50 per hour in low-traffic areas or as high as $4.50 an hour in higher-density neighborhoods, and there is plenty of free street parking. The
ParkChicago
app is helpful, and true penny pinchers download the
SpotHero
app to find discounts on parking near busy venues.

ART AND CULTURE IN CHICAGO

Chicago’s museum scene rivals that of cities like London and New York City. Photo by David Burke.
When it comes to art and culture in Chicago, the
Art Institute of Chicago
is top of mind, claiming one of the world’s finest collections of 19th-century French paintings, including 47 works by Monet alone. It’s easily one of the country’s most significant museums, but the city has so many others too. There’s the prominent natural history
Field Museum
,
Shedd Aquarium
,
Adler Planetarium
,
Museum of Science and Industry
…plus countless others that celebrate global art, design, local history, the military, and magic. Find even more art and culture recs, plus drinking, dining, and more in our
insider guide to Chicago’s South Loop
.
For comedy,
The Second City
has incubated more Saturday Night Live cast members than any other institution, and there are dozens of other stand-up or improv shows in the city. For theater, there is
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
(affectionately called Chicago Shakes) out on Navy Pier, the celebrated
Steppenwolf Theater
, and what locals call “storefront theaters,” where playwrights test out their new work and draw international fans and critics. 
Chicago’s music scene also stands out, being the place where Kanye West, the Smashing Pumpkins, Wilco, BB King, and more all got their start. Venues like
The Chicago Theatre
and
Thalia Hall
are architectural gems. You can also catch music in the
Jay Pritzker Pavilion
, designed by Frank Gehry, while big acts tend to book out United Center, Soldier Field, and Wrigley Field. You could easily go out and see live music every night of the week and never be disappointed. 
Of course, you can’t talk about music in Chicago without mentioning
Lollapalooza
. (Which conveniently takes place in Grant Park, right across the Street from Sentral Michigan Avenue.)

FOOD AND DINING IN CHICAGO

This is a meat-and-potatoes town, but it’s also a Michelin town — Chicago now boasts 23 Michelin-starred restaurants. But don’t let
Alinea
scare you into thinking you must spend a paycheck on a fabulous meal. With such diversity here, you can find some of the best South Asian cuisine on Devon Street, pizza (deep dish or thin crust both hail from here),  authentic Polish cuisine in Ukrainian Village, incredible Japanese, and more. Literally, every cultural cuisine is available in Chicago. (But don’t dismiss the humble char dog.) 
Pair it all with a brew. A stretch of Ravenswood Avenue in the neighborhood that bears its name has recently been renamed Malt Row, since it claims nearly a dozen breweries, and the city hosts countless beer festivals and pub crawls.

HEALTH AND WELLNESS IN CHICAGO

Chicago’s lakefront parks and trails play a big role in getting locals outside. Photo by David Burke.
Chicagoans tend to hibernate in winter, staying inside, eating and drinking until it’s late March. Then, it’s time to hit the lakefront trail or
The 606
elevated trails for a run. Yoga is a popular wellness go-to, but this city also draws people out of their caves to ice skate on the Ribbon in Millennium Park, rock climb at Brooklyn Boulders, or pop into a class at national fitness chains. 
For pampering, revered Wisconsin spa
Kohler Waters Spa
has a Chicago outpost. You can also head to the numerous fitness and social clubs (it seems like everyone has a membership somewhere), like
East Bank Club
or
Saddle & Cycle Club
, or relax at full-on destination day spas, like
Aire Ancient Baths
.

WHERE TO GET OUTDOORS IN CHICAGO

It’s admittedly tough in winter, but as soon as the mercury hits 50, people don their shorts and head to North Avenue Beach for a pickup game of volleyball. The 614 parks that cover 8.2% of the city’s footprint are full with picnickers and soccer games and chess matches. There are 549 free tennis courts, kayaks that can be rented at Lincoln Park’s REI location and rowed to Chinatown, and gorgeous paths through the
Chicago Botanical Gardens
and
Morton Arboretum
Of course, the best feature of the city is Lake Michigan. Many lifers have never swam in the lake, which freezes in patches in winter and gets up to a refreshing 72 degrees by late summer, but one dunk and you’ll become a lake junkie.

SPORTS IN CHICAGO

Chicago was known as a sports town long before the
Chicago Cubs
broke their 108-year losing spree in 2016. We are one of the few metropolitan areas with two teams (you can get to both stadiums of the L’s red line, and you’d better pick yours wisely: the Cubs vs.
White Sox
crosstown rivalry is real. For football, the
Chicago Bears
play right in town at the massive Soldier Field. The NHL
Blackhawks
team has won six Stanley Cups and plays at United Center, along with the women’s
Chicago Sky
could beat the
Bulls
on the court on any day. Yep, we’ve got it all, even a men’s (
Chicago Fire
) and a women’s (
Chicago Red Stars
) soccer team.

APARTMENTS IN CHICAGO

When it comes to apartments in Chicago, you can’t beat Sentral Michigan Avenue’s views. Photo by James Baigrie.
Ready to make the move and looking for apartments in Chicago? Sentral has one awesome Chicago community in the highly walkable neighborhood of the South Loop, offering unfurnished and designer furnished apartments, flexible leases, dedicated pet-friendly amenities, and more. Here you can stay for a night or two as a guest, live for a month or two as a resident, or even call Sentral home for a year or longer — the choice is up to you!  
Learn more, book a tour, or book your stay at
Sentral Michigan Avenue
.

ABOUT THE WRITER
A lifelong New Yorker who has traveled to more countries than states — often on assignment for publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, and Town & Country — Heidi Mitchell moved to the Third Coast, aka Chicago, five years ago. She has spent a ridiculous amount of her time in the Windy City attempting to explore (and dine in) each of the city's 77 distinct neighborhoods. She’s also known to freak out her friends and family by jumping in the lake on the regular, even on Christmas Eve.

MORE TO EXPLORE:
An Insider Guide to Chicago’s South Loop
4 Things To Look For When Renting With Pets
5 Reasons Why a Month-to-Month Lease May Be Right for You