The Loop is the central business district of Chicago, bounded by the Chicago River to the north and west, Harrison Street to the south, and Lake Michigan to the east. It contains the tallest members of Chicago's skyline and much of the city's finest architecture, holding within them much of the city's working stiffs; for visitors, it also has the glitzy downtown theater district, and the biggest annual music festivals.


Lion in the Loop, Art Institute of Chicago

The Loop is the center of Chicago and without a doubt the most iconic section of the city. If you've never been to Chicago, begin here. Whether on an official architecture cruise along the Chicago River, or an unofficial one along the veritable river of elevated trains, only the most jaded could shake that feeling of awe at the canyons of LaSalle and the cliffs of Michigan Avenue. Moreover, the Loop contains a world-class collection of public art, in the form of huge street-side statues by many of the 20th century's most famous sculptors.

The Loop initially got its name from the looping route of streetcars that served as the transit hub of early downtown Chicago, but the name has come to be defined by the modern era's looping route of elevated train tracks, serving seven CTA lines, which ensures the continued prominence of the area as the center of Chicago's working world. Despite the gradual northwards shift in the city's center of gravity and the centrifugal force of suburbanization, all tracks lead here and accordingly the Loop remains the most attractive location in the city for major businesses, and for most of the city's visitors.

On a work day, you won't have to walk around long to realize you are at the center of things. Busy-looking people in suits hurry in and out of tall buildings, major theaters hawk their big-name productions on neon marquees, and every block has a reminder of a scene from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Dark Knight, or another Chicago movie. The Loop is the United States' second largest central business district, owing largely to its historical position as the financial hub for the Midwest and the modern world's biggest futures market. Many of those suits walking by (as you stand and gape) work for one of four major financial exchanges, the largest of which is the recent merger between the Merc (the Chicago Mercantile Exchange) and the Chicago Board of Trade. The CBoT was the world's first modern futures exchange, set up principally to serve the needs of the Midwest agriculture market, and along with the other major exchanges in Chicago, pioneered the massive modern derivatives industry. Not too long ago the streets sagged under the enormous profits, as the Merc and CBoT traded over nine million contracts daily, worth over $4.2 trillion. Today's economic outlook has soured, though, and the ranks of those suits have been thinned by layoffs, golden parachuting, and other extreme sports.

Forget work, though — the fun of Millennium Park and the festivals of Grant Park are here, and the Art Institute is fantastic. A walk by the Sears Tower and the Chicago Board of Trade is a requisite Chicago experience, but the Loop is eclipsed by other parts of the city in terms of nightlife, shopping, and dining. Being as it is first and foremost a business district, things shut down when the commuters punch the clock and hop on the train, so even if you have a room at one of the Loop's classic old hotels, don't plan to spend all of your time here — even though your camera will likely receive no finer work-out anywhere else.

Loop street map

Get in

The Orange Line running over Wabash, in front of the CNA Tower

By train

In Chicago, all tracks lead to the Loop. The astonishing, creaky elevated tracks of the CTA come in from virtually every corner of the city, and through the smoother commuter rails of Metra and Amtrak, from the rest of the Chicagoland area and the country beyond.

The CTA Red Line spans from Rogers Park at the city's northern border to the Far Southeast Side. In the Loop, it runs under State Street, with key stops at Lake, Monroe, and Jackson.

The Blue Line from O'Hare International Airport, the Far Northwest Side, and the rest of the West Side also runs underground through the Loop along Dearborn, offering free connections with the Red Line at Jackson.

Several other CTA lines ride the elevated tracks that travel through the Loop in, well, a loop. The Brown Line comes in from the Northwest and North Center, the Purple Line comes in from Evanston and Lakeview, the Pink Line comes in from Pilsen and further west, and the Green Line comes in from the Far West and South. If you are arriving at Midway Airport or stopping on the Southwest Side, the swift, clean Orange Line goes straight from the airport terminal to the Loop. (The only CTA line that does not directly serve the Loop is the far north Yellow Line.)

From the suburbs, Metra commuter trains arrive at Union Station (Canal St and Jackson Blvd), Ogilvie/Northwestern Station (Canal St and Madison St), LaSalle Street Station (LaSalle St and Congress Pkwy), and Millennium Station (Michigan Ave between South Water St and Randolph St), all of which are within easy walking distance of the Loop and the CTA elevated lines. From beyond the suburbs, Amtrak connections arrive at Union Station.

By bus

Several dozen CTA bus lines travel through the Loop, but given the traffic, only a few will be useful for visitors traveling from the rest of the city.

By car

Do not drive to the Loop if at all possible. It is not a very automobile-friendly place. You're unlikely to relish the memory of having driven through the Loop, but plenty of people do it every day. Michigan Avenue offers a scenic — if slow as mud — trawl through the east end of the Loop, marking the end of the commercial area and the beginning of the parkland along the lake. Lake Shore Drive provides an equally lovely — and equally slow — route through the Loop. I-90 lets out at Jackson Blvd, at the west end of the Loop.

If you do come by car, there are four underground parking garages near Grant Park and Millennium Park. Rates vary by garage and are more expensive for special events, but the East Monroe garage (near Millennium Park) is the cheapest ($13 up to 12 hours, $16 12–24 hours).



Museums and galleries

Parks and monuments

Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park
Cloud Gate, Millennium Park

Visitor centers


The Auditorium Theater

Most of these buildings are not fully open to the public, although some may be accessible through tours by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Security procedures will, of course, vary. For some, you won't be able to make it past the lobby; for others, a purposeful stride can take you anywhere you want to go.


Some of Chicago's greatest buildings, like the Chicago Board of Trade and the Auditorium Theatre, have major attractions inside to draw the appreciative eyes of visitors. Many other masterworks, though, don't have a specific attraction associated with them, so you'll have to seek them out.

Carbide & Carbon Building


View from Sears Tower Skydeck

Other buildings, however, you will not need to seek out — Chicago's tallest skyscrapers are attractions for anyone who happens to look up! For more information about the many buildings that make up the skyline and where best to view them, be sure to check out the Chicago skyline guide.


Although they're across the river and technically in the West Loop, Union Station and Ogilvie/Northwestern Station are very much a part of the daily commute in the Loop. Union Station (1925) is a classical behemoth, lined with marble colonnades, and beautifully efficient on the inside. Ogilvie (1987), designed by Helmut Jahn, is tidy and efficient on the inside as well, with waterfalls of blue steel on the outside. If you'd like to compare a third era of Chicago transit, head over to the Near South and check out Dearborn Station (1885), which no longer serves trains.

If you're taking the elevated train around the Loop, the Quincy stop may be worth a look, as it's done up like an old-timey station, complete with vintage advertisements. You can step off the train, have a look around the platform, and get on the next train without paying again.


The famous (and photogenic) Chicago Theater on State
A giant "flamingo" statue by Alexander Calder in front of the Federal Center

In the old days, the Loop was the theater district in Chicago. Few of the originals survived the demolition wave of the 1960s, but most of the ones that did are now part of the Randolph Theater District. The Broadway in Chicago consortium stages big-budget shows there, most of which are in previews before their Broadway debut (hence, the name). Tickets for hot shows are snapped up in droves, so inquire with your hotel concierge about dinner-and-a-show packages.

The Chicago Cultural Center is also a theater destination — see above.

Events & Festivals

The intersection of Michigan and Adams at night

The Loop is ground zero for Chicago festivals, and the festivals run long and large. Take note of these dates, as hotel reservations will become more difficult to find and prices will rise.


The Magnificent Mile ends at the Chicago River, but there are still more than a few places to shop in the Loop, particularly on and east of State Street. The two landmark department stores that once anchored the area, Marshall Field's and Carson Pirie Scott, are both gone. The Carson's building, designed by Louis Sullivan, is being remodeled to serve as office space. Interior tours are still available through the Chicago Architecture Foundation (above), though.

The fate of Marshall Field's is a somewhat thornier one. Marshall Field himself was one of the original Chicago aristocracy, and his gorgeous store on State Street defined Chicago retail for several generations. In spite of its ties to Chicago culture and identity, when New York retailer Macy's bought the chain, they announced plans to rebrand all Field's stores as Macy's. Amid shock and uproar (among Chicagoans) and dire warnings (among industry analysts), Macy's executives assured reporters that focus group research had suggested people would, in fact, come to prefer the new brand. Today, sales have plunged, workers have been forced to take a sharp pay cut, and the interior is like a tomb. Ain't corporate hubris great?

Today, there are a few discount department stores, a few big stores for national chains like Old Navy and H&M, and a few amusingly shady joints on the streets under the elevated tracks.


The Chicago River and S Wacker Dr at night

It's easy to find cheap food during the day — this is where most of Chicago works, so this is where most of Chicago eats lunch. However, most of those places close when the work day ends, so it's more difficult to keep costs down at night, when it's gourmet or bust. There's a sizable food court at Ogilvie/Northwestern Station (Canal and Madison) if you're on your way in or out of town.

In general, it's wise to avoid the restaurants right by major tourist attractions (e.g., the Art Institute, Millennium Park, etc.), as the quality of service and food tends to improve with distance from these one-time-visitor hot spots. There are some gems in the Loop, but you should also consider a quick cab ride west to one of downtown Chicago's premiere dining strips in Greektown.



Miller's Pub and Exchequer in the Drink section serve food worth considering for a mid-range lunch.




The cost of real estate in the Loop means that most dives are priced out of the area, sending most of the after-work crowd to the places noted below. Friday nights after work can be a mob scene — if you're with a group, either make a reservation or be prepared to split up for a little while.


Although this is the most expensive real estate in Chicago, the hotels in the Loop are slightly cheaper than those in the Near North simply because so much of the area shuts down at night. Still, these are some pretty nice digs, and being in the Loop makes transportation to any part of the city easy.




Stay safe

Beware that certain parts of the Loop can be shady at night. You must also watch out for pickpockets in crowded areas. Just use common sense and if you find yourself walking in a seedy part of the Loop at night, stick to well lit streets or use the CTA to get to your destination.


Go next

The Loop is rivaled only by the Near North as Chicago's principal tourist destination. But the city has riches far beyond the tourist lure of downtown skyscrapers and big museums; to experience what makes Chicago ‘’Chicago’’, venture into the neighborhoods where Chicagoans actually live.

The good news is that there is convenient public transportation from the Loop to virtually every corner of this massive city. Here are a few easy excursions if you are staying in the Loop that will really show you some of the city beyond the major tourist attractions:

Routes through Loop

O'Hare International Airport Near West Side  NW  W    Reverses directionNear West SideFar West Side Forest Park
North Lincoln Near North  NW  SE  END
Forest Park Near West Side  W  S  Near South Southwest Side/Hyde Park
Southwest Side Near South  SW  NE  END
Cicero Near West Side  W  E  END
Rogers Park Near North  N  S  Near South Far Southeast Side

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