Murals of Mexican cowboys notwithstanding, Pilsen is a lot like the Wild West: only a few minutes from the center of Chicago by train, this working-class neighborhood is thick with riches in art and historic architecture, and occupied by a community that's fiercely proud of where they live.


Three local favorites, Pilsen

Pilsen was originally settled by Irish and German immigrants, who came to work at the factories and stockyards nearby. Those industries attracted Czech immigrants next, and in the late 1800s, the neighborhood was named in honor of the city back home in Bohemia. The streets of Pilsen still bear their mark — weathered stone castles like St. Adalbert's and Thalia Hall loom over buildings with colorful turrets and dashes of ornamentation completely absent of the Prairie School influence found elsewhere in Chicago.

In the 1960s, the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago displaced a community of Mexicans from the Near West Side, and many resettled in Pilsen. Though they inherited an area in economic decline, Pilsen's new residents built a set of cultural institutions that far outpace many wealthier neighborhoods, crowned by the excellent National Museum of Mexican Art. And with the city's once-thriving West Side Italian community mostly wiped out by that same construction, a single block of the industrial Heart of Chicago neighborhood drew new focus as a place where Italian Chicago survived, remaining today as an alternative to the more heavily touristed Little Italy near the university.

Fears of gentrification began several years ago when the Podmajersky company began converting the old warehouses of East Pilsen into cheap studios for artists. Depending on who you ask, this was either intended to:

a) Revitalize the nearly vacant eastern half of an economically depressed neighborhood by creating spaces where exciting young artists could live, work, and exhibit, a "SoHo in Chicago";

b) Jump-start the process of gentrification that happened in Wicker Park several years earlier, driving up property values by exchanging low-income residents for wealthier ones looking to trade on that artistic "cool."

The artists arrived and opened galleries, but many left for lack of foot traffic. Most of those who remain have private studios, open to the public only for special events, giving East Pilsen the feeling of a ghost town on non-event days. There is an increasing split between the two halves of the neighborhood, and businesses seem torn between appealing to the working-class Mexican community already here and the affluent community that is still arriving. Whatever direction Pilsen may be headed, what's there now is an area with a long history of re-inventing itself, rough in places and full of inspiration, and guaranteed to provide visitors with an interesting day.

Get in

By train

Pilsen is very easy to reach by train from the Loop. The key is to know which part you'd like to visit first: the arts district in East Pilsen, which is centered at 18th and Halsted, and the arts/commercial center in West Pilsen, which surrounds 18th and Ashland. It's a long but manageable walk between the two areas, with a quiet zone in-between.

For East Pilsen, take the CTA Orange Line to Halsted, which is on the border of Bridgeport, and walk a few blocks north on Halsted (the street), crossing over the river almost immediately.

For West Pilsen, take the CTA Pink Line to 18th. (Even if you're just passing through, the astonishing murals at the 18th station are worth a look.) The Pink Line also stops in the Heart of Chicago neighborhood (Damen, Western) and then on to the Far West Side.

It should be noted that the last trains for both lines are around 1:15am if heading back toward the Loop (Downtown), so plan your trip accordingly.

By bus

The streets of Pilsen don't get the same tender, loving care from snowplows as some other parts of the city, so the wind and the drifts can make walking between East and West Pilsen considerably more difficult.

By car

If you're traveling within the city, the wide expanses of Western Avenue are the fastest way to reach Pilsen. Otherwise, use the I-55 exit at Damen Avenue for Pilsen, and the Canalport left exit off of I-90/94 to get to the arts district on Halsted.


Both halves of the neighborhood have annual open-doors festivals — see below.

West Pilsen

If you're walking down 18th Street from East Pilsen, it's around Racine that you'll begin to notice the change. Stores have cheerful skeletons in their windows, and inevitably some Spanish-language dance music is bumping off in the distance. By the time you reach 18th and Blue Island, take a break to enjoy the scene. Welcome to West Pilsen.

Quite a lot of artists have studios in West Pilsen, but few have regular open hours. Check at the cafes for information on exhibit openings.

East Pilsen

1932 S Halsted: A lot of art in a little space

Aside from old industrial atmosphere, there isn't much to see on an average day. The recession hit the East Pilsen art scene hard, and there are only a couple of small galleries that can be visited without an appointment. However, everyone opens up for browsing for the 2nd Fridays Art Walk (free, second Friday of each month, 6-10PM). The night often winds up at Skylark (see Bars).

The building at 1932 S Halsted has the highest concentration of studios, but you'll need to call up for access.


Events & Festivals

Don't forget the 2nd Fridays Art Walk every month in East Pilsen.


Pilsen is an underrated shopping destination, with a few affordable and intriguing vintage stores on 18th. Also, the National Museum of Mexican Art has what may be the city's best museum gift shop.


Open for business in Pilsen

Pilsen restaurants are gradually picking up variety — where once there were only taquerías and pizza joints, you'll now also find Chinese, Italian, and BBQ. But the taquerías remain the stars — authentic, cheap, and really good.

Equally memorable Italian restaurants can be found a little west in Heart of Chicago.



Heart of Chicago

These are a bit out of the way but not hard to find, and if you like Italian food & ambiance, it's definitely worth the trip. Take the Pink Line to Western, walk a few blocks blocks south and then turn left to reach the 2400 South block of Oakley.


Pilsen is slowly building its nightlife options. Most of these options cater to local hipsters and artists in the area. Aside from the options listed here, a few of the restaurants listed above have bars worthy of your drinking dollar, Cuernavaca in particular. Otherwise, you might head over to the Near West Side on the 8 Halsted bus and booze it up there.



Booze for the birds


Hotels in the Loop or Midway area are the best options for access here, a quick ride away on the CTA Orange Line.


Many of the local cafes offer internet access — see above.

Stay safe

Smash-and-grab robberies have been reported for cars parked in East Pilsen during the 2nd Fridays art walk, so park in a well-lit area if possible and take any valuables with you (or, better, leave them at your hotel). Many Chicago residents overstate the crime rate in Pilsen, but it still has some problems. After dark, stick with other people and be aware of your surroundings.

Go next

Routes through Pilsen

Cicero Far West Side  W  E  Near West Side The Loop

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