With around 40,000 runners, the Chicago Marathon is one of the largest premier marathons. The city is also a great tourist destination, making the marathon a popular choice for those who like to combine a vacation with their running. This guide also applies to travel for any other races in downtown Chicago, including the popular Rock and Roll Chicago Half Marathon, and the Shamrock Shuffle, both of which also start and finish in roughly the same area as the marathon.
Chicago Marathon Travel Made Easy
The marathon course winds through 29 of Chicago’s neighborhoods, including several site seeing areas. With the start and finish area located in Grant Park, an area easily accessible from numerous hotels and by public transportation, it is easy to stay in one central location for both the race and any area sightseeing. This guide covers everything from travel to Chicago, to getting around the city, to things to do outside of the race.
Getting to Chicago
By Air: The city has two major airports, each with easy access to downtown hotels via CTA train, rental car or taxi. Cabs from both airports operate on clearly published flat fees, but there is also highly affordable Airport Arrival Transfer, Airport Departure Transfer, and Roundtrip Transfer (saves a bit if you buy round trip) for getting into the city easily and comfortably.
- O’Hare is the busiest of the two and services most airlines. Because of its central location, airfare to Chicago is often quite reasonable. If using public transportation from the airport, look for the signs directing you to the CTA (aka “the L”) at the airport. You will be taking the CTA blue line from there to downtown, where you can normally walk to your hotel from one of the stops or easily grab a cab if the walk is a bit long.
- Midway airport is slightly closer to downtown and is much quicker and easier to navigate. However, it services only a few airlines, with Southwest being the primary airline at that location. Southwest typically offers excellent service, and often is very affordable, with no bag fees and no change fees. If using public transportation from Midway, look for the signs directing you to the CTA (aka “The L”). You will be taking the CTA orange line from there to downtown. You can normally walk to your hotel from one of the stops or easily grab a cab if the walk is a bit long.
By Train: Chicago is accessible by Amtrak rail, which goes into Union Station. The Station is a quick and easy cab ride from most downtown hotels. If your hotel is away from downtown, you can often take a CTA train to get within walking distance of it. The closest CTA station is four short blocks away (see the Getting around downtown section for more on using the CTA system). The Metra system accesses the suburbs.
By Car: Traveling to and around the city by car is relatively easy. However, parking is expensive and few hotels or restaurants offer free parking. Because of that, and because public transportation in the area is so good, we recommend that those who fly in for the marathon use public transport over renting a vehicle. Even the cost of a few cab fares would be less than the cost of car rental plus parking. If you choose to rent a car, RentalCars.com allows comparisons among all the major rental companies and often has great deals.
Getting Around Chicago
Walking is easy in Chicago, especially for runners who are not afraid of a bit of distance. Many of the key attractions, hotels, and restaurants are within a 2-3 mile radius.
- The CTA: The CTA system is easy to use. Fares are paid through use of prepaid paper pass cards, which are sold via kiosks at all stations. Chicago’s CTA operates around a central loop, which circles the main downtown area and then various line spoke off of that loop to outlying parts of the city. The above ground loop also offers some beautiful views of the city. Maps are plentiful both in stations and on train walls. You can also see maps and plan your trip at the CTA website. Google maps will show the CTA lines if you choose to highlight public transportation.
- Cabs: Taxis are plentiful and fares are typical to any large city. But with the ease of use of the CTA, taking a cab is often unnecessary.
- Metra Rail: The Metra train system is useful if you wish to stay in the suburbs or take an excursion to an attraction in a suburb. Although the trains operate on a fairly extensive schedule, I do not recommend staying at a suburban hotel and taking Metra to the city for the race without doing some careful research. Many of the trains do not operate early enough to get you to the start line on time, plus Metra schedules tend to be more liable to change than the CTA schedules. If you are looking for budget options away from the city, see the hotel section for hotels that are at the ends of the CTA system, which will get you to the race in time.
Where to Stay For the Marathon: Chicago Hotels
Chicago is home to numerous hotels, but there are fewer of them near Grant park and the marathon start and finish than there are a mile or so away on North Michigan Avenue. Downtown hotels tend to be pricey, but there are a few bargains to be had and, for those who don’t mind a bit of travel on race day, there are some good deals further away that are accessible to CTA train lines . Each are covered below:
Hotels near the Chicago Marathon Start and Finish
The following four hotels are directly across from the start and finish of the marathon. The walk to the start is approximately 2 blocks through the park. We recommend any of these four hotels for those who want close proximity to the start and finish of the race.
(mid-high end) The Chicago Hilton: The Chicago Hilton is the designated race hotel and the pasta feed the night before the race is held here. The hotel is a beautiful old building and it includes Kitty O’Sheas, a popular area Irish pub. Rooms are very comfortable, but they book very far in advance here and you can expect to pay premium price for them.
(high end) Renaissance Blackstone: The Blackstone is a luxury hotel with a luxury hotel price. Of the four near the start line, it is by far the most comfortable, but as noted, that comes with a high price tag. If you are seeking luxury, choose this one or the Hilton. If you are seeking value look to the Congress or the Essex.
(budget-mid price) Congress Hotel: The Congress Hotel is home to the local running group’s private bag check area, so it is a hopping place on race day. It is an older hotel and the rooms are small, but they are comfortable. I find that the hallways often smell a bit odd—as if a bunch of air fresheners were used to cover up a musty smell, but I have stayed at the hotel 6 times now and the rooms have always been fine for me. The Congress is often a great value hotel. Prices are typically lower than other area hotels and its location to the start makes it quite attractive. The hotel also offers a decent enough restaurant and bar.
(budget-mid price) Essex Inn: The Essex is a good value hotel slightly south of the marathon start area. Like the Congress, the rooms are small, but quite comfortable. The hotel gets better than average consumer ratings, and many recommend it as a good value, as room prices tend to be lower than normal for the area.
Hotels Near The Chicago River And In The Magnificent Mile Shopping District
For those who plan to tour the city before or after the race and want to be in the center of activities, those who are unable to get into the hotels near the start, or those who prefer different hotel brands, Chicago’s river and shopping district (aka the magnificent mile) offers numerous hotels. You can walk from the area to the start in under 30 minutes (depending on the hotel it is a .5 to 1.5 mile walk). It is easy to grab a cab back to the hotel after the race. Before the race cabs are harder to come by, but not impossible. Note that the location of CTA loop means that taking a CTA train often requires walking to an from a station. In many cases the savings would be less than .5 mile, so you might as well just walk to the start over taking a CTA train if you stay in the magnificent mile.
Our Top Recommended Hotel Under 1 mile From The Start. This Is Also Our top Recommendation For Single Travelers:
The River Hotel and its partner the Club Quarters (they are in the same building), located near Michigan and East Wacker is an easy (approximately .7 mile) walk to the marathon start. The hotels offer clean, highly comfortable, modern rooms, with a European feel, at a good price for Chicago. In particular, they offer single rooms, which are small rooms that consist of a queen size bed, work desk with small flat screen TV, and a bath with a funky sliding entry door and no tub-shower only. Wireless internet is free here, which it often isn’t at other area hotels. Also offered are neat touches such as bottled water stations on each floor. I stayed in one of the single rooms and found it perfect for the solo traveler, or even for a couple who don’t plan to spend a ton of time in the room. The bed was very comfortable and the place very unique and clean. At a price often under $125, the single rooms are a great value. You do give up your ability for a post race ice bath with these though. The hotels also offer larger room choices, but reviews still list them as on the small side. You can carb load the night before at the attached Italian restaurant.
Magnificent Mile Hotels—Approximately 1-2 miles to the start
The Chicago shopping district north of the river along Michigan Avenue and nearby streets offers just about every hotel chain, along with some independent hotels. The area tend to be pricey, but searching aggregators such as Hotels.com or taking a blind choice on Priceline can sometime reveal some bargains. Nearly every hotel in the area is of decent quality and within a mile to 2 miles from the Chicago Marathon start. I personally stayed at the Marriott for the 2009 Chicago Marathon. I easily walked to the start, which was about a mile or so away. The hotel was very nice and, after a bit of pleading on my part, gave me a late checkout at 3pm after the race so I could get a shower in before taking the train back to my suburban home.
Outlying Hotels With CTA Transportation Access: A Way To Save
For budget conscious runners, a money saving option is to stay near the ends of one of the CTA lines. The distance normally brings down room price,s and the CTA runs on a schedule that will get you to the start on time. The downside is that you must allow enough time (up to an hour) to take the CTA into downtown and walk to the start area. Here are three areas to consider:
Purple Line Evanston Area: The downtown Evanston area has several hotels near the CTA purple line. Of them, I have stayed at the Best Western, which was perfectly clean and comfortable. The purple line is a short 2 block walk away. Note that Evanston has its rough areas. If you stay here, stick with the downtown and college campus area, which is well lit and clean.
Orange Line Midway Airport Area and Blue Line O’Hare Airport Area: The airport areas offer numerous hotel choices, a search on an aggregator such as Hotels.com, Orbitz, or Expedia is the best way to find the best deal. Note that not all hotels are close to the CTA station, but many offer a shuttle. Be sure to allow sufficient time to get to the race from your hotel. Because of the distance to travel, staying in Chicago proper is the most recommended option.
Where to Carb Load In Chicago
The Chicago Marathon offers a spaghetti feed the night before the race at the Hilton. This is always a good and very affordable option. Chicago is also home to numerous restaurants of all types. The area around the magnificent mile has too many to list. However, for those staying closer to the start, one recommendation is Italian Village, which is within walking distance. Make reservations early (as in over a month in advance), as it is a popular location before races. I have also shown up without a reservation and sat at the bar, which will offer you their full menu.
Things To Do
Chicago is a wonderful tourist destination. First off, consider a package pass to beat the long lines if you plan to visit many of the tourist locations that we suggest.
Get a City Pass or Go Chicago Card:
Among the City Pass features are admission to the Shedd Aquarium (with VIP entry to galleries, Amazon Rising, Wild Reef, Abbott Oceanarium, Polar Play Zone, Aquatic show, Jellies special exhibit and your choice of a 4-D experience ), The Field Museum (including the Underground Adventure), Skydeck Chicago at the Willis Tower (with Fast Pass Admission and The Ledge). There are also options for the Adler Planetarium (with VIP entry and 3-D show) or the Art Institute (including an audio tour) and an option for the John Hancock Observatory (with Fast Pass Admission, tour and free coffee) or the Museum of Science and Industry (including VIP entry to exhibits, Omnimax show, and a flight simulator ride).
While the City Pass will save you money, one of the best benefits is the VIP entry at most locations. This can honestly save you hours of waiting in line, especially at the Shedd Aquarium, the Willis Tower Skydeck , and the exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry.
Another option is the Go Chicago Card, which offers 1-3 day passes to the museums with various add on options. They do not mention VIP entry, which is why I recommend the City pass first. However, I did personally use a Go Chicago Card once and did get VIP entry at several locations with it, including at the Shedd Aquarium, where lines often are rather long. Whether that was actually supposed to happen though, I don’t know. The Go Chicago Card also has more add on options, some of which might make it preferable to you. Take a look at both cards before deciding between them.
Look at Specialized Tour Packages:
Viator, a company that focuses on tourist activities in many locations, offers numerous interesting and fun excursions in a variety of price ranges. A few of my personal favorites for runners are linked below, but many more can be seen here on the Viator site: Viator Chicago Activities.
- Chicago Segway Tour: This tour covers the attractions along the Chicago lakefront, which you actually don’t get to see much of during the race. Being on a Segway also offers a way to rest your legs either before or after the race! Also check out the Segway Plus Art and Architectural Tour.
- The Chicago Hop On Hop Off Tour: This is fun and easy way to see much of Chicago and, like the Segway tour, offers runners a way to tour the area while resting the legs and feet. The Hop on Hop Off tour offers a narrated tour of 13 miles of the Chicago area by trolley or double decker bus. You can hop on or off at anytime and grab a different vehicle when ready. The tour takes about 2 hours if you do not depart the vehicle, and the narrators are always personable, fun, and informative.
- Chicago River and Lake Architectural Tour: There are several companies in Chicago that offer architectural tours by boat. Each provide a way to see the city from the Chicago River and offer a way to learn about the city’s unique architectural history.
- Chicago Sunset Dinner Cruise: Take a cruise from Navy Pier for beautiful views of he city while being entertained and, like with all of these tours, resting your legs and feet! Viator offers other Chicago tour lineups here: Chicago Activities on Viator.
Suggested Tourist Activities and Key Chicago Attractions
- The Shedd Aquarium: Located at the South end of Grant Park, the aquarium boasts a good selection of fish, penguins, and other aquatic animals. I also features a dolphin and whale show (albeit a rather hokey show with a silly story plot) and other activities with a view of Lake Michigan.
- The Field Museum: Next the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum is a premier natural history museum that also proudly displays a full T-Rex skeleton (Sue). The Egyptian collection is particularly nice here.
- The Art Institute of Chicago: Located on the Northern end of Grant Park, the art museum is a must see for any art lover. It houses an extensive collection and includes the famed Sunday Afternoon in the Park Grande Jette by Seurat.
- The Museum of Science and Industry: A must see museum for anyone who enjoys science, machinery, and industrial history. With many interactive exhibits and interesting objects, this one is also especially good for children. The museum includes a real U-505 German submarine, airplanes, a large train set that recreates travel across the united states, storm simulations, a unique miniature exhibit, and more.
- Adler Planetarium: The planetarium is on the lake in the central area of Grant Park and offers various shows and educational programs.
- The Chicago Sky Deck: Go to the top of the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower for spectacular views. The deck also features clear observation ledges that allow one to “step out of the building” so to speak. Those are not for the faint of heart!
- The Hancock Observatory: My preference in tower viewing is the Hanckock Observatory at the far end of the magnificent mile shopping area. From here you can get great views of the city, lake, and Navy Pier while enjoying a snack at the observatory cafe.
- Navy Pier: Navy Pier offers restaurants, bars, a children’s museum, tourist activities, and amusement park rides. Basic Admission is free. The ferris wheel is particularly popular here for great views of the city and the lake.
- Lincoln Park Zoo: A smaller zoo in Lincoln Park with free admission. This is also a great area for walking and running. The marathon course runs through a section of the park by the zoo.
- Magnificent Mile Shopping: The magnificent mile is the stretch of Michigan avenue north of the river. This is the shopping district with flagship and specialty stores, along with urban malls. At the very north end, past the Hancock Building, are some very high end shops. For runners, there are Nike and Garmin flagship stores here. If you venture further north into the Lincoln Park area, there is a flagship New Balance store.
- Grant Park, Millenium Park, Fountains, and Cloudgate (aka the Bean): A walk along and through Grant and Millenium Parks allow for viewing of various fountains and public art. Be sure to visit “the Bean,” (pictured below) a large reflective bean-shaped object that makes for interesting photos.
Useful Chicago Marathon Travel Links
- Chicago Excursions on Viator
- Chicago City Pass
- Go Chicago Card
- Roundtrip Airport Transfer
- Chicago Metra Train System
- Chicago CTA (“The EL”) Train System
- Chicago Marathon Website
About the Author: Carleen Coulter is the owner of RunGadget.com and lives in the Chicago area. She has run numerous Chicago races, including the Chicago Marathon in 2009, and served as a Chicago Marathon volunteer in 2010.