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How to Act Like a Local in Chicago

You say Chicago is – as the song goes – your kind of town? Then you’ll want to acclimate quickly. It’s not hard to fit in with the locals here. Just prepare to smile (Midwestern kindness isn’t just a stereotype), find your bearings and leave the tourist zones. Here are some tips to help you mix and mingle like a Chicagoland pro.

Opt for mustard on your dog
In Chicago, hot dog consumption continues well after age five. You’ll see adults proudly eating the sausages everywhere. And there’s a weird little Chicago rule that says you never put ketchup on a hot dog. (And indeed the U.S National Hot Dog and Sausage Council considers it a “don’t” to put mustard on a dog past the age of 18.) Now, “never” is a strong word, and many hot dog spots do, in fact, carry the red squirt canisters. Just know in advance that you might be judged. Break the rule at your own discretion.

Skip Navy Pier
Unless you have kids, that is (the carousel is fun and the Chicago Children’s Museum is fantastic), or you’re headed to Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Otherwise, it’s crowded and entirely overrated.

If it’s rush hour and that El car is empty, it really is too good to be true
Pick another car. Trust us on this one. And if you don’t trust us, trust your nose.

Don’t talk trash about our Cubs
Sure, they’ve had their ups and downs, and a World Series drought lasting more than a century. But that doesn’t mean we don’t love them in spite of it. Unless, that is, you’re on the city’s south side talking to a Sox fan. Then you can say whatever you want about the Cubs.

Two by two, please
As the third-largest city in the United States (metropolitan Chicago has a population of 8 million), we Chicagoans are used to literally rubbing elbows with one another. There are a lot of people and limited real estate. Use common sense when walking around, especially downtown. Walk the streets in ones or twos, rather than three or more abreast, blocking the sidewalk off. If you stop to take a photo or send a text, step off the busy walkways so you don’t cause traffic jam.

We don’t all talk like Bill Swerski
You remember that SNL skit? You might be pleasantly surprised that, despite the very occasional uttering of “Da Bears,” we Chicagoans sound quite, well, normal. But if you do throw out a “Starts with a ‘C,’ ends with an ‘O,’ and has a ‘hicag’ in the middle,” we’ll probably laugh. Midwestern kindness, and all.

We know our crime rate frightens you
It frightens us, too. If it’s any consolation, much of the violence here is gang-related, and it’s not an issue in areas where most visitors go. Still, use common sense when walking anywhere in the city. Be aware and keep your smartphones somewhere safe.

Take the revolving door
If you opt out of using the revolving door – or, worse, if you try and sneak in and share a small wedge of the door with someone else – you’re donning a badge that says “not from around these parts.” The revolving doors are for ease of entry and energy efficiency, keeping temperatures regulated in winter and summer. Hop in and you’ll get the swing of it quickly.

Aim for pizza agnosticism
When visitors think Chicago pizza, they generally visualize that thick, bubbly, casserole-of-a-pizza, known as Chicago-style pizza. We assure you that it’s delicious and well worth the calories, but we’re also blessed with many other pizza options, such as thin crust, Neapolitan, New York-style, Detroit-style, Quad Cities-style, and the list goes on. Open your mind to all types of pizza and don’t feel pressured to go deep or go home.

Skip the car rental
If you’re staying in the city, you really don’t need a car to get around. In fact, your visit will be more enjoyable if you don’t have a car in Chicago. First, it’s not just renting that car that will cost you. You’ll also have to pay handily to park it. Inside the Loop, parking meters cost up to $6.50 an hour. And overnight parking? Brace yourself. On average, downtown hotels charge about $60 a night. As for parking tickets, they’re likely: Chicago is notorious for having confusing signs about when and where you can park, and for towing those who disobey. Instead, buy a Ventra card and ride the El or hop on one of our Divvy bike shares. Both methods are a cheap tour of the city, and it’s how most locals get around.

Leave the Loop
Some of us live in the Loop, but for the most part, we head there for business. The real Chicago is in the neighborhoods. Hop on the El and ride to one of Chicago’s 77 different personality-packed neighbourhoods. In places like Logan Square, Wicker Park, Lincoln Park, Pilsen and Andersonville. Each one is entirely distinct from the others. And the more neighborhoods you see, the better you’ll want to get to know Chicago and its locals.

Don’t jump in the Chicago river
Yes, it’s pretty, and has great historical significance in the growth of our fair city. But it’s also a little stinky. There’s a reason for that: It transports our waste. There’s even a site you can look at to see if raw sewage is being dumped into the Chicago River, aptly named www.istheresewageinthechicagoriver.com.


Published Tuesday, July 21st 2015

Header image credit: Getty Images



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