When you think of Chicago, it’s hard not to think about history. Chicago is filled with some of the best historical sites in the United States. Located in the heart of the Midwest, Chicago is both famous and infamous for its history, from its stunning architecture to its notorious gangsters. It’s hard to walk the streets without imagining traveling back in time to visit the former residents in their heyday.
While I’d definitely recommend taking an architecture cruise or bus tour to get a feel for the wide variety, taking individual tours of some of the historic homes in the city is a must. And if you’re a Burnham or Wright fan, then you are definitely in luck.
For history beyond the architecture, make sure you put some Chicago museums on your list, like the Chicago History Museum or the Driehaus Museum. There you can explore the cultural heart of the city, one built by hard work and immigrants coming together to forge a new home on the banks of Lake Michigan over many decades to create the city we know and love today.
CHICAGO HISTORICAL SITES
FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT ROBIE HISTORIC HOUSE
A UNESCO World Heritage Site on the University of Chicago campus, the Robie House earned it’s heritage status by being one of the best examples of Prairie style architecture in the world. Built for Frederick C. Robie, the house was completed in 1910.
When Robie was forced to sell the house to settle debts shortly after the completion of the house, the home changed hands quickly to two other families. Their stays in the home would be short lived as well with the last family only staying until the mid 1920s. The house would go on to serve many other purposes including a classroom and office space.
In the mid 20th century the house would nearly be demolished, with Wright lobbying to save the home. The Robie House is considered the last of the “true” Wright Prairie style homes.
Tours are available Thursday through Monday from 10-3pm. The limited hours make planning ahead a necessity, and you can purchase tickets online ahead of time to be extra prepared.
FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT HISTORIC HOME AND STUDIO
One of, if not the most famous architect in the United States, Frank Lloyd Wright’s style and homes are cherished throughout the U.S. and on the National Register of Historic Places. His home and studio are still preserved in Oak Park where a historic district features a number of Wright designed homes.
Wright’s home was built in 1889, and was Wright’s first true artistic and architectural experiment into his own design. Visitors can tour the home and learn more about Wright as both a person and an architect.
HISTORIC CHICAGO UNION STATION
If you want a taste of art deco style, you can step into Chicago’s Union Station. Union Station was originally designed by famed architect Daniel Burnham, and built by Graham, Anderson, Probst and White. The rail station which is still active, was opened in 1925. Originally intended to be expanded into something even more grand, the development of the building stalled during The Great Depression.
The station would get a second life when there was a flurry of rail activity during WWII when the location served tens of thousands of passengers and hundreds of trains, many of them carrying soldiers. Norman Rockwell captured the Christmas season in 1944 in a Saturday Evening Post cover.
The vaulted ceilings and glass panes will still make you feel like you’ve entered the past, despite the hum of over a hundred thousand passengers a day walking around you. If you want help navigating the history, the Chicago History Museum occasionally offers walking tours of the station. Check their calendar to see if there’s one available when you’re in town.
The Rookery Building is the product of famous architects Burnham and Root. Built in 1888, the Rookery was built on the former location of the temporary city hall (erected after the Great Chicago Fire). It’s considered one of the premiere architectural landmarks in the city and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Once completed, the Rookery was also the site of Burnham and Root’s offices and was the location where they began planning the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The Burnham Library is still on site to this day.
Burnham and Root weren’t the only famous architects to make their mark. Frank Lloyd Wright redesigned the lobby in 1905. Wright played on the original ironwork adding marble and ornamentation, making the light court an even brighter and more beautiful architectural wonder.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust offers tours of the Rookery, one that covers the Rookery’s light court and another that partners that tour with one of Burnham’s library.
PALMER HOUSE HILTON – Historic Chicago Hotel
Wishing you could stay somewhere historic? The Palmer House Hilton is an option. Definitely not the only historic hotel in town, but one of the more famous. The Palmer House is listed as a Historic Hotel of America through the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The current hotel is the third iteration as the first, a wedding present, burned down in the Chicago Fire after only 13 days, and the second, originally built in 1875, was replaced in 1925 by a bigger more modern hotel.
In the 1940s famed hotelier Conrad Hilton purchased the property and it has been one of the chains signature hotels ever since.
Even if you don’t plan to stay at the hotel, you can still catch a glimpse of the historic lobby. If you’re into food history, legend also has it that the brownie was invented in the hotel as a treat for women visiting the hotel during the Columbian Exposition in 1893.
JANE ADDAMS-HULL HOUSE
Hull-House was Chicago’s first settlement home. Settlement homes were homes run by middle to upperclass women that served as outreach centers for the working class. Women would run a number of social services from the home and helped immigrants adapt to life in America by offering classes on English and American government alongside instruction on sewing and cooking. They also offered daycare for children, libraries and an art gallery.
Jane Addams ran the house with a number of other influential women. Hull-House was originally opened in 1889, and Jane Addams lived and managed the house until her death in 1935. She also worked tirelessly for women’s causes like suffrage, argued for peace during WWI, and ultimately won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
Jane Addams-Hull House is located on campus at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The museum is closed Mondays and Saturdays (as well as major holidays and for school breaks) so plan your visit ahead of time. Public tours are available and reservations are encouraged.
CLARK HOUSE MUSEUM
Built in 1836, the Clarke House is the oldest house in Chicago. Interpreted to the pre-Civil War era, the house gives a glimpse of life in early Chicago. Exhibits inside also explain the history of the house, it’s moves throughout the city and the various roles the house played before becoming a museum. There are free one hour guided tours of the home for those who want to visit.
DRIEHAUS MUSEUM & NICKERSON MANSION
For a taste of art nouveau and a glimpse at Chicago’s guilded age, the Drieshaus Museum is your best bet. The museum features opulent examples of art nouveau style and decorative arts. The home is also known for its many stained glass works of art.
The Driehaus Museum is located inside the Nickerson Mansion, the former home of a Chicago banker completed in 1883.
CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM
If you really want to get to the heart of history in the city there is no better place than the Chicago History Museum. The museum has permanent exhibitions that cover the cities vast history including everything from its famous shopping district and stores to infamous 1930s crime to the cities deep relationship with jazz and blues.
If you’d rather experience history outside the walls of the museum, Chicago History also hosts bus and walking tours that give visitors a hands on history experience in the city. The museum is open 7 days a week, but hours vary. Check their website for more up to date information on admission, discounts, and parking.
GARFIELD PARK CONSERVANCY
If you need a breath of nature to break up your hunt for historic sites in Chicago, consider a visit to the Garfield Park Conservancy. Built in 1908, the conservancy still counts as something historic to do and it has beautiful exhibits of plants from around the world. While you explore them you can also marvel at the stunning glass pane ceilings.
OLD CHICAGO WATER TOWER
Built in 1869, the Chicago Water Tower housed a pumping structure that brought water from Lake Michigan into the city of Chicago as the city was quickly outgrowing it’s water supply. One of the few structures to survive the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, the Water Tower serves as one of the city’s longtime landmarks.
You can easily get a glimpse of the Chicago Water Tower while getting in some shopping on the Magnificent Mile. The Tower is located at 806 N Michigan Avenue,
One of the most iconic travel routes in the United States, Route 66 stretches from Los Angeles through the Southwest and up through the Midwest finally reaching it’s end (or beginning depending on which way you’re headed) at Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. Since the route has changed over the years, there are several signs in the city marking the terminus of one end of the route including one near the Art Institute in Chicago.
HISTORIC SITES & MUSEUMS MAP
Looking to visit more historic sites on your next US road trip? Check these out: