If you're planning on moving to Chicago, don't mistake it as a simple midwest city. As the third most populous city in the United States (just after New York City and Los Angeles), Chicago offers many of the amenities of other major cities. To help you plan your move to Chicago, here are some things you should know.

1. Know the cardinal directions.

chicago directions in compass
There's no east in Chicago...there's a lake. | Photo credit: juanyworldwide

To figure out how to get around Chicago, it's helpful to know the cardinal directions since people refer to sections of the city as the North Side, South Side, and West Side. Wondering where the East Side is? There isn't one; it's Lake Michigan.

There's also the Southwest Side, Far Southwest Side, Far North Side, etc. So, if you want to know where a neighborhood or restaurant is located, these points provide a good frame of reference.

2. Public transportation can take you most places in the city.

chicago public transit
The "L" makes it easy to get around most of the city. | Photo credit: Stephy Miehle

Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) provides some of the best public transit in the country. The train system, known as the "L", can take you to over 140 stations located throughout the city. It's a decent system since trains usually run only a little behind schedule, and the popular red and blue lines operate 24/7. But know that trains don't run to the outside edges of the South Side.

If you want to get closer to your final destination, you can take a CTA bus. Just be aware that the more connections you have to make, the longer your journey will take.

3. Traffic and toll roads make driving a drag.

map of chicago streets and traffic
Typical Friday evening traffic with slow traffic (shown in the orange and red lines) in Chicago.

During rush hour, commuters clog up area roads such as I-90, I-55, and I-290. Along with the frustrations of traffic, toll road fees can quickly add up since it's hard to avoid roads such as I-90, I-294, and I-355. If you'll frequently drive on these roads, it's a good idea to invest in an I-Pass to save you both time and money.

4. Biking is part of the culture.

three bikers in chicago
The Chicago Bicycle Program hosts events like bike to work day. | Photo credit: Chicago Bicycle Program

Chicago has lots of bike lanes and bike routes—248 miles to be exact. Due to its thoughtful bike infrastructure and strong bike education systems, the American League of Bicyclists gives Chicago a silver rating.

Many Chicagoans take advantage of this infrastructure to bike commute to work and ride around the city. If you don't have your own bike or don't have room to safely store one, you can rent a bike through the bike-sharing company Divvy. For $15/day or $99/year, you can grab one of 6,000 bikes from 600 stations and ride all you want.

5. Real estate costs drastically vary between downtown and the rest of the city.

chart showing average home prices in chicago vs. downtown
Properties continue to be more expensive downtown than in the rest of the city. | Image credit: Property Shark

Understanding the cost of buying a home allows you to understand real estate trends for renting too. Purchasing a home in downtown Chicago will cost about $675,000 more than buying a home in the rest of the city. That difference is one of the largest gaps in the US. This translates to higher rents for apartments in downtown neighborhoods including the Gold Coast, Magnificent Mile, River North, and South Loop.

6. There are lots of free activities.

garfield park conservatory in chicago
The Garfield Park Conservatory is free to visitors and an excellent escape from the city. | Photo credit:  Howard Lifshitz

If you're on a budget, there's no need to worry about getting bored. Garfield Park Conservatory is filled with thousands of indoor plants as well as outdoor gardens. If you get tired of the harsh Chicago winters, just take a stroll through the heated palm house or desert house.

The National Museum of Mexican Art and the Smart Museum of Art both provide spaces to look at visual art. And if you're feeling a little wild, you can head to the free Lincoln Park Zoo to visit gorillas, penguins, wolves, and more.

7. The lake effect is real.

Lake Michigan in winter with snow
Expect snowy winters along Lake Michigan. | Photo credit: Alisa Anton

Lake Michigan plays a major role not only in the city's landscape but also the weather. Since the lake is so large (over 22,000 square miles), it helps regulate the air temperature, leading to cooler summers and warmer winters. The lake also brings in lake effect snow during the winter.

Speaking of winter...it's rough. Temperatures are often below freezing and the city receives an average of three feet of snow each year. But instead of complaining, locals put on a parka and snow boots and embrace the winter.

8. Get ready to play some Whirlyball.

man playing whirlyball
With bumper cars and rackets, you need to try whirlyball at least once. | Photo credit: Travis Isaacs

If you've never heard of whirlyball, you're not alone. This sport requires a special court, so it's only available in certain areas of the country. The Chicago area is a whirlyball hotspot, so you'll have an opportunity to try your hand at this wacky sport.

Whirly ball combines lacrosse, basketball, hockey, and bumper cars...and you can pretty much guarantee none of your friends have played it while growing up.

9. The Lakefront Trail in summer is pure bliss.

Lakefront Trail in Chicago
There's nothing quite like strolling along Lake Michigan on a summer day. | Photo credit: Jonathan J. Castellon

While Chicago winters have a bad reputation, the summers are worthy of accolades. Temperatures hover around 80°F and a cool breeze from Lake Michigan keeps humidity at bay.

To enjoy the weather, take a walk, bike ride, or run along the 18-mile Lakefront Trail. Or head to Navy Pier and walk out onto the water. The 3,300-foot long pier to ride the Centennial Wheel or just enjoy the weather.

10. Chicago takes its sports seriously.

Wrigley Field in Chicago
You'll find lots of loyal fans at Wrigley Field. | Photo credit: Blake Guidry

Chicago fans are loyal to their local sports teams. Most of the city cheers for the Bulls in basketball, the Bears in football, and the Blackhawks in hockey, but baseball is a bit complicated.

Chicago is home to two Major League Baseball teams: the White Sox and the Cubs. The Cubs play at Wrigley Field in the North Side, and the White Sox play at Guaranteed Rate Field in the South Side. Every year, these rivals face off to compete for the Crosstown Cup.

11. There's more to eat than hot dogs and pizza.

bowl of ramen
You can find ramen, tacos, falafel, and more in Chicago. | Photo credit: Mathew Hamilton

Sure, Chicago is famous for its hot dogs and deep dish pizza, but the culinary scene boasts inventive and global restaurants. Check out the Korean-American fare at Parachute, the Mexican grub at Rick Bayless owned Frontera Grill, and the fresh from the farm brunch at Lula Cafe.

Still, be sure to know the basics of Chicago's beloved dishes. Don't ever ask for ketchup on a hot dog; a Chicago-style dog starts with an all-beef hot dog on a poppyseed bun and is topped with mustard, onions, green relish, tomato, sport peppers, a pickle spear, and celery salt. There's plenty of places serving hot dogs around the city, but Gene and Jude's is a hometown favorite.

12. Chicago neighborhoods provide something for everyone.

Map of Chicago neighborhoods
Chicago has a lot of neighborhoods, and they're all different. | Image credit: City of Chicago

Chicago is a big city filled with a diverse array of neighborhoods. The North Side has a more urban and hip feel, with a noticeable presence of students and young professionals. On this side of the city, you'll find the hipster enclaves of Wicker Park and Bucktown, the charming yet affluent Lincoln Park, nature-filled Logan Square, and aptly-named Lakeview.

The South Side is home to long-term Chicago residents and many of the neighborhoods sport a close-knit feel. Hyde Park contains the University of Chicago, and Chinatown is filled with the buzz of business and restaurants.

13. Know The Loop.

Buildings in The Loop in downtown Chicago
The Loop includes offices, shops, and theaters. | Photo credit: Sawyer Bengtson

The Loop is Chicago's downtown area and main business district. It's home to the skyscrapers including the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), as well as the Art Institute of Chicago and Millennium Park. While plenty of people work in offices here, you'll also be able to find theaters, restaurants, and shops.

At the center of AT&T Park, you'll find the most Instagrammed sculpture in the city: The Bean, which is actually named "Cloud Gate."

14. It's an architect's paradise.

Aqua Building in Chicago
Aqua was design by Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects. | Photo credit: Sonder Quest

Chicago has been a hotspot for architectural innovation since the Great Chicago Fire burnt down much of the city in 1871. The ten-story Home Insurance Building, which many consider the world's first skyscraper, was built here in 1885. Since then, architects have designed marvels including Marina City, Aqua, and the Uptown Theatre.

The city is home to architectural styles including bungalows, graystones, and Polish Cathedrals. If you'd like to learn more about the city's architecture, visit the Chicago Architecture Center.

Get ready to make Chicago your new home.

Moving to a new city is both exciting and scary; especially when it's a city as big as Chicago. But don't fear—you'll be hanging out on the lake and feeling at home in Chicago in no time.

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