Planning on visiting the Windy City and need help getting around Chicago? Then you should understand your Chicago public transportation options for traveling within and outside the city. Chicago is a convenient metropolitan area because there are many ways to enter, exit, and travel around various neighborhoods.
Here’s a complete guide to Chicago transportation so you can better navigate everything this vibrant city has to offer.
Understanding Chicago Public Transportation
The first step to getting around Chicago is knowing your starting point. Chicago public transit options differ when traveling within the inner city or from the nearby suburbs. A big city like Chicago can seem overwhelming to know where to start. But with a transportation guide, it’s easier to know where you want to go and how to get there.
Transportation Options in Chicago
If you’re visiting Chicago, then you must understand how to travel on the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). It’s Chicago’s public transportation system for buses, airports, and trains. The CTA is also a local government resource for city travel regulations, visitor information, and accessibility information.
Chicago Transit Authority Train (L-Trains)
An iconic part of Chicago’s landscape are the elevated train tracks. Chicagoans and the CTA fondly refer to this elevated system to “The L”. There are over 140 stations, with 8 lines running both above and underground (like a subway). Ticket fares are around $5 or less and usually operate every 15 minutes during standard operating hours and every 30 minutes for overnight (owl) services.
If you’ll be traveling a lot on CTA, consider buying a Ventra Card to save on train and bus costs. A Ventra Card is a single-day, 3-day, 7-day, and 30-day pass for unlimited train or bus rides for one person based on the pass length from first use.
For simplicity, all lines are known by thier color name (Red, Brown, Green). Checkout Chicago Transit Authority to find the specific line for your transportation needs!
Chicago Transit Authority Bus (CTA Bus)
The public Chicago bus system for inner-city travel is the CTA bus. Most routes run daily through the late evening and stop every two blocks at posted street signs. Owl service is only available at select routes and runs about every 30 minutes. It’s also biking-friendly, with bike racks and accessibility available on each bus. Bus fares range from $2.25 to $5.00 with free transfers or unlimited passes for individuals via a Ventra Card.
Public taxis and shared ride delivery services are abundant in Chicago due to its metropolitan area. Fare rates depend on distance and time of day/night. Water taxis are also an option if you like shoreline sightseeing to major Chicago attractions, like Navy Pier and Union Station.
Chicago is designed for cyclists with designated bicycle lanes and many bike-share service options, like Divvy, throughout the city. Chicago public transportation also allows you to bring bike rentals on its buses and trains with ample designated parking areas.
Chicago is designated as a Gold-level community due to its excellent design guidelines and policy approaches that support walking and pedestrian safety by walkfriendly.org. As a big city with a vibrant metropolitan lifestyle, getting around Chicago by walking is also a practical way to save on public transportation costs.
Transportation Options in Chicagoland
Now that you know Chicago’s inner city public transit work, here’s how to get there from outside the city and nearby suburbs, known as Chicagoland.
Chicago has two international airports close by: O’Hare International Airport and Midway International Airport. The Chicago Metra L-trains go directly from both airports into the city. You can buy a single Ventra Ticket or Ventra Card to load money onto it for up to seven people.
Tickets are only $5 or less from the airport to CTA trains. They’re cheaper than taxis, shuttle vans, and rideshare services— typically around $25 to over $100, depending on where you’re going.
Chicago Commuter Bus (Pace)
The outer suburbs of Chicago have their own public bus transportation system called Pace. It travels through 274 municipalities in nearby Chicago counties, including Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will.
With many destinations to get into Chicago from outside the city, this mode of transport is designed for commuter travel. Pace’s major routes run every 30 to 60 minutes daily through mid-evening and connect with CTA and Metra in many locations.
Chicago Metra Trains
The Chicago Metra is the city’s commuter rail system. The difference between Chicago Metra and CTA trains is where you’re coming from. CTA trains are for inner-city Chicago travelers, while the Metra is for the suburbs and is most recognizable for its 2-level train cars. Its destinations include Fox Lake, Homewood, and University Park. For locals who need help getting around Illinois into Chicago, the Metra has many destinations within the city.
While CTA trains are designated transit services for traveling inside Chicago, and several L Lines extend service stops beyond the city limits (Blue, Orange. Purple, Pink, Green, Yellow).
NICTD/South Shore Line (Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District)
The NICTD/South Shore Line is a transit service designed for commuters traveling from outer cities and Northern Indiana into Chicago. It runs from Millennium Station in downtown Chicago and the South Bend International Airport in South Bend, Indiana.
Amtrak is a cross-country public transit service that travels to Chicago with a train station at Chicago-Union Station. Operating hours run from 5:30 am to 11:59 pm. Average train arrival times and ticket pricing depend on where you’re traveling from. Ticket fares depend on your destination and distance.
Driving & Parking
While driving is an option, it’s important to note that Chicago is a big city. It has heavy foot and vehicle traffic, which can limit public parking spaces. You may have to pay for a parking garage or meter spot. Whether it’s your car or a rental, always scope out the area you’re going to beforehand to know where to park.
Mobile payments via ParkChicago are also an option to pay for public parking from your phone. It’s highly recommended that you set up your account on the app ahead of your travel plans. Park Chicago is a city government-backed mobile app where you can park, extend time, get notifications about time expiration, and access a map of all their parking spots in Chicago.
If you’re traveling for work, businesses can also manage employee parking and get expense reports. Hourly rates vary from $2.50 to $7.00, depending on the location.
Popular Inner City Transit Stops for Getting Around Chicago
With an overview of Chicago public transportation, here are some popular destinations within the city and how to get there.
Downtown Chicago is the hub of the city. It’s home to the famous Cloud Gate sculpture, also known as “The Bean,” at Millenium Park. As the location for the city’s main attractions, this is one of the best places to start when traveling throughout Chicago. Walk along the River Walk for waterfront views of the Chicago River or sightsee on Navy Pier along Lake Michigan’s shoreline.
Train stations that are accessible to downtown Chicago are:
• LaSalle St. Station (Metra)
• Millennium Station (Metra)
• Ogville Transportation Center, E-10
• Union Station (Amtrak and Metra)
There are also various bus stops throughout the area. With an abundance of restaurants, shopping, nightlife, and cityscape views, the things to do downtown are endless.
Buena Park is an uptown Chicago neighborhood nestled next to Lake Michigan near the popular North Halsted, Wrigleyville, LakeView, and Uptown neighborhoods. As a small lakeside community with a big town feel, this district is known for its greenery, parks, and growing entertainment district. From dog-friendly beaches to historical Prairie-style architecture, it’s only a few miles away from downtown Chicago with much to see.
Take the CTA’s Red Line, CTA express bus, or jump on Lake Shore Drive for quick access anywhere in the city. People choose to live in Buena Park because it’s less crowded than other areas within Chicago.
Edgewater is a beachfront community in Chicago with lakefront trails, gourmet dining, and local boutiques without needing to leave the neighborhood. From relaxing at Osterman Beach to beautiful parks, you can enjoy nature even in the city. You can hop on the CTA’s Red Line, express bus, or drive on Lake Shore Drive to get into Chicago.
While technically not in Chicago, Evanston is the nearest North Shore suburb, sitting on Chicago’s borders with a balance of urban and suburban lifestyles. For students enrolled at Northwestern University and commuting into the city, this neighborhood is ideal.
It conveniently connects to the Metra UP North Line or CTA Purple Line to get into Chicago and beyond. Many residents live in Evanston because of its easy access to public transportation and walkability to college campuses.
Hyde Park is near the University of Chicago Law School, with many shopping, lakefront trails, and local attractions. Tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, a national historic landmark of the 20th century, or walk around the local campus. This walkable neighborhood has train stations at the University of Chicago Station, 51st, 53rd, 56th, 57th, and 59th Street Station that head into the city.
Lakeview is a hidden gem in Chicago and steps away from CTA buses, trains, shopping, nightlife entertainment, and more. Hop on the Red Line, express bus, or go down Lake Shore Drive for direct access into Chicago. Visit the historic Wrigley Field, home to the MLB’s Chicago Cubs, or bike along Lake Michigan.
Lincoln Park is one of Chicago’s most desirable neighborhoods because of its lakefront properties, short distance to the city’s free Lincoln Park Zoo, and home to DePaul University. Access the city on the CTA Red, Brown, or Purple Line. You can also travel on an express bus or Lake Shore Drive for a fast trip into the city.
Printers Row is an oasis in Chicago, offering two acres of walking paths along the Southbank Park and Riverwalk. It’s only a short walk or bike ride from the downtown Loop district, ideal for commuters. Its unbeatable location has easy access to the Metra’s 59th St station and CTA Red Line.
Ravenswood is a neighborhood near beaches, restaurants, and Wrigley Field. It’s known for its “Malt Row” breweries, pubs, and nightlife within walking distance. You can catch the CTA Brown Line or walk to the Metra UP North Line to head into Chicago.
River North is one of the most sought-after places to live in and travel around Chicago. Located in the heart of the city, you can enjoy spectacular skyline views, modern skyscrapers, and contemporary art architecture at the Merchandise Mart. Travel on the CTA Red, Brown, or Purple Line, express bus, or jump on the highway for city access.
South Shore is a Chicago neighborhood offering both lake and skyline views. As the location for the South Shore Cultural Center, you can attend culturally rich programs and event spaces with the local community. Stroll along the harbor at Lake Michigan or hike along the lakefront trails. It’s conveniently connected to many CTA buses, South Shore Metra station, and Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.
Popular Outer City Transit Stops for Getting Around Chicago Suburbs
Traveling from outside of Chicago? Here are some popular suburb destinations with directions on how to get into the city.
Arlington Heights offers a blend of urban and suburban culture outside of Chicago. It’s only minutes from the Buffalo Creek Forest Preserve and walkable to downtown Arlington Heights with local shops and restaurants. Located about 25 miles northwest of Chicago, you can make a day trip into the city via the Metra’s Union Pacific Northwest station.
Bloomingdale is a Chicago suburb with over 40 restaurants, delis, pubs, and steakhouses. Go shopping at Stratford Square Mall and Bloomingdale Court with the latest fashion, music, and technology. Visit the historic Olde Towne or enjoy the Bloomingdale Golf Club. Located around 27 miles west of Chicago, you can hop from the Roselle train station to Chicago Union Station.
Glen Ellyn is a lovely village located 23 miles west of Chicago and ranked as one of the top 10 places to live in DuPage County. Discover downtown Glen Ellyn or stroll through the nearby Morton Arboretum. Simply hop on the Metra for a day trip into Chicago via the Glen Ellyn station to the Chicago OTC Station.
Mount Prospect is around 20 miles northwest of Chicago and received a Niche grade “A” as one of the best places to live in Illinois. Only a short drive to Woodfield Mall and Busse Forest Nature Preserve, this neighborhood offers urban and suburban living. Simply take the Union Pacific Northwest Line into the city via the Mount Prospect train station.
Mundelein is a delightful suburban neighborhood and minutes away from Metra’s North Central train service for direct access to Chicago. Enjoy the Grand Illinois Trail, theaters, and local festivals in the heart of Lake County.
Naperville is nestled perfectly in between two of the finest dining and shopping districts in the Chicago area. Commuting into the city is a breeze with quick access to Metra’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) line, I-88, and I-355 highways.
Saint Charles is a western Chicago suburb with a vibrant downtown area, only minutes from the Metra Geneva and Union Pacific-West station to Chicago OTC. Enjoy a round of gold at the Pottawatomie Park or shop locally at the Meijer and Geneva Commons Shopping Center.
Schaumburg is a sought-after suburb located 30 miles northwest of Chicago. From world-class retail to abundant dining options, this desirable neighborhood offers quick access to Chicago. Conveniently located near Metra’s Milwaukee District West Line to Union Station and O’Hare Airport, out-of-state travelers can get into Chicago easily from Schaumberg.
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