Picnicking is an excellent way to save money on dining costs while traveling, as well as a relaxing way to observe daily life in a city while still eating quickly so you can get on with your sightseeing. There are great spots to picnic all over Chicago and countless spots to grab your favorite lunch to eat on the go. Whether you’re stocking up for one of Chicago’s great outdoor events, festivals, or free musical performances, or just looking to enjoy an alfresco meal that won’t break the bank, here are some tips for planning the perfect Chicago summer picnic.
What to eat
Chicago is home to just about every fast food and sub chain on the planet, so if you fancy a Potbelly, Au Bon Pain, Jimmy Johns or Cosi meal, you’re covered here. But, if you want to branch out of the norm and try some local specialties, here are my recommendations.
Chicago French Market
Located in Union Station, the Chicago French Market is a great pitstop on your way in or out of the city via Metra, bus or train, and it’s conveniently located close to the Willis Tower. The Market is open year-round, Monday through Saturday, and carries fresh meats, cheeses and produce, freshly baked breads and pastries, smoothies, juice, coffees and gelato.
Hannah’s has two locations in the Loop and offers made-to-order sandwiches on fresh baked breads. Ingredients like parma ham, handmade pesto, free-range turkey, wild Alaskan smoked salmon, and NY sirloin take these above the average sandwich. And don’t forget to get a signature “bretzel” roll with a side of Nutella dip for dessert.
Fox and Obel
Located in River North, Fox and Obel serves breads, cheese, meat and wine – all the perfect fixings for a picnic – and offers special gourmet picnic baskets ready to go.
Pastoral has three locations – one on Broadway in Lakeview (perfect for snagging a picnic to take to Lincoln Park) one downtown in the loop, near Grant Park, and one in the Chicago French Market. They specialize in artisanal breads, cheeses, meats, spreads and wines and offer a la carte goodies and made-to-order sandwiches.
Local celeb chef Rick Bayless opened XOCO to rave reviews, serving dishes influenced by Mexican street food. Items like churros con chocolate, tortas, caldos, and salads are offered, though takeout is not available between 10:30am and 3pm.
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Green City Market
Open every Wednesday and Saturday from early morning until 1pm May through October, the Green City Market is Chicago’s best farmer’s market. Snag fresh-from-the-farm fruit and veggies, fresh-baked breads and pastries, handmade cheeses, swirled-on-site smoothies, and made to order foccaccia, crepes, paninis and donuts.
Where to eat
Now that you’ve got your grub, it’s time to stake out a little corner of Chicago for your picnic. Here are some of my favorite spots to eat an alfresco snack in Chicago.
Chicago’s largest park, Lincoln Park boasts a picturesque waterfront location, a Wednesday/Saturday farmer’s market, miles of running and biking trails, a harbor, and a free zoo.
On a warm summer’s day, there’s no better place in Chicago to be than on the beach. While some have full-service restaurants, others are more low-key and the only provisions to be found will be the ones you bring yourself.
Grant and Millennium Parks
Called “The City’s Front Yard” Grant Park sits between the Loop and the Lake downtown. Millennium Park is located in the northwest corner. During summer, both parks play host to free events like musical performances, festivals, ad dance parties. Summer nights spent with a picnic and a pleasant soundtrack are a quintessential Chicago experience.
The lawn at the Museum of Science and Industry
The Museum of Science and Industry, in Hyde Park, is massive and it’s fronted by a large expanse of grass perfect for picnicking. The museum does have a food court, and there are many restaurants nearby, but if you’re on a budget, a picnic lunch before a day of discovery can’t be beat.
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Picnicking is elevated to an art form at Ravinia, which hosts musical performances during the summer, and is accessible by Metra train from Chicago. Attendees go all out, with elaborate spreads, picnic plates and glasses, lawn chairs, and plenty of wine (wine is allowed*).
*Open alcohol is not allowed in Chicago Parks (though it is allowed at Ravinia) but if you are discrete, you can often get away with enjoying a bottle of wine in Grant, Millennium and Lincoln Parks.