Anyone planning a trip to Chicago probably has the big to-do’s on their list of places they want to go. There are museums, the Shedd Aquarium, the formerly named Sears Tower, Navy Pier, and other famous attractions to see. But a trip to Chicago that only encompasses these tourist destinations won’t give you a taste of the real Chicago – a city with a rich and often dark history, which has, and still does attract its share of the unusual. For a peek at the unusual side of Chicago, check out these top ten unusual attractions in Chicago, Illinois.
Federal Reserve Bank
Ever wanted to stand next to a million dollars? Then check out the United States Federal Reserve Bank at 230 South LaSalle Street. They are open Monday through Friday from 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM and offer daily guided tours at 1:00 PM. In the Money Museum, you’ll learn about the responsibilities of the Federal Reserve System and the Chicago Fed. They are rather strict on security, so be prepared by basically following the same rules as airline security: no weapons of any kind, no food or drink, and bring your ID.
Cabrini Green Housing Project
Once you’ve stood next to a million dollars, why not see a site that was once synonymous with abject poverty and horrendous crime as recently as the ’90s? The last building was just recently torn down, but Chicago’s infamous Cabrini Green housing project was a place of squalor and crime for decades. The land that it once occupied is being rehabilitated into better housing, but you can still go there and imagine what life was like for those folks. Beginning on the corner of Chicago Street and Halsted Street, Cabrini Green was once home to more than 15,000 people, WGNtv’s Muriel Clair reports. Even though crime was once rampant and traveling near it used to be hazardous to one’s health, since its desertion, you should be fine going there during the day.
The Great Chicago Fire
On the subject of destruction, you might have heard about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The fire was reportedly started by a cow that knocked over a lamp, at the O’Leary’s barn located near 137 De Koven Street. According to Richard Bales, the conflagration burned for some 30 hours, killing nearly 300 people, and leaving 100,000 homeless as it traveled to the northeast. Burning nearly 3 and 1/3 square miles of the city, it ended near present day Belden Avenue, near the Lincoln Park Zoo. Few landmarks survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; among them are the Old Water Tower (brand new at the time of the fire) and the pumping station on the Magnificent Mile, and Old St. Patrick’s Church at 700 W. Adams Street.
St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
Speaking of deaths, if you’re in the vicinity of the fire’s greatest extent, modern day Lincoln Park Zoo, you’re just blocks away from the location of one of the bloodiest mob hits in history. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on February 14, 1929 saw the execution of 7 of George “Bugs” Moran’s guys, gunned down by automatic machine guns against a brick wall, at the hands of five of Al Capone’s men. While the old S-M-C Cartage Company was torn down and bricks reported to be from the infamous wall were sold to macabre collectors, the location of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre can be still be visited. According to Troy Taylor of Prarie Ghosts, look for a row of five trees in a fenced in yard at 2122 North Clark Street, now the site of a nursing home. The middle tree marks the location of the wall, and visitors to the supposedly haunted site sometimes report hearing gunfire and screams.
The Biograph Theater
Continuing with the gangster theme, John Dillinger’s infamous place of death, the Biograph Theater is also nearby. Located near the intersection of North Lincoln Avenue and West Fullerton, the Biograph Theater still stands. As J. Edgar Hoover’s Public Enemy Number 1, Dillinger was a wanted man. He met his end on July 22, 1934 in an alley outside of the Biograph Theater. Rumors persist however that Dillinger wasn’t the man who was gunned down by agent Melvin Purvis. In any case, Mr. Taylor reports that the area is well known to be haunted.
The Irish Castle
Rounding out this subset of unusual destinations that are reportedly haunted, the Irish Castle is an imposing structure with a history of hauntings. Built in 1886 for Robert Givens, the “castle” is a remarkable piece of architecture in a city known for impressive buildings. It has been through many owners over the years, and currently houses a Unitarian Church. Taylor reports that ghostly lights have been observed as well as jingling and tinkling sounds with no apparent source. Even if you can’t make it for a tour, the quick look at the outside of the Irish Castle alone is worth the visit. You can find it at 1044 South Longwood, on Chicago’s South Side.
International Museum of Surgical Science
Ok, just one more creepy addition to this list of unusual Chicago attractions, I promise. The International Museum of Surgical Science, at 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive, is a must-see for the not so faint of heart. Replete with surgical instruments throughout the ages and nearly always showcasing a feature exhibit, the IMSS has lots to offer. An upcoming exhibit, Our Body: The Universe Within, has captivated and admittedly offended many over the years as it displays over 200 preserved bodies and organ specimens in a variety of positions to show off the marvels of the human body. If you’re squeamish, this one might be something to avoid. If you’re daring, have a nice big lunch prior to viewing.
The Sh*t Fountain
Since I’m already talking about an exhibit that some will find offensive, I’ll move on to something scatological. The Sh*t Fountain, at least that’s what the carving on the side of it says, is about what you’d expect to find for something with that moniker. Dedicated to all of the dogs in the neighborhood, and their irresponsible owners, it’s a rendition of a lump of dog stool in the form of a fountain. If this sort of thing appeals to you, have your soon to be ex-girlfriend take a picture of you standing next to it. It’s definitely a conversation starter…or ender. Check it out at 1001 North Wolcott Avenue.
The McDonald’s Museum
Having worked up a nice appetite with our viewing of a couple of hundred preserved bodies and body parts, and viewing a fountain of poo, how about lunch? We’ll have to drive a bit to get to this one, as it’s out in Des Plaines, a little ways into the northwest suburbs. The McDonald’s Museum is where the fast food industry got its start. Roadside America writes that the establishment started in 1955 at this very spot at 400 Lee Street. Today, it’s a replica restaurant and shows customers what an original 1955 McDonald’s restaurant looked like, complete with mannequins.
I’ll close this list of the top ten unusual attractions with a store that’s just all around awesome! Uncle Fun, at 1338 West Belmont, has toys, gags, games, and gifts for everyone. It’s just too weird to describe. Pretty much – if it’s kooky, weird, unusual, and would get a laugh, chances are Uncle Fun carries it. I’ve heard several folks say it’s a cross between Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, and I have to agree. Uncle Fun is definitely a fun way to end a tour of Chicago’s unusual attractions.
Chicago Federal Reserve’s Money Museum.
Clair, Muriel. (2011). Cabrini Green: End of an Era.
Bales, Richard F. (2004). The Chicago Fire.
Taylor, Troy. (2008). The Haunted History of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Taylor, Troy. (2008). The Biograph Theater.
Taylor, Troy. (2008). The Irish Castle.
International Museum of Surgical Science: Special Exhibits. (2011).
Fountain of Waste. (2005).
McDonald’s Museum and Store No. 1. (2011). Roadside America.
Uncle Fun. (2011).