Tips for Getting to Know Chicago

New to Chicago? Finding your way around such a big city can be challenging, especially if you don’t already have a network of friends in the area. The stress of getting settled in your new home — not to mention your new job — can make it difficult to focus on anything else.

Adjusting to a new home is tough, but if you already know the basics of your city, it can make things a little easier. Whether you’ve lived in a city before or you’re just tackling the urban jungle for the first time, here’s some insider tips for what you’ll need to know while you’re getting to know Chicago.

  1. If you’re taking public transit, don’t call it the subway. It’s the L, the train, or the name of the line you’re taking.

  2. While you’re on public transit, be courteous. Don’t talk loudly, take calls, and make sure you move to the back so other people have room to get on.

  3. Chicago’s nickname is the “Windy City,” and it’s not because it’s always windy. It’s actually because the city has a history of politicians who are a bit long-winded. So, you won’t need to worry about being blown over.

  4. You’ll want to pay attention to the weather. Like any Midwestern city close to a Great Lake, in the winter Chicago deals with snow, and lots of it. It’s also not uncommon to experience all four seasons in one day.

  5. Don’t put ketchup on your hot dogs. Yes, this is a thing. Chicagoans love yellow mustard, white onions, tomato slices, dill pickles, relish, and a dash of celery salt on their dogs. And if someone tries to send you to The Weiners Circle to get a hot dog, beware that the vendors are known for their brutal insults.

  6. Highways, freeways, interstates — in Chicago, they’re expressways, and instead of numbers they have names. You’ll come to know the Kennedy, the Eisenhower, the Edens, the Stevenson, and the Dan Ryan as you get familiarized with the city.

  7. Someone mentioning LSD (probably) isn’t talking about the drug, it’s Lake Shore Drive.

  8. In the winter, calling ‘dibs’ on your street parking spot is widely accepted. But be forewarned, there are rules.

  9. It might be called Willis Tower now, but it will always be Sears Tower to Chicago.

  10. There are “late night bars” that can stay open until 4 a.m., so if you don’t want to go home at traditional closing time, there’s always somewhere to go.

What Newbies Need to Know About Chicago

How to: Find an Apartment

If you haven’t signed a lease on a spot to call home just yet, here’s some tips. First, Chicago has a “tenant-paid” rental market. Which basically means that landlords pay real estate agents to show people their building. In your case, that means you can get the help of a local expert for free. Which is helpful, because the market moves fast. An apartment you saw on Monday can be leased on Wednesday, so make sure you’re ready to sign a lease when you look.

Without an agent, you’ll want to make sure you’re aware of rental scams. You’ve probably heard of these on Craigslist or seen the warnings on Apartments.com. Scammers will try to entice renters with amazing properties, that are usually fake, and then when they have a security deposit or application fee, they disappear. Using an agent will ensure that you don’t run into any trouble, which can save you time and keep your finances safe.

Once you find the perfect place to call home, your landlord might require you to have a “guarantor” or co-signer. This is someone who will be financially responsible if you for some reason are unable to make rent payments. It’s completely up to the landlord if they choose to require it, but it’s usually required for those who have credit issues, don’t make enough money to satisfy the landlord, or aren’t a US citizen.

If you need one, your guarantor will have to go through the same process that you did when you applied for the apartment. And if you don’t have a family or friend who can be this person for you, you can see if your landlord will accept institutional guarantors, i.e. a bank, who will act as your guarantor for a one-time or monthly fee.

How to: Take Public Transportation

Taking the train can be a little anxiety-inducing for first-timers. There are several different routes and trains that go through Chicago, as well as unspoken etiquette that you might not be privy to. In Chicago, the train is called the L. It’s short for “elevated” because the train actually runs above ground rather than underground tunnels like New York’s subway system.

The L is broken up into lines that are all color-coded, for example, the busiest line is the Red Line. All of the lines run on a loop, too, so if you miss your stop, don’t worry! You’ll be going back around. There are maps posted at train stops and in the trains, but you can easily plan your route on your phone. Use one of these apps to get started.

Once you’re actually ready to ride the train, make sure you don’t stand right in front of the doors when the train arrives. Let people get off, and then get on and find your spot. Try not to take up a lot of space, and make sure you watch for wet seats!

The L is generally regarded as safe. Thousands of people take the train every day, but not all of them are going to be upstanding citizens. Keep your wits about you and pay attention to your surroundings. Keep valuables and wallets tucked away, and if you’re wearing a purse, the safest option is to wear it across your body — not just hanging from your shoulder.

How to: Get to the Airport

Chicago has two airports close to the city — O’Hare (ORD) and Midway (MDW) — and both are accessible by the train or by car.

If you’re trying to get to O’Hare or get back home from the terminal, you can take the Metra, the L, or an Uber or Lyft. The Metra is typically only used by people who live out in the suburbs. If you want to take the L, the Blue Line will take you all the way to the airport. For a ride-sharing service like Uber or Lyft they can drop you off wherever you need to go, but if you’re getting picked up it’s differs based on the tier of service you select. For regular rides, you’ll want to head upstairs to Departures. For high-end rides like Uber Black or Lyft Lux, you’ll be able to be picked up in Arrivals.

If you’re traveling to or from Midway, you won’t be able to easily take the Metra, but you can take the Orange Line directly. And, also unlike O’Hare, if you use Uber or Lyft you won’t need to worry about where you need to go to find a ride. All ride-sharing cars are able to pick you up at Arrivals.

If you’re more comfortable taking a taxi to your destination, you’ll just need to find the taxi stand in Arrivals in either airport.

Kim Hill