A few common images that infiltrate the Internet if you Google “neighborhoods in Chicago” may be images of The Loop (the city’s main tourist area), the Magnificent Mile, River North, or the emblematic Gold Coast.
But behind all of that lies the other side of Chicago.
The scent of spices, the diversity of people from different cultures, and the view of different architecture creates a whole new world concentrated in a few streets and pockets of the city.
One of my favorite things about Chicago is the diversity that lives on its streets. It’s a haven for many ethnic groups throughout the years, adding color, beauty, uniqueness, and heart to the city.
Let’s explore five must see neighborhoods in Chicago to check out the next time you’re in the Midwest’s unofficial capital.
1. Little India
Even though Little India may only be a street-long neighborhood, it is a part of Chicago I recently started to visit when I wanted to expand my knowledge of the city’s cultural neighborhoods.
Some of the first things that caught my attention were the smell of spices like cardamom, clove, and chili pepper wafting through the air from grocery stores. There also is the sight of delicate and elaborate wedding attire typical of Indian wedding practices, and mannequins dressed with made-to-order saris in picture windows along streets.
Though I haven’t been to India (yet), I feel I get a strong sense of Indian culture when I visit Little India, even just walking down the street.
Seeing the names of restaurants and shops in Hindi, and watching local neighbors step out of their homes to pop into their local corner fruit shop and greet the shop owners in their native language, make up the charm of this local cultural neighborhood in Chicago.
Little India is a great place to “travel” for a taste of Indian culture.
Speaking of taste, a local favorite restaurant to check out while in Little India is Hyderabad House, known for its Chicken Biryani and Chai, which is a must-try!
The first time I set foot in Chinatown I remember feeling true amazement, excitement, and like I had really traveled thousands of miles to China.
At this point, I’ve been to Chinatown on multiple occasions since living in Illinois. Each time I visit I keep feeling like I’ve discovered a new area of the neighborhood, or that I’ve learned something new.
One of the emblematic points of reference in this neighborhood is the iconic green and red “Welcome To Chinatown” gate, and the architecture of the Pui Tak Center situated nearby.
Another one of my favorite places in Chinatown is the two-story outdoor shopping mall. It’s one of the first shopping areas built in Chinatown, and today houses shops, restaurants, hair salons, and more.
While walking through Chinatown’s parks and plazas, you’ll be greeted by sights of groups of individuals practicing Tai Chi, kids stepping in and out of the anime shops, and lines to go inside the newest bubble tea shops.
Not to mention, the smell of enticing garlic, chili spices, and seafood will make you turn your head to follow the smells.
While visiting Chinatown, be sure to step inside Qing Xian Yuan Dumplings for some divine Chinese food. They offer some of the city’s most delicious dumplings, not to miss.
3. Pilsen (Little Mexico)
Pilsen aka Little Mexico was one of the first cultural neighborhoods I was introduced to by my local family when we moved to Illinois from California.
We went to a restaurant in Pilsen that doesn’t exist anymore and had some of the best Mexican-style seafood. Since then, my family and I frequently go to Pilsen to have a bite of authentic Mexican food that is representative of various Mexican states.
Aside from the amazing smells of food in the air, a few sights that caught my attention were the National Museum of Mexican Art, as well as the dozens of murals and colorful buildings that decorate the streets of Pilsen.
It wasn’t until I got older and I started to dig more into my Mexican heritage that I visited the National Museum of Mexican Art. I saw their beautiful Dia de los Muertos exhibits, and later walked around the area to see and read the messages of the murals.
I remember feeling such a sense of pride for my people who had been here for years and continue to beautify and add color to this corner of Chicago.
There was a common saying we Mexican-Americans heard growing up: “We are neither from here nor there.”
But seeing the murals in Pilsen and images of Mexican cultural icons alongside phrases of resilience and presence in Chicago made me believe otherwise. We are from here and from there.
When you visit Chicago, make sure to check out 18th Street, the heart of Pilsen.
This is a street full of restaurants, bakeries, little Mexican grocery stores, and non-profit organizations created for Mexicans by Mexicans to get a taste of everyday life for Mexican-Americans here.
If you’re looking for a great Mexican restaurant offering great Mexican food, check out La Esperanza for hearty portions for both for vegans and non-vegans.
Lastly, walk down 16th and 18th streets and you’ll get a chance to see some of the beautiful murals that merge together community activism, beauty, and storytelling.
Many of the murals in Pilsen date back to the ‘60s but still touch on topics relevant in today’s Pilsen.
Greektown is a special place for me, and it’s also one of the most popular cultural neighborhoods in Chicago.
I remember my first visit to Greektown in an attempt to help my reverse culture shock from just returning home after studying abroad in Greece.
Given my study abroad experience was one of the first times I spent a lengthy amount of time outside of the U.S., I completely fell in love with both traveling and Greece. I was on the hunt to get my dose of Greek culture in the only place I knew I could find it: Greektown.
The sound of Greek music playing from the local shops and restaurants combined with the sound of spoken Greek between locals, the sight of blue and white flags and architecture, and even the local Walgreens displaying the word “pharmacy” in Greek made me feel for a moment a sense of comfort and joy of being back in Greece.
One of the many things I love about Greektown is walking through its streets and admiring the beautiful Hellenic-style temples adorning the streets, and other small cultural details you must take a walk to find and admire.
Step inside the shops to get your fix of Greek products like specific Greek brands of snacks and foods to try.
Check out the National Hellenic Museum showcasing exhibits of ethnographic collections detailing the first Greeks in Chicago, their contributions to the city, and the U.S. as a whole, which is really fascinating.
For some of the best Greek food in the area, check out Greek Islands restaurant for delicious, homemade-style Greek food, hospitality, and Mediterranean vibes.
5. Andersonville (Little Sweden)
The first time I made my way to Andersonville, it was to meet up with a friend for lunch without really knowing much about the area.
That was, however, until I got there and noted more than a few Swedish restaurants, bakeries, and flags proudly waving in the air. I was instantly charmed.
Today Andersonville is full of a variety of different cultures and walks of life, but you can still see remnants of the strength of the Swedish community that first established Andersonville after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
While walking in Andersonville, I am pleasantly surprised to see parts of buildings painted in yellow and blue, the iconic and big sculpture of a Swedish Dala horse painted in blue and detailed with images of Swedish culture and Chicago landmarks, and of course, the important Swedish American Museum.
Later on, I made sure to visit and explore with a bit more leisure the details and cultural landmarks in Andersonville. I also enjoyed some of the sweet Swedish treats in this neighborhood.
Try out delicious Swedish baked treats at Lost Larson, which offers traditional baked Swedish goods with a modern twist.
Also if you’re visiting Chicago during the second week of June, check out Midsommarfest, a celebration of Swedish food, traditions, music, and dress that you won’t want to miss.
Explore Different Neighborhoods in Chicago
As you can see, Chicago is the true definition of a melting pot.
Personally, one of my favorite things to do in Chicago is to visit the cultural pockets of the city because they offer a window into the lives of people from different parts of the world so close to one another.
You can find yourself in Greektown having a divine piece of bougatsa (sweet breakfast pastry), and then drive a couple of blocks south and find yourself in Pilsen (Little Mexico), where you’ll find street vendors selling paletas (iced pops) and esquites (corn in a cup with yummy toppings) while passing a few other cultural neighborhoods along the way.
The city continues to be a beacon of opportunity for generations of immigrants, who want to hold a piece of it to share with those back home.
Stories of individuals and collective cultural groups beautifully make up the overall history of the city of Chicago. They welcome all those who are interested to learn more about it.
Even though I’ve been to these must see neighborhoods before, I always end up learning more about history on every visit. I enjoy appreciating their distinct character, and connecting their presence and influence to the overall city of Chicago, which many know and love today.