Hyde Park is quirkiness defined. The South Side neighborhood, whose borders are roughly 47th Street on the north, 61st Street on the South, Cottage Grove Avenue on the west and the most picturesque, Lake Michigan on the east, is home to one of the world’s finest science museums, one of the world’s finest universities and likely one of the best spots in Chicago to watch fireworks over the lake.
Likely the most trafficked tourist draw is the Museum of Science and Industry. Located on Lake Shore Drive at 57th Street, the complex was originally the Fine Arts Pavilion at the 1893 World’s Fair. Today it’s the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere, housing a host of interactive exhibits. Among the highlights are a World War II U-505 submarine and a reconstruction of a coal mine—complete with guided rides down into a coal shaft replicating those farther downstate. Go into goo-goo mode over the baby chick exhibit, fly high at the Henry Crown Space Center or at the Wright Brothers replica plane or get your move on with the 20-minute guided tour of the Pioneer Zephyr, the first diesel-powered streamlined passenger train. There’s also an Omnimax Theater at the museum. Get there via the 6 Jackson Park Express bus or transfer from the Garfield stop on the Red or Green Line to an eastbound 55 bus—the MSI is the last stop on the route. You can also take the Metra Electric commuter train to the 55th-56th-57th Street stop.
Turn to the left as you exit the MSI and you’ll catch sight of the Metra viaduct. Head down 57th Street under the Metra station and you’ll be in the height of Hyde Park academic quirkiness: the main commercial strip leading to the campus of the University of Chicago. On the way there though, there are a few stops that are inextricably part of the University of Chicago experience.
First off, just on the other side of the viaduct is Powell’s Books. Now long linked in the bookworm’s psyche as a Portland mainstay, all but the most diehard fans of the used bookshop might be surprised to learn that the store’s original outpost is here in Hyde Park. Specializing in academic and scholarly works, you’ll see more than a few University of Chicago students unwinding by taking a break from the classics and reading an economy textbook. More casual reading is also on the shelves. The store is also the exclusive distributor of certain reprints from Oxford University Press. And of course, like its other locations, the Hyde Park Powell’s will buy some of your books for others’ enjoyment.
Across the street is another heralded used bookstore, O’Gara and Wilson Antiquarian Booksellers. Focusing on humanities, social science and religion works, the store has a decidedly more stately vibe than Powell’s across the street. This being said, they are both beloved mainstays of the Hyde Park scene—O’Gara has been in business in the area since 1882.
Continue down 57th Street and grab a bite at University of Chicago mainstay Medici on 57th and its sister site next door, the Medici Bakery. The Medici on 57th serves up breakfast, lunch and dinner with nerdy flair, art work and graffiti that’s actually encouraged by the restaurant—Sharpies are on loan. In warm weather, there’s a backyard, with the requisite wait for tables. Not to be missed on the menu is the strawberry lemonade and the Medici burger, topped with cheese and chili—“ignore the cholesterol,” says the menu. On a Chicago winter evening, the Mexican-style hot chocolate hits the spot. For a quick bite on the way to campus, grab a cup of fair-trade Kickapoo coffee at the Medici Bakery, just next door to the main restaurant.
Now we’re just near the main quadrangles of the University of Chicago. The student body of roughly 4,000 undergraduates and 8,000 graduate and professional students celebrates brain over brawn; what was once indeed a Big 10 football stadium was razed in favor of a library that is at once the dream employment for library science majors and the late-night hotspot for undergrads. The Manhattan Project happened just adjacent to said library, commemorated with a Henry Moore sculpture, located at the corner of 57th and Ellis. Popular student t-shirts honoring their school include one celebrating the institution’s Playboy magazine ranking as 300th best party school, below the Air Force Academy and Brigham Young University. A more bragging tone is festooned across the constantly updated shirt feteing the number of Nobel Prize winners affiliated with the university and yet another stating “where fun comes to die.”
Drink in some of the vibe at one of the on-campus coffee shops; try the Divinity School coffee shop, “where God drinks coffee,” proclaims the shirts on sale. If you’re looking for a kosher nosh, munch with the undergrads at the Bartlett Dining Commons, open to civilians. It has a deli certified by the Chicago Rabbinical Council. The dining hall was once the main campus gymnasium; get a chuckle from the dated mural celebrating “manly sport” in the entryway. On the lower level, kosher meals are always available from the Maroon Market, known much more commonly on campus as “Bart Mart.”
Not-to-miss spots on campus for the visitor include a host of museums. Located on fourth floor of classroom building Cobb Hall is The Renaissance Society, which features rotating modern art exhibitions from internationally regarded artists and occasional readings and concerts. Opened in 1915, the museum was among the first to display art from modern artists now considered part of the western artistic canon, such as Picasso, Mondrian, Miro and Brancusi. Admission is free; as is the museum’s delicious air-conditioning.
The researchers behind The Oriental Institute have a bit broader definition of “modern;” the historians of the Near East define the modern era as anything post-Alexander the Great. See some gems that aren’t even modern from their vantage point at the Oriental Institute Museum. Artifacts spanning three millennia from Anatolia, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Iran are represented in the collections and were all amassed during archaeological digs conducted by the institute. Fun fact: the real-life person the character of Indiana Jones was based on conducted research here. The Suq, the OI’s gift shop, has some unique offerings, not the least of which has included gilded mummy wrapping paper.
Spanning art from a broad range of history is The Smart Museum of Art, located on the north end of campus. In addition to its well-curated galleries, the museum’s coffee shop is a favorite among students and faculty alike.
Just a block away is long-time U of C campus watering hole Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap. The bar is dark but the fries and burgers are made to order and the drinks are cheap. Ringing in one’s 21st at Jimmy’s is a prerequisite to earning a Chicago bachelor’s degree; indulge in some affordable coursework here. Yet unlike courses called “To Hell with the Enlightenment,” there’s no pretension here.
Head back east down 55th Street (or take the 55 bus, if you’re so inclined) and head to the point—the Promontory Point. The small peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan offers a verdant respite from the city and the heat of a Chicago summer (as does the 57th Street Beach, just two blocks south). An open secret: the Point offers some of the finest views of the Chicago skyline and on patriotic holiday evenings, prime fireworks viewing. It’s also a great way station to stop and stretch or to park while biking or running along the lake; the trail starts not far south at 67th Street.
Head over to the corner of 53rd and Harper to Harper Court. This strip mall holds cherished spots in Hyde Park folklore; the recently closed Dixie Kitchen and Calypso restaurants have fed presidents—including President Obama, whose permanent residence is just a few blocks away. Harper Court is also home of the departed Dr. Wax record shop that is among the birthplaces of Chicago house music. The mall has gone under some changes, to be certain. Among those is the relocation of hallowed blues spot Checkerboard Lounge. Once located several blocks to the west in the Bronzeville neighborhood, with the backing of the university, it reopened at the mall in 2005. Evocative of an era when all of 55th Street was jazz central, the club is a true blues gem, off the beaten path. It’s the true groove—it’s University of Chicago academic truth.