The USA's third-largest city, Chicago boasts the second-largest public transportation system in the nation after New York City, and public transportation makes most neighborhoods easily accessible for visitors.

This means that Chicago's top sights – and experiences such as relaxing by the metallic "Bean" in Millennium Park, a baseball game at Wrigley Field, or a gig at a storied music venue such as Buddy Guy's Legends – are all within reach.

The L – a system of elevated rail and subway trains – is the main way to get around the Windy City, but buses are also useful for navigating downtown and the suburbs. Here are the best ways to travel around Chicago.

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Take the L train for easy transfers around town

The L – short for "elevated" – is fast, frequent and will get you to most sights and neighborhoods in Chicago. Trains run to most parts of town and two of the eight color-coded lines – the Red Line and the Blue Line to O'Hare airport – operate 24 hours a day. Other lines run from roughly 4am to 1am daily, with trains departing every 10 minutes or so.

Trains mostly run on elevated tracks in the suburbs, dropping underground in the downtown area known as the Loop. The standard fare is $2.50 (except for services from O'Hare airport, where you'll pay $5). Transfers within 2 hours are free (up to two additional rides are permitted). Pay for rides using a Ventra card, which can be purchased at train stations and drugstores.

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Metra trains provide good connections to the suburbs

Supplementing the L, Metra commuter trains operate 12 routes serving the Chicago suburbs from four terminals around the Loop – at LaSalle Street Station, Millennium Station, Union Station and Richard B Ogilvie Transportation Center. Some Metra train lines run daily, while others operate only during the weekday rush hours. Buy tickets from agents or machines at major stations.

A L train passes office towers in the downtown Loop area of Chicago
The L provides easy access to many parts of Chicago, from the northern suburbs to the skyscrapers of the Loop © Davel5957 / Getty Images

Buses cover all the gaps in Chicago

Chicago's city buses cover areas that the L trains miss, and many routes follow straight lines along major roads, making it easy to navigate. Most buses run from early morning until 10pm; some continue later and some don't run on weekends. The standard fare is $2.25 and transfers within 2 hours are free (for up to two additional rides). You can use a Ventra card or pay the driver with exact change. Buses are particularly useful for reaching Hyde Park, Lincoln Park Zoo, and the cultural institutions of the Museum Campus (including the Art Institute of Chicago).

Transport passes offer savings for all-day travel

The Ventra card is Chicago's rechargeable public transportation pass. There's a one-time $5 fee for the card, but this gets refunded once the card is registered. Using a Ventra card knocks around 75 cents off the cost of each bus and train ride. Ventra cards can be purchased at train stations and drugstores. Unlimited ride passes are a handy option and cost $5 for one day, $15 for three days, or $20 for seven days.

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Route planning in Chicago

For maps and route planning, check out the Chicago Transit Authority's website. The CTA Train Tracker and CTA Bus Tracker offer up-to-the-minute arrival info. Navigation apps such as Google Maps and CityMapper are also helpful.

Yellow river boat cruising on the Chicago River through the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago
Riverboats on the Chicago River provide a scenic tour of downtown © Mlenny / Getty Images

Boats offer handy transfers along the lakeshore

A water taxi is an interesting alternative to walking or taking the bus. Boats travel along the Chicago River and the lakefront and offer a fun way to reach the Museum Campus or Chinatown. There are two water taxi lines in Chicago – Chicago Water Taxi, aimed mainly at commuters, and Shoreline Water Taxi, which connects some of the major tourist sights.

Chicago Water Taxi boats usually run from March to November or December. From the Michigan Avenue Bridge (northwest side, by the Wrigley Building), services glide along the Chicago River to Madison Street (near the Metra Ogilvie Transportation Center), stopping at LaSalle Street en route. In summer, boats continue to Chinatown. A one-way ride is $6; an all-day pass is $10.

Shoreline Water Taxi operates several different lines from late May to early September. The Lake Taxi transports you from Navy Pier to the South Loop's Shedd Aquarium; the River Taxi connects Polk Bros Park (just west of Navy Pier) to Willis Tower (via the Adams Street Bridge's southeast side).

Prices depend on the day of travel, but a one-way adult ticket will cost $6–10 (children pay half price). Weekends are peak travel times. There's also a Commuter Taxi that runs from the Michigan Avenue Bridge (northeast side, near the Tribune Tower) to Willis Tower/Union Station.

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Chicago is not great for car users

Driving in Chicago is no fun. The traffic snarls not only during the morning and afternoon rush hours but also just about every hour in between. Especially for short trips in town, use public transportation rather than your automobile to spare yourself the headache.

If you decide to rent a car for day trips or visits to the suburbs, you can find all the usual major car rental agencies in Chicago. Rates fluctuate wildly; in general, it's more expensive to rent at the airport than downtown. You typically need to be at least 25 years old, and have a valid driver's license and a major credit card to rent a car.

The car-share service Zipcar is popular in Chicago. The hourly rate for using a vehicle starts at $11, or $91.50 per day, which includes gas, insurance and handy parking spaces around town. You need to become a member first, which costs $7 a month or $70 annually (plus a $25 application fee).

People take photos by the Cloudgate sculpture in Millennium Park, Chicago
Cycling and walking are the best ways to explore the public parks strung out along the Chicago lakeshore, from Jackson Park to Millennium Park © Boogich / Getty Images

Rent a bike to explore Chicago without a car

Chicago is a cycling-savvy city with a popular bike-share program. Riders can take bikes free of charge onto L trains, except during rush hour (7am to 9am, and 4pm to 6pm, Monday to Friday). Most buses are equipped with a bike rack at the front that can accommodate two bikes at a time.

Bike-share service Divvy has some 600 stations around Chicago and neighboring suburbs. A $15 day pass allows unlimited rides of up to three hours, for a 24-hour period. Or opt for a $3.30 single-ride pass, valid for 30 minutes. Purchase passes at station kiosks or via the Divvy app. Note that rates rise fast if you don't dock your bike in the allotted time. The Divvy app makes life much easier for finding docks, checking availability, and paying.

Bike rentals for longer rides start at around $8 per hour (with accouterments such as helmets and locks). Try Bike & Roll, located near Millennium Park, or Bobby's Bike Hike. They also rent children's bikes and offer discounts if you book online.

Facade of the Chicago Board of Trade with two colorful taxis and the US flag
Taxis in Chicago can be expensive, but rideshares are slightly cheaper © Conchi Martinez / Shutterstock

Taxis are easy to find, but rideshares offer savings

Licensed taxis are plentiful in the Loop, and in the areas running north to Andersonville and northwest to Wicker Park and Bucktown. Hail them in the street with a wave of the hand. Fares are measured by the meter and start at $3.25 when you get into the cab, then it's $2.25 per mile.

The first extra passenger costs $1; additional passengers after that are 50 cents apiece. And you should add 10% to 15% for a tip. All of the major Chicago cab companies accept credit cards; reliable operators include Checker Taxi and Flash Cab.

The ridesharing companies Uber, Lyft, and Via are also popular in Chicago; rides can be a bit cheaper than taxis.

Accessible transportation in Chicago

Most museums and major sights in Chicago are wheelchair accessible, as are most large hotels and restaurants. All city buses can also accommodate wheelchairs, but about one-third of L stations are not accessible. Easy Access Chicago is a free resource that lists museums, tours, restaurants, and accommodations and provides mobility, vision, and hearing accessibility information for each place.

The Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities can answer questions about the availability of services in the city. For more information, download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel Resources.

Why biking is my favorite way to get around Chicago

With more than 300 miles of bikeways, Chicago is on its way to becoming one of the best large cities in the United States for cycling. Two hundred miles of on-street protected, buffered, and shared bike lanes have been installed in recent years, with more in the works. My favorite bikeway in Chicago is the 18.5-mile Lakefront Trail, which runs along Lake Michigan, past the city's picture-perfect beaches and harbors.

This article was first published June 2021 and updated May 2022

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