Chicago's "L" Train

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Take a ride on Chicago's L, or elevated, train.

• Travel: Attractions • Travel: How-To • Travel: Planning • Travel: Tips & Tricks

Uber is popular. So is Lyft. Taxi drivers are so persistent that they will honk at you for just walking down the sidewalk, eager for business, impatient, and apparently desperate. But even with all of the above options in Chicago, you can proudly turn your back on them and know that you will always have the 'L.'

The Chicago Transit Authority (or CTA) is a massive network of eight train lines and 140 bus routes. 'L' is its nickname for the train system and comes from 'elevated' as many of the lines are on elevated tracks for miles, extending north, south, and west from the downtown Loop (Lake Michigan is to the east). The Red and Blue Lines operate 24 hours, every day.

The method of payment is the Ventra Card, which the CTA adopted a few years ago to cut costs and make fares cheaper for passengers in the long run. Even with the added $5 charge for the card itself, it is the best transit option for short-term visitors. The Ventra Card can be loaded with fare value, allowing the rider to deduct $2.25 for each train trip and $2 for each bus ride. Or passes can be loaded onto the card. A 1-Day Pass is $10, a 3-Day Pass is $20, and a 7-Day Pass is $28.

To see a lot of Chicago, and do it only using the 'L' system, all you need is a map and a Ventra Card. On your next visit to the city you can see the following places without getting in a car, whether you fly into Midway or O'Hare. The travel time to downtown is about 30 minutes from Midway and 45 minutes from O'Hare using the 'L.'

The Ventra Card can be purchased at automated machines located at either airport. Just follow the signs for 'CTA' after exiting your terminal. The Blue Line connects O'Hare with downtown, while the Orange Line takes you from Midway to downtown. The Loop is an oval-shaped area of elevated tracks in the center of downtown that all of the CTA's routes eventually feed into. But figuring out what to do downtown is easy.

Three trips that will take you outside the downtown area include Oak Park, Evanston, and Hyde Park. With planning and swiftness, all three can be seen in one day.

For Oak Park, the beginning stop, take the Green Line heading west. On the way, you can stop off at the Garfield Park Conservatory. Only five stops later is Oak Park, where Ernest Hemingway spent seventeen years of his youth. The house he grew up in is available for visits, and there is a small museum devoted to the author within a five-minute walk from the station.

Second on the list is Hyde Park, which takes about an hour to get to from Oak Park. You will need to connect with the Red Line at Roosevelt Station. The Red Line will let you off at 95th Station, where you can board bus #55 heading east toward the University of Chicago. The bus stop is located across the street from the station. Once at the campus, two museums are worth visiting. The Oriental Institute Museum offers ancient art from Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East. A donation of $10 is suggested. Nearby is the Smart Museum, offering a collection of visual art alongside contemporary and classical mediums. In one room, the visitor may find Renaissance paintings, and in the next a contemporary collection covering only the last decade or so. Admission is always free. Also in the area is the Museum of Science and Industry, located in a former building used during the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Even without a visit inside the museum, a walk around the grounds is worth the short detour.

The day ends with Evanston. From the campus bus stop, take bus #55 back to 95th Station. The trip to Evanston will take about one hour and thirty minutes. Get off at Davis Station and walk east to reach the Northwestern University campus. The eastern edges offer great views of the Chicago skyline. There is also a beach area located just south of the campus, called Dog Beach. An evening trip back to the Loop takes about an hour. After a day or two, any visitor will get the hang of using the 'L.' And by starting off visiting sights away from downtown, it will make it that much easier to get around in the better-known areas.