Updated May 16, 2019
Sun’s out! But why sink those buns into the same old stretches of sand (we’re talking to you, Oak Street and North Avenue!) when there are so many more to explore? To help you broaden your horizons, we combed the coast from the tip of the North Shore to the seat of the South Side — and took a few road trips, too. Without further ado, we present the absolute best beaches in the city and beyond.
Hartigan Beach Park, Rogers Park
Nestled at the end of Albion Street in Rogers Park, this gem is as hidden as they come — chances are you’ll have the entire expanse to yourself. (Before you start to get freaked out, rest assured that a bike path, a playground, a nice big lawn for picnics, and an ever-present paletas vendor keep it from veering into creepy-deserted territory.) But if you ever want to a) pretend you own a private beach, b) make the most of your summer romance without scarring small children for life, or c) throw a summer barbecue that’s blissfully stranger free, this is the address you’re going to want to plug into your GPS. 1050 W. Albion Ave., Chicago, 773-262-8605
31st Street Beach, Bridgeport
Clean bathrooms? Check. Easy parking? Check. Relatively quiet surrounds with tons of space to spread out? Check. A gigantic adjoining playground with a water feature? Quadruple check. Add to that fantastic views of the city, a stellar concession stand, really calm water, a gorgeous lawn for picnics, tons of lifeguards, and even more ice-cream vendors, and you’ve got family nirvana. Truly, it’s like the city asked a bunch of parents to list all the features they’d want in a beach — and then granted Every. Single. Request. 3100 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, 773-363-2225
Osterman Beach, Edgewater
Perhaps it’s the concession stand’s frozen margaritas that make people here so happy and outgoing. Or maybe it’s the immaculate sand (no garbage, no problems?). Whatever it is, no one’s complaining. During the week, the clandestine cove is a quiet retreat from the busy streets of Chicago, but on weekends — especially Sunday Funday — it fills to the gills with the beautiful Boystown crew (hence its awesome nickname, Gay Beach). And while the people-watching is off the charts, don’t expect to sit quietly and peep the crowd — this is a place to come and make friends. 4600 N. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, 312-74-BEACH
Gillson Dog Beach, Wilmette
The water is calm, the long, fenced-in stretch is begging for a game of fetch, and even the bitches are friendly (see what we did there?). Assuming your pooch is tagged (head to the Park District Administration Office in the Wilmette Village Hall for that; it’s $40 for residents and $202 if you live outside Wilmette) and vaccinated (keep written proof in your car just in case), you can let him run and swim free with his buds to his heart’s delight. South end of Gillson Park, Sheridan Road and Harbor Drive, Wilmette, 847-256-9656
For Pretending You’re on Vacay
Oakwood Beach, Bronzeville
The outdoor shower is the first hint that Chicago’s newest beach is unlike the others. Start easing yourself into vacation mode by ordering some tacos from the Lunch Box, the on-site Mexican-style restaurant, then settle in for a day (or evening) of super cool music or a fun festival, as this beach loves to party. 4100 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, 312-742-5121
For Romantic Strolls
Illinois Beach State Park, Zion
This is a nearly 7-mile stretch along Lake Michigan, encompassing the only remaining beach ridge shoreline left in the state. There’s no entrance or parking fee to enter the preserve, and you can start by hiking or cycling through trails. Even better, the beach access is so secluded that it will feel private (but it’s not), and the water is crystal clear. 1 Lake Front Drive, Zion, 847-662-4811
Glencoe Beach, Glencoe
This small, private beach (yep — that means there are entrance fees) has attentive lifeguards at all times. There are sailboats, paddleboats, and kayaks to rent, or you can just hop in the calm, clean water and swim. This one doesn’t tend to get crowded (read: entrance fees), and it has a concession stand selling fantastic pizza, plus an adjoining playground that attracts tons of families. 55 Hazel Ave., Glencoe, 847-835-3030
For Pretending to Study
Montrose Beach, Uptown
They lure you in with the free Wi-Fi. Then they entice you by selling pierogi at the beach restaurant — you know, to sustain you for a long day of, uh, critical thinking. As for the best views ever? That’s just a bonus. At this gorgeous beach, parking usually fills up by 11 a.m., which should motivate you to start studying here by 9. They’ve got bathrooms plus a concession stand where you can keep the caffeine going all day, and you’ll want to make the most of your study breaks by jogging along the running path, jumping into a game of beach volleyball, or renting a jet ski, paddleboard, or kayak. Into birding? There just so happens to be a gorgeous beachside sanctuary where red-winged blackbirds, Wilson’s warblers, and American redstarts fly free. 4400 N. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, 312-74-BEACH
These vacation destinations may feel far-flung, but each is within just two hours of Chicago. Translation: You’ll be pulling into the parking lot before you hear the words “Are we there yet?”
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
Drive time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Surrounded by downtown Lake Geneva, this is the ideal beach for plopping yourself down for the day, picnic in tow. Chicagoans have been weekending here for generations, and nothing much has changed, from the floating docks kids love to the boat tours for special occasion evenings. Or have an active beach day: rent speedboats, jet skis, kayaks, and paddleboards from Clear Water Outdoor, Elmer’s, Gage Marine, and other vendors. Wrigley Drive, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, 262-248-3673
Drive time: 2 hours
Recently rated one of the 25 best beaches in the world by Conde Nast Traveler, there’s no denying this shoreline’s star quality. Kids will love getting there, as it’s best reached by the country’s only hand-pulled chain ferryboat, which departs from nearby Saugatuck and crosses the Kalamazoo River. Though the beach feels secluded, it boasts amenities including concessions and lifeguards, and temperatures reach the mid-70s in August. It’s spectacularly beautiful, too — all white, powdery sand, soaring sand dunes, and expansive skies that make for jaw-dropping sunsets. 690 Perryman St., Saugatuck, Michigan, 269-857-2603
Drive time: 45 minutes
To the chagrin of anyone who lives near this gorgeous beach in Gary, Indiana, the secret is out: This place is a bonafide hidden gem. An easy day trip from Chicago, the calm, quiet stretch of sand feels like a true vacation spot. Situated at the edge of a forest within the Indiana Dunes, it’s far enough away from industrial Northwest Indiana that you’ll forget where you are — unless you happen to glance up at the Chicago skyline, just off in the distance. Lake Michigan and the Indiana Dunes, Gary, Indiana
Q&A: Victoria Arciniega, Chicago Lifeguard
We quizzed the eight-year veteran on everything you ever wanted to know about the men and women in red — and the beaches they preside over.
Make It Better: Besides the ones we’ve listed, what’s your favorite beach?
Victoria Arciniega: North Avenue: It’s got great energy, fun people, and the food at the concession stand is fantastic. For something quieter and more family-friendly, I’d recommend the 41st Street Beach, where I work.
What’s the best time to arrive?
Right when they open at 11 a.m. During the week, it’s pretty empty until 2 or 3, but on the weekend it gets crowded from noon until closing at 7:15 p.m.
Other than sunscreen, what’s the one thing everyone should bring to the beach?
Gatorade. Staying hydrated is as important as sun protection.
What’s the most annoying beachgoer habit?
Feeding the seagulls!
What rule is most often broken?
Swimming out past the lifeguard boats. People love to do it, but this rule is in place for their safety.
Have you ever had to save someone’s life?
Do the lifeguards hang out after work? We’ve got visions of “Baywatch” here…
Ha! All the time. We usually end up at someone’s house for a chilled-out barbecue.
Speaking of “Baywatch,” do you get to keep those awesome red suits?
Before you head out to your perfect beach, read these tips from nonprofits and swim schools to make sure your family has the skills to be safe in the water.
Danielle Braff is a full-time freelance writer specializing in lifestyle and travel. She lives in Chicago with her husband and their two daughters, two dogs, and two cats. To see more of her stories, check out daniellebraff.com. Danielle is passionate about pet adoption, and her favorite nonprofit is the Anti-Cruelty Society.