Spring took its sweet time this year, but summer will soon come a-knocking.
The season of barbecues, beach blankets, and ball games is also the best time to check out some great festivals in Chicago—and of course, in the “city of neighborhoods,” some of the best-loved street parties happen away from the big downtown marquee fests. Here are our choices for getting a different taste of Chicago.
Randolph Street Market Festival
May 28-29, June 25-26, July 30-31, Aug. 27-28, Sept. 24-25; Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Turn off “Antiques Roadshow” and get your treasure-hunting mojo going at this vintage extravaganza, running the last weekend of every month through September. In addition to sprucing up your house after spring cleaning with new-to-you furniture and other finds, you can enjoy the “fancy food market,” flower vendors, a full bar, and live music. The festival offers free furniture delivery service (minimum purchase $150), and tickets are only $8 online, $10 at the gate (students $3/$5). “Early bird” admission Saturday 8-10 a.m. runs $20 online, $25 at the gate, with the proceeds benefiting HIV/AIDS charity Chicago House. Each admission also comes with two $5 shopping vouchers for any purchase $25 or more. New this year is Retro ReVamp, where crafters show you how to transform your finds with silkscreening, beading, and other bedazzling options.
57th Street Art Fair
June 4-5; Sat. 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Love art, but hate to spend precious summer daylight hours inside a museum? Chicago’s oldest juried art fair in the heart of Hyde Park offers a chance to mix and mingle outdoors with some of the finest artists and craftspeople in the Midwest. If you’re a newbie (or just looking to update your current collection), the festival offers an “Art Buying Boot Camp,” where experts help you figure out what to pay and how to show off your new acquisitions to greatest effect. Food vendors and kid-friendly activities add to the fun, and the fair is free and Metra-accessible. (Though if you’re bringing that piece of sculpture home in your car the same day, plan on getting there early to find parking.) The left-brainers in the family can always take in the Museum of Science and Industry while you indulge your artistic side.
June 11-12, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
This picturesque North Side neighborhood’s Swedish roots come alive in this street festival, with a Maypole dance, Nordic folk dancing, and plenty of Swedish goodies. (If lutefisk isn’t your thing, there are plenty of food tents offering less exotic fare, or stop in at the beloved Swedish Bakery. An eclectic array of bands and family entertainment, including face painting and games for kids, round out this Nordic excursion. Parking is tight, but whether you’re taking Metra to the Rogers Park stop or the CTA purple line to Howard, the Clark Street bus is right there to whisk you down to the festival. Free, but a $5 donation is requested.
Taste of Randolph Street
June 17-19; Fri. 5-11 p.m., Sat. 2-11 p.m., Sun. 2-10 p.m.
If Taste of Chicago has just become too stressful, but you’d still like to have a great gustatory experience, head over to the trendy West Loop restaurant row, covering six blocks on West Randolph, between Peoria and Racine. In addition to fine food, the fest offers cooking demonstrations, handcrafted goods, and live entertainment. This year’s line-up hasn’t been firmed up as of press time, but last year’s included tasty indie faves such as Superchunk, Califone, and Chicago’s own art-rock marching band, Mucca Pazza. Admission is $10 suggested donation.
Green Music Fest
June 25-26, noon-10 p.m.
Sure, Lollapalooza and Pitchfork get most of the attention when it comes to outdoor summer music festivals—but if you want to do something hip AND environmentally aware, check out this Wicker Park happening, now entering its third year. Headliners Yo La Tengo take the stage Saturday night, with New York indie rockers Les Savy Sav and The Thermals from Portland, Ore., filling the bill on Sunday. In addition to great music, the festival promises green vendors and services (including biodegradable plastic cups and bio-diesel fuel generators) with an emphasis on local retail, art and food vendors. It’s bike-friendly, and you’ll earn karma points by taking public transportation—or at least car-pooling with friends. Free, but $5 donation requested.
Bastille Day 5K Run, Walk and Block Party
Thursday, July 14, 7:30 p.m.
July isn’t just for celebrating American independence. The French (our strongest allies in the American Revolutionary War) celebrate their own independence day on July 14. You don’t have to storm a prison in commemoration—instead, you can get your exercise by doing a 5K run/walk. This year the party moves from the West Loop to Lincoln Park, but there will still be food (mais oui!) and entertainment at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Registration fees for the 5K range from $30-$37, and if you just want to enjoy the block party, it’s a $5 gate fee. Proceeds benefit the Mercy Home for Boys and Girls.
Chinatown Summer Fair
Sunday, July 17, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
Chinatown isn’t just for the Chinese New Year. In-the-know Chicagoans say that this summer festival provides one of the most family-friendly experiences around, without the crowds (or cold!) of February’s better-known party. Lion dances, a petting zoo, donkey rides, and of course some of the best Chinese food in town, along with traditional arts and crafts, are all on hand here—a great way to introduce the kids (or re-introduce yourself) to one of Chicago’s oldest and most unique neighborhoods. Get there early if you’re driving.
Sheffield Garden Walk and Festival
July 23-24; noon-10:15 p.m. (gardens noon-5:30 p.m., Kids Corner noon-5 p.m.)
Who doesn’t love a garden party? Big hats and white gloves are optional at this festival, which allows you to stop and smell the roses—and innumerable other blossoms—grown by residents of this landmark Lincoln Park neighborhood. In addition to beautiful blooms, the fest offers guided architectural walking tours and a Garden Center where masters of the green thumb will offer tips for making your own garden grow big and beautiful. A petting zoo, pony rides, and other child-centered activities keep the Kids Corner hopping, while neighborhood restaurants dish up their favorite meals. Free, but the requested donation of $7-$10 benefits local schools and other charitable organizations through the sponsoring nonprofit, the Sheffield Neighborhood Association.
Aug. 13-14; Sat. noon-10 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
It’s not just about baseball. Whether the Cubs are winning or losing by the dog days of August, this festival offers food, music, and a “kid zone” with interactive games for fun outside the old ballpark. Great access by public transit, but parking is near-impossible. Free admission, with a requested $5 donation.
Family Fun Festival
Every day from June 13-August 21, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Finally, we don’t want to ignore downtown altogether. In addition to the Taste of Chicago and all the great music festivals, the City of Chicago runs this free festival in Millennium Park, with family-friendly performances and hands-on activities, making it a perfect place to stop in on the way to the beach, Navy Pier, or other downtown attractions. The Wiggleworms from Old Town School of Folk Music offer singalongs every day at 10 a.m., with a reading circle at 11 a.m. and live entertainment at 1 p.m. Local museums team up to offer crafts and other educational activities.