By most meteorological measures, it's been a wild summer in Chicago. After all, we on the Third Coast have experienced an unusual stretch of apocalyptic thunderstorms, triple-digit heat indices, basement flooding and protracted power outages.
Even so, I'm still a summer guy. Give me a choice of seasons and I'll take the stretch between Memorial Day and Labor Day every time - especially in Chicago. Why? Because no other American city 'does summer' like Chicago.
Perhaps it's because of our never-ending winter or our blink-of-an-eye spring, but this city comes to life in truly magical ways this time of year.
So, how do you make the most of this fleeting season of heat, thunder and frivolity?
To get things started, here's my highly subjective, but passionately argued, list of 10 things every Chicagoan must experience before it's all over. The best part? Nearly all of them are free. With the clock ticking fast, I invite you to share your own suggestions in the comment section below.
1. SummerDance - I know what some of you might be saying. SummerDance? Really? Yes, my friends, yes. Chicago's free outdoor dance lesson/dance party is a rare seasonal gem that's not to be missed. The dance floor is packed, the garden is beautiful, and the musical and dance styles run the gamut from two-step to tango. But whether you like to shake your groove thing is almost beside the point. To stand in the gorgeous, Parisian-styled garden and watch the multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-generational mix of people doing their thang on the flo' is to be reminded of the promise, the joy and the magic of living in a diverse city like ours.
2. Lunch at The Waterfront Cafe at Berger Park - Far north siders know this secret spot well - and want to keep it that way, which is why you don't hear a lot of buzz about The Waterfront Cafe. Behind Berger Park, located along Sheridan Road just north of Granville, you'll find a small shack with a trellised patio serving up a mix of wraps, sandwiches, salads and other summer fare. But the main attraction here isn't the food - it's the setting. The Waterfront Cafe is, as the name suggests, perched directly along the shore of Lake Michigan.
And as you sip your milkshake, looking out over the Lake on a tranquil, clear blue day, tell me you didn't imagine yourself sitting in a cafe along the Mediterranean. If you've never heard of it, consider yourself alerted - and go. Now. Families love the adjacent playground, too.
3. Water Taxi along the Chicago River - Forget the Odyssey, the Sea Dog, the Windy or even the architectural boat cruises. For my money, the single best water-based transportation bargain in Chicago is the water taxi. For just two bucks you can enjoy a peaceful 10 minute ride along the Chicago River between the Wrigley Building and the Ogilve Transportation Center. And as you float through the canyon of world renowned skyscrapers, you can pat yourself on the back for finding a way to take in the city's one-of-a-kind architectural set piece without the tourists, the drunken revelers, or the incessant drone of over-modulated tour-guides. Extra bonus: Take the taxi further to Chinatown's Ping Tom Park and enjoy the nearby shops and restaurants.
4. Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park - There's little to say about the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion that hasn't already been said dozens of times by critics and visitors around the globe, such is the frenzy of well-deserved praise surrounding Chicago's newest free performing arts venue. A summer night on the lawn has become a seasonal tradition for thousands of Chicagoans - and the programming on stage, with its broad range of musical styles and performance contexts, continues to surprise and delight. But one of the unsung joys of a night at the Pavilion is the chance to look west and south - and experience the landmark architecture of South Michigan Avenue as it's rarely been experienced before.
5. The Lawn at Ravinia - I know critics like to pit Ravinia and Millennium Park against each other, suggesting that these two quintessential outdoor performing arts venues are pitched in a zero-sum, winner-take-all battle for the best artists and the most dramatic scenery. Hogwash. Each is world-class - and both should be experienced multiple times each season. Whether you drive, bike or take the Metra, the best way to experience Ravinia is with a picnic on the lawn. And as you lay on your picnic blanket gazing up at the tree-covered canopy on a perfect summer evening enveloped in music, I promise you can't help but agree.
6. The Osaka Garden on Wooded Island at Jackson Park - Inspired, in part, by the World's Columbian Exhibition of 1893, this Japanese-style garden features a pagoda, a waterfall, a winding stream, bonsai trees, rocks, a foot bridge and a small walking path - all overlooking a lagoon and the classical edifice of the Museum of Science and Industry. To be there, is to be transported to a world far removed from the concrete jungle. Rarely crowded, it's the perfect spot for a picnic with the kids, a romantic summer afternoon date, or early morning sun salutations.
7. The Rose Garden at Humboldt Park and Columbus Park Lagoon - Sticking with the park and picnic theme for a moment, I'm squeezing in two delightful spots as one item. The first is the romantic Rose Garden in Humboldt Park, where an expanse of green is surrounded by formal rose gardens and a trellised walkway. Not surprisingly, the garden is a frequent setting for weddings, wedding photographs - and wedding proposals, too. Farther west, in Austin, sits Columbus Park, with its gorgeous lagoon immediately south of the Refectory. It's willow trees make the perfect spot for a picnic, or a fishing pole.
8. Shakespeare in Austin Gardens - For more than 35 years, the Oak Park Festival Theater has made Austin Gardens its summer home. Tucked behind the Lake Street business district and located just down the street from the finest stretch of Frank Lloyd Wright homes in the world, Austin Gardens is a hidden gem - a classical oasis of greenery. And it's the perfect setting to experience Shakespeare under the stars. This season? Henry V.
9. 63rd Street Beach - With 25 beaches in the city of Chicago, picking a favorite isn't easy. But, if forced to choose, I'll put my money on 63rd Street Beach every time. Why? 63rd street's stretch of flat, wide, deep - and rarely crowded - sandy beach front is simply hard to beat. But that's not all. The renovated beach house features the usual facilities, plus modern splash fountains, a cafe, a towering second story overlook, and a frontage parking lot. Take that, North Avenue Beach.
10. Farmers Markets - What would summer be without a leisurely stroll among table-after-table of area farmers proudly displaying their farm-fresh tomatoes and seasonal berries? The Chicago-area is home to a bountiful feast of farmer's markets, many with gourmet treats, food trucks, live music and other attractions. So find a favorite and wander. Mine? Oak Park, Woodstock and 61st Street in Woodlawn.