Guys, I honestly don’t remember the last time I spent this long writing a post!
Today’s post is a LONG one (I spent the better half of Wednesday writing it when I should’ve been packing or cleaning…but. You know ?) It’s a really fun read though, regardless of if you live in the city, are planning to move here, or NEVER planning to move here, I think you’ll really like it.
I get so many questions from those of you who are making the move to Chicago each year–moving to a new city is always daunting, especially if you’re not that familiar with it! If this is you, consider this your Moving to Chicago 101 Guide, where I answered pretty much every question I could think of about relocating to this beautiful, amazing city of mine.
Here we go!
The view of the Hancock building from Oak Street Beach
Things to know before moving to Chicago:
Yesss. Let’s just GET IT OUT OF THE WAY NOW.
The winters aren’t fun. WE KNOW. WE GET IT. Yes, you need a REAL winter parka, yes, it’s expensive, but it will last you 10 years. Ah. Now we can move on. (See my whole post on winter layering here!)
Here’s the deal on winters here: Winter really isn’t bad until February. And then it warms up in May. Still worth it. Let me explain.
November is usually fairly mild, Chicago is magical during the holidays in December. The first few snows are really exciting and fun–early winter is a fun time to be here in general. (And it’s not bone-chilling cold yet.)
January is when the real weather starts to hit, but you still embrace the cozy snowy nights in.
February, it starts to wear on you. It’s cold, and you’ll probably get multiple snow storms. March is worse because you know it’s going to feel like February until May. April is a toss up–you’ll get some beautiful days and you’ll get that one last snow that makes you swear this will be the end of you. The one con: It’s usually fairly sunny when it isn’t snowing. (At least, as far as this Pacific Northwest native is concerned.)
Then May rolls around, and you’ll wonder how you could’ve ever thought such a thing about this perfect, gorgeous place–and this passionate love for the windy city you have will last through well…until February again.
So, do I wish Chicago was warmer year round? Yes, but I like the seasons, and if it were California weather, well, EVERYONE would want to live here and then it wouldn’t be the best place on earth, would it?
The Riverwalk downtown on a pretty summer day
Why Chicago is the best place you’ll ever live:
Despite our winters, let me reassure you, Chicago is an incredible city, and there is truly nothing else like it, especially when it comes to the lifestyle and the awesome people that live here.
When the weather thaws, the city really comes alive May through October, where there are tons of rooftop bars open, lot’s of things to do around and on the river and on Lake Michigan, there are multiple beaches right downtown. Tons of activities to do outdoors–concerts, street festivals, free movies in the park. Every neighborhood is so different, and there are 77 of them, by the way!
Strangers smile and say “good morning” to you on the sidewalk. They have values and morals here. They care about others, family is a big priority. People aren’t showy or flashy or always talking about money–which is the norm in a lot of cities. (If you think I’m wrong, you’ve never lived in Arizona or California. I’ve lived in both, so I can speak from experience.) I really wouldn’t want to raise my kids anywhere else. You can tell when you meet a midwestern person, because they don’t care about the kind of car you drive or what you do for a living. It’s really refreshing, and honestly, I feel like the people are what keep me here over anything else.
Then, there’s the city itself. It’s really clean. (New Yorkers are constantly astonished at how there is no sight of garbage on the streets!) The architecture is stunning–everywhere you go is beautiful, there is so much history, and people here really take pride in it! If you want to learn more about the architecture in Chicago, I’d highly recommend the book “Devil in a White City.”
Do you need a car in Chicago?
Probably the single most popular question that I receive from people moving to Chicago! Do you need a car?
Is parking a nightmare? What if you need to go to the grocery store? Should you drive to work? Is it easy to get around?
It’s kind of overwhelming, right? So many questions that lead into more questions!
Here is my short answer, and then I will explain.
You likely do not need to own a car in Chicago.
For the most part, if you work in the city, you’ll be able to get around on public transportation JUST fine. Street parking isn’t always easy (although it depends on the neighborhood) and if you live downtown and need to park in a garage, you can expect to pay a couple hundred dollars extra per month for a garage spot. Again, it really depends on the neighborhood though! (More on that below!)
Something else to be aware of is the likelihood of parking tickets–it just comes with the territory. (Those “surprise” street cleaning days will get you!) Not to mention, car insurance is more expensive for city dwellers, and gas prices in the city are not budget-friendly.
The exception, of course, would be if you need a car for your job (maybe you’re in sales and you drive all over the area for work, or you reverse-commute to the suburbs everyday) or if you have kids, and then, obviously, a car is probably pretty necessary.
Other than that, here’s what I’d do instead of owning a car:
Walk, bike, and use the CTA:
Depending on where you live, for the most part, pretty much everything should be within walking distance. Chicago is also a fairly biker friendly city for the most part, and that’s how I get around a lot in the summer! You’ll find lot’s of bike lanes in downtown and throughout the neighborhoods.
The train system is also decent for getting around in the city, and it has a few different names–officially, the Chicago Transit Authority. A lot of people call it the “CTA” for short, but most locals refer to it as “The El” which got it’s name when it was built for the World’s Fair in 1892. At the time it was called “The Elevated” train because all the tracks were above ground. (Lines added later go underground, like the red line, but the brown and purple lines are still all above ground!)
Is it as good as New York’s subway? No. If you’re comparing it to NYC’s train system, you will be wholeheartedly disappointed, but compared to any other U.S. city, it’s probably the 2nd best you’re going to get, and if you live in an area that has easy el access, it’s pretty easy to take to and from work and anywhere you need to go during the day. (One note: Weekend hours the trains are less often and operate every 20 minutes, so that’s one bummer if you don’t time it up correctly.) The bus system is also decent, so make sure to google map your commute to see if it’s faster by bus or train! Your CTA card will work on both trains and busses.
Get a Zipcar membership:
I have a lot of friends with Zipcar memberships, but I had never tried it out for myself until Zipcar reached out and asked if I wanted to team up together for a partnership. I hadn’t used Zipcar before, but always wanted to give it a try! So I agreed to give it a test run. Especially since so many of my friends have mentioned it as an amazing alternative for owning a car. Like I do with all sponsors, I only write about it on my blog if it’s something I absolutely love. I was already working on this post anyway, and thought Zipcar would be a great partner for it!
Well, spoiler alert. I ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT. So, here we are!
I cannot believe it took me so long to try Zipcar. I don’t personally have a car (Neal does, but he usually has it during the week for work) and it’s going to be such a game-changer for me. It’s so much easier and cheaper than a rideshare when I need to go to the burbs or run errands where I need a lot of trunk space. (It also makes shoot days way easier! My photographer friend Hannah and I knocked out so much in such a short amount of time by pulling over and shooting right outside of the car, and then zooming off to the next location!)
How Zipcar works:
Zipcar is basically a car sharing service that has cars ALL over the city. (They have a map you can look up on their website that shows you where the nearest Zipcars are. You’ll likely find several within walking distance.) When you sign up (which, if you do so through my link now through the month of April, you’ll get a free month trial, waived membership fee, and $25 in free driving credit!) you’ll be mailed a Zipcard, which is essentially what you use to lock and unlock the car! It’s so cool!
You just look up what car you’d like online, reserve it, walk there, pop your Zipcard over the sensor, and it’s magically unlocked for you to grab and go! It’s essentially access to a car on demand, with none of the hassle that comes with owning a car.
You pay a small monthly membership, starting at $7/month, or you can pay upfront for $70/year. To reserve the car, you pay a small hourly fee, ranging from $8-$10 per hour when you need the car. You can also reserve a car for a day starting at $74 (which is great for getaways up to 180 miles outside of the city!) starting at $80/day. Rates vary based on what kind of car you need, where you live, etc.
Choose from lot’s of makes, and sizes
The cool part is that they offer so many models of cars–care to drive a BMW to make those boring errands more interesting? You can! Prefer a hybrid? Take it for a test drive to IKEA! It’s awesome! I used to have a VW Golf and it was my favorite car ever, I was so excited that I could reserve one to drive around for our shoot! (It’s also the best city car, that thing can parallel park in the TINIEST spots!)
They also offer moving vans if, say, you just moved and you need to go pickup that Crate and Barrel sectional you just scored on Craigslist.
Gas and insurance is included!
It’s also worth addressing two car-ownership pain points: gas and insurance. First, with Zipcar, you gas is COVERED. You do not have to pay anything extra for gas. (Which is around $2.80 per gallon right now in the city. HUZZAH!) Second, insurance–you’re covered with liability insurance and you have the option to purchase additional insurance for a few extra dollars a month that would waive any additional damage costs should you get into an accident. It’s a pretty great deal–you can see all of that nitty gritty right here.
Nationwide and International
Another huge perk of Zipcar is that your membership is good across the US as well as internationally, so if you need to get from the airport into the city in say, Portland, or Toronto, you can do that! (And it’s a REALLY cost-effective option!) I’m actually thinking of reserving one when we’re in San Francisco in a few weeks and driving to Sausalito!
Someone on Instagram also recommended it for college students–they have special University plans and locations all over many college campuses, too!
Zipcar vs Car 2 Go comparison:
Car 2 Go just launched in Chicago and it’s another cool car share company and both it and Zipcar definitely have something to offer! The biggest difference is that Car 2 Go is basically like those “Lime Bikes” you see in other cities–you see one, check it out, drive it, and then you can leave it parked on the street wherever you want! They offer three kinds of vehicles–Smart cars, and two types of Mercedes.
The biggest cons with Car 2 Go though, that you don’t get with Zipcar, is that the car isn’t yours while you aren’t in it–so if you take it to the grocery store, you could come back out and have it be gone. Also, you can only park it on the street where there isn’t a residential permit required–which is tricky pretty much everywhere in the city–and they are also prohibited in certain neighborhoods all together–I think Lincoln Park, East Lakeview, and Wrigleyville are among them.
So, essentially, Car 2 Go is really handy in specific instances (if you live in a specific neighborhood and only want to drive one-way, to another neighborhood that allows them), but Zipcar definitely gives you a lot more options whether you’re running errands, commuting, or taking a trip out of the city altogether.
GG Reader Approved!
Speaking of, when I was talking about my experience with Zipcar on insta stories yesterday, so many of you guys reached out and said how much you love it too! The entire GG community gives it a big thumbs up!
So, there you have it. Don’t buy a car. Get a Zipcar membership and save yourself a LOT of money and hassle!
Get a free month trial and waived application fee!
Right now, if you sign up for Zipcar, you can get a free 1 month trial, and your application fee ($25) will be waived! Also, make sure you sign up through my unique link for $25 in driving credit! (That means your first several drives could be free!)
Cost of living in Chicago:
Okay, so we talked about the cost of having a car, and whether or not you need, one. What about the cost of living?
Cost of living in Chicago in comparison to a lot of major cities is still very affordable. For reference, I would say more than half of my friends own vs. rent (and they all live in the city), which, as 30 year olds, I would say is pretty good and wouldn’t be fathomable in other big cities–however, the property taxes are insane, and are the 2nd highest in the nation. Still, even with that factored in, it’s still much more affordable than buying property in other places.
CNN Money actually has a really awesome tool you can use to compare the cost of living between two cities.
Just for fun, I popped Manhattan and Chicago into the calculator. For numbers sake, if you were making $50,000 in NYC, you would only need to be making $26,000 in Chicago to maintain the same standard of living. Housing is 69% lower in Chicago than in NYC, utilities are 25% lower, and groceries are 15% lower! To throw a west coast city in there, you could take a $10,000 pay cut and still maintain the same standard of living if you moved here from LA.
Now, let’s pick another city that would result in a price increase, for comparison–let’s do Indianapolis.
In this instance, if you were making $50,000 in Indianapolis, you’d need to be making $65,000 in Chicago to maintain the same standard of living. The biggest price increase, not surprisingly, is housing, which is 79% higher in Chicago vs. Indiana. If this deters you, remember that salaries are often adjusted to account for this extra living expense, so keep that in mind when job searching.
Of course, these are averages, and cost of living will definitely vary based on which neighborhood you live in. Which brings me to my next point…
Where to live? The Best Chicago Neighborhoods:
Tips on finding a Chicago apartment:
Everyone’s definition of The Best Chicago neighborhood is different! There are so many pros and cons to each depending on your lifestyle. Make sure to do your fair share of googling and do your research on neighborhoods before you sign a lease. Even better, go out and explore each neighborhood you’re considering before signing. What is one person’s perfect neighborhood is not going to be a fit for another person–I CANNOT stress this enough. It is such a personal choice and you need to do your research.
Rent before you buy, and work with a legitimate realtor:
So many people think you have to pay to work with a realtor–you don’t! Regardless of if you’re renting or buying a home, you pay nothing to work with a realtor, it’s always the landlord or the seller who pay the real estate agent–not the other way around! If you’re striking out with Craigslist apartment hunting, try working with a realtor!
I would also recommend renting before you buy if you aren’t familiar with the city. Like I said, your choice of neighborhood is deeply personal and will impact everything from your lifestyle to honestly, who you even hang out with. It’s a big choice, don’t buy a house if you aren’t 110% familiar with the neighborhood!
Look out for scammers.
There are also some pretty skeezy scammy rental companies that SOUND like real estate companies, but aren’t. Anything that has “apartment” in the name, steer clear. You need to work with a legitimate real estate brokerage like @Properties–yes, their bread and butter is home buying and selling but they do rentals, too! With an agent, you often get access to places before they go on the MLS, and just know what they’re doing, so they can help you avoid any watch-outs and mishaps.
Work with the best!
For rentals, reach out to @Properties broker, Kelsey Shaw! If you’re looking to buy, I CANNOT recommend our realtor, John Huebner, also with @Properties, more. He was absolutely ruthless and meticulous when it came to house hunting for us, and so many of my friends have used him and echoed the same thing. He’s truly an expert and will take care of you. Also, our friend Susan Nice of Dreamtown is amazing, too!
Okay, so, you know where to begin. Reach out to a realtor, and then you’ll want to narrow down your search by neighborhood. Of course, your realtor can definitely help you hone in on what neighborhood is a good fit for you, but here are my personal favorites.
My favorite intersection in Wicker Park–6 Corners! Above is the history Flat Iron Building which houses a lot of local artist studios!
The Best Chicago Neighborhoods:
I have lived in quite a few neighborhoods since I moved here after college in 2010–Lincoln Park, Gold Coast, Lakeshore East, West Loop, and now Wicker Park/Bucktown. Here are my 5 favorite Chicago neighborhoods I’d recommend for newcomers and why. If you click on the link, you’ll be taken to the Google Map of the neighborhood, so you can easily see where they are in relation to downtown!
I would rank my own neighborhood #1 on the list. You may think I’m biased, but it’s easy to argue that Wicker Park/Bucktown offers everything you could want. Of all the places I’ve lived, this one is my favorite for a few reasons: It has tons of charm, lot’s of shops, a lot of the city’s hottest restaurants and bars, multiple grocery stores, and easy public transportation with the blue line. This area is also very neighborhoody–you get mostly residential streets with walk-ups and smaller apartment buildings, although, there are some brand new high rises that are going up currently or were just recently built.
In terms of aesthetics, parts of Wicker Park are really cute, and parts are less so.
Wicker Park was known as a hipster neighborhood and was considered “up and coming” until a couple of years ago (now it’s officially arrived, haha)–and a lot of it is what I’d describe as “gritty”–some people compare it to Brooklyn or The Mission district of SF, but I’ve never been to either so I can’t really say!
Another big perk is parking–street parking for the most part (on residential streets) is still pretty easy over here. There are also several streets that aren’t permitted so you may or may not even need to get a permit, depending on which street you live on. It also is super easy access to the highway, which also makes it a popular neighborhood for people who need to commute using the highway for work.
The only potential cons against this neighborhood:
If you work downtown in an area that isn’t accessible to the blue line–then, that would be a pain to commute to work. Additionally, it’s really far from the lakefront, which is arguably one of the coolest things about Chicago. (In terms of living, I tend to prefer the Western neighborhoods over the East ones, but that’s just preference. Aside from being far from the lake, I think the pros outweigh the cons here!)
Boats in the harbor off of Lakeshore Drive!
2. Lincoln Park:
Where I lived for the first several years in Chicago and still one of my favorite neighborhoods. If you are trying to sign a lease sight unseen I would probably say Lincoln Park is the best bet–it’s probably the one neighborhood that best hits on location, accessibility, charm, and price. (Although there are also a lot of expensive places here too, so again, research!)
A LOT of young people live here and it’s a big neighborhood.
It has a ton to offer in terms of restaurants, bars, etc and also happens to be close to the lake if you choose to move to East Lincoln Park. Access to the lakefront is a huge perk, as are the ample running paths through the Zoo (which is free). Lincoln Park is one of Chicago’s most beautiful neighborhoods.
Decent rent can be found here as well if you look hard enough, and Lincoln Park and Lakeview have the most 3 and 4 bedroom places to accommodate a lot of roommates, which are part of the reason they’re so popular with younger people just moving to the city–this helps to keep costs down!
In terms of parking, it really depends on WHERE in LP you are.
It’s a really big neighborhood, some streets have street parking, others are impossible. Again, I’d say, unless you need a car for work, go with a Zipcar living over here. (I lived here my first three years out of college, my first place had a “parking spot” behind the house under the el–but it was rat infested and rusty water would drip all over my car. Definitely something I’d avoid if possible, haha!) The second place I lived had OK street parking, but I racked up about $1,000 one year in parking tickets, sooo…. yeah.
3. Gold Coast:
If I were a single girl living on my own without a car, working downtown, I would probably choose to live in the Gold Coast in a high rise. (You know, doorman is great for security!)
The Gold Coast is one of my favorites neighborhoods–it’s super close to downtown, right near the lake, and there are lot’s of shops and restaurants within walking distance, and the neighborhood is absolutely stunning. You’ll find mostly high-rise buildings here. Public transportation is very easy and it only takes a few minutes to get downtown. On the flip side, depending on where you are in the Gold Coast, it’s not super easy access to the highway so might be a pain if you drive to the suburbs for work.
A couple things to keep in mind, which you may consider drawbacks, but aren’t deal-breakers by any means:
Many of the buildings themselves are old (it’s an old historic neighborhood) so you’ll run into a lot of places with super slow elevators, spotty air conditioning, etc. Just make sure to do your research. The rent here also is not cheap, because you’re paying for the location, as well as the doorman and the amenities (many buildings have pools) but can be well worth the price in my opinion.
Also, street parking is pretty near impossible, and garage parking within rental buildings can be crazy expensive (upwards of $500 in some places). One alternative is to rent a spot from someone in a nearby garage, but this will run you about $300 per month, and won’t be connected to your building. Overall, I’d say this is another good neighborhood to skip the car ownership and do Zipcar instead.
It’s worth noting that Gold Coast bleeds into Old Town and River North, two other VERY popular neighborhoods, especially with twenty and thirty somethings. Gold Coast tends to be my favorite of these three simply due to the cross between charm, safety, affordability and proximity to the lake, shops, etc. This is just a personal preference, there’s nothing wrong with Old Town or River North! In fact, you can find much nicer, newly updated/renovated apartments there, so it really just depends on what your priorities are!
A perfect summer day on Oak Street Beach, Gold Coast
4. West Loop:
The West Loop is one of the most happening places to be right now and some people compare it to the Meatpacking district in NYC because it’s very much an industrial neighborhood. Most apartments you find here are converted warehouse buildings–lots of Lofts, exposed brick, etc. Many of them also have doormen, which makes it feel very safe.
When I lived there a few years ago, there was still little more than Chicago’s “restaurant row” of gourmet restaurants, but in the last couple of years it has absolutely exploded. It’s definitely one of the hottest neighborhoods–which, of course, you will definitely pay for.
If you want a “city” vibe, close to downtown, in a very buzzy neighborhood, this is a really cool place to be.
The further west you go in West Loop, the cheaper your rent will be–I would highly recommend not going past Ashland. We lived at Ashland and Monroe and I did not feel safe walking by myself after dark. (Granted, you should not be walking alone late at night anywhere anyway, but still.) The West Loop is easy access to the city on public transportation as well as the highway if you need to drive to the suburbs for work. Street parking is pretty much impossible here, so again, unless you really need a car and want to pay a lot extra for a garage spot, I’d also rate this a must-zip neighborhood, haha!
Iconic Wrigley Field in Wrigleyville, one of Lakeviews neighborhoods
Lakeview is Chicago’s biggest neighborhood. (I think? Or at least one of them, haha!) There are many little sub-neighborhoods of Lakeview, and each have their own pros and cons. Lakeview really offers something for everyone. I have never lived here personally, so I don’t know too much about it. The streets are very quiet, picturesque. There is lot’s of fun nightlife, bars, and tons of restaurants. The rent is affordable, you get a lot more space for your money, and East Lakeview has the prettiest lakefront access. In Lakeview, you’ll find tons of different styles of apartments and condos, from high-rises, to greystones, three flat walk-ups, single family homes, and pretty much everything in between. This is a very popular neighborhood for families as well!
That being said, the different areas of Lakeview are VERY, well, different, so you need to fully do your research here.
The most famous area of Lakeview is Wrigleyville, which is really fun, but also makes parking, traffic, and getting around in general an absolute hell on game days, where you’ll need to get different parking permits for game days OR move your car to a different location. This varies by street, so make sure you ask what the game day policy is if you’re looking for a place around Wrigley.
In terms of city and highway accessibility, Lakeview, again, is huge. So some neighborhoods are very far north. Which can be a drawback if you work in the Loop, but on the other hand, you have access to the red, purple, and brown el lines, which is really convenient.
You may find that the pro’s of saving on rent, getting more space, and living in an adorable neighborhood outweigh the cons of a longer commute!
Also, since Lakeview is so big, access to the highway really depends on where you are, but in my experience, in traffic, just getting from the highway to Lakeview East can take you 45 minutes. So if you commute to the suburbs everyday and want to live near Lakeview, you may want to consider looking somewhere closer to the highway, like neighboring Roscoe Village or Old Irving Park.
In terms of parking, that also varies WIDELY. I know people in Lakeview who have super easy parking, and those who have impossible parking. Again, best to do your research, ask your real estate agent, and also, consider a Zipcar.
Any Moving Day Advice?
This will probably be one of the only occasions where you really do want a car of some sort. I’ve yet to meet one person who didn’t need at least ONE IKEA trip upon moving into a new place. (I know. EVERY time you swear “NEVER AGAIN, IKEA” but you always go crawwwwwllinggg back.) That’s when you get the Zipcar SUV or van that can fit alll the stuff.
Now, should you do the moving yourself?
If you don’t have furniture (I’m talking like, boxes, a mattress, and a couple nightstands–not a lot of big stuff) you can absolutely handle moving yourself. Zipcar actually has a cargo van for this specific purpose and it will be a hell of a lot cheaper than hiring some Craiglist guy with a crappy truck. I’m kind of kicking myself that I didn’t know you could rent vans with Zipcar, because I REALLYY could’ve used that, you know, over the course of the SIX moves I’ve made over the last eight years in Chicago.
If you DO have furniture, I would definitely recommend hiring movers. It was the best decision we made when moving into our condo (we moved ourselves into our old place and it was only what I can describe as pure hell.) We used these guys and they aren’t cheap, but were absolutely phenomenal. They have 5 stars on Yelp–yes, they’re more expensive than other movers you can find, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the six (yes, again, six) times I’ve moved, it’s that you get what you pay for when it comes to movers. This is one area you don’t want to skimp on!
What not to miss when you first move to Chicago:
Not that we need to add ANY more length to this already insanely long post, but overall, my biggest piece of advice for Chicago newcomers is to explore as much as you can. Dedicate one day per week to checking out a new neighborhood. There are so many things you can do to experience Chicago that are free or really affordable. There is so much culture here. I’d definitely have authentic tacos in Pilsen, explore the Art Institute, spend as much time as you can outside, go running on the lakefront path, attend a free concert in Millennium Park, go to a few street festivals. Just get out and do something. You’ll never run out of fun things to do here!
Also, if you’re moving here and looking to make new friends, make sure to check out my post “How to meet friends in a new city.”
WHEW! If you made it to the bottom, I really hope this was helpful! Do you have more questions on moving to Chicago? Leave them below and I’l make sure to answer! Or, if you have any tips on what helped you when moving, please share them below so others can benefit from your experience, too!
For more on Chicago, see my favorite weekend getaways from Chicago.
Huge thanks to Zipcar, my latest obsession, for partnering with me on this post! As you guys know, I don’t take on ANY partnerships I’m not 110% in love with, and I can’t say enough great things about my experience with Zipcar. I hope you love them as much as I do, and thanks for supporting the companies that help support this blog!
Remember, if you sign up for Zipcar right now, you can get a free 1 month trial, and your application fee ($25) will be waived! Also, make sure you sign up through my unique link for $25 in driving credit! (That means your first several drives could be free!)