Chicago Summer Festivals

Published April 23, 2013

By Cierra Briana Colón

A tiny boy plays catch with his father after throwing a penny into Buckingham Fountain. Standing in front of a 42 foot bean, a group of teenage girls giggle as they strike pose after pose, trying to capture a perfect picture, which will hopefully get them dozens of “likes” on Instagram. Women, holding bags filled with jewelry from Cartier and clothing from Prada, strut, stride after stride as their red sole Christian Louboutin heels stomp down The Magnificent Mile.

Chicago is a popular destination attracting millions of tourists every year. But, summers in Chicago are like no other. The culturally diverse city is home to many free events and festivals in the summer.

“I’m glad to be able to say I’m from here,” said Lisa Weitzel, a Chicago native.

Weitzel said Chicago is a festive city. She said she has been to many other cities, but none of them have the diversity that Chicago offers.

The Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events have free events throughout the summer. Some of these include The Chicago Air and Water Show, SummerDance and The Taste of Chicago. These events attract huge crowds annually. The festivals have been so successful that other cities around the country have started to duplicate their own versions of them.

Chicago Air and Water Show

Chicago Air and Water Show.

Chicago Air and Water Show.

The Chicago Air and Water Show is one of the city’s oldest events. It’s two days of festivities along the shores of North Avenue Beach. The show is the largest event in the city, entertaining over two million people each year.

Families from all over gaze above as pilots, jets, and parachute teams take the sky to perform tricks. The City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events Manager, Mary May, said the United States Air Force Thunderbirds are making an appearance at this years upcoming Air and Water show. The Thunderbirds are the fastest jet flying demonstration team in the world.

“It’s amazing to watch what these pilots can do,” May said.

The event is on Saturday, August 17 and Sunday, August 18 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. If people aren’t too tired from the sun, then they can head over to SummerDance to enjoy a night filled with music and dance.


People dancing during the day at Chicago's SummerDance.

People dancing during the day at Chicago’s SummerDance.

At the Spirit of Music Garden in Grant Park, thousands of people walk on to the recyclable dance floor from Thursday through Sunday evening. SummerDance Festival is the city’s largest dance series.

The event has a loyal following, May said. During the evenings of Thursday through Sunday, the department hosts a dance series, which features different ethnic genres of dance including African, ballroom and swing.

Professional dancers teach lessons for the first hour of the night. Afterwards there are two hours of live music and dancing, in which people of all different skill show off the dance moves they just learned.

Sofia Arreola, Chicago native, said she tries to attend the event at least once a week. She said it is her favorite summer activity because it’s a welcoming place where she can be carefree.

“It’s a great way to exercise and meet new people,” Sofia Arreola said. “There are people who can’t dance at all and then there are people who clearly have backgrounds in dance, but every one always seems to have fun.”

Arreola said she purposely goes out to eat afterwards as an excuse to come back and workout the following week. It’s possible that she may end up at a city restaurant that is featured in The Taste of Chicago.

Taste of Chicago

The Taste of Chicago is held annually in mid-July in Grant Park. It’s the city’s largest festival, attracting over 3.6 million people, and has been around since 1980. The event showcases the diversity of the city’s restaurants with over 70 vendors participating in the festival.

The festival has a variety of entrees and food. Chicago is typically known for deep dish pizza, Chicago style hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches. However, the rainbow cone is a local favorite that everyone must try, May said.

“A rainbow cone, that’s really Chicago,” May said. “That’s a big summer tradition.”

Chicago's famous Rainbow Cone.

Chicago’s famous Rainbow Cone.

The Original Rainbow Cone is the second most visited vendor at “The Taste.”  The colorful, ice cold, refreshing dessert is hard to miss on the festival grounds. It’s stacked high with a scoop of chocolate at the bottom, strawberry, Palmer House (New York Vanilla with cherries and walnuts), pistachio, and to top the cone off, orange sherbet.

In today’s health conscious society, “The Taste” has healthy vendors available for guests, as well. Bella Bacino’s has a delicious, fresh, spinach pizza, May said. To further accommodate guests, taste portion tickets are available for people who want to eat smaller amounts of food.

The festival is primarily known for the various food stations, but there are other amenities for guests to enjoy. Each year there are live performances at designated performance areas from local to famous musicians such as Carlos Santana.

There are amenities available to accommodate all guests, May said. There are family areas, wine gardens with jazz music and a full kitchen chef demonstration. Two of the most popular amenities are the Celebrity Chef du Jour four course meal and Petrillo Music Shell.

The City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events isn’t the only organization that hosts free events throughout the summer. Chicago Scene is an online entertainment guide that hosts events throughout the year. One of Scene’s hottest summer events, which happens to be free, is the Chicago Scene Boat Party.

Chicago Scene Boat Party

The “Play Pen” which is located in North Avenue Beach, is north of the famous tourist attraction, Navy Pier, and east of Lake Shore Drive. Towering over the area, in the background, is the famous Chicago skyline, John Hancock building and Sears Tower. More importantly, the “Play Pen” is recognized as the home of Ted Widen, publisher of Chicago Scene magazine and his annual Chicago Scene Boat Party.

The party features the hottest Chicago dj’s, acrobatic pole dancers known as “Flying Ladies” and boats from million dollar yachts, standing at 120 foot, to jet skis. These are a few reasons why it was named one of the best parties in America by The New York Times.  Anyone who owns or is friends with an owner of a boat, yacht, or jet ski is welcome to come out and party from noon to 6 p.m.

Widen and his friends have always enjoyed being on their boats on a hot summer day in Lake Michigan. However, 13 years ago, he found it annoying that all 50 boats were playing their own stereos. Therefore, Widen came up with the idea to start a boat party and have one of Chicago’s DJ’s come out to spin for the day.

“I wanted everyone to dance to the same drum,” Widen said.

Widen said the party has doubled in size every year. Last year there were over 800 boats, Widen said.

Chicago only hosts sail boat events. There aren’t any powerboat parties so anyone who owns a powerboat makes sure they attend his one day annual event, Widen said.

However, one year the city forced Widen to cancel the party in 2011. City officials wanted him to get a permit. The party unofficially took place anyway. The “Play Pen” is always crowded in the summer when it’s a nice day out, but boats are usually only tied up in groups of two or three, Widen said.

Widen said his party has been successful because it is “the one day out of the year where perfect strangers will tie up next to each other and share beers, drinks, stories, and have a great time.”

Chicago Scene Boat Party.

Chicago Scene Boat Party.

His favorite part of the day is when everyone ties up at the beginning and jockeys for positions to get close to the main party boat with the most speakers, Widen said.

Sylvia Arreola, a 31-year-old Chicago native, has attended the party every year since she was 18 years old. She said she enjoys the beginning of the party once all the boats are tied to each other.

“It’s an amazing sight once everyone ties up and gets settled in,” Sylvia Arreola said. “The biggest boat is in the middle and then it decreases in size, so all the 60 foot boats are together, then 40 foot, then 20 and so on.”

Sylvia Arreola and others can enjoy the event yearly, rain or shine. Widen wants to eventually get the party licensed by the city. Widen said he plans to keep the party going every year as long as no one gets severely hurt.

Watching in awe as daredevil pilots perform tricks high above, moving your hips as you dance to music in the park, indulging yourself with Chicago’s deliciously, diverse cuisine, and partying throughout the day on expensive, luxurious boats is an eventful way to spend a few days in the windy city of Chicago. The city is sure to blow you away, but you’ll want to come back for more, especially for second servings of the five scoop rainbow cone.

By Cierra Briana Colón


2 Responses to “Chicago Summer Festivals”

  1. agreen9515 Says:

    I like the subject matter of events that are free. This piece opened my eyes to the opportunities that are out there for people who can’t afford to invest tons of money into every aspect of a trip. Nice work!

  2. jbroadwater Says:

    You’ve made me want to visit Chicago.

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