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Riding the Chicago 'L' train - a how to guide

The L (short for elevated, although parts of it do go underground like other cities' subways) is Chicago's rapid transit system which covers most of the city and suburbs. The map is easy to follow as all the lines are different colours like the London Underground, and if you put your route into Google Maps with the public transport option selected, it will show you which line to take and where to get on and off.

In this guide we'll take you through how to buy tickets for the L, making sure you're on the right train, riding the historic Loop and which station to use for all of Chicago's top attractions!

The L passing the Chicago River

Buying tickets for the L train in Chicago

Turns out buying tickets for the L is REALLY annoying if you're a foreign tourist. You can buy single fare tickets or a Ventra Card pass (which you can keep topping up like an Oyster Card) using the machines inside the metro stations, and if you're from the USA this should be straight forward enough, but we Brits couldn't find a ticket machine that would allow us to buy a Ventra Card with our British bank card. The problem is that you have to register it using your post code to and the system doesn't accept non US ones as American zip codes are numerical and British ones use alphabetical letters which the machine doesn't have on its keypad! So we had to buy single ride paper tickets each time which was annoying, AND it was cash only ($3), in exact change, so make sure you have a lot of dollar bills on hand. Surprisingly inefficient for a major world city...!! Makes us really value our London Oyster cards!

Getting on the L train and making sure it's the right one

The map of the brown line on Quincy platform

Like other cities' subway systems, all of Chicago's rapid transport trains go in two directions up and down each line, so make sure the train you're boarding is going the right way! It will have the name of the final stop on the front of the train, and the electronic screens over the platform with the next arrival times will also list the train using the final stop on the line. Similarly the name panel on the front of the train and its listing on the electronic screen will show the colour of the line, handy for stations where multiple different lines come through.

On the platform itself there will be maps of all the stops on the line, so you can count how many station stops there will be until you get off, and also double check the final stop so you'll know that you're going the right way and what to look out for on the front of the train/platform screens.

Useful stops on the Chicago L train:

So once you've got your tickets, here's a list of useful stations for Chicago's top attractions:

Willis Tower: Quincy (pink, orange, brown or purple lines)

Shedd Aquarium: Roosevelt (red, orange or green lines)

Field Museum: Roosevelt (red, orange or green lines)

Adler Planetarium: Roosevelt (red, orange or green lines)

Wrigley Building: Grand (red line) or State/Lake (brown, green, orange, pink or purple lines)

Chicago History Museum: Sedgwick (brown line)

Soldier Field (Bears): Roosevelt (red, orange or green lines)

Wrigley Field (Cubs): Addison (red line)

United Center (Bulls and Blackhawks): Ashland/Lake (pink/green lines)

Chicago Art Institute: Adams/Wabash (brown, green, orange, pink or purple lines)

Lincoln Park Zoo: Armitage (brown line)

Cloud Gate (the Bean): Washington/Wabash (brown, green, orange, pink or purple lines)

Chicago 360: Chicago (red line)

Bronzeville: Bronzeville-35th-IIT (green line)

Chinatown: Cermak-Chinatown (red line)

Kingston Mines: Fullerton (red, brown or purple) or Diversey (brown or purple)

Buddy Guy's Legends: Harrison (red line)

Chicago Theatre: Lake (red line) or State/Lake (brown, green, orange, pink or purple lines) or Clark/Lake (blue)

Navy Pier: Grand (red line) - this is the nearest station but Navy Pier is a 20 minute walk from here, you could also look into jumping onto bus 66 or 29 which leaves from Illinois/State, a 3 minute walk from Grand L Station.

O'Hare Airport: O'Hare (blue line)

Riding the downtown Loop

Passing the Willis Tower

As well as being the nickname of Downtown Chicago, the Loop is a historic raised section of track covering the central heart of the city. The one way loop route itself is only about 1.78 miles long and takes less than 10 minutes to ride, plus it's a really fun way to get a mini tour.

NB: despite the name, the Loop is not an enclosed circuit - it leaves the route and heads off into the city at top left and bottom right corners. This means you can't just sit on one train the whole way round, but riding the whole loop is really easy:

To go round the whole Loop, board a Pink Line train at Randolph and take that to Quincy. At Quincy, change to an Orange Line train and ride the loop back round to where you started! Quincy station is particularly beautiful as it has been restored to its original 1897 appearance, including a tin roof and even vintage ad posters.

The Loop

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