The Run Down

This itinerary is part of our "Known/Unknown" series, where we pair a Chicago landmark with overlooked places nearby. For fans of literature and architecture, you'll visit two smaller museums near the loop that operate in the shadow of the mega-institutions nearby. Between those stops, you'll spend time underneath Michigan Avenue for "cheeps" and "cheezborgers" at a longstanding tavern wrapped in Chicago nostalgia. This is especially great when you have a random free day to explore spots you've always meant to visit, or if you have family or friends who've done all the main touristy stuff and are coming back on a second or third visit.

1. Visit @ American Writers Museum

2. Cheezborgers @ Billy Goat Tavern

3. Visit @ Richard Driehaus Museum

1. American Writers Museum
(The “Unknown”)

The American Writers Museum is on a stretch of Michigan Avenue between Millennium Park and the River Walk; chances are, you’ve strolled by before without even knowing.

This first-of-its-kind museum dedicated to American literature is easy to miss even when looking for it. It hides in plain sight, with only a tiny plaque at the entrance acknowledging its existence.

Here are a few notes to plan your trip.

– Open Thursday – Monday, 10 am – 5 pm
– Tickets are $14
– Set aside at least an hour for your visit

Walk into the building lobby and head up to the second floor, where you’ll find a 12,000 sqft space divided into seven rooms, each dedicated to a different exhibit. They make it a point not to be the type of museum filled with dusty manuscripts hidden behind glass. Instead, it’s full of interactive exhibits and multi-media presentations designed to grab your attention.

As an example, the first exhibit you’ll encounter is this long hallway taking you through 400 years of American literature. It’s an interactive timeline that features 100 authors and carefully tells the story of how writing and culture have evolved during the course of American history.

For a museum dedicated to literature, it’s basically a requirement to have space where you can plop down on a comfy couch, grab a book, and get in some reading time. Welcome to Readers Hall.

Continue on and take a seat a long table with varying styles of typewriters. In the middle is a big pile of typing paper and the museum invites you to sit and do some old-school typing.

You can leave notes for other visitors and read ones left behind.

During our visit, we were fortunate to catch this temporary exhibit highlighting Black writers from the end of the Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement.

2. Billy Goat Tavern
(The “Known”)

We’ve got another museum to visit, but before that, you’re going to head to one of the most Chicago-y places in all of Chicago.

From the American Writers Museum, you’ll head north on Michigan Avenue, cross the river, and walk down a set of stairs to the sub-street below. From there, in what’s basically an urban cave, you’ll find the original Billy Goat Tavern, a longstanding tavern with a history wrapped in all sorts of Chicago lore.

One thing to note: there are multiple Billy Goat locations. In fact, there’s one right around the corner from the museum. Don’t go to that one, head to the original.

This has been a tourist destination for so long that if you haven’t been yet, it’s probably because it feels like one of those places you could easily skip and just chalk up as a tourist trap.

But there’s no doubting its Chicago bona fides, and after a visit, it’s hard not to feel a deeper connection to the city.

Here’s the cliff notes version of its history:

– Originally founded in 1934 by William “Billy Goat” Sianis, who famously placed a curse on the Chicago Cubs.

– Moved to this location underneath Michigan Avenue in 1964. With its proximity to the offices of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, it became a fixture among media members.

– In 1978, SNL aired a now-famous skit that featured John Belushi and Bill Murray, who played Greek staff at Olympia Cafe who only served “cheezborgers” and “cheeps.” The skit was partly inspired by Billy Goat Tavern, and afterwards, it launched the tavern into super fame territory.

Walking into Billy Goat takes you even further under the sub-street. It’s like entering a bunker — a delicious hamburger bunker.

A bar wraps around the diner where you’ll see longtime locals gather. If you had to film a movie with an old-school Chicago backdrop, this is the spot.

Let’s get to the food. You order at the counter and on the wall is a simple set of menu options: burgers, hot dogs, and various breakfast plates and sandwiches.

Their double cheeseburger is the go-to for most. It’s two smashed patties on a surprisingly pillow-y soft Kaiser roll. For something a bit more involved, their Obama-burger, a popular variant amongst Obama staffers during his first presidential run, includes bacon, eggs, and grilled onions.

After you get your burger, there’s a self-serve topping stations where you can add raw onions, pickles, mayo, mustard, and ketchup.

The bacon, egg, and cheese at Billy Goat is exactly what you want in a breakfast sandwich. The crispy and hot-off the griddle bacon, combined with melted American cheese, is right at the edge of the maximum saltiness you want. The soft Kaiser bun and egg help balance it out, and leaves you with  a top notch breakfast sandwich.


3. Richard Driehaus Museum
(The “Unknown”)

You’re less than a 10-minute walk from Billy Goat Tavern to the Richard Driehaus Museum. It’s a museum dedicated to showcasing art, architecture, and design from the Gilded Age, a period between 1870 and 1900 marked by rapid economic growth and the rise of industrial tycoons that amassed massive sums of wealth.

Samuel Nickerson was one of those tycoons, and his mansion is now fittingly the site of this museum.

When you visit, you’ll enter through the grand entrance hall. During the late 19th century, these entrances were designed to announce to visitors the homeowner’s great wealth, social status, and cultured taste. The same could be said about my IKEA tree hall bench that graces my home’s entryway. 

The entire home is itself a work of art. Move from room to room with rotating exhibits and art pieces from the collection of Richard Driehaus, a wealthy Chicago businessperson and founder of the museum after which it’s named. 

Some final notes to help you plan your visit.

– Adult tickets are $20. There are varying discounts for students and seniors. Purchase tickets here.

– If you want the full Gilded Age experience, the museum occasionally hosts opulent tea parties as part of its curated events and programming schedule.

Finally, I leave you with some shots from a temporary exhibit featuring portraits from that time. From the Gilded Age portraits to the Tinder era profile pictures, we aren’t so different.