That lakefront weather we bemoaned all winter? All will be forgiven. Chicago’s public beaches have just opened and welcome you to dig your toes in the sand and soak up sunshine. You’ll find beaches from Woodlawn on the South Side all the way to Illinois Beach State Park in Zion, near the Wisconsin border.

To help you and your sandcastle bandit have a blast, we’re sharing the scoop on our favorite beaches from south to north. The best thing about these spots: They’re free.

63rd Street Beach
When it comes to stunning architecture loaded with history, fancy North Side beach houses have nothing on this Woodlawn treasure. Built as a bathing pavilion in the early 1900s, it has two floors of stunning archways and corridors that beg for a few rounds of hide-and-seek. The interactive water fountain is popular with kids and provides hours of good, clean fun. Most importantly, its sandy shores don’t see the stifling crowds of other popular locales.

Open daily from May 25-September 3, 11:00 am-7:00 pm
6300 S. Lake Shore Dr.

Oak Street Beach
Waves lap the shore in front of you; the urban jungle looms behind. Oak Street Beach is the best of both worlds. It’s not the sprawling oasis that other locations can claim, and the hunt for street parking is an adventure in itself. Still, nothing rivals the Chicago-ness of tossing a frisbee with the Drake Hotel as your backdrop. Make a day of it and rent bikes, or engage in a battle of wits at the chess tables. A light lunch at the onsite Oak Street Beach Cafe will make sure you don’t run on empty.

Open daily from May 25-September 3, 11:00 am-7:00 pm
1000 N. Lake Shore Dr.
Gold Coast

North Avenue Beach
This beach attracts sun worshippers citywide and is practically synonymous with Chicago summers. Between the volleyball nets, roller hockey rink, and bar and grill housed in a moored ship, you’re bound to forget your Midwest bearings. It’s a spot that’s also famous for people watching and spots can be nabbed along Cannon Drive, but you may have to hoof it close to eight blocks. While you’re there, stop at nearby attractions, like Lincoln Park Zoo or, better yet, Chicago History Museum to avoid scorching midday heat.

Open daily from May 25-September 3, 11:00 am-7:00 pm
1600 N. Lake Shore Dr.
Lincoln Park

Montrose Beach
Skip the downtown stretches in favor of a North Side secret. Free parking and green space abound; you can even grill and set the kids loose on the nearby playground. Furry family members can frolic in the enclosed dog beach area on the north end (don’t forget pup’s DFA tag). After the last sandcastle is built, venture with your mini explorer to the bird sanctuary at the southernmost tip of the beach. Chances are you’ll run into a professional birder who may point out a purple warbler, downy woodpecker or American goldfinch — just a few of many species spotted in this hidden gem.

Open daily from May 25-September 3, 11:00 am-7:00 pm
4400 N. Lake Shore Dr.

Illinois Beach State Park
Even father afield, about an hour from downtown Chicago, is this natural beauty. Enjoy the great outdoors and appease everyone in the family with activities like hiking along one of two looped trails, pedaling along the Zion Bike Trail, fishing in Sand Pond and toasting s’mores over a campfire (camp permits run $25 a night). If after a full day of fun the kids are reluctant to leave, get a room at the onsite Illinois State Beach Resort & Conference Center to soothe sunburned shoulders and kick up tired feet.

Open from sunrise to 8:00 pm from Memorial Day Weekend – Labor Day Weekend; after Labor Day Weekend through October open sunrise to sunset; from November to December open 8:00 am to sunset
Located near Sheridan & Wadsworth roads
Zion, IL

Do you have a favorite beach? Let us know in the Comments section below.
— Selena Kohng

Photos (from top to bottom): Courtesy of Chicago Park District, ©Adam Alexander Photography via Choose Chicago, Chicago Park District, Chicago Park District, ©Illinois Department of Natural Resources: Adele Hodde

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