Ask me or any one of my ten friends who spent an incredible 3 months in Chicago what it was like, and every one of us will give you the same answer – it was the best summer of our lives. In truth, your J1 is what you make of it, no matter where you go. But, if you allow me to sell Chicago to you, you’ll thank me forever, I promise!
Finding a place is easy – if you’re organised and get looking early on. There are so many amazing places to stay in Chicago, and the CTA transport is the best system I’ve ever used so it’s so easy to get where you want to go. My friends and I found an unbelievable house in Wrigleyville, right on the doorstep of the home of the Cubs. You’ll hear horror stories of 12 lads sleeping on 6 mattresses in a single room apartment, but it really doesn’t have to be that way. We arrived in Chicago in the last week of May and went for several viewings, and after a few days, found the house that was going to make our summer. The two-story, 6-bedroom house cost us $5,000 per month and could have comfortably hosted 16 people. Split that rent between your whole group and it’s really manageable.
If you can get your hands on a place in Wrigley, snap it up! It’s around the corner from Clarke Street, which is a street FULL of bars and cool places to eat. It is a real American night scene which is exactly what you want. We had some great nights in the Irish-run clubs over there and they are not to be missed, but you have to mix with the locals and Clarke Street is the best place to do that. On Cubs game days Clarke Street is absolutely buzzing with baseball fans. They are a great laugh and they love the Irish!
You’re probably entering the same panic station as I found myself in around this time in 2014. When I arrived in Chicago I went job-hunting straight away. Myself and some friends started asking in restaurants and bars all around Wrigley first, then we branched out a bit and applied for bar and waiter work all over Chicago. I eventually found an absolutely perfect job in a bar called The Globe which is really easy to get to as it’s on the Brown Line of the CTA. The Globe is a sports bar, mainly soccer, and is run by an English man. They were absolutely crazy busy throughout June and July for the World Cup, and I’d expect it to be very similar this summer for the Euros. The job was ideal and I got between 3 and 5 shifts a week usually making around $100 dollars a shift plus tips. I’d recommend looking up this place and any other soccer bars around the city. After a few days of panic and thinking there are no jobs out there, I ended up getting 4 offers and having to give away 2 jobs. There are plenty out there if you go looking. Get on it early!
Things to do
Chicago is amazing because there are loads of things to do around the city but it’s also perfect for just chilling out and doing nothing! Lake Michigan is very easy to get to from anywhere using the CTA, and you’ll spend some of the best days of your J1 there. Whether you prefer the beach or just diving in off the pier, it’s perfect for both. You get the odd rainy day in Chicago but all in all the weather is unreal and ideal for flaking out at the lake.
There are plenty of cool things to do for free around the city too. Head down to Millennium Park, go and see the bean and wander through Lincoln Park Zoo which is completely free. Downtown Chicago is just about the most impressive city in the world! It’s full of shops, bars and restaurants and sites to see. It’s only when you get back from Chicago that you realise how many films were made there! So go and see the setting of Batman or Home Alone and have one of those ‘oh yeah I recognise that!’ moments. You’ll need to do the Skydeck in the Willis Tower. It is absolutely breath-taking and the view will stick with you forever. You can also get food and drinks up there and it’s incredible at night.
Chicago is home to some of the greatest sports teams in America. My advice would be to get to see as many of them as possible, whether you’re into sports or not! You can see the Cubs play baseball at Wrigley Field, the Bears play football at Soldier Field, Bulls play basketball at United Centre and Fire play soccer at Toyota Park. We went to a couple of baseball games while we were there and they were a great laugh! You can pick up tickets on the day around the stadium and can get them fairly cheap too. I had no idea what was going on during the game and have no interest in baseball, but the atmosphere was incredible and with a load of beers and some hot dogs it’s a brilliant American day out!
Seeing the Bulls at United Centre is actually a real goose bumps experience. Again, whether you like basketball or not it’s irrelevant. The whole show that they put on and the atmosphere is so unique. The Americans are extremely passionate about their teams and it is a must-see.
If you’re coming to Chicago, you have to go to 6 Flags Theme Park! This is such a brilliant day out and can be done quite cheaply too. We got a bus out and back and an all-access pass for $60 and it was definitely worth it. The rollercoasters are terrifying and the water park is the best I’ve ever been to.
With super-markets all over the place it’s always handy to grab things to cook at home, but if you’re eating out there are hundreds of tasty places out there that won’t break the bank. Here’s a few places to Google when you get there! The Cheesecake Factory; Honey Butter Fried Chicken; Flagship; Wrigley BBQ; and Crisp. They were just some of my favourites, and if you’re looking for a taste of home and fancy a good fry, or need an Irish bar to watch the GAA then O’Hagan’s on Clarke Street have you covered.
Playing football or hurling over there is a really good way to get connected and meet great people. There are a few clubs over there but I played for McBride’s during my J1. The club and everyone involved are great for helping you find work, accommodation, or even just to point you in the right direction for places to go out around the city. Clubs are ran by Irish people living there full-time so they have everything you need to know. It’s also a great way of keeping active during the summer, 3 months of drinking and eating the finest American cuisine can take its toll on the belly so going for a kick around once or twice a week is great to keep in some sort of shape. There are senior and junior teams so whether you’re a County star at home or haven’t played since Under 9s, it is ideal for everyone. You’ll also have some cracking days out in Gaelic Park whether you’re playing or watching!
Make the most of it
You’ll read a dozen pieces like this about San Fran, New York, California etc, and they’ll all sound amazing. Honestly, everywhere will be amazing once you’re with your mates you’ll have the best summer of your life. But my experience in Chicago was just too good to not encourage people to do it! If you haven’t started planning already, it’s not too late, but don’t leave it much longer. Wherever you go, you’ll have a blast. (But go to Chicago – you won’t regret it!)