The Magnificent Medieval Mile

For one reason or another, visitors and locals alike will inevitably find themselves on the bustling stretch of downtown Chicago’s Michigan Ave known as the Magnificent Mile. Despite its atmosphere of capitalistic reverence, the commercialist Mile gives way to culture and the arts at frequent intervals, whether in its architectural achievements, its historical markers, museums, street artists, exhibits, festivals, and more. It also provides a central hub for exploring some of the city’s greatest medieval and medieval-inspired collections and creations. So, while shopping may or may not be your idea of a rollicking time, don’t be fooled by those big-brand storefronts. The Mile offers much to the urban explorer seeking out meaningful experiences. 

Use this itinerary however it suits you: cherry pick sites according to your interests, stretch it out over several days, or pack it all in at once. However you design your experience, here are the must-see sites along the Magnificent Medieval Mile:

  • Art Institute: In all fairness, the Art Institute deserves at least a full day of its own for out-of-towners visiting for the first (or second, or third) time. But, this tour is of Medieval Chicago, which, for our purposes, narrows much of our focus down to The Deering Family Galleries of Medieval and Renaissance Art, Arms, and Armor. Here you’ll find a beautiful display that includes many of the most common genres of medieval art—iconography, illuminated manuscripts, relics, panel paintings, and, the exhibit’s tour de force, a massive collection of armor with some truly remarkable pieces. Pay careful attention to the dates on the plaques because the medieval armor tends to look far humbler than the flashy, ceremonial Renaissance pieces that dominate the room.
  • Tribune Tower: This building represents Chicago’s premier example of the Skyscraper Gothic style, a form that took off in nineteenth-century New York and left its mark on Chicago’s skyline not long afterwards. Note the gargoyles and flying buttresses adorning the exterior; and, among its collection of stones from heritage sites around the world, sit stones gathered from original medieval buildings.
  • Water Tower and Pumping Station: Stop by this beloved, tiny, neo-gothic castle-like structure for a quick dose of Chicago history’s early devotion to medieval architecture. Step inside the tower to discover a tiny gallery with rotating exhibits of local art and get an inside view of the structure. A visit here requires only minutes of your time, but will leave you with an impression of the city that lasts much longer.
  • Loyola University Museum of Art: Across the Street from the Water Tower sits Loyola University’s art museum with its Martin D’arcy, SJ Collection of medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art. Their medieval holdings emphasize three-dimensional art from Europe.
  • Fourth Presbyterian Church: A few blocks North from the Water Tower and across the street from the former John Hancock building, a magnificent neo-gothic masterpiece draws the gaze of passersby who cannot help but notice the stark contrast with its modern, towering neighbors. Despite the physical presence of the taller surrounding skyscrapers, the Fourth Presbytarian Church stands its own ground with a presence every bit as formidable and far more spiritual. This beautiful church is one of Chicago’s oldest and one of many influenced by the Middle Ages. Its doors are usually open, so go inside and take a peek, or better yet, attend a service or concert. The medieval marvels don’t end in its main gothic structure though; the church owns the super modern-looking building behind it, which houses a labyrinth inside it, another nod to the European cathedrals responsible for so much of the church’s character. 
Time for a short detour? Also, near the Mile, you’ll find:
  • Newberry Library: Although only one part of a multifaceted institution, this library’s extensive medieval holdings include original archival materials of the sort usually accessible to academics only. Sign up for your free library card and see for yourself. Use any leftover time to check out the holdings on Chicago history for a well-rounded educational experience.
  • Archdiocese of Chicago: The European Middle Ages has a reputation for being Catholic, and the Archdiocese’s buildings reflect a calculated connected with medieval architecture. This connection coincides with the city’s early love affair with neo-gothic structures, and contributes to the historical character of downtown.
Now, Let’s Eat!

Every pilgrim requires sustenance, and if your peregrinations down the Mile leave you famished, you should eat. Chicago is, after all, a food lover’s paradise. As a 21st-century visitor, you will not be held to the standards of medieval asceticism on this journey—no bare feet and fasting required! In fact, gluttonous indulgence is encouraged (in moderation, of course)! 

This area of downtown is making new culinary strides, and it’s becoming easier to avoid tourist traps and standard fast food fare, but it still requires a little work. This list will get you started. For a quick, affordable meal consider Aster Hall, a food court with casual versions of some popular Chicago restaurants located just North of the 4thPresbyterian Church. Also nearby, splurge on Café Spiaggia, the Mozzarella Store, or Marisol (inside the Museum of Contemporary Art). Another popular and exceptional option along the Mile, near the Tribune Tower: Purple Pig (if you can swing it, definitely go here). 

And that, folks, concludes this tour of the Magnificent Medieval Mile! I do hope you get out there to explore some of these sites, and I would love for you to share your experiences with me.