Chicago’s El (or L, depending on who you ask) is the train system that helps locals and residents explore all the great and diverse neighborhoods of the city. It’s called the El because in most spots, it’s elevated above the city, glinting in the sun and making a loud rumble as it moves by overhead. Of course, those who call it the L insist it got its name because it encircles the downtown core known as the “Loop”.
Whatever you want to call it, the train is an iconic image of Chicago, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice to visit the city and not take a ride. The El is more than just transportation, it’s one of the top experiences every visitor to Chicago should have.
Where Do You Want to Go?
There are seven color-coded lines of the train, though most visitors will stick to just the Red, Blue, Brown, Purple, or Orange lines. The Red line runs north and south, stopping at US Cellular Field, where the White Sox play, Chinatown, the Loop, Lincoln Park, and at the Addison station, stop for Wrigely Field, among others. The Blue line will bring you into the city from O’Hare, past trendy hoods like Bucktown and Logan Square, and the Orange line will transport you to and from Midway. The Brown and Purple lines circle the Loop, mirror the Red line track up until Lincoln Park, and then split off to the northwest of the city. The Green and Pink Lines will take you west and southwest of the city to lesser-visited but worthwhile neighborhoods like Pilsen, full of Mexican restaurants, art galleries and beautiful public murals.Comprehensive maps are available online at the CTA website.
How Much is It?
Single fares are $2.25 each for adults. 1-day passes are $5.75, 3-day are $14, and 7-day are $23. The passes are good on both buses and the El trains. You cannot use cash on the El. You’ll need to insert cash (or at select stations, your credit card) and purchase a fare card.
How to Ride
Place your fare card into the slot on the turnstiles and wait until it deducts the fare (the screen will read with how much credit you have left) and spits it back out. Take your card and walk ahead in the turnstile. If you have trouble, CTA staff members are around to help. At some stations, there is a single set of stairs to the track. At others, you’ll need to look for signs that direct you to the appropriate side depending on which direction you are headed.
Directions are noted by the last station on that route. The Red line , for instance, runs from south (95th/Dan Ryan) to north (Howard) and the Brown line runs from south (Loop) to north (Kimball). If there is only one platform, look for signs on the walls that tell you which track is for which train. Each train will also have signs on it near the windows that say which direction it is headed. If you get on going the wrong way, don’t panic. Just get off at the next station and reverse course.
Getting On and Riding
When the train arrives, especially during rush hour, there will be a crush to board. Stand off to the side so that the other riders can exit first before you get on. Quickly find a seat, or move to the center of the train and grab a handle to stand. Don’t just stand near the doorway – this prevents others from getting on and moving past you. Move as far to the center of the rain as you can.
Use common sense and be polite. Give up your seat for the elderly and pregnant woman, don’t put your feet or belongings on the seats, and don’t talk loudly on your cell phone. When you get off the rain, stand on the right side of the escalator so that those who want to walk up it can do so on the left. Especially during the rush hours, people are in a hurry going to or from work so allow them to get past you.
Riding the El can be overwhelming at first. But it’s a quintessential Chicago experience that everyone should have once. Use it to get around cheaply within the city, or set off on a neighborhood adventure. Pick a line and direction and get off and explore at whichever station piques your interest.