Explore diverse neighborhoods while visiting Chicago

There's more to Chicago than the Sears Tower and Navy Pier. Next time you pay a visit to this Midwestern metropolis, check out some of the city's diverse neighborhoods. Whether you decide to explore on your own or with a tour guide, the city's historic districts, parks, zoos and museums are a great way to experience the Windy City's sense of community.

The best place to start your neighborhood exploration is in the Loop district. Don't miss The Loop Train Tour, running now through Sept. 30. During this elevated train tour through the historic downtown neighborhood, docents tell of the area's 130-year-old history during three full turns through the Loop. No, you will not get nauseous - you'll only be amazed by this city's beauty.

This train tour is Chicago's only free tour through the Loop and can be boarded at the Randolph and Wabash Chicago Transit Authority elevated train station. Tickets can be picked up at the Chicago Cultural Exchange in the tourism office.

When you decide to venture from the main drag into the city's many neighborhoods, the Chicago Transit Authority is one of the best systems to get you around town. Its efficient trains and buses will make you forget all about your car. A number of fare options are available, but some of the best deals include the Chicago Card or a seven-day unlimited extended stay pass.

Let's all go to the zoo

If you are traveling with a family or a large group, there is no better neighborhood place to visit than the Lincoln Park Zoo. You can get up close and personal with the animals at this zoo, one of the nation's oldest, which blends stately architecture with all the modern bells and whistles.

The Lincoln Park Zoo is family-friendly, with attractions such as the LPZOO Express train, SBC Endangered Species Carousel ride and 4-D Virtual Safari simulator to wow kids of all ages.

The Pritzker Family Children's Zoo features its own "walk in the woods," a freshly landscaped area that shows how bears, wolves, beavers and otters live in North America. Kids can let out their energy at the zoo's Tree Canopy Climbing Adventure, where they can work their way up a 20-foot forest canopy. After spending time with the animals, stroll the lush Lincoln Park, a bucolic environment filled with grassy areas, ponds and trees.

Diversity in the Windy City

To say Chicago is the ultimate melting pot would be an understatement. The city's diverse spirit shows in its neighborhoods. The Uptown community, built upon the ideals of the German and Swedish people who settled here, is where you can find some of the city's best jazz clubs and music venues.

Hyde Park and Kenwood boast many architectural wonders, including structures such as St. Thomas the Apostle Church. The spirit of architecture extends to the South Shore neighborhood, where you can find the notable St. Philip Neri Church and the South Shore Cultural Center.

The Historic Bronzeville neighborhood is steeped in black art and history. A walk through the area's Little Black Pearl Art and Design Center provides quite an education. For a serious lesson in art, visit Wicker Park and Bucktown. This district has a number of art galleries and shops, and also boasts lots of Victorian architecture, the magnificent St. Hedwig's Church and some of the city's best ethnic restaurants.

Tour company shows the best of Chicago

Guided tours can also be booked. Chicago Neighborhood Tours offers 12 themed tours, with choices focusing on the city's ethnic heritage, history, architecture or eclectic and artistic sides. Jaunts through the Pullman Historic District, Pilsen-Little Village and Ukrainian Village are just a few of the excursions offered through the company in August and September.

Neighborhood tours are four hours long and include light refreshments. Admission is $25 for adults and $20 for children ages 8-18. All tours begin at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Lodge in style

Sometimes it pays to stay in luxury hotels. If you can find it in your budget, check into the Millennium Knickerbocker. This hotel pampers guests to the extreme. Throughout the remainder of the summer (yes, school is still out in other states), children receive special treatment through the hotel's Kiddie Concierge Program. Kids get treats and free magazines at the hotel. In a designated area in the hotel lobby, they can climb up on a step stool to ask the concierge questions.

The Knickerbocker hotel is located near a stretch of Michigan Avenue known as The Magnificent Mile. Not quite a neighborhood, the district is home to many of the city's big businesses, and it also offers plenty of shopping and entertainment.

"The Magnificent Mile contains a mixture of upscale department stores, restaurants, high-end retailers, office buildings and hotels," said Aik Wye Ng, a representative from M. Silver Associates Inc. "The area also has a high concentration of the city's major media firms and advertising agencies, including the Chicago Tribune newspaper."

Ng added that the area is also known for its landmarks, including Water Tower Park, with its historic clock, as well as the eight-level Water Tower Place shopping center.