Chicago Public Transportation

Getting around Chicago on public transit is easy for visitors and tourists, and can really save you money as you explore the Windy City.





The ‘L’

Chicago residents call their train the ‘L’, not the subway or the tube or the metra. We call it the ‘L’because it is short for “elevated.”

The majority of our train system is elevated above ground which means it is great to ride to enjoy the view of the city.


Elevated Trains, Chicago


Taking the ‘L’is really handy especially to get to certain destinations.

You definitely need the ‘L’to enjoy Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous work (Green Line; Oak Park Stop) or if you are actually a Sox fan and want to cheer for them (Red Line; 35th Stop).

Metra Commuter Rails

The high-speed Metra commuter train can take you from the downtown area to any of the surrounding suburbs quickly and safely.

For tourists visiting the city the 495 miles of commuter rails servicing 241 different stations throughout the city can take you to all sorts of attractions Chicago has to offer.

From your seat on the train, you can see the beautiful lakefront, ride pass the many museums, zoos, and sporting events, and even stop along the way to take in some of the cultural sites of the city.

TIP: If you’re going to keep your exploring close to the city center, using a hop-on-hop-off bus tour will make it easier to travel directly between Chicago’s most popular landmarks and museums! 



All transit (subway trains, buses, Metra Trains) operate through one payment method, called a Ventra Card.

These cards can be purchased at all subway stations for a single ride, or re-loadable pass.



All train stations have a Ventra machine for purchasing these passes located just beside the entrance gates.


Chicago transportation pay station machine


What You Pay

You have several options when it comes to buying a Ventra Card.

Below are the base fare costs, meaning a one-way, one-time ride.

It’s important to compare a base fare/single ride cost to the cost of the passes, to determine which option is right for you.

Base Fare

  • “L” Train: $2.50
  • Bus Ride: $2.25
  • Transfer (within 2 hours): 25 cents


  • CTA 1 Day Pass                     $10
  • CTA 3 Day Pass                     $20
  • CTA 7-Day Pass                     $28
  • CTA/Pace 7-Day Pass           $33

Cash vs Credit: While buses will take cash (exact change needed), in order to ride a train/subway you will need a Ventra ticket.

The Ventra machines are located at all train stations and accept cash or credit card.

Pro Tip: The cost of a reloadable card is $5, but you can register that card to receive $5 free ride credit, which gives you your money back!



The map can be intimidating, but if we look at it one step at a time, it is actually pretty easy to track:


Chicago transportation MapClick map to enlarge.


Chicago uses a color-coded Rail (‘L’) train system that operates on street-level, underground, and on an elevated track.Chicago CTA Color-Coded Lines Sign

Each color track on the map represents a different subway route:

  • Red Line
  • Blue Line
  • Orange Line
  • Brown Line
  • Pink Line
  • Green Line
  • Purple Line
  • Yellow Line

It’s best to first figure out which of the above lines you are taking, and then look at which stop on that line is closest to your destination.

“The Loop”

You’ll notice a magnified portion of the map called The Loop.

Trains coming from outside the city enter Downtown Chicago’s “Loop”, and then circle back out to cover the rest of the city in a loop pattern.

This makes it easy and fast to go anywhere in Chicago from hotels to popular attractions from Downtown!

The Loop is the busiest and most exciting part of the city, and we offer a pay-what-you-like Loop Tour all year long!


The Red Line train is one of the most popular and frequent trains, as it runs north and south through Downtown along the coast.

It stops at the most popular attractions and busiest neighborhoods of Chicago. The Red Line operates at all times, every day.


Chicago cta train


The Blue Line travels West to popular neighborhoods such as Wicker Park/Bucktown, and North to O’Hare Airport.

The Blue Line operates at all times, every day.

From O’Hare International Airport

The Blue Line arrives/departs from O’Hare Airport and enters “the Loop”, making it the most convenient way to get to your Downtown Hotel without needing to transfer. 

From Midway International Airport

The Orange Line arrives/departs from Midway Airport and enters “the Loop”, making it the most convenient way to get to your Downtown Hotel without needing to transfer.



Sometimes the fastest way from one destination to another is by bus.


Chicago bus public transportation transit


Here’s what you need to know about CTA buses:

  • Every Bus is Accessible
  • Every Bus has a Timetable Schedule
  • Buses run daily every 10-20 minutes (holiday hours vary), stopping every 2 blocks.
  • Buses that run late night will have an Owl symbol at their bus stop.

Remember payment for bus fare in Chicago can be done through a Ventra ticket or cash only (exact change needed).

NOTE: NO credit card payments and NO change from the driver on buses.

TIP: If you’d rather not deal with figuring out Chicago’s timetables and maps, why not utilize a hop-on-hop-off bus tour? You’ll get interesting commentary on the city and simple routes to keep up with.


Chicago’s water taxi system is another convenient way to get around and includes docks close to major attractions like the Navy Pier and Museum Campus, where you can find The Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, and Shedd Aquarium.

However, the water taxis work on a separate ticket from the rest of the city’s transport system. 

If you’re just looking for an excuse to get out on the water, why not try a river boat tour or cruise? These fun tours provide commentary about Chicago, and some of them include meals.



Divvy Bike Share System

This is separate from the CTA and your Ventra card, but well worth mentioning when discussing how to get around the city.


Chicago public transportation bike


If the weather is nice, you may consider using the convenient bike share system, Divvy.

A 24-Hour Pass costs just $9.95 and offers unlimited 30-minute trips. There are hundreds of stations in Chicago, and you’ll find many riders on our streets!


Here is a list of free apps we recommend you download during your stay in Chicago to help you get around the city easily.


Chicago public transportation apps


Google Maps

We recommend downloading the Google Maps app on your smartphone.

Unlike some map applications, this one tells you which bus or train line to get on, as well as the arrival/departure times and the name of your stop.

You can watch in real-time as you move toward your destination. Useful!

Ventra App

The Ventra App is free and gives you fast/easy access to “Transit Tracker” to see the up to the minute schedule of CTA subway “L” trains, buses, and Metra Trains.

You can also re-load your registered Ventra Card or buy Metra tickets directly from the app.


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About the author

Stephen is the CEO of Free Tours by Foot and has overseen the transformation of a local walking tour company into a global tour community and traveler’s advice platform. He has personally led thousands of group tours in the US and Europe, and is an expert in trip planning and sightseeing, with a focus on budget travelers.

Stephen has been published and featured in dozens of publications including The Wall Street Journal, BBC, Yahoo,, and more.