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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).

Is public transportation the best way to travel in Chicago?

Absolutely, using public transport is an efficient, cost-effective, and handy choice for moving around Chicago.

Does Chicago have 24-hour public transportation?

No, Chicago's transit doesn't operate around the clock. CTA buses and trains typically function from around 4:00 AM until 1:00 AM daily.

Is it safe to ride the L train in Chicago?

While the L train is widely viewed as reliable, as with all city transit options, there's a slight crime risk. It's wise to be alert, especially when traveling during the later hours by oneself.

Metra Commuter Rails

The high-speed Metra commuter rail service 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 Metra rail servicing 241 different stations throughout the city can take you to all sorts of attractions Chicago has to offer.

By Russell Sekeet - Flickr: Metra 614, CC BY 2.0,

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.


All transit (subway trains, CTA 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


While the Ventra Payment Cards aren't technically contactless, there is one way to pay for the fare which won't require you to make contact with anyone else.

The Ventra App now allows you to pay for digital passes called Metra Mobile Tickets you can use to board trains.

All you need to do is show the ticket on your phone to the conductor when asked.

The Ventra Pass now includes contactless payment. Source:

You can also purchase digital Ventra Payment Cards using this app. The conductor won't need to touch your phone, so this method of payment is essentially contactless!

This mobile ticketing option is available on most Android phones, iPhones, and even the Apple Watch.

The Ventra App also includes tools such as up-to-date arrival and departure information and a trip planner.

This is probably the easiest way to purchase tickets or passes for Metra Commuter Rails, and it's also one of the safest options.

The prices listed below are the same on the Ventra App as they are for traditional tickets and passes.


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): Free


  • CTA 1 Day Pass | $5
  • CTA 3-Day Pass | $15
  • CTA 7-Day Pass | $20
  • CTA/Pace 7-Day Pass | $25
  • CTA/Pace 30-Day Pass | $75

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 Map

Click the map to enlarge it.

Chicago CTA Color-Coded Lines Sign

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

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 Loop!

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.

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.

Chicago cta train

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. 

We go into more detail in our post titled: How to Get to Downtown Chicago from O'Hare Airport.

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.

We go into more detail in our post titled: How to Get to Downtown Chicago from Midway Airport.


Navigating Chicago's vast landscape can be quite a task.

But thanks to the Chicago Transit Authority's extensive bus routes, you can traverse from the bustling streets of State Street to the scenic beauty of Lake Michigan effortlessly.

Utilizing the CTA bus tracker, you can plan your day, whether you're heading to the Chicago suburbs or exploring nearby communities.

The grid system of the city is seamlessly connected, offering convenience for both weekdays and weekends.

For those who like nocturnal adventures, watch out for buses with the Owl symbol for late-night journeys.

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

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 at night will have an Owl symbol at their bus stop.
Chicago bus public transportation transit

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. If you use the new Ventra App, you can present your digital pass to the driver and get on board that way.

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 riverboat tour or cruise? These fun tours provide commentary about Chicago, and some of them include meals.

NOTE: This service will return in Spring 2022.


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

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

A 24-Hour Pass costs just $15 and offers unlimited 3-hour rides. There are hundreds of stations in Chicago, and you’ll find many riders on our streets!

Chicago public transportation bike


Here is a list of free apps we recommend for your stay in Chicago.

Navigate seamlessly through the Chicago Transit Authority's extensive network, keep updated on bus routes, or make your way around the Chicago River.

Whether you're hopping on a Chicago Water Taxi, understanding the city's grid system, or exploring suburbs and communities like Evanston, these tools are invaluable.

They ensure smooth journeys across Chicago, whatever the day of the week or the weather conditions.

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.

Fares and passes can also be purchased on the Ventra App, allowing you to save time and wallet space.

As long as you have your phone, you'll never be stuck without transportation in Chicago!

How do you stay safe on the train in Chicago?

To stay safe on the train in Chicago, always be aware of your surroundings, avoid traveling alone late at night, and use the "Chicago Transit Authority" system's resources, such as their safety guidelines.

How do people get around in downtown Chicago?

In downtown Chicago, people commonly use the second-largest public transportation system, which includes buses, "L" trains, and the "Chicago Water Taxi," especially around the "Chicago River."

Do I need a car in Chicago as a tourist?

As a tourist in Chicago, you don't necessarily need a car; the city offers a plethora of transportation options like "Uber", "Lyft", and the "CTA bus tracker" to navigate efficiently.

How safe is the Metra in Chicago?

The Metra in Chicago, being a significant component of the "northeastern Illinois" transportation system, has made safety a priority. The service runs reliably with regular maintenance and security protocols. Especially during "peak hours" on weekdays, it's frequented by commuters, making it a bustling and generally safe mode of transport.


About The Author


Mel loves to be a tourist in her own city. With a background in performing arts, tourism, and photography, giving tours and being a story-teller comes naturally to her. She loves traveling, food, and theatre. Mel splits her time between Chicago and Los Angeles (#theatrelife) and leads tours and manages both cities!
Updated: September 10th, 2023
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