Literary City Guide | Chicago, IL

Place has always been important to me, and one thing today’s Chicago exudes, as it did in 1893, is a sense of place. I fell in love with the city, the people I encountered, and above all the lake and its moods, which shift so readily from season to season, day to day, even hour to hour.
— Erik Larson, Devil in the White City

Tour Guide: Amina Elahi

Amina is the editor of literature and food blog PAPER/PLATES. An Illinois native, she spends her days as a freelance journalist, working from her desk, couch or local coffeeshop. She lives with her husband, Shiraaz, and has a flourishing windowsill garden. (All photos by Amina Elahi)    


Relationship to Chicago: Suburban girl moves to the big city

Writer you'd like to invite to dinner: Gerald Durrell, author of My Family and Other Animals 

Chef you'd like to prepare the meal: Giuseppe Tentori of Boka and GT Fish & Oyster

Writing soundtrack: Silence or instrumentals by Explosions in the Sky or Sigur Ros

Pen or Pencil: Pen

Coffee or Tea: Tea, unless I'm zonked

Paperback or Hardback: Hardback (but paperbacks are nicer to my budget)

Good Reads


Open Books. This is a place that invites you to read, and to indulge your love of reading. Open Books offers a wide selection of used and new books, but it's the non-profit's commitment to promoting literacy that's really worth supporting.

Unabridged Bookstore. Nestled in the lovely Lakeview neighborhood, Unabridged Books has a huge and well-organized selection of current and older titles. Hand-written suggestions from staff help guide you to the perfect next book.   


Chicago Public Library. This network of 79 public libraries serves the whole city, with the beautiful Harold Washington Library serving as its central branch. The system reportedly houses more than 5.7 million volumes, which earns it the ninth rank among largest public libraries in the United States.

Deering Library. This Evanston library is a personal favorite due to its connection to my alma mater, Northwestern University. To many students and alumni, Deering is beloved not only for its collections but also its architecture. It's easy to imagine yourself as a Hogwarts students when you're inside Deering, except here you'll find the University Archives rather than books on potions.

Newberry Library. This independent research library was erected in 1887 and today houses innumerable rare books, maps and more. Every summer, the library hosts a fair featuring over 120,000 used books at unbelievable prices—a great way to stock your own shelves affordably.    


Printers Row Lit Fest. This summertime street festival draws huge crowds for its book stalls and speaker events. The Chicago Tribune team that runs this event packs more into two days than you would imagine possible; from authors to musicians to food demonstrations, there's a lot to consume and plenty to learn as well.

Chicago Humanities Festival. For the person who prefers to cherry-pick relevant events rather than schedule a weekend of talks, the Chicago Humanities Festival offers lectures and discussions from some of the world's greatest thinkers. The 2013 Festival is themed "What Makes Us Human" and features big names like Katherine Boo, Junot Diaz, Rebecca Skloot, Donna Tartt and more. 


Ernest Hemingway Museum and Birthplace Home. Head out to Oak Park to explore the novelist's beginnings just outside Chicago. There you can learn about early formative experiences of his life, and take a tour of the home and nearby museum. While you're at it, visit some of the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the area.

Hall Library. This popular museum is in Bronzeville, which was home to the Black Renaissance movement from the 1920s to the 1950s. As such, it's not surprising that writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurst count themselves among the many visitors.

Good Eats


Dollop Streeterville. When I'm not working at home, I love setting up camp in this new, local coffee shop, which provides an escape from my highly commercialized neighborhood. Living near my husband's work is convenient, although their area is somewhat personality-free, so having a bright, creative space is great.

Intelligentsia. This locally-founded coffee company features a variety of excellent blends that can be bought directly or found in a variety of shops across the city. Intelligentsia also has its own coffee bars in places Millennium Park and Logan Square.

La Colombe. High quality coffee (in paper cups emblazoned with the brand's lovely logo) is an easy choice when there's a La Colombe around. And if you're ever in the West Loop with a 90 minute wait for one of the area's in-demand restaurants, there's no better place to kill some time.     


Bite Cafe. This is a new favorite on my list, featuring brunch and lunch items that are fresh and satisfying. It's a small space, unassuming from the outside, but peppered with cheery sky blue chairs and an always-bustling atmosphere. Try the poutine (which can be done vegetarian) and bibimbap and have whoever you're with get the lemon ricotta French toast — brunch is for sharing, after all.

GT Fish & Oyster. The perfect spot for a date night (whether of the friend or romantic variety), GT Fish & Oyster offers an array of hot and cold seafood-centric small plates. I particularly love the lobster mac and cheese.

Lou Malnati's. If you come to Chicago, you must try deep dish, if only to be able to say you did. My favorite pie comes from Lou Malnati's, which features my favorite flaky crust. This is a once-in-a-while meal but definitely worth the food coma, if you can handle it.

Friends Sushi. This is my neighborhood sushi joint, a sit-down restaurant that forgoes pretension in favor of ultra-modern decor, dim lighting and thumping beats. The sushi is solidly good, and it's the type of place that will make even a newbie comfortable. An ideal stop for a good, affordable lunch while shopping on nearby Michigan Avenue. 


Tahoora Sweets & Bakery. Located on Devon Ave., command central for South Asian food and shopping, Tahoora offers the best Pakistani sweet and savory treats in Chicago. I highly recommend the chai, beef samosas, pistachio kulfi and any of the dozens of pastries made fresh daily.

Black Dog Gelato. Known for inventive flavors, this sweet gelato shop is run by pastry chef Jessica Oloroso. Give flavors like strawberry balsamic or goat cheese cashew caramel a try, or stick with traditional favorites such as chocolate and hazelnut. Either way, it's sure to be delicious.    

“Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” - Carl Sandburg, Chicago

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Amina's 5 Favorites

1. Favorite bookstore: Open Books. The atmosphere in this technicolor shop is at once energizing and comforting. With both new releases and well-priced used titles lining shelves, I come here for the selection as well as to support the store's literacy promotion mission.

2. Favorite place to write: My apartment—I love writing in the quiet of my home, at my desk or on the couch.  

3. Favorite museum: The Art Institute of Chicago. Home to some of the world's most beloved works such as Monet's Water Lilies, Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte and Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. The four-year-old Modern Wing is airy and beautiful, and features a lovely restaurant called Terzo Piano.

4. Favorite coffee shop: Dollop Streeterville. My favorite non-home workplace, which features a great selection of teas, killer lattes and a great, diverse music selection.

5. Favorite thing about Chicago: I love that no two days in Chicago are the same. Everything changes depending on slightly small changes, such as the decision to take a different bus than your usual, the choice of visiting a different branch of your favorite boutique or even stepping out into the first day of a new season. This is a city that transforms itself with each passing day.