As soon as the snow melts and the city heats up, Chi-Town throws a three-month party, featuring iconic baseball, street festivals nearly every weekend and 26 miles of free lakefront.

With temperatures well below freezing, whipping winds and snowstorms that paint the city white, Chicago hibernates in the winter. But as soon as the snow melts and the city heats up, Chi-Town throws a three-month party. The Bleacher Bums get wild when the Cubs season starts, sunbathers and volleyball players revel in the 26 miles of open and free lakefront, and music and food lovers let loose during free festivals that last until the cold air returns.

The best of the fests
From 24 June to 3 July, the 10-day Taste of Chicago transforms Grant Park into a culinary and musical smorgasbord, with hundreds of dishes on offer from 59 restaurants and about 2.5 million visitors each year. Foodies willing to brave the sometimes maddening crowds and sweltering heat are rewarded with sparkling views of Lake Michigan and tastes of delicious Chicago classics like cheesy deep-dish pizza from Lou Malnati’s and authentic Polish sausages from the Bobak Sausage company. More exotic fare like oxtail and jollof rice from African restaurant Iyanze and chana masala from vegetarian Indian restaurant Arya Bhavan make the Taste a truly international event.

Twelve stands will enjoy their first year at the festival — including Lao Sze Chuan, which will serve up its signature dry chilli chicken, and Starfruit Café, which will have a variety of tasty frozen kefir, Pace yourself (and your wallet), because while entry to the festival is free, food prices vary. Take advantage of the small “taste of” portions each vendor is required to offer for about $2.

After properly gorging, the masses head to two Grant Park stages to dance off the calories at free concerts from national bands like the Lemonheads (28 June) and the Jayhawks (2 July).

Despite financial constraints, former long-time mayor Richard M Daley demanded Chicago’s major summer concerts remain free. But because of budget cuts, the previously autonomous Celtic Fest (29 June), Gospel Music Festival (26 June), Latin Music Festival (24 June) and Country Music Festival (1 July) will join the Taste this year. In previous years, some of the music festivals would have lasted more than one day, but with the combined format, artists like country star Loretta Lynn and fiddler Natalie MacMaster will contribute to the Taste’s soundtrack.

While some of the city’s music festivals have shrunk, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival (24 to 25 September) will double in size this year, thanks to significant grants from several foundations. Growing in size from 5,000 attendees in 2007 to 30,000 attendees in 2009, this year’s event will host a second day for improvising trumpeters and soulful singers in spectacular venues like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House and the Hyde Park Union Church.

The cost-free music continues throughout the summer, but the future of Chicago’s free festivals remains unclear. Newly elected mayor Rahm Emanuel has yet to comment on whether he intends to privatize the concerts — a plan Daley considered before leaving office — which could bring dramatic changes to the summer festival line-up. So in the mean time, enjoy the many concerts at Millennium Park, including the Grant Park Music Festival (15 June to 20 August) and the 33-year-old Chicago Jazz Festival (1 to 4 September). 

Outside of the city’s parks, art enthusiasts in the market for botanic-themed photos, paintings or ceramics head to the Botanic Garden Art Festival (1 to 3 July, free admission), which returns for the first time in nearly a decade. Original works from 80 artists are on view throughout the lush landscapes of the 385-acre Chicago Botanic Garden.

Dave Matthews Band will return to Chicago for the first time since recording the album Live At Wrigley Field in 2010, and this time the band is bringing dozens of friends along to throw itself a 20th anniversary party on Lake Michigan’s shore. From 8 to 10 July, Chicago will be the second of four cities to host the inaugural Dave Matthews Caravan (3-day pass/$195, single day/$85). Artists including the Flaming Lips, Kid Cudi and Michael Franti and Spearhead will rock out at Lakeside, a 600-acre former steel mill, now being used as a concert venue for the first time.

In its second year, the North Coast Music Festival (2 to 4 September) is still finding its groove, but reviews of 2010’s inaugural show were mostly positive. The new kid in town highlights several genres of music largely ignored by some of the other major festivals, and at $95 for a three-day pass, is the least expensive of the bunch. Bassnectar, Thievery Corporation and Common are just a few of the acts performing.

Salt-free surf
You might be smack dab in the middle of America’s Midwest, but in Chicago, you are never far from the beach. Surfers and boogie boarders looking for big waves will surely prefer the beaches on America’s west coast, but swimmers and sunbathers who want to get wet without a mouthful of salt water will savour Chicago’s vast blue lake.

Beer lovers who prefer playing volleyball to building sand castles flock to Lincoln Park’s North Avenue beach. Dance-offs are not uncommon on the weekends as 20-somethings in board shorts and bikinis get down while DJs spin and bands jam at beachfront bar and grill Castaways. Shirts and shoes are optional while enjoying a Castaway’s island ice tea or mango margarita, but finding a table on the upper deck of this boathouse is not easy. Nearby Oak Street Beach features equally spectacular views of the skyline, and has a bit more space to soak up the sun or toss a Frisbee.

The more adventurous set can speed across the calm water by renting a waverunner or kayak at Montrose Beach. Afterwards, beachgoers can enjoy fresh guacamole or cool off with one of the more than 20 beers on offer at the new 3,300 square foot patio bar, The Dock.

The great American past time
Summer in Chicago is synonymous with the Cubs, the ivy-covered walls of iconic Wrigley Field and the nearly century-old tradition of infamous baseball curses. With a scoreboard that is still turned by hand, the second oldest pro baseball stadium in the country evokes a time when Babe Ruth may-or-may-not have called his shot before blasting a homer into center field in the 1932 World Series.

The Cubbies are entering their typical mid-season position toward the bottom of the National League, which is good for anyone trying to score cheap tickets. Depending on the opponent, tickets can be found for as little as $5 for a seat in the nosebleeds section. But a few extra bucks will secure you a seat among the infamously rowdy Bleacher Bums, who embody the celebratory spirit of the city with enthusiastic chanting after a few Old Style beers.

Watching a game from one of the apartment rooftops along Sheffield and Waveland avenues provides a unique perspective. These all-you-can-eat-and-drink seats, which can cost as much as $300 when the Cubs are in contention for the pennant, can currently be found for less than $100.

After days of food, festivals and fastballs, it will be a long nine months before the city heats up again.