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The Ultimate Guide to Chicago's River West Neighborhood

Do you know there’s over 200 unofficially-official neighborhoods in Chicago? And every neighborhood in the city has its very own super power – that one very special thing that sets it apart from all the others. 

West Loop has its gritty urban hipster vibe. Old Town is all peace, love and neighborhoodiness. And then there’s Lakeshore East with its enviable access to greenspace. 

I love ‘em all, but the small and mighty neighborhood of River West has the most practical superpower of them all: LOCATION! Close to the heart of downtown, but just outside of the gridlock, this neighborhood’s location gives you the convenience and fun of downtown living without the stress of downtown living. 

A map of the River West neighborhood in Chicago's downtown

Of course, River West has more than just a fantastic spot on the neighborhood map. Let’s dive in and explore all the reasons why more and more Chicagoans are choosing to call this up and coming neighborhood home. 

Meet River West

You know the saying “good things come in small packages?” This could be River West’s catch phrase. When I called it a “little” neighborhood, I wasn’t joking. Just a mile east to west, and about a half mile north to south, it’s practically pocket-sized.   

So what exactly are River West’s borders? Depends on who you ask. 

Our friend Google will confidently tell you that the borders of River West are the Kennedy Expressway to the west and south, the Chicago River to the east and Chicago Avenue to the north. 

If you’re a local, however, you’re shaking your head because you know Grand Avenue (or even Hubbard Street) is the more natural boundary. 

A map of Chicago's River West neighborhood and its borders
River West Neighborhood borders, stretching down along Grand Avenue, south of I90

Part of the larger West Town community,  River West is in good company when it comes to nearby neighborhoods. You’ve got Wicker Park a mile and a half north west, West Loop a mile south and my personal favorite, River North a mile east. 

A map of the neighborhoods surrounding River West
Other fantastic downtown neighborhoods near River West

So exactly what makes River West’s location so ideal? In a word: Access! 

First, five major roads criss-cross their way through the neighborhood: Milwaukee Avenue, Ogden Avenue, Chicago Avenue, Grand Avenue and Halstead Street. Whew! 

The two six-corner intersections (Milwaukee, Chicago, and Odgen north of the Kennedy and Milwaukee, Halstead and Grand south of it) are a tangled web of cross streets, crosswalks and bike lanes. 

You’ll master weaving your way through it – whether in your car, on foot or bicycle – in no time and love that these main arteries give you quick routes in and out of the neighborhood. 

A bird's eye view of the 6-corner intersection in Chicago's River West neighborhood
The intersection of Milwaukee, Chicago and Ogden in River West

Of course, you’re living downtown to BE downtown, but that doesn’t mean the suburbs don’t come calling once in a while. Having crazy-quick access to the Kennedy and Dan Ryan (I-90 and I-94) Expressways may not sound like the sexiest of neighborhood amenities, but you’ll change your mind the moment you’re running late for a meeting in Hyde Park or early morning flight out of O’Hare. 

River West’s public transit options are plentiful. Train, bus or even bike (hello Divvy!). And if you’re feeling ambitious, or your FitBit is buzz-buzz-buzzing you to get off the couch, strap on your sneakers and take a jog down to the lakeshore. You’ll be at the water’s edge in under two miles. 

If you’re an urban biker, you’ll be happy to hear that River West is one of the most bike-friendly of them all. The “hipster highway” (aka Milwaukee Avenue) cuts directly through the neighborhood, connecting you up to The 606 and down to West Loop. This busy main artery has the most well-protected bike lanes in the city, keeping you safe and sound as you pedal your way through downtown. 

The hipster highway bike lanes in Chicago's River West neighborhood
Peddling down the “Hipster Highway” through River West

River West History

Appreciating River West’s unique aesthetic and vibe begins with understanding its roots. 

Step back in time about 150 years and you’ll discover that the West Town community was unsurprisingly a melting pot of new settlers, including a hefty Scandinavian population. The now crazy-busy corner of Milwaukee, Halsted, and Odgen was home to Swedes. Just down the street on Milwaukee and Halsted, a community of Norwegian settlers was growing. 

Other ethnicities settled in and around the neighborhood too, including Italians to the south and Polish and Ukrainians just northwest. 

Industry Comes (and Goes)

In the early 1900s, industry and manufacturing took hold in the neighborhood and this is where River West’s modern aesthetic begins. Lumber yards, shoe manufacturers, piano factories and more shaped the neighborhood into an unglamorous landscape of brick and metal. 

The JP Smith Shoe Company Historical Marker Sign
The J.P. Smith Shoe Co Factory plaque; now the site of the River West Lofts (source: David Wilson

Beginning in the 1950s, the factories that had defined River West began to shutter their doors. In 1960, the Kennedy Expressway was built, and with it, wiped out homes, businesses and even churches. While other downtown neighborhoods were on the brink of gentrification, River West was left desolate and floundering. 

Giant silos mix concrete at Prairie Material, one of the few remaining industrial companies in River West
Giant silos mix concrete at Prairie Material, one of the few remaining industrial companies in River West.

Many residents left; taking with them their culture and heart of the neighborhood. Without its people, River West was left searching for its identity. 

Lofts & Revitalization

Are you wondering how, how, how a neighborhood so close to the river view and city skyline wasn’t scooped up and developed? Plot twist: it was (and it still is!). The development of River West has been a slow roll and is going stronger than ever today. 

When developers began to eye River West in the 1980s, the neighborhood was quiet. A few single-family homes remained, retail was non-existent and empty warehouses lined the streets. The Chicago Tribune built an enormous production center on the east side of the neighborhood in 1982, but additional development was stagnant.

Enter the residential developers who saw a star waiting to be born. They knew it wasn’t the dark streets that were the problem – it was the utter lack of residential housing. Instead of tearing the neighborhood down to its studs, they embraced what remained. 

By the mid-to-late 80s, abandoned warehouses were being converted into condos and artist lofts and office-space breathed new life into deserted factories. Thus, the revitalization of River West began. 

The River West Lofts in the former J.P. Smith Shoe Co factory
The River West Lofts in the former J.P. Smith Shoe Co factory

River West Today

So, you’re sold on the location and the neighborhood rejuvenation is certainly intriguing. But what’s it like to call River West home today? 

The neighborhood is still carving out its identity, and young professionals are showing up in droves. The vibe in River West is very urban and less refined than nearby West Loop or River North. Don’t mistake its slightly rugged exterior though – River West is a diamond in the rough. 

New residents are moving in as quickly as new luxury apartments can be constructed. These newcomers are ready to be a part of River West’s transformation, while honoring and maintaining its industrial roots.

A view of new luxury apartments in River West offer some of the best skyline views in the city
New luxury apartments in River West offer some of the best skyline views in the city

The Sights and Smells

Let’s talk about the smell. Wait, what? Yes, the smell! The Bloomer Chocolate Factory is less than a half mile south in Fulton River District West Loop and is famous for wafting the scent of freshly made chocolate through the ‘hood. 

What will you see when strolling through River West? Quite simply, a mix of old and new. You’ll notice evidence of the factories that once breathed life into the neighborhood, now fashioned into marvelous loft apartments. Crane your neck to the sky to see a fresh crop of high-rise apartment buildings all glassy, shiny and new. 

One Neighborhood, Two Vibes

River West is a tale of two (really BIG) intersections. On the north side, there’s Milwaukee, Chicago and Ogden and to the south, you’ve got Milwaukee, Grand and Halstead. They’re less than a half mile from each other, but each has its own personality. 

Milwaukee, Chicago and Ogden has that nitty-gritty-city feel with an energy that bounces off the bustling streets and brick buildings. You’ll find local favorites, Big Shoulders Coffee, the Windy City Cafe and the Matchbox ready to call you in off the street with a hot cup of coffee and conversation. 

Big Shoulders Coffee Shop in Chicago's River West neighborhood
Big Shoulders Coffee on the corner of Chicago and Milwaukee

Walk southeast 10-minutes to Milwaukee, Grand and Halstead and you’ll notice the character of the neighborhood shifts more upscale. Here you’ll discover trendy restaurants, like The Dawson ready to win you over with on-point seasonal cocktails complete with the most clever names (Face Palmer, anyone?) 

Take a stroll off the beaten path, and you’ll notice things softening just a bit. Tree-lined streets full of converted warehouses, original walk-ups, new and modern single family homes and low-rise condos are plentiful.

Conveniences

River West once felt like a deserted island without so much as a corner 7-Eleven to pick up quick coffee (or Slurpee®, I actually love those things). Times have changed though and today, River West has all of life’s everyday conveniences within arm’s reach. 

If you’re looking for a delectable bite to eat, head to the south end of the ‘hood to River West’s foodie corner at the intersection of Milwaukee, Halstead and Grand. There, you’ll find La Scarola and Piccolo Sogno, two of the best Italian restaurants in the city. They both have a 4.5+ rating and affordable double-dollar-signs on Google which means you can nosh on delish Pollo alla Pasquinelli without breaking the bank. 

For quick pharmacy or an emergency nail polish run, there’s a CVS on the corner of Ogden and Milwaukee, just a block away from the CTA Chicago Station. 

River West is so small, a Whole Foods organic produce section would take up half the square-footage of the entire neighborhood (Exaggeration? Maaaaaybe). Luckily, their Fulton River neighbor to the south has a Jewel-Osco just a 5-minute walk from the Milwaukee, Halstead and Grand intersection. 

Let’s be real though – does anyone grocery shop anymore?! West Loop’s Mariano’s and Whole Foods both deliver to River West in a flash. 

Oh – and yes, I can now get my beloved Slurpee®at the 7-Eleven on Halstead and Grand. Life is good in River West, right?! 

Big Plans

Grab your shades because River West’s future is bright! With pockets of the neighborhood still underdeveloped, this is the one to watch in the next 3-5 years. 

As more residents move into new luxury apartments in River West, new businesses are sure to follow. An urban food court, rooftop bar, boutiques and corner shops are just a few of the things on my wish list. I also wouldn’t mind a small-format Target (wink, wink corporate headquarters!). 

The most exciting development in River West’s future is on the eastside of the neighborhood along the Chicago River. For nearly 40 years, the neighborhood’s access to – and view of – the Chicago River has literally been blocked by the Chicago Tribune’s Freedom Center, a massive 850,000 square-foot printing facility on the west bank of the river. 

The site of the Chicago Tribune Distribution Center, the future home of 700 West Chicago
The Chicago Tribune Freedom Center; the future site of major development in River West 

Just you wait though – these 37 acres of riverfront views are now zoned for mixed-use development (including luxury apartments) and will connect downtown’s beautiful River District up to River West. 

The Tribute Master Plan, including the 700 West Chicago, will take years to come to fruition, but when it does, the face of River West will be forever changed. 

River West Rental Properties

Mondial River West 

Located smack-dad in the middle of River West, Mondial is everything I love about this neighborhood, all wrapped up in a mid-rise. It nails the convenience factor by being walking distance to almost anything and its residents are quick to gush about the unobstructed rooftop views of downtown – “Nowhere in Chicago beats the rooftop view of Mondial River West!” 

Mondial luxury apartments in Chicago's River West
Mondial luxury apartment building is close to everything in River West

River West Lofts 

If you’re a history nut, you’ll love this: the building that is now River West Lofts is over 120 years old and on the National Register of Historic Places. Originally home to the J.P Smith Shoe Factory, this building is just the coolest and has unique features you won’t find anywhere else. Think exposed brick, 12-foot ceiling, timber beams, gigantic windows and even wood-burning fireplaces. 

Avenir 

A stunning new luxury apartment building in River West, I’ll sum up Avenir in three words: wow, wow, wowwwwwww. The name “Avenir” is French for “future” and when you lay eyes on this beauty of a high-rise, you’ll get it. 

The tallest residential building in River West, Avenir stands 23-stories on the east side of the neighborhood on N. Milwaukee. The sleek and modern apartments will win you over in a hot minute, but it’s the amenities that are gonna make you weak in the knees. I’m talking yoga studio, rooftop cabanas, dog spa, coworking lounge and an outdoor pool and hot tub. You’ll love Avenir. 

Spoke 

Opened in 2018, Spoke apartments were designed with the River West vibe in mind. The playful aesthetic creates an environment that’s unique, light-hearted and just plain fun! Spoke proves that a residential building can be both minimalist-modern and offer pops of color and head-turning details. 

The amenities are insanely awesome, but my favorite part of Spoke isn’t for it’s human residents, it’s for the furry ones. I’m talking about the indoor heated dog run and pet spa – hands-down the best part about this dog-friendly building.  

Linkt

Affordable luxury living in River West is yours at Linkt. Located in the northwest corner of River West, this low-rise has just 47 units. Linkt’s location is pretty awesome for commuters, with just a couple minute walk to the CTA Blue Line. You won’t find over the top amenities here, but you will find the ones that matter – a fitness center and rooftop deck. And the view….it’s priceless! 

Reside on Green Street

You guessed it – another fabulous location. Reside on Green Street is a one-minute walk to the Blue Line, meaning you can get from your living room to your job downtown in less than 20 minutes. This building has a great sense of community, hosting weekly trivia nights, happy hours and cooking classes. 

851 West 

If high-rise living isn’t your style, check out 851 West. Located on Grand Avenue right on the border of River West and Fulton River District, this six-story mid-rise has just 36 units. The modern finishes are great, but it’s the block walk to the Blue Line station and Starbucks that may win you over. 

When I said River West is growing, I meant it. A new apartment building is under construction on the corner of Chicago and Milwaukee (right in the heart of the action!) and set to be completed in 2021. Another new 12-story midrise is under construction at 740 N. Aberdeen Street. 

Best Restaurants

The restaurant scene in River West has you covered from early morning eggs to late-night eats. 

Best Italian: Piccolo Sogno

My favorite spot to dine on a beautiful Chicago evening is Piccolo Sogno. Be sure to make a reservation to dine al fresco and come hungry because you’re gonna want everything you lay your eyes on. Local faves include their namesake piccolo sogno. My best advice: be sure to save room for dessert – the Mille Foglie is to-die-for. 

Piccolo Sogno Italian Restaurant in Chicago's River West neighborhood
You can’t miss Piccolo Sogno! Located on Halsted, near Milwaukee, it’s a neighborhood gem. 

Best New American: The Dawson

Upscale comfort food done right is nearby at The Dawson. The vibe is intimate, city-chic and the patio is the place to see and be seen on a breezy summer night. Honestly, you can’t go wrong when it comes to ordering; I love it all, but grabbing a group of friends to eat your way through the appetizer menu will not disappoint. 

The Dawson restaurant in Chicago's River West
The Dawson, located on Halstead and Grand, boasts outdoor seating and fantastic eats

Best Brunch: Windy City Cafe

The Windy City Cafe might sound like a standard little spot for scrambled eggs and toast but I’m telling you, this place is a brunch-lovers dream. Located up on Chicago Avenue across from the Chicago Blue Line station, this breakfast to lunch joint is a River West treasure. I beg you to order The Hangover – a burger topped with a fried egg between pancakes. Don’t knock it till ya try it. 

Best Eclectic Menu: The Iguana Cafe

If you’re playing the “where should we go?” game, head to the Iguana Cafe. This European cafe has a menu packed with delicious standards like pasta, wraps and sandwiches but they’re best known for their crepes. And with 21 options, ranging from savory to sweet, you’re sure to enjoy eating your way through the menu. 

Best Pizza: The Pie-Eyed Pizzeria

I’m just gonna go ahead and say it…I prefer New York style thin crust to Chicago deep dish. Sorry – not sorry. And Pie-Eyed Pizzeria has the best giant New York slices in River West. They’ll deliver to your door and have the best late-nite bite in the neighborhood – pizza by the slice. Stop by each month to check out new specials like Mexican corn and bacon cheeseburger pizza. 

Pie-Eyed PIzza in Chicago's River West
Pie-Eyed Pizzeria serves us the best slices in the city

Best Coffee Shop: Big Shoulders Coffee 

Located in the heart of River West, Big Shoulders is a staple in the neighborhood. Located right off the Chicago Blue Line, it’s the perfect spot to grab a morning brew before heading into work. It’s light-filled space and chill atmosphere make it a fantastic spot to get a little work done too. 

River West Demographics

Data always tells a story and these River West’s demographics paint a picture of this small, but mighty community: 

  • Population: 3,177
  • Median Age of Population: 32
  • Total Households: 1,777
  • Average people per Household: 2
  • Households with children: 10.5% 
  • Owner-Occupied: 41.2%
  • Renter-Occupied: 58.8% 
  • Average Household Income: $136,832 annually
  • Median Household Income: $107,319 annually

Parks & Greenspace 

River West is so compact, you won’t find sprawling green spaces in the neighborhood, but don’t worry – you’ve got nearly 9 acres of park space just a 5 minute walk west in Noble Square’s Eckhart Park

The park has the standard athletic fields and playground equipment, but so many bonus extras: a water feature for tots, community garden and indoor gymnasium space, pool and community meeting space. 

Eckhart Park in Chicago's Noble Square
Green galore at Eckhart Park, just outside of the River West neighborhood boundaries

River West Business Associations

The West Town Chamber of Commerce covers the River West neighborhood and is an active force in business development. Over 200 small business members strong, the Chamber is a huge advocate for businesses in River West, fostering development and providing resources to help businesses thrive. 

They also sponsor neighborhood events throughout the West Town community such as street fairs, art walks and the West Town WinterFest. 

Parking

You can absolutely visit or live in River West and find parking. The key is having a plan! 

If you’re visiting, find and pay for lot parking on ParkWiz or download the Park Chicago app to easily locate and pay for on-street meter parking. 

One of the benefits of living in River West is that it’s so transit friendly, you’re able to ditch your car all-together. Taking public transit or peddling to work is absolutely a great option. 

If you do need a car though, nearly all River West apartments have parking on-site available to residents. Our team can give you the low-down on which buildings can accommodate you and your four-wheels.  

Public Transit

Have I made it clear yet that this is the BEST neighborhood to get around in? I’m guessing you’ve gotten the message, but here’s a quick recap of your options: 

There are two CTA Blue Line Chicago Stations in River West – one near each six-corner intersection. The train runs every 3-10 minutes which means catching a ride downtown on whim is a piece of cake. The train also runs 24/7 to O’Hare, making catching that early morning flight stress-free. 

A map of transit stations in Chicago's River West

Bus lines also pepper all the major thoroughfares, creating an easy way to neighborhood hop around the city.  

Highway Access

Making a quick getaway out of River West is easy breezy. Hop on the entrance ramp in about a nanosecond to head south or north on I-90. The west suburbs are accessible via I-290 which is a 5-minute shot straight down Ogden Avenue. 

A map of highway access in Chicago's River West neighborhood

Summing It All Up

In the end, River West’s great access is just one of the wonderful benefits of this small but mighty neighborhood. Residents get some old world charm, a community feel with locally owned shops and restaurants, and a bit of urban flair with some upscale dining and luxury apartments. And, the future looks brighter than ever.

So, that’s a wrap. Your complete guide to Chicago’s River West neighborhood. Sounds like a great place to call home, right? If a move to River West is in your future, we’re here to help you find an apartment with all your wants, needs and yes, a view that’ll make you weak in the knees. Reach out to the team at HotSpot and let us help you find a new place to call home. 

Blog Author Signature: Dorothy
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