Four Unconventional College Student Group Activities in Chicago

We often hear from guests that it’s tricky finding interesting college student group activities in Chicago. Our private tours are popular with university groups looking to explore the other side of the Windy City, beyond the downtown museums and attractions. So our Private Tour Coordinator Ellen knows a thing or two about recommending unconventional college student group activities in Chicago. Here are four fun Chicago activities for your college-aged group that will challenge and engage them.

You can also get travel inspiration from Kayak’s Chicago Travel Guide.

We research stories from Chicago history, architecture and culture like this while developing our live virtual tours, in-person private tours, and custom content for corporate events. You can join us to experience Chicago’s stories in-person or online. We can also create custom tours and original content about this Chicago topic and countless others.

1. Instead of staying in the Loop… book the Neighborhoods and Cultural Diversity Bus Tour.

pilsen neighborhoods and diversity college student group activities
Experiencing the huge range of cultural diversity in Chicago’s neighborhoods is one of the best college student group activities in Chicago. Photo by Pawel Skrabacz.

Downtown Chicago boasts tons of attractions for university trips, including big museums, but the true soul of Chicago lies in its neighborhoods. We have at least 60 neighborhoods to explore, though the exact number is hotly contested. That means the “city of neighborhoods” leaves visitors overwhelmed with choice!

For this reason, one of our most popular tours for university group trips is our custom tours of Chicago neighborhoods. The tour includes visits and historic background on 9 neighborhoods in Chicago. We go through the South Loop, Bronzeville, Hyde Park, Washington Park, Bridgeport, Chinatown, Pilsen, UIC/Little Italy, and Greektown. The tour guide also celebrates the rich social diversity of the people and communities on our South and West Sides. University groups often love incorporating a meal into the experience, either in Pilsen at the celebrated Canton Regio, or Ricobene’s on the outskirts of Chinatown.

2. Instead of going to the Art Institute… experience dynamic public art.

Lightner Building Printer's Row South Loop Ghost Sign street Art Chicago Detours
An explosion of ghost signs and street art in the South Loop, part of the Wabash Arts Corridor. Image by Alex Bean.

We love the Art Institute. Everyone should visit the Art Institute. However, the Art Institute isn’t the only place downtown to experience quality art.

A newer, but still major, cultural destination downtown is the Wabash Arts Corridor. Launched in 2013 by Columbia College Chicago, WAC runs down Wabash Avenue from Van Buren to Roosevelt, framed to the east by Michigan Avenue and by State Street to the west. This “urban living canvas” currently comprises 19 galleries, 14 performance spaces, five major hotels and more than 40 restaurants. The variety of art immerses students in the creative spirit of the South Loop. The Wabash Arts Corridor’s ultimate goal is the transformation and revitalization of the surrounding urban space into a major resource for art of all kinds in the heart of the city. 

Other slept-on options for art exploration downtown are the Chicago Cultural Center, currently hosting the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and the Museum of Contemporary Photography. Both options are perfect alternatives for the worthy Art Institute.

3. Instead of going to Museum Campus… visit an under-the-radar museum.

college student group activities Oriental Institute Museum Chicago
The Oriental Institute Museum, at the University of Chicago, is one of the city’s best spots for unconventional college student group activities. Photo via Wikimedia.

This is a piece of advice that we’re big fans of. I’ll go ahead and quote myself:

Chicago has some massively impressive museums. The world-renowned trifecta down on Museum Campus draws huge crowds. History nerds, like myself, also have the Chicago History Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry. Unfortunately, those museums tend to suck up all the attention from visitors and locals alike.

Just to name some of our favorites from that piece, the Oriental Institute in Hyde Park, the Clarke House Museum in the Prairie Avenue District, and the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in Pullman are excellent. Well worth taking the time to make them one of your college student group activities.

4. Instead of visiting Navy Pier… learn about urban ecology at The Plant.

An afternoon of sight-seeing does a lot to introduce university groups to the city, but college kids may grow tired of just sight-seeing on days two or three. Plus, Navy Pier, for all its recent improvements, is more family and kid-oriented. College students will likely walk to its end and back and be ready to go.

Alternately, you can arrange a visit to The Plant. Located on the ground of the old Union Stock Yards, The Plant is an incubator which develops new, sustainable technologies and strategies. Their website says it best: “Waste is an opportunity – The best natural resource is the one that has already been extracted. Our work begins where others’ consumption ends, where energy would be otherwise lost to landfills or abandoned.” You can arrange a visit for your college student group activities, perhaps right before or after one of our neighborhood tours.

Tons of Unique College Student Group Activities

Ellen’s list is a great starting point, but we’re only scratching the surface. Chicago holds tons of activities, including ones that might scratch some very specific itches. As always, give us a ring if you want to make a private group tour part of that experience.

– Ellen Bushong and Alex Bean


Chicago Detours is a boutique tour company passionate about connecting people to places and each other through the power of storytelling. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact with Chicago’s history, architecture and culture through in-person private group tourscontent production, and virtual tours.


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K


Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
Shelby F

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