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One-Track Trips: CTA El

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Chicago Transit Authority operates the second-largest public transportation system in the country.

On the rail side, there are eight routes covering 224 miles. We traveled along three and found just a fraction of the amazing places, just steps from the El stop.

The CTA provides 1.7 million rides every day, and while most of those customers are going to and from work, a growing number are using it on their days off.

"Over the past six months, we've really seen an increase in weekend ridership, especially on the rail side, so I think people are starting to realize they can get to a lot more places than just work by using our system," said Richard Rodriguez, president, CTA.

The Brown Line stop at State and Lake is right across the street from the ABC Studios. From there you can head to the Western Avenue stop at Lincoln Square, where you'll find your first hidden gem right inside the station: a section of the Berlin Wall, given to the people of Chicago as a gift from the people of Berlin. As you walk through its arches, you're immediately struck with the neighborhood's welcoming blend of old-world charm and modern retail.

"That's what it's all about. We really designed this area some 30 years ago on the premise it should be a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood," said Alderman Gene Schulter, 47th Ward.

There are plenty of reminders of the German heritage the neighborhood is known for -- the 100-year-old Lombard lamp, a gift from the city of Hamburg and the Dank-Haus German Museum and Cultural Center. But nothing says it better than food or pastries, like German chocolate cake, tortes, mousse and anything with streusal toppings, at Cafe Selmarire.

With appetites satisfied, it's back to the Brown Line and a quick ride to the Washington/Wells stop, where you can transfer to the Pink Line and make your way to the 18th Street station in Pilsen, a Mexican American community filled with cultural riches, and just a few blocks from its crowned jewel, the National Museum of Mexican Art. Its permanent collection is one of the largest collections of Mexican art in the U.S. Right now, visitors can see Vida Breve: Day of the Dead. The popular exhibit runs through December 12.

You can then make another quick transfer from the Pink Line to the Green Line and travel to the Garfield Park Conservatory, just steps from the appropriately named Conservatory/Central Park station. Inside the 100-year-old architectural gem, you'll find thousands of plants from towering palm trees to delicate ferns.

The conservatory is open every day of the year, and admission is free.

The CTA can bring you within footsteps of many popular destinations for just one price.

"You get the one-day pass for $5.75, the three-day pass for $14 and the five-day pass for just $28. It's a great bargain because it's unlimited use, and you can use it to ride the entire system," said Rodriguez.

The Halsted-UIC stop on the Blue Line is near Greektown, or exit at Division and you're a few blocks from the Polish Museum of America. The Red Line can get you to Chinatown from the Cermak station or Wrigley Field from the Addison stop. And both the Red Line and Green Line get you to 35th Street to a White Sox game. A combination of transit and buses can bring you to a Bears, Bulls or Blackhawks game. This one-track trip stops at enough attractions to keep you busy year 'round.

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