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The Ultimate Chicago Blues Guide

by Chantelle July - last edited July

It may not be the original birthplace of the blues, but Chicago is certainly a city where the blues has thrived and flourished. Home to some of the genre’s best-known and loved musicians — from Muddy Waters to Willie Dixon — it has long been considered the heartland of the “west side” sound.

Previously home to big name blues labels like Chess and Vee-jay Records, both situated on the renowned “Record Row” on South Michigan Avenue, Chicago is still a Mecca for blues fans from all over the world. One of the USA’s most significant musical exports, discover the sounds of the Windy City in our Chicago blues guide.

Blues after dark

Rosa's Lounge | The Ultimate Chicago Blues Guide

The family-run Rosa's Lounge is still popular despite being open for over 30 years © Rosa’s Lounge
 

The best way to discover the city’s rich musical history is to get out there and visit the venues that have hosted the world’s best blues musicians. One such place is local favourite Rosa’s Lounge – the family-run venue that has been in business since 1978 and has seen the likes of Melvin Taylor and Sugar Blue pass over its threshold to perform.

Buddy Guy's Legends | The Ultimate Chicago Blues Guide

Local Blues fans know and love the Buddy Guy's Legends venue © Mararie/Flickr 
 

If the sight of rare memorabilia and the chance of meeting a local blues star strikes up excitement for you then Buddy Guy’s Legends is ideal. Buddy, a much loved and well-respected musician in his own right set up the bar over 20 years ago. During that time the biggest names in music, including the Rolling Stones and Bo Diddley, have performed at Buddy’s. Curb your hunger whilst enjoying the sweet sounds by tucking into the superb classic Cajan dishes served up here too.

John Primer and The Real Deal at Kingston Mines | The Ultimate Chicago Blues Guide

Performancers like John Primer and The Real Deal regularly frequent Kingston Mines © Jason Saul/Flickr
 

Over forty years old and still going strong, the Kingston Mines is another must-visit venue for blues fans; here visitors can happily observe the relics of the genre’s heyday and also check out current prominent blues acts. An essential destination for anyone interested in the city’s musical DNA, Kingston Mines still enjoys a first class reputation.

Blues neighbourhood tour

Blues mural | The Ultimate Chicago Blues Guide

Classic murals like this one can be found throughout the city © Bernt Rostad/Flickr
 

If you’d rather roam through Chicago’s busy streets and discover notable landmarks for yourself choose some spots that have been marked by the Chicago Tribute Marker Distinction, which highlights and celebrates the homes of famous Chicago natives across the city. Venture to the old site of the esteemed Chess Records, now home to the Willie Dixon Foundation, which supports, trains and educates local musicians. Visitors can tour the grounds but be sure to call ahead. There are a number of Chicago Blues City Tours you can do from various tour operators across too. Generally, they will take you by luxury coach across the city’s most influential blues locations.

 

Festival fun

Blues Festival | The Ultimate Chicago Blues Guide

There are a wide variety of artists to see at the Chicago Blues Festival each year © Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events
 

The annual free Chicago Blues Festival takes place every June by Chicago’s 319-acre lakefront Grant Park. It should come as no surprise that this is the largest blues festival in the world, and the biggest festival in Chicago. Across three days and five stages music fans can enjoy the sounds of some of the genre’s most revered performers.

Blues Festival | The Ultimate Chicago Blues Guide

The Chicago Blues Festival is the biggest festival the city hosts each year © Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events
 

Previous years have seen iconic musicians such as Ray Charles and B.B. King headline so it’s worth the effort planning a trip to coincide with the festival.

Virgin Atlantic operates a seasonal direct service to Chicago from London Heathrow. Book your flight

Are you an avid blues fan based in Chicago? Have you been to any places featured in our Chicago blues guide? Share your recommendations with us in the comments section below.

Written by Chantelle Symester


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About the author: Chantelle

Chantelle Symester

Chantelle Symester is a writer and editor based in London. When she’s not chained to her laptop working she can be found hopping on a plane to far flung places across the globe. Trips so far include adventures to Mexico, South America and North Africa and she now has her heart set on discovering the East. You can find her @csymester