LINCOLN SQUARE — The author of a new book filled with riddles about Chicago’s hidden gems is tasking readers with deciphering her clues to win a prize.
Travel writer and photographer Jessica Mlinaric had the idea for writing “Chicago Scavenger: The Ultimate Search for Chicago’s Hidden Treasures” after being in her apartment for more than a year during the pandemic. She pitched the book to her publisher in 2021, saying it would help people go outside and reconnect with the city, she said.
Unlike a traditional travel guide, Mlinaric’s book highlights little-known museums, public art, nature areas, overlooked historical markers, architectural oddities and more across the city’s neighborhoods using a treasure map with clues for readers and riddles to solve.
“Writing the book last year, after having been in lockdown in my apartment — it just really blew my mind to bike again across Chicago and go back to these neighborhoods,” Mlinaric said. “To remember why I choose to live in Chicago and how amazing it is.”
Mlinaric tried to include places that look interesting, are important to Chicago’s history or play a key role in the fabric of a neighborhood, she said.
The book, which was released in May, has riddles that lead to more than 300 Chicago locations, including the United States’ first Black art museum, a bed and breakfast run by monks, the city’s smallest bar and a real yellow brick road, Mlinaric said.
“If you’re going into a neighborhood you’ve never been to before, I tried to pick some beloved local landmarks, even things like restaurants that have been there a long time,” Mlinaric said. “Chicago is such a big city that it’s hard to know where to start. I hope that this will give people a jumpstart on having those discoveries.”
Mlinaric tried to evenly feature North Side, West Side and South Side neighborhoods. She also featured “hidden gems” near each other in the same sections so readers can tackle each chapter in an afternoon or a couple of hours at their own pace, she said.
“It was really important to me to explore Chicago’s diversity in this book, to highlight communities from all over the city,” Mlinaric said. “I’m fascinated by different cultures and the groups who have called Chicago home and how that contributes to making the city what it is today.”
Mlinaric’s book doesn’t need to be read in order, and readers can work alone or with friends to solve the riddles for each neighborhood, Mlinaric said.
But for big treasure-hunting fans, Mlinaric did create a challenge on her website.
The contest allows readers to compete with other people to submit photos of their progress solving her riddles to score points. The first people to complete the entire book will receive a custom poster created by local illustrator Jason Swearingen, she said.
“Anyone can finish it in any amount of time. I didn’t want it to be like: OK, you’ve got three months to do the whole book. I want people to enjoy it at their own pace. There’s no cutoff or deadline,” Mlinaric said.
The leaderboard will be updated as people and teams submit their points to the website, Mlinaric said.
Mlinaric also wrote “Secret Chicago: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure” in 2018. The book features little-known landmarks, like a salt cave in Portage Park, she said.
But Mlinaric didn’t write that earlier book of “bizarre and unusual places” as an interactive scavenger hunt like she did with the one she released this year, she said.
The books are an extension of Mlinaric’s passion for traveling, she said.
“The thing that I love about travel is that the feeling of being somewhere new — of figuring it out, stumbling across things and learning about something new,” Mlinaric said. “I don’t need leave Chicago to have that feeling. I have that in my own city all the time because I put myself in situations where I want to check out different neighborhoods and talk to folks across town.”
“Chicago Scavenger” can be ordered online for $20.95.
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