We included Chicago in our itinerary based on the advice from a friend, and we are glad we did! Chicago has a very rich history and I could see myself living there in every aspect except for the cold weather.
We arrived in Chicago on a public holiday and there were people EVERYWHERE. It was actually quite uncomfortable so we stayed in our hotel room and caught up on some much-needed sleep. Our housemate and his girlfriend were travelling in Chicago at the same time as us so we caught up over dinner. Due to the public holiday, the lines for pizza parlours were hours long so we went to a bistro and waited about 45 mins.
The next few days were spent on the Hop On Hop Off bus which was great for orientating ourselves in the city, and the commentary was great. We learnt a lot about Chicago that we probably wouldn’t have if we just walked around. I didn’t realise most of the city is built on landfill due to an 1871 fire which burnt the city down, nor that the direction of Lake Michigan was reversed in 1900.
Architecture in Chicago is like no other; the city boasts a wealth of famous architects and famous buildings. My Dad is an Architect and when I was young, my family would drive around Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (where I grew up) looking and analysing architecture, so driving around Chicago and doing the same thing was very interesting for me.
Sitting on the Hop On Hop Off bus is a great way to see the architecture Chicago has to offer and also to learn the history behind it. A few buildings that stood out to me where the Chicago Tribune which was parts of other famous buildings built into its walls, Marina City, Lake Point Tower, and a few other buildings whose names I never managed to find out.
In terms of tourist attractions, I wouldn’t bother with Navy Pier. It’s a typical tourist attraction but not much happening. Millennium Park fountains were shut off because it was winter (actually all fountains in Chicago were shut off because of winter so we made a note that when we came back to the US, we’d come visit Chicago in summer), but “The Bean” (technically called Cloudgate) was pretty spectacular. It’s a lot bigger than I was expecting. Instead of paying the entrance fee and going up to the top of John Hancock tower, we went to their cocktail bar called the Signature Room on Level 95 where we enjoyed the views with a cocktail and no one standing in front of us or jabbing us or ruining our photos.
We visited a friend who is a Chicago native and he took us to Flat Top Grill – a stir fry restaurant similar to Genghis Kahn in Sydney. We also managed to make it to Ginos Deep Dish Pizza and found a voucher to skip the line which meant we only had to wait 20 minutes! We ordered a large meatlovers deep dish pizza for the 4 of us to share with a big garden salad and we struggled to finish it. The deep dish pizza is similar to a quiche – same depth and taste but without the egg. It was very rich and heavy and I managed to eat only one slice. Not my cup of tea and I’m glad we only had it once. We couldn’t leave Chicago without visiting a Jazz Bar so we randomly found one and sat for hours drinking and enjoying the jazz. It was mostly an older crowd at the jazz bar and even some families so we did feel a tad out of place.
Luckily we were given a Chicago Greeter (similar to a New York Greeter but in Chicago) who took us around on our last day in Chicago and showed us even more amazing architecture. We stumbled upon a great coffee shop called Intelligentsia. We weren’t sure whether it was so amazing in comparison to the normal American percolator coffee we had been subjected to so far, or whether it actually was as amazing as we remember. We also visited a beautiful building with marble interiors and gold engraving. Chicago Public Library was very nice and I was bummed we weren’t here for longer so I could take advantage of sitting in one of the rooms and reading for a few hours. I could not recommend the Chicago Greeter program any more highly – our greeter Doug was a retired man with a great love for his city. They are volunteers who don’t get paid to take you around for a few days but do so out of the goodness of their hearts. Doug gave us great insight into the city and gave us great analogies such as New York is a great international city whilst Chicago is the great American city, and New York has flamboyant wealth whereas Chicago’s wealth is understated.
Kay’s tips for Chicago:
- A trip on the train from Chicago Midway International to the ‘Loop’ is ridiculously cheap – $2.25!!
- Take time to walk around and look at buildings. Don’t just look at eye level but look all the way up – you never know what you will see
- Chicago’s street names really confused me with the east/west/north/south. What you need to know is Streets run east to west whereas Avenues run north to south and Place runs the ½ block between Streets. West refers to west of State St (and East refers to east of State St). North refers to north of Madison St (and similarly with South)
- Wacker Drive has an upper and a lower (Upper Wacker and Lower Wacker). Cars mainly use Upper Wacker whereas big delivery trucks mostly use Lower Wacker. It is literally one road suspended on top of the other
- A trip to Macys State St is a must – not only for the shopping but also for the sheer size of the building and the stunning interior
- Hop On Hop Off buses are great for exploring the city but don’t rely on it as transport as it runs VERY infrequently and can be very frustrating