By Jim Ferri
I went to Chicago almost as an afterthought.
I had attended a conference in Toronto and since I had to be in Las Vegas a week later I thought Chicago would be an interesting place to spend the interval. Also, I had never been to the city before and I didn’t want to take two additional flights.
To keep the cost down, I decided to use Airbnb, the company that matches you with room rentals in people’s homes and apartments, and was able to rent a room in a nice condo in the Lincoln Park area of the city. It was a good decision since the price was right (about $99 per night, including all taxes, etc., quite a savings compared to the rates charged by downtown hotels), the area was safe and it was just a short bus ride into the city (you can buy a three-day pass, good for unlimited rides, for $20).
The first morning, after breakfast at the local Pancake House, I walked across a strip of Lincoln Park near the Zoo, and was greeted by a beautiful view of the city skyline reflecting in a park lake. It was a beautiful time to be out in the morning and all about people were jogging, walking their dogs or just walking along with their friends chatting.
With its football, basketball and baseball teams, Chicago is a major sports town, but it’s not until you walk through Lincoln Park and see all the baseball and soccer fields, hockey rinks and running trails that you realize just how far down the sports craze filters.
Since the weather was so nice, instead of taking the bus downtown I decided to walk along the lakefront to Navy Pier, an iconic Chicago landmark. It was a long walk but I took my time, enjoying the early morning sun and absorbing everything going on about me.
Navy Pier is Chicago’s Coney Island, an amusement wonderland with a Ferris Wheel and other rides and a beer garden, the latter not a complete surprise in beer-loving Chicago. What was a surprise was that the Pier also has three theaters (including Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater), the Chicago Children’s Museum and a stained-glass window museum.
That morning it was visually dazzling in the morning sun with everything newly painted in bright reds, yellows and blues, almost as if it were a cartoon on TV. During the summer months fireworks light up the pier every Wednesday and Saturday evening, plus, of course, a special July 4th show.
Along the east side of the pier I found a flotilla of big and small boats, some the size of large yachts, that take people on tours up the Chicago River and along the shore or out on the lake. I instead found a water taxi there that I took for a lakeshore cruise up to the Shedd Aquarium for $8. All along the shoreline we were treated to spectacular views of downtown Chicago at a fraction of the price of the larger tour boats.
The Shedd is a great aquarium, one of the best in the country, and when I arrived I saw just how popular it was, since the admissions line stretched for about 200 yards. I was lucky enough to have a CityPASS, though, which allowed me to bypass the line and enter it immediately. (At the risk of sounding like a shill for CityPASS, I use these passes whenever I can since they not only save you a lot of money on a group of top attractions, but also allow you to skip long lines).
Adjacent to the Shedd was the Field Museum, a natural history museum rated one of the best in the country. Although it was interesting, it seemed more of a place geared to class trips, and I didn’t enjoy it as much as the other fantastic places I would visit all over the city.
The next day I took the 151 bus from the Lincoln Park Zoo, where I watched a farmer’s market being set up, downtown to Millennium Park. The ride was quick and comfortable and when I arrived at the park I headed to Cloud Gate, a magnificent sculpture nicknamed “The Bean” by Chicagoans.
Although I had seen photos of it I still wasn’t prepared for the actual experience, which was wonderful. It was a magnificent sculpture, unlike anything I’ve seen before, and as I walked around, and under it, I could hear others describing it as “unbelievable” and “so uniquely beautiful.” Even those descriptions fall well short of sufficiently describing this beautiful but simplistic work of art.
After leaving The Bean I walked down along the city’s “Magnificent Mile,” an eight-block stretch of shopping Nirvana on Michigan Avenue. The Mile is as famous as New York’s Fifth Avenue and Beverley Hills’ Rodeo Drive and begins at the Chicago River. One morning I went down to the river at Michigan to take the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise, which had been highly recommended to me by friends.
The 90-minute tour was a great and lively introduction to Chicago despite the light rain that began to fall, with our guide describing the buildings along the way and explaining the hybrid architectural styles. He also pointed out little things on buildings and discussed what made each style important. It was a fascinating visual history of Chicago and he even showed us where Mrs. O’Leary’s cow supposedly kicked over the lantern that started the great Chicago fire. “Chicago,” he told us, “is the city of infinite optimism.”
I was not optimistic about my visit to the Skydeck in the Willis Tower, aka the Sears Tower, and it’s Skydeck, a glass box in which you walk out and can look straight down 103 floors. On the 70-second elevator ride to the top of the building I couldn’t help but notice I was the oldest person in the elevator, which did not make me feel good given my fear of heights.
When I got to the front of the line off the three glass boxes I was extremely nervous, and just slowly walked out trying not to look down but more to the left and right to see what other people were doing. A lot of them were sitting down or turning around or pushing against the wall in what I hoped were acts of false bravado.
I, on the other hand, had trouble just moving five feet to the outside wall. I took photos of people on the sky decks on either side of me to keep myself occupied, but when I took a picture of my feet, the only time I’d looked down, I almost dropped the camera from the sight. I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there and have since added it to a list the things I never want to do again in my lifetime. (On the other hand, if you don’t need the adrenalin rush, the view of the skyline is much better from the Hancock Tower.)
Legs still shaking, I headed off to the Museum of Science and Industry, a bit far out of the center of the city by bus, to see the U-505, its intact German U-boat, and many other exhibits. It’s a fascinating place that’s well worth a visit. Plan to spend a good half-day there and another half in the Art Institute of Chicago on South Michigan Avenue where you can view, among many other treasures, Grant Wood’s American Gothic (which, for some reason, I expected to be much larger) and Nighthawks, Edward Hopper’s famous painting of a New York diner near his home in New York’s Greenwich Village.
I capped off my visit to the Windy City with something quintessentially Chicago: a visit to a Blues club. On Friday night I went to Kingston Mines, considered one of the best blues places in Chicago and right after arriving in the dimly lit place got myself a beer and some ribs (along with delicious fries and coleslaw). I sat down at one of the long narrow 8” bar tables and got into a conversation with two couples from South Dakota who were in the middle of a baseball-tour vacation.
I really enjoyed the music for a couple of hours but decided to leave about 11PM since I had a flight to catch the next morning. The band, obviously attuned to late-night stands, kept playing until 4 AM.
If you go:
72 E. Randolph
Chicago, IL 60601
600 East Grand Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611
Tel: (312) 595-7437
1200 S Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60605
Tel: (312) 939-2438
Admission: adult $8, children $6 (does not include several exhibits)
1400 S Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60605
Tel: (312) 922-9410
Admission: adult $30, senior (65+) $25, children $21
Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise
The dock is located on the southeast corner of the Michigan Avenue Bridge (at the corner of Michigan Avenue and East Wacker Drive). Look for the blue awnings.
Tel: (312) 922-3432
Admission: adults $37.85 plus tax
Skydeck Chicago (Willis Tower)
233 S Wacker Drive
Chicago, IL 60606
Tel: (312) 875-9696
Admission: adult $18, children $12, Fast Pass (an express line to the elevators) $40
Museum of Science and Industry
5700 S Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60637
Tel: (773) 684-1414
Admission: adult $27-36, senior (65+) $26-35, children $18-25
Art Institute of Chicago
111 S Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60603
Tel: (312) 443-3600
Admission: adult $25.50, senior (65+) $19, children $19
2548 N Halsted Street
Chicago, IL 60614
Tel: (773) 477-4646
Admission: cover charge $12 ($15 Friday and Saturday nights)