In case you were wondering, that was a Chicago reference.
Because this week’s blog post is all about the 5 days I just spent in Chicago!
I’d never been to Chicago before (of the 9 cities/towns on my itinerary on this trip, I’d only visited 3 before. And that’s not even including Hong Kong!). Not only is it an incredibly interesting city, but it is also home to Emma, one of my oldest friends (not in age but in amount of time we’ve known each other – we started school together in 1982!) so it would be great to not only have a place to stay where I wouldn’t have to share a bunk bed, but also someone who knew the place well and could show me all the cool places to go (within the restrictions of only having 5 days, of course!)
Unfortunately we hit a bit of a snag when Emma was sent to San Francisco for work on Monday, the day I arrived. However she was able to leave keys for me at the front desk of her apartment building so I could still stay at her place as planned. And she was due back Wednesday night.
While in Philly last week I had discovered that Game 6 of 7 (if required) of the first round of the NBA playoffs between the Chicago Bulls and the Boston Celtics was scheduled for the Friday I would be in Boston. At that stage the Bulls were 2-0 up so there was no guarantee that it would even get to Game 6, but I messaged Emma to see if she’d be keen to go, which she was! The Celtics had done the right thing by winning the next 2 games, effectively guaranteeing Game 6 would happen, so while on the train from O’Hare Airport to the city centre, I bought 2 nosebleed tickets on StubHub. It would be my first NBA game – on previous USA trips I been to football (NFL in San Diego and NCAA in LA), NHL hockey in Vancouver, MLB baseball in San Diego (plus Boston on this trip) and MLS soccer in Seattle. I hadn’t thought NBA was on the cards on this trip, being playoff time, but everything fell into place!
On Monday I got a message from Emma to ask if I’d like to go to a Yo-Yo Ma concert that night with her friends. Now I have to admit I had to Google to find out who he was – I had heard of him but didn’t know what he did! I quickly accepted the offer – Emma had bought the ticket some time ago and didn’t want it to go to waste. Plus it would be a good way to meet some people given that I was staying in an apartment by myself (as opposed to a hostel, where you naturally meet fellow travellers!).
After ‘checking in’ to my lovely and very conveniently located digs for the next 5 days, I went for a walk to Trader Joe’s to grab a few things and was immediately blown away by the architecture and the skyline!
I decided to leave a bit early to walk to the Symphony, to do a bit more exploring. I found the very impressive Millennium Park and the waterless Buckingham Fountain. (I later found out that it is emptied during the winter due to the water’s inconsiderate tendency to freeze!) Now, I love me a good fountain but I gotta say they’re a lot more aesthetically pleasing when they are actually ‘founting’!
I met Emma’s friends Lyde and Cheena at the Symphony and we proceeded to climb 6 flights of stairs to the nosebleed section (I counted over 100 stairs!) but we still had a pretty good view!
The concert was excellent – I wasn’t familiar with any of the music (it was all Bach) but I thoroughly enjoyed it. As well as Yo-Yo Ma on cello, we had Edgar Meyer on bass and Chris Thile on mandolin – both excellent musicians in their own right. Annoyingly, I very inconveniently had a coughing fit during the second half and eventually decided to stand right in the back by the door so I could quickly duck out should I need to!
Tuesday happened to be 25 April, known in Australia as ANZAC Day. I’d found a service in Chicago through some Googling, and walked down there. It was a short ceremony, with readings from Australian and New Zealand representatives, and the many local runners who went past us must have wondered what was going on!
The service was followed by breakfast at the rooftop bar at the Wit hotel – great spot! I hadn’t RSVPed to the breakfast (given that I’d literally only found out about it the previous day) but Lyde, who had also been at the service, told me to come anyway – as it turned out the only vegan option there was coffee! I met a few other Aussies, one of whom, Cate, had lived in Chicago for many years, happened to work in the building next door, and knowing I had some time to kill before my next activity for the day, invited me to come to her building to see the observation deck – cracking view!
(One weird thing about ANZAC Day in another country is that it isn’t a public holiday here of course, so most people are dressed in business attire and have to dash off to work!)
One of the big ‘things to do’ in Chicago is an architecture cruise. There are many companies that operate cruises on the Chicago River, I opted for Shoreline as that was the one Lyde had mentioned. Tuesday was probably the best day weather-wise of my stay in Chicago so I wanted to make the most of it.
The architecture cruise was fantastic and something I’d recommend to all visitors to Chicago (and locals, if they haven’t done one yet!) I believe the Architecture Society runs one that is longer, more detailed and consequently more expensive. Maybe architects would be best to do that one, but for the rest of us, the Shoreline one gave me everything I needed!
After lunch at Native Foods (a vegan chain!) and a quick trip to Ross (a shop that sells designer gear at reduced prices – a very dangerous place for me!) to buy a new handbag to replace the one I’d been carrying around for the past 2 weeks with one broken strap, I headed to the Skydeck at Willis Tower (known for many years, and still known to many locals, as Sears Tower) – once the tallest building in the world. I bought the Day/Night pass which got me 2 entries in one day – one during the day and one at night.
The big attraction up there (other than the incredible views over the city and Lake Michigan) was The Ledge, a glass platform you can stand on and look straight down over the buildings. Not for everyone, but appealed greatly to me. And many others too – evident from the long queues at each of the 4 glass platforms along the western side of the observation deck. As I got closer to the front I was increasingly bemused by the plethora of those horrible things called ‘selfie sticks’ and annoyed by the people (OK I’ll say it – almost exclusively female) who took AGES to get the perfect shot – pretending to be supermodels or whatever, and when they didn’t look perfect, made their personal photographer take it again! Consequently I spent a great deal of my time up there, waiting in line to get onto The Ledge!
I did take quite a few pics up there (see pictures above and below) but in fairness that was in 4 separate visits to The Ledge. And you can see I’m in different outfits, as there were 2 separate visits to the observation deck.
In between said visits I stopped off at the apartment to get changed and go for a run (my goal for this trip is to run in every city at least once – Vegas is the only place I might struggle to find a good route to run!) – I opted for the Lakefront Trail along Lake Michigan – a popular spot and from the photos you can see why! It was a bit convoluted and involved crossing a bridge/going up and down stairs, but I managed to get in a good 12k, the longest I’d run since Boston.
I then had a quick shower and headed back to the observation deck as I wanted to not only see the city at night, but also watch the sunset from above. Between my visits I also came up with a few new ideas for poses and managed to get up on the ledge as the sun was setting as well as after dark.
Chicago tourist tip #1 – if you’ve got time, you can save money by going up at around 5:30pm (during Daylight Saving) and staying until it gets dark – thereby getting day and night in one visit. Might want to bring a book though – the sun takes a while to go down!
Wednesday’s weather did not look like being anywhere near as good as Tuesday’s, so I thought it was a good day for indoor activities! Being a little bit of a science nerd (in that I find it fascinating, not that I am in any way an expert!) the Museum of Science and Industry was the logical choice. It is located in Hyde Park which was a short bus ride away and is the location of the University of Chicago and also home to the Obamas!
I definitely did not have enough time here – I assumed it closed at 5 when it actually closed at 4 – a rookie mistake and one I won’t make again anytime soon!
- The ‘Brick By Brick’ exhibit (playing with Lego among other things – what’s not to like?) – an extra cost on top of admission but well worth it.
- The model train that had to be seen to be believed – illustrating the journey of products (eg apples and timber) as well as passengers from Seattle to Chicago, including very detailed miniature models of both cities! Literally I could have just watched that for hours (that was the first thing I saw) but I was pretty sure there was more to see!
- The shell of a real United Airlines plane (insert topical joke here) attached to the balcony on the upper level – and a video explaining how it got there!
- The maze of mirrors in which I genuinely got lost!
The lowlight was the extremely loud school kids (I don’t think you can avoid them, regardless of when or where you go) who made it impossible for me to hear some videos I was interested in, about genetics and specifically the Human Genome Project.
But overall I thought it was excellent and well worth a visit – maybe bring your iPod!
Chicago tourist tip #2 – check the opening hours of museums and galleries before you go – because invariably you won’t have time to see everything and you don’t want to miss out on anything important!
I heard from Emma that she wasn’t going to be back now until late Friday night. I now needed to find something to do for the next 2 days (not an issue in itself but the weather was not ideal so that was a bit of a limiting factor). Plus ideally I needed to find someone to use Emma’s basketball ticket on Friday – luckily Lyde was keen to go and suggested dinner beforehand at a local vegetarian place!
Speaking of vegetarian, I was pretty hungry by the time I left the museum at 4, so I used my trusty Happy Cow phone app to find nearby food – conveniently there was a place very close by called B’Gabs – funny name but excellent food! All vegan and mostly raw – I went with a raw burger – a first for me! A bit tricky to eat but delicious!
I then had a browse in the nearby secondhand bookstore (Powell’s) – something often found in university areas! Due to books being relatively heavy and unsquishable, I have so far resisted (I’d bought 2 so far) but couldn’t pass up Stephen Hawking’s ‘The Grand Design’ for only $4.95 + tax! A little light reading for the plane trips! Trust me, if imminent plane travel wasn’t a factor I could have bought up big there!
After returning to the city centre I made an unnecessary trip to TJ Maxx, a shop similar to Ross. I ostensibly went in there for a pair of black ballet flats which I’ve been searching for this whole trip but walked out sans ballet flats but with a pair of running tights which I most definitely did not need (but which in my defence were amazing) and a Chicago Bulls T-shirt which I did kind of need for the game on Friday.
Then it was time for my ‘When in Rome’ moment. Like the cheese steak in Philly, I was determined to try a Chicago staple, a deep dish pizza. After Googling it seemed that Lou Malnati’s, also one of the most famous places for deep dish pizza, was my best option for vegan deep dish. It was a bit of a hike from the shops and then back to Emma’s but I was determined to try it!
When I got there and asked about a vegan version, the first girl effectively said ‘No, we don’t do that’. I then stepped outside to try to find another nearby place that might be more amenable. An Instagram search of #vegandeepdish kept coming back to Lou Malnati’s as the best option, so I went back in and asked (with a straight face) for a ‘Deep dish cheese pizza without cheese’. The guy who served me that time was somewhat dubious and even had to go out the back to ask if it could be done! Which of course it could! I added mushrooms and just got a small. It took a while but eventually I had the pizza in my hand and took it back to Emma’s place where I finally got to eat it. And you know what? It was really good, and lacked nothing in taste by not having cheese! I actually only ate half, which was great because that would take care of Thursday night’s dinner as well!
After Emma told me she was stuck in San Fran until Friday, I had a bit of a think about what to do. I had a crazy idea to catch a bus to Milwaukee and visit the Harley-Davidson museum. The bus was only about 1.5 hours and $10 each way. I decided to sleep on it and if I decided in the morning that I was keen, I’d walk to the bus station and see if I could get on.
So on Thursday morning I woke up just in time to eat breakfast before wandering down to the Greyhound terminal to try to get on the 10:00 to Milwaukee. As it turned out, the 10:00 was full as was the following bus, so that made my decision easy! It was for the best anyway, as it was colder than I’d anticipated and I’d neglected to bring a jacket, and also I’d forgotten to throw a Clif bar in my bag for the road.
So I made my way to Hero Coffee, my favourite coffee shop in Chicago (funnily enough, when I did eventually catch up with Emma, she said she was going to tell me to go there!) to have a coffee, use the wifi to look at booking a trip to Milwaukee on Friday, and read the Redeye, one of the local street mags.
Milwaukee was a no-go because the bus times, and my early dinner plans, meant I’d only have a couple of hours in Milwaukee, so I decided it wasn’t worth it.
In the street press I read about a fitness class happening on Friday morning, featuring kettlebells and, more importantly, 80s hair metal music! So naturally that was a no-brainer!
I also Googled museums – after considering the Field museum (natural history) I settled on Chicago’s No. 1 tourist attraction (according to TripAdvisor), the Art Institute. There was Thursday taken care of – it was open until 8pm Thursdays! I was definitely going to get my money’s worth out of this one!
The Art Institute was, quite simply, amazing. You would need a MINIMUM of 4 hours to even get close to doing this place justice. I spent over 7 hours there!
Highlights for me were:
- The Impressionists – they’ve always really appealed to me
- Only some of the modern art – most of it I didn’t really like but I did like some of the Picasso and Dali Surrealist stuff!
- Some of the Ancient Greek sculpture
- Chagall’s American Windows
- The special Hélio Oiticica exhibition – lots of interactive and multimedia stuff
- The medieval religious art (again, has always appealed to me, weirdly enough for a heathen!)
- My last stop for the day – the miniature rooms down in the basement! Mindblowing!
Unlike many attractions I’ve visited so far, they actually let you leave and come back! So I took the opportunity to walk over to Millennium Park to eat my lunch, where I was questioned by a couple of design students about my views on ‘The Bean’ (officially ‘Cloud Gate’) – they initially thought I was a local but were still interested to hear my views!
When I did eventually manage to drag myself away from the Art Institute, I decided on a whim to walk down what is known as the Magnificent Mile (lots of high end shops which I managed to resist going into) to the John Hancock building to go up to yet another observation deck. This one was different though – this one had the Tilt. You may have heard of the Tilt. If not – check it out here!
I had to pay for entry to the observation deck, plus I decided to fork out the extra $5 for a rooftop cocktail, then the $7 for Tilt, which was over pretty quickly but an amazing experience (you’re in a glass booth which tilts outwards over the city – the view is incredible and it’s not really that scary!)
The photos were a massive ripoff though – they were going to charge me $25 for one photo which was taken from behind so didn’t even really show me tilting! No thanks!
The view was pretty good although I didn’t feel the need to stay long after I’d seen it all from Sears Tower a few days earlier!
First order of business on Friday was to take the train to Through The Body for my ‘Hellz Bellez’ class! Such a fun concept – the music was so good, finishing up with a little Leppard and Poison, and even with the 2.5lb kettlebell I definitely felt the effects the next day! Thanks Stephanie for an awesome class!
So my plan after a shower and one last load of washing, was to hit up the vintage storesof Wicker Park. I did eventually get there but was caught out by the confusing Chicago train network which brings me to my 3rd and final tip for Chicago:
Chicago tourist tip #3 – the train network is confusing! If there are stations on 2 different lines with the same name, don’t assume it’s the same station! As an example, the Blue Line has 2 different stations called Harlem!
Instead of Wicker Park I found myself in Pilsen, the Mexican neighbourhood (which is HUGE, FYI!) It is a vibrant area and there is a mural district which I didn’t find, but I did eventually work out where I did need to be! Next time I’m in Chicago (and there will be a next time!) I’ll make sure I get a whole day in the Wicker Park neighbourhood!
From there I went to Green Zebra to meet Lyde for dinner – I ended up having 3 courses and a cocktail, all vegan, all delicious!
From there we headed to United Center for the Bulls v Celtics game.
We were in the nosebleed section but could still see everything that was going on. And there was ALWAYS something going on. Dunk contests, acrobats, a Chinese woman on a unicycle flipping bowls off her foot onto her head, T-shirts being shot out of cannons, T-shirts in parachutes – never a dull moment! Pity the game was a non-event and the Bulls lost the series that night and consequently are now out of the playoffs! Nevertheless, it was awesome to experience an NBA game live despite the one-sidedness of the contest!
And the night finished with another first – my first ever Uber ride! Public transport wasn’t really an option to get home given the dodginess of the area, so I decided to download the app and give this Uber thing a try! Uber is not really big in Australia but is pretty huge over here. I was lucky enough to have a very good experience with an excellent driver, Andrew – seems like a pretty good system!
On Saturday, my final day in Chicago (fortunately I was on a 4:55pm flight so I had most of the day) I finally saw Emma, who’d got in around 2am! We went for brunch and way too much coffee (they kept topping us up!) then for a cup of tea at Intelligentsia and finally a donut (I can’t remember the name of the place but they had literally one vegan donut which was more like a muffin but still good!) before heading back to Emma’s place to get my stuff and head to the train! It rained pretty much all day so we tended to stick with indoor activities!
One of the things I’ve noticed everywhere in the States but which seems to be most obtrusive in Chicago out of all the places I’ve been to, is the homeless people. They’re on pretty much every corner but it’s not just that. In Chicago I saw one guy walk through traffic and ask people in cars for money – I’d never seen that before, only the Good Friday appeal in Melbourne which is different, that’s charity collectors, and it’s all-pervasive (but only for one day). On Saturday alone we had one guy in the foyer of the donut place (which was really awkward because it was kind of hard to say you had no spare money when you obviously just bought donuts) and finally a guy who walked past us 3 times at the train station asking for money (after we’d only said no, like 30 seconds ago)
So, that’s Chicago for you! I will be back! I have a feeling next time the Chicago Marathon may be on the cards!
Next stop Portland, Oregon!