First Time Chicago
With beautiful architecture wherever you look and an abundance of well-designed parks and public art, Chicago reminded me of a European city.
It starts when you get to the airport. O’Hare does a great job of showing off city highlights, with posters featuring the neighbourhoods lining the walls, plenty of local delicacies such as Garrett Popcorn shops (you have to try their famous Chicago Mix of cheese and caramel popcorn), and a real dinosaur skeleton towering over the Field Museum store. The city itself is a long ride in on the train though. The ‘L’ departs directly from the airport and gets into downtown about 40 minutes later. At least HI-Chicago is a short walk from the train stop.
Let’s talk about the hostel for a minute: it’s pretty great. The common areas are beautiful and modern, it’s attached to a Cuban café that’s both delicious and reasonably priced (I still think about the key lime pie), and the location is amazing. We walked so much that I’m not sure we got our money’s worth from the transit passes we were conveniently able to buy in the hostel lobby.
One of the first places we checked out was just around the corner from the hostel: Jackson Street, in an area known as the Loop. Lined with high street shops and an unbelievably huge Macy’s, it’s a good way to immerse yourself in the city. Signs on the sidewalk alerted us to architecturally important buildings, speakers planted in sidewalk gardens played music as part of a summer art project, and the iconic Chicago Theatre sign greeted us at the end of the street.
Also nearby is the Magnificent Mile, another busy street with high-end shops and beautiful architecture. Walking there from the hostel, you’ll pass the famous Cloud Gate sculpture (i.e. “The Bean”) and the Art Institute of Chicago. If you keep on walking, you’ll pass through the wealthy Gold Coast district, known for its historic mansions. And if your feet haven’t failed you yet, keep on walking to Lincoln Park, where you’ll find Lincoln Park Zoo, which is all the more impressive for being free.
Since our visit was short, we only had time to see one museum, and we chose the Field Museum. We had a pleasant time getting there, passing the impressive Buckingham Fountain (less than a 10 minute walk from the hostel) and through the sprawling Grant Park. The Field Museum is located in a stunning, giant waterfront building. The flagship exhibit is a T. rex named Sue, the largest and most complete T. rex skeleton ever found. The museum is too big to adequately see in one day, but we enjoyed what we did see and didn’t exhaust ourselves.
We also attended a baseball game at Wrigley Field, but to be honest, we found it boring and left about halfway through. I would have been happy taking a picture of the famous sign from outside and leaving. Handy hint! If you really want to say you saw a Cubs game, walk around the perimeter of the stadium and you will find a portion of the fence is just wire mesh, affording you a field-level view. We walked past it after we left, and even though they were playing rivals the Boston Red Sox, there were only a few people gathered at this thoughtfully placed spot.
There’s a lot going on in Chicago, and we didn’t have enough time to try everything we wanted to. For example, we tried deep dish pizza, but not a Chicago-style hot dog. We didn’t get out to Jackson Park or Navy Pier or most of the restaurants on my list. Still, it’s not all about ticking off a list, and we had a great time and made many tasty and fun discoveries. Until next time, Chicago!
If you go:
The hostel is really a fantastic resource because they have signs listing places to check out deep dish pizza, Chicago-style hot dogs, blues clubs, and more. They also offer a lot of tours and events, plus great discounts on attractions like the Sears Tower. And like I said, you can't beat their location. One night we wandered in a direction we hadn't been before and had dinner at a really cool burger place a stone's throw away, then found a Target (great for stocking up on travel toiletries) and a nice new movie theatre a short walk further!
Read The Devil in the White City. Although there's not much remaining from the 1893 World's Fair, it's a fascinating true story, and you will appreciate the outstanding architecture even more when you recognize Daniel Burnham's name.