Coming to America, I thought I had it all sussed. I thought I knew about New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. I thought I knew what the cities would be like, and the main attractions there are to do in each place.
Turns out I was wrong.
Did you know the oral contraceptive pill and the atomic bomb were originally from Chicago? Did you know there was a fire that almost wiped out the entire city of Chicago in 1871? The original Ferris Wheel also had its origins in Chicago, being designed and constructed for the cities 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
I knew none of this before I went to ‘The Windy City’ (I didn’t realize it was called this either, but it actually wasn’t windy at all during our stay!) I planned the trip on a whim when I realized President’s Day was coming up presenting a good opportunity to explore another city.
We spent the first day of our trip familiarizing ourselves with the city. We were staying in the Gold Coast neighborhood which was perfectly situated within walking distance to the city, Lincoln Park and Old Town. The first thing I wanted to see was Lake Michigan, which was only two blocks away from our accommodation, so we made our way down to the lake and walked along the shore until we reached Navy Pier.
The first thing that struck me about Navy Pier was its size. It’s huge and it stretches on for ages! We were lucky to have a beautiful day and could marvel at the super blue color of the water and enjoy the outdoor areas. Unfortunately we were visiting in the winter months so many of the outdoor attractions were closed down until spring. However, I could imagine Navy Pier would be incredible in summer, with boat cruises, the beer garden, music playing, stalls, ice creams, the fun park area… it would be a great place for kids, kids at heart and anyone who loves a great atmosphere to visit in the warmer months.
Regardless of the season, we made the most of checking out the pier building. One section of the building houses the Stained Glass museum, which is a free attraction for visitors. There were some pretty incredible and diverse stained glass windows and the building wasn’t crowded so we were able to really enjoy the beauty of this museum. We also checked out the Crystal Gardens, which is an indoor garden area. A great place to sit down and have some lunch, and definitely a good attraction to visit if you find yourself at Navy Pier during the winter. While many of the fun park attractions are closed during the winter, the Ferris Wheel is open year round, and is a great way to get some breathtaking views over the lake and of the towering city. If you have children with you when you’re visiting Navy Pier, be sure to check out Chicago Children’s Museum and the Funhouse Maze.
Aside from Navy Pier, there are a lot of landmarks in Chicago that are well worth a photo. The most notable is possibly Cloud Gate, also known as ‘The Bean’ due to its shape. This sculpture is situated in Millennium Park and has become a very popular tourist attraction. Millennium Park itself has become a very popular tourist spot and along with Cloud Gate the park also features Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Ice Rink, Wrigley Square, BP Pedestrian Bridge and the Crown Fountain (which could also be called The Moving Faces). Crown Fountain in particular struck a chord with me, two massive faces beaming down on you. Watching these faces you’ll notice subtly they move. They wink, grin, blink and look away.
Not far from Millennium Park sits the ever impressive Buckingham Fountain in the center of Grant Park. This is somewhere to save for a summer time visit. While it is easy to see it’s grandeur in the winter time, the lack of water leaves something to be desired! The Picasso is a unique sculpture which dominates Daley Plaza. The sculpture was the first major public artwork in downtown Chicago and has since become a well-known landmark. From old to new, just down the road in Pioneer Court is the giant Marilynn Monroe statue which was unveiled less than a year ago in 2011. The statue, which pays homage to the famous stance from “The Seven Year Itch” has caused much controversy, from being a hit with some tourists and locals to those who despise the giant figurine. Nonetheless, it’s worth a visit, although I do ponder why exactly it’s there in this otherwise breathtaking part of town.
One of the main tourist attractions people do when visiting Chicago is to head up the Willis Tower Skydeck to see the breathtaking view over the city and the lake. However, going to the observation deck of this tower can be a pricey trip ($17.50 per adult). I had a look around at other alternatives and discovered The John Hancock Tower, which also has a popular observation deck for a price slightly cheaper than that of the Willis Tower ($15 per adult). In terms of observation decks go, I can’t vouch for either. The Skydeck at the Willis Tower on the 103rd floor is supposed to be incredible as you are able to step out above the city in a little glass ledge and see a breathtaking panoramic view. The view from the Hancock Tower observation deck (94th floor) is said to be stunning also. However both observation decks weren’t quite in my price range. What was in my price range was the Signature Lounge on the 96th Floor of the Hancock Tower. This is two floors above the observation deck, and better yet, it’s free to go up! Of course there’s a catch, you must buy a drink. We flew straight up the 96 floors in the super-fast elevator and stepped out to the most incredible late afternoon views of the city. After hanging around for ten minutes we managed to nab a table right by the window, ordered a cocktail each ($7.50 each) and enjoyed the sunset over the city! Breathtaking!
On the second day of the trip I was keen to explore North of the Gold Coast suburbs. We set out towards Lincoln Park via Old Town. I’d read about Old Town and heard good things so thought we’d check it out. I wasn’t disappointed. I loved it! The area had many old style boutique shops and restaurants, and felt much more rustic and genuine than Downtown Chicago. We stumbled across two little shops which were possibly the highlight of my trip. The Spice Merchant and the Oil Shop. I’m a big fan of herbs, spices and seasonings and this shop has everything! Naturally we spent quite some time in this shop, wandering around, sampling various offerings. Of course we walked away with quite a few as well – the best part was how cheap it was! We bought four bags of herbs and seasonings for $8! We then went to the next shop along, an Oil Merchant. So many barrels of oils and flavored vinegars, all different flavours! We walked away with Tuscan seasoned olive oil!
Later that afternoon we headed to Lincoln Park Zoo. It’s the only free zoo I’ve ever come across! And it was big! Pretty busy but not over crowded. We saw a jaguar, lion, tiger, grizzly bear, monkeys and apes of all sorts of varieties, foxes, snakes, crazy deers, camels, Kangaroo, polar bear, giraffe and so many more. Some of the animals in this zoo I’d only ever seen in movies and in pictures so this was very exciting! A great way to spend an afternoon.
The final day was spent exploring Downtown Chicago and visiting the Chicago History Museum. I’m a history geek so the museum was one of my highlights of this trip. We explored the museum for two and a half hours, and I actually learned a lot about the Civil War, what happened in America during WWII and the history of Chicago. I never knew about the great fire in Chicago, I didn’t know how the city came to be so popular and I didn’t know about the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. This museum surprised me. It was huge and filled with information. I really enjoyed it and it’s one of the best museums I’ve visited in the last few years. There were plenty of places for kids to have some educational fun throughout the museum and to learn a little bit of American history, so I would say this is a great stop for people of all ages!
Before we headed out to the airport we wandered down Magnificent Mile, checked out some of the flash, expensive shops and marveled at the architecture. One of the interesting things about Chicago is one of their subway lines – the brown line – is elevated from the city, almost like a monorail. It completes a loop of downtown Chicago so is an excellent way to see some of the sites. We jumped on the brown line enroute to O’Hare airport and completed the loop, making sure we’d managed to see all we wanted to see in the Windy City.
While you’re in Chicago, make a point to check out a jazz bar. As one of the old jazz towns this is a great way to spend an evening. The city also has a relatively strong theater district if you’re in the mood to check out some theater.
Chicago is an incredibly beautiful city and it wasn’t at all what I expected. I loved every minute of my time in Chicago. My only regret is not being there during the summer months and therefore being unable to take a lake and canal cruise. I was desperate to experience the architecture cruise as I had been recommended. Next time, that is definitely on my list!
Have you ever been to Chicago? What was your favorite part?