Before starting to tell you about our new love, the Windy City, I should start by saying that we, or more I really, love to coin a particular travelling couple of phrases. For departures, I have been know to say “On the road again” and for arrivals, “I need to get my bearings”. We found ourselves for our first morning in Chicago without a downtown map so there was no hope of getting my bearings at all. Crazy situation! This never happens – usually we are disembarking said train, airplane or bus and I scoot round for leaflets/maps/vouchers which are, more often than not, plentiful. Union Station Chicago failed me. Probably because we arrived to an underground train terminal rather than the main station concourse.
Airbnb – Downtown Chicago
Our Airbnb was in a brilliant location so the central sights of Chicago will all be within walking distance. Jordan was our host in his large 4 bed-roomed apartment. The apartment seemed to be in a transition period. Some flatmates moving out, some moving in. Furniture being dumped or sold. Each day something different was missing, either a TV, computer, sofa or flatmate. At first glance, we thought there had been a burglary every day but soon got used to the transient life of furniture, people and possessions. Luckily this did not include our limited possessions.
We felt a bit like the parents visiting student accommodation, especially on the Saturday night when at about 3am Jordan and co came home from a night out and got their megaphone out and started shouting comments at the pedestrians on the streets below. Mostly innocent stuff like, “Don’t walk on a stop sign!”, “Who is that guy you are with?” but we think he was out of sight from them as he got a lot braver as he finished his bottle of vodka and the megaphone was put to bed about 4am. We needed a Starbucks fix the next morning before heading off to find the much needed map.
Bridges over the Chicago River
A bridge? We love a bridge! I am ashamed to say that prior to arriving here, I didn’t realise there were rivers and canals running “from” Lake Michigan into the city. Yes, they reversed the flow to supply fresh water to the city many years ago. The bridges over the Chicago River open to allow yachts and high boats through. On a 2 mile stretch of the River there are guess how many bridges that need to be opened in succession? 18 in all and it takes around 4 hours for the boats to pass through them to access the lake. The bridges only open during Spring and Autumn a couple of times a week and guess what? We flukily coincided our walk downtown at exactly the time of one of the openings. Some of the bridges are 2 or 3 tier for cars/pedestrians and the overhead trains on the loop.
Crazily the bridge crews run from one bridge house to the next to operate the barriers and lifting gear. Technology certainly hasn’t caught up with the Chicago bridge lift and long may it stay that way. Unless of course you are a boat owner, in which case you may not feel the same way.
The river has huge skyscrapers towering above it but we will go into more detail on these in another post. Before I finished my river section, however, it has just dawned on me that here in the US all the rivers have river at the end, ie Mississippi River, Chicago River, Colorado River etc whereas in the UK we always put river first, ie River Thames, River Avon, River Severn. Just another of my fairly useless observations.
Shopping? You know I love to shop (not!) The Visitor Centre was temporarily located in the basement of Macy’s. How fortunate! Apart from 7 floors of shopping in the hundred year old store to tempt me, the building was impressive and the Walnut Room Restaurant on the top floor is a must before taking in a show don’t you know.
We know our place and headed for the basement to gather our maps. (However, I had noted the grid reference, GPS location, zip code and laid a trail of flour so I could return the shop to replace the trainers that sprung a leak in Denver.)
A park? You know we love a park. We felt the need to see the lake. The lake, of course, being Lake Michigan. It is the second largest lake of the 5 great lakes in American and the only one totally within the US. To get to the lake we took a stroll through Grant Park with it’s enormous Buckingham Fountain and then onto Millennium Park.
The park is built on top of former rail yards. When I say on top, I do actually mean a floor above the rail yards which are below street level. The park has a skating rink, a super modern bridge spanning the highway, a concert pavilion/amphitheater but the most popular attraction is Cloud Gate which is locally nicknamed The Bean.
Basically it is a three storey high, highly polished shiny giant kidney bean with a mirror coating. It reflects everything around it, buildings, people, skyline so it is a popular place for photos and we were no exception. All manor of crazy poses were going on and not just by the children. You can walk under the centre which is concave and that warps and multiples the reflections even more.
Jon will never forgive me if i don’t say that The Bean is featured at the end of the movie Source Code. While we are talking films, there is so much movie trivia about Chicago. Films such as The Untouchables, The Blues Brothers, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Sting, Home Alone, Road to Perdition, The Dark Knight and so the list goes on. Surprisingly there are no movie tours of the city. More surprising still is that there is only one very tacky, tongue in cheek tour related to Al Capone even though Chicago was a notorious gangster town in the late 20s and early 30s. The St Valentine Day Massacre took place in Chicago and bizarrely we saw the actual wall from the alley where this happened in the Mob Museum in Las Vegas. Where else?
New City, new pier! We love a pier so decided to head along the lake shore to the Navy Pier. River trips and lake cruises depart from here, as well as there being a huge ferris wheel, lots of places to eat (including my favourite, Bubba Gump), a huge greenhouse/hot house called the Crystal Garden and great views back to the city.
The pier is celebrating it’s 100th birthday this year and was originally a dock for freight and passengers arriving from across the lake. Now it claims to be the biggest tourist attraction in the midwest. Sadly one side of the pier is just access to the car parks and for deliveries to the shops and restaurants so it is only worth walking along the south side and centre. It had a good leisurely feel and we sat for ages people watching and lake gazing.
Chicago Lakefront Trail
A trail for cycling and walking? We love a trail. This one runs for 18 miles along the lake front connecting various beaches and parks and is used by tourists and commuters alike. We headed north along the trail from the pier up towards our Airbnb. It was a beautiful day and fantastic contrast to see the city butt up to the sparkling lake. We even managed a paddle.
To be honest, these first impressions of Chicago have blown us away – forgive the pun. It many be because it is outshone by other cities such as New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas but we think it is definitely under rated and it has a great first impression after only one day of exploring.
An authentic Italian restaurant? Guess what? We love a pasta feast. Throughout the day we had passed so many great places to eat and resisted the temptation until we saw the little Italian place called Pizano’s about 3 doors away from our temporary home. We decided we should eat in case the cooker had been stolen, swapped or sold. The Malnati family have had restaurants in Chicago since 1943 and stepping through the door was like stepping back in time. Cozy little tables with a long bar running the whole length of the room and the food!! As you know I take time over my decisions (still working on the top five films!) but, after much deliberation we decided to order a pizza pie and some Pasta Al Franco. It was the best ever. Seven days in Chicago – how many visits will the budget and waistline allow?
I cannot finish this last post from Chicago without questioning – where is the wind? “Windy City” is emblazoned on every T-shirt, postcard and song about Chicago but we have yet to experience this. A light breeze comes off the lake and the wind does blow through and around the skyscrapers but that is it so far. In the coming days, I may have to eat my words or some more research into the name.