A long weekend? Off to Chicago!
Trip Start Dec 26, 2012
56Trip End Jan 15, 2013
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Where I stayed
Comfort Suites Michigan Avenue Chicago
Read my review - 4/5 stars
Read my review - 4/5 stars
What I did
There wasn't time to drive home first and then catch a taxi, so I had planned to leave my car at the airport for the three days I'd be away
The flight to Chicago was only just over two hours, and, well, for want of a less cliched phrase, it flew by pretty quickly! Once again, friends and colleagues at school had marvelled over the fact that I was flying, not just to another province, but a whole other country this time, for the long weekend. But that's what long weekends should be for, right? Especially if you've been blessed with a salary that allows you to afford it, and you're on a time line as to how long you can live this fantastic life...at least that's how I was looking at it
Before I knew it, the city of Chicago was before me, along with a wall of water that was only slightly darker than the evening sky, stretching to the far horizon and in either direction as far as my eyes could see. Incredible Lake Michigan. I'd landed in Chicago's O'Hare Airport once before, of course, my first touchdown on US soil in fact, when on my way to Boston in the July holidays. However, I'd only been there for about 40 minutes, and I needed most of those just to get to my connecting flight. It's HUGE. Snakes around and off in all sorts of directions. It's well signposted however, and I didn't have any trouble working out where I needed to go, it just took a while to get there!
Jill and I had different arrival times, but within an hour or so of each other, and we'd pre booked shuttle taxis to the city, so we'd arranged that I'd wait until a certain time, but just go ahead and get the next taxi if she hadn't arrived by 9pm
Comfort Suites Inn were not overselling themselves when they gave it that name. It's incredibly narrow facade is 25 stories high, and the top few floors only have five suites apiece. I'd barely had time to explore our huge apartment (almost the size of the condo I'm in in Winnipeg) when Jill knocked on the door
It was a happy reunion, and so great to see her again. We marvelled at the view from our 23rd floor windows, right over the Chicago River, and straight down the Magnificent Mile. The buildings were lit up as if it was Christmas, and we decided that even though it was getting pretty late by this stage, that it was considerably warmer than it would be in Calgary or Winnipeg at this time of year, and we should go for a quick walk around the immediate area. This we did, and then couldn't wait for the next morning when we'd already decided that doing the hop on hop off bus tour was the best way to get an idea of the local layout of the city centre and what we wanted to put on the bucket list for the three days we were here. By the time we finished catching up, it was after midnight, so no one had trouble sleeping, even if one of us was using the pull out sofa bed in the living area. With the sound of muted traffic and Chicago sirens below, we drifted off to sleep at last.
Comfort Inn Suites had a fully equipped kitchenette in our rooms, but a free breakfast, the full Monty, with everything you could think of, was included on the ground floor dining room each morning
We booked bus tickets and found the most value for money I've seen with any of these tours, and I've taken a few this year, in Victoria, Boston, Vancouver, Toronto and Niagara Falls. We received a booklet that included vouchers for all kinds of free stuff, (designed to get you to buy more stuff you don't need from the stores that offered them of course, but still!) and the price allowed you to use the tickets for three days. We jumped on and off quite a bit over the next few days, and always found vastly different guides, so you didn't hear the same stories twice very often! It was tempting to just stay on for one whole loop the first time, but we decided to get off at Navy Pier about halfway round, as we had both been told how great the architectural boat tour of the inner city was.
We had time to wander down the pier for a bit after seeing some amazing sculptures in the park just across from it, before the next tour began
The architectural tour was so fun and interesting. Our guide was brilliant, and you could tell he was having fun along with us, there'd have been about a hundred people on the boat. He was a fountain of information, barely stopped talking the whole time, and it was almost too much to keep up with all his fun, fascinating facts and insightful stories. If everyone had tipped him he'd have been doing well. The history and architectural buff in me was itching to take notes, but I was too busy gawping at all the buildings we were sailing past to waste time doing this. Trouble is, now I'm writing this nearly three weeks later, I'm finding it hard to remember lots of them! I'm relying on photographs and the tour bus map to jog my memory.
The city actually has its own flag, which I haven't seen in any other US city I've been in. Maybe that's one of the reasons it was dubbed "The Windy City", which I always thought was because it was really windy weather. We were told that "jealous" east coast reporters (read New Yorkers) had called it that disparagingly because they thought Chicago was always boasting about how wonderful it was! Well, now that I've visited there, I think it IS wonderful, and a lot cleaner, more open and nicer smelling, with friendlier locals, sorry New York
We sailed past our hotel, only about 100 metres back from the river, and marvelled at the high rise condos all around us, owned by the rich, and sometimes famous. Trump tower stood glittering over all the buildings around it, if ever a building could be described as having bling, this was it! Another nearby had a guilded roof, which resembled the top of a champagne bottle. No coincidence, as it turned out. It was built as a way of thumbing defiance towards the Prohibition laws that made drinking illegal back in the late 1920s. It isn't the only building in Chicago to resemble a bottle of alcohol...another near the Navy Pier looks just like a whiskey flask, no matter which direction you view it from, right to the giant round cap on the roof, which I can't remember the exact purpose of, but I'm sure it's more than decorative...
Chicago has seen many changes of face over the decades, so it's a fascinating mix of old and new, highly distinctive architectural styles and award winning designs. Many of the buildings, as is the case in Toronto, are built on reclaimed land that was once lake shore, used as a dumping ground, reclaimed as landfill and then became part of the city landscape. Much of the inner city was once in a rundown state, with high crime rates and unsafe streets, and this is long after the infamous Al Capone had made his mark. The place has been revitalized as a thriving, clean, modern urban landscape, with shopping, restaurants, theatres, art galleries and museums making it now highly sort after as a desirable living address, and the price tags to match.
One of the buildings, The Merchandise Mart, takes up 2 city blocks, covers 4.2 million square feet and is the worlds largest commercial building
There were numerous bridges that we sailed under, and they were all able to lift up to allow sailing boats through to the lake. We saw quite a few lined up waiting for the next raising. Along the way we saw huge rotting wooden pylons jutting from the water at various locations. I couldn't recall all the correct details of the following story, so excuse me quoting the following facts from Wikipedia, because I wanted to get the details correct, and the Internet is the place to look, right?...ha ha, anyway, now that I've read it I remember that's what the guide told us, it's pretty unbelievable!
"Rehabilitation work on the Kinzie Street Bridge crossing the Chicago River required new pilings
Now back to what I know...The upshot of all this was that it wasn't dealt with as soon as it was found by a telecommunications worker who was inspecting cable, and the tunnel breach led to an emergency situation. Basements in a number of office buildings in The Loop and an underground shopping district were flooded, as was the basement of the Mercantile building I mentioned earlier. At the height of the flood some buildings had 12 metres of water at their lower levels, but the water was not seen at ground level, all of it unfolded underground
The Chicago River was the source of many interesting tales, another of which was when the amount of garbage and toxic waste flowing into Lake Michigan was so bad that the levels of the river were changed so that it would flow upstream to St Louis instead of into Lake Michigan
So, that's just the tip of the iceberg of stories we learned about on our fantastic tour, and I highly recommend it, as it was one of the many highlights of our trip
Of course, Chicago is famous for so many reasons, most recently as being the home city of the Obamas, and the place where they met in a law firm. When they visit town locals all hope they fly in by helicopter to stay at the Hilton, which has its own helipad on the roof, and doesn't therefore require the almost total shut down of the city centre to allow for the giant security entourage. It's also where people like Harrison Ford, Tina Fey, Bill Murray, Oprah Winfrey and Walt Disney (and this list is by no means exhaustive!) either lived or were born. Jill jumped on the tour bus after I had to leave earlier than she did on the Monday, and was able to hear lots more interesting things from a great tour guide that I'd missed, so I credit her with the following information of note! Every building in the place seems to have some architectural significance, even the windows! There is a distinctive style of window that has one large one in the middle, and a smaller one on each side. This is known as Chicago style.
After thanking our tour guide, who was off to do the same thing again another four times that day, we went back to Navy Pier and explored it to the very end. Windy weather whipped flags, and people's clothing, into a frenzy at the tip of the pier, not a day to be wearing a dress, that's for sure
We jumped back onto one of the buses and continued to explore downtown. The tour took us down the Magnificent Mile next. The Wrigley's building stands at the Chicago River end, another architectural wonder. One thing I found a bit funny and fascinating is that Wrigley's originally began as a scouring soap sales company. William Wrigley Jr came to Chicago in 1891 when he was only 29 years old, and with not much more money than that in his pocket, $32 to be exact. He was a very clever salesman, however, and lived by the philosophy that customers liked to feel they were getting a "little something for nothing". As sales incentive he offered premiums, one of which was baking powder. This proved to more popular than the soap, so he switched to the baking powder business. In 1892 he had the idea of offering two packets of gum with each can of baking powder, and the customers, pardon the pun, ate it up, and it proved more popular than the product it was supporting. So, you guessed it, he went into the gum business, and after a few struggles and almost going under several times, to establish himself in the industry, the rest, as they say, is history
The Magnificent Mile is Chicago's answer to New Yorks Fifth Avenue, and lined with just about every highbrow fancy shop and fashion outlet you could wish for, if you were a fashionista, which clearly I am not! But I had no objection to seeing others spending their hard earned cash on Louis Vuitton, or at Macy's, Saks or Bloomingdales. My attempt to find something memorable and affordable was another charm on my Pandora bracelet, in honour of my visit. Jill and I also made a foray into the Hershey's chocolate store, and while I'd resisted in Times Square, I caved in Chicago when I saw the awesome custom tins and bought a few Christmas presents!
After this we jumped back on for a while, and got off at State Street to visit the Explore store, get a free tour t shirt, and decided to book tickets to a Chicago Broadway show while we were there. We had been planning to go and see "The Blue Man Group", which originated here in Chicago, but were unable to get tickets that night, so we chose the musical "Once" instead
The rest of the day passed quickly, and it became clear that while three days was great, there wasn't going to be time to do half the things we'd have liked to. We had to prioritize. We didn't know when we landed that the Chicago Marathon was on the Sunday. It soon came to our attention when everyone we talked to asked if we here for it, some with completely serious faces as if we were contenders! Our immediate response to this suggestion was laughing hysterically, followed by the words, "Really?! Do you honestly think we look like we're ready to run in a marathon tomorrow!" (Sorry Jill, but I know you'll agree with me on this one, ha ha!) We did however plan to go and cheer on everyone else who thought it a good idea to get up at dawn and prepare to run 42 km through city streets, I mean, what an awesome opportunity
Meanwhile, we had a show to go to, and Once was a wonderful night out. The theatre was truly magnificent, the foyer alone began to make up for the fact that I hadn't made it the art gallery. The photos don't begin to do it justice, and inside, where I wasn't allowed to take them...wow! The story was based on a book, which has also been made into a film, I've learnt since. It's touching, funny, great music, and a story that tugs at your heart strings in a big way. One song in particular is beautiful, and if I could find it on iTunes I'd buy it. We ended the evening buying Subway, as it was too late to find anywhere nearby, and after downloading about the day, slept well, determined to get up and walk down to the Marathon the following morning.
We'd seen all the setting up of tents and finish line bleachers the day before, so knew where to go
The crowd grew as we approached the final stages of the marathon. We walked around until we found a place only a couple of people deep, about 400-500 metres from the finish line, and eventually, when some people had seen who they'd come to support run past, we got right to the front to cheer the runners. The atmosphere was one of excitement and pride, like a carnival, but with lots of people who looked like they'd just achieved the hardest goal of their lives. Lots of runners revved the crowd up as they ran, shuffled or bolted past us, appealing for a final boost of energy to carry them to the finish line. We obliged! Some wore the funniest costumes, pink or acid green tutus anyone (and these were guys!) I even saw one dressed as Super Mario! There were about 45000 entrants in the race, and even now, I don't know the name of the person who won, but I know that was not the thing most people left with. There was a sense of patriotism in the best sense, especially when we saw runners honouring the Boston Marathon, runners or victims
We walked to the shopping centre on State Street to check out theatre tickets, and Jill spotted the Magnolia Bakery. Started in New York in 1990, it's credited with starting the cupcake craze, and featured in shows such as Sex And The City. People are renowned for lining up around the block at the Bleeker street store in New York, they're that good! It's got stores in places like Dubai, Beirut, Kuwait, Los Angeles and New York, so just a bit exclusive then....! I loved it, and have a friend who I can see going a bit crazy in there too. We oohed and ahhed over the merchandise, Jill got a cupcake cookbook, and I bought a metal tin (more tins, I'd be lighting up the luggage scanner at the airport...) which actually says New York on it, so maybe I'd better make the effort to visit that one while I'm there next time, I'm sure I can force myself...! We both were guilty of buying a cupcake. I made myself feel better about my guilty indulgence by getting one that supported breast cancer research, with a pink candy ribbon on top
After this, we walked across to the place, only metres away, where we'd bought theatre tickets yesterday to see what else we could fit in, no Blue Man Group tickets available yet again, but the agent recommended "Million Dollar Quartet", which would require us to travel on the L train system as it was a bit off Broadway. That was fine with us, isn't that an iconic symbol of the city? I'd been hoping we'd get the opportunity to use it!
The rest of the day was spent exploring the rest of the city tour loop, and doing some browsing along the Magnificent Mile. We tried to get into the Willis Tower, buying tickets through the bus company, but when we arrived at that stop and went in, we found that there was a two hour line up to get in! We didn't want to be standing around cooling our heels for all that time, when it was a beautiful day and we could be sightseeing, and how crowded would it be when we got to the top?
We had to catch the train out to the show by about 6pm so we'd arrive in plenty of time. The area was very much a university accommodation type part of the city, and we saw plenty of students walking around. The theatre itself couldn't have less highbrow than the Oriental from the night before, right down to the elevated railway line literally metres away from the roof. It felt like a small local community theatre as we moved into the crowded foyer. This show has been running here for 5 years, so they must be doing something right. Turns out they were, and we had a fantastic night being throughly entertained by the music of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. The cast were incredible, so talented. It was such a small theatre that there wasn't a bad seat in the place, and even if you were in the back row, as we were, you were so close you would be still paying premium prices to be that close if it was New York. The story centres around a true event, a now legendary jam session had as a farewell to the man who made the four famous by signing them up when no one else was interested
That night we decided that next morning we'd get up super early to make the most of our last few hours in Chicago. Jill's flight wasn't until later that evening, but I had to leave the city by 11:30am, as the pre ordered shuttle bus to the airport was arriving at my hotel then, even though my flight wasn't until just before 3pm. I had to be there two hours early anyway of course, being an international flight.
We were up and touring, via foot this time (buses didn't happen until 9am anyway) and fast walking down to Grant Park. We both wanted to see this magnificent fountain we'd seen in photos, prints, on postcards and glimpsed briefly from the bus other other day. On the way we passed my favourite sculpture again, and much to my delight there was virtually no one crowding around it
We had some kind of trouble getting across Columbus Avenue to get to the Buckingham Fountain, our next port of call. There were construction crews with huge trucks setting up barriers on both sides of the road, which was in the process of being closed to local traffic for the Columbus Day Parade. We almost gave up, but after walking back and forth, we finally saw a gap where we could cross the road and dashed across. It was worth the trouble, as you can hopefully see from the photos. The sun was obligingly shining at just the right angle, and with the city in the background, we were able to take some brilliant shots. We'd be hoping to get to the lake shore as well, but barriers, and lack of time, made that impossible if we also wanted to get back to Willis Tower by 9:30am
Chicago was so different to what I'd imagined it would be, from all the movies and TV shows I'd seen that featured it over the years, none of them managed to capture its true spirit and sense of openness and space, which is unusual considering its one of the biggest cities in America
It wasn't long before I'd grabbed my suitcase and was standing outside on Michigan waiting for the shuttle. It had two more quick pick ups at other hotels before we were headed out to O'Hare Airport. It was good to see the city by daylight, as it'd been turning dark when I flew in. The views were wonderful, especially of the seemingly endless expanse that is Lake Michigan. The weekend had once again flown by, and I had even more special experiences to add to my vast collection
Getting home at about 5:30pm was handy, and it wasn't long before Winnipeg was once again beneath me, with its sea of autumnal yellows and browns. I still had some time to chill out and relax in the evening before heading back to work the next day....(someone has to work to pay the travel bills around here!) and hoping it all wouldn't seem like some amazing dream, and that I'd eventually find the time to reflect and blog about the experience....
well, finally, a month later, here it is....
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