Chicago – America’s ‘Second City’ will win your heart

(From the Archives, 2009.)

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What makes for a great destination city?   If your answer includes world-class museums, stunning historic buildings, fine dining with great prices, amazing public art, and old-fashion downtown shopping with the latest fashions, then Chicago deserves to be on your ‘must visit’ list.

Most Canadians don’t have Chicago as a ‘top of mind’ vacation destination, yet, the “Second City” (so nicknamed when it was the United States’ second-most populated city and second ranked as the country’s most prestigious finance, cultural, transportation and business centres) offers plenty to do at a quite low cost once you’re there.

We spent three glorious days experiencing a few of Chicago’s numerous attractions during a recent road trip.  We were lucky enough to tap the local knowledge of our hosts, former Calgarians Craig and Norma who have been enthusiastic Chicago area residents for more than ten years now.

Savvy Chicagoans don’t drive into the city.  Downtown traffic and parking in this megalopolis of more than 9 million people is more trouble than it’s worth, so we take the Metra double-decker commuter train from our lodging in Downer’s Grove, a suburban village, to city centre.  The weekday one-hour trip costs $4.30 USD one-way.  (Metra currently has a ‘summer sale’ promotion; a weekend unlimited use pass is available for $5.00 USD – a bargain!)

We spend the day strolling along State Street, Chicago’s main downtown retail shopping district.  This shopping street features retail giants such as Macy’s, and the sidewalk is peppered with window shoppers.  Historic buildings line State Street, which came into prominence as THE shopping district after the First World War.  We stroll into Macy’s at State Street, and it’s shopper’s nirvana.  Any Canadian old enough to remember what shopping was like at Eaton’s, Woodward’s or Simpson-Sears department stores will experience a rush of nostalgia – Macy’s is crowded – with sales staff!  Sales associates are on duty behind virtually every display counter in sight – a far cry from the miserly department store staffing levels Canadians have suffered with in recent years.

The current recession has hit retail hard, and Macy’s has not escaped the downturn.  A sign at the jewelry counter proclaims “30% OFF!” and fellow traveler Dave asks about a blingy piece for his wife; the astute sales clerk asks if Dave is from out of state and when he says yes, she immediately informs him he is exempt from the stiff 11-percent county/state sales tax.  That clinches the deal.

Public art like this impressive fountain (featuring photos of hundreds of Chicagoans) adds modern charm to a city rich in architectural treasures

Public art like this impressive fountain (featuring photos of hundreds of Chicagoans) adds modern charm to a city rich in architectural treasures

Finding a great restaurant can be daunting in an unfamiliar city.  While touring downtown, we chance upon McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant (1 E Wacker Drive, (312) 923-7226).  The restaurant’s outdoor patio with light jazz playing on the sound system and a great view of the street proves irresistible.  We order the lunch special (a ‘safe’ bet at any restaurant; ‘specials’ are usually fresh and fast) – blackened salmon with green Spring beans and mashed potatoes, well-priced at $9.95 USD.  We people-watch while we wait for our lunch to arrive.  And wait some more.  Soon the hostess apologizes for the delay, saying our orders will arrive shortly.  And it does.  The salmon is delicious – one of the best meals of our thirteen-day road trip.  She returns once more and apologizes again for the delay, and asks if we’re enjoying our salmon.  “It’s fabulous!”, we say.  “Lunch is on us”, she informs us, “we’re so sorry it was so slow to come out”, and apologizes again.  Having grown up in a family restaurant, I know that restaurants live or die by word of mouth, and if you’re an upscale downtown restaurant catering to the business lunch crowd, slow service is a recipe for quick failure.  ‘Comping’ our lunch was a great pre-emptive strike to build good will when the eatery’s performance isn’t up to snuff.

As a certified ‘foody’, I’m a huge pizza fan and one of Chicago’s greatest claims to fame is Chicago-style deep-dish pizza.  I normally avoid chain restaurants like the plague, but Giordano’s is ‘local’ chain that comes highly recommended by our ex-pat Canadian hosts.  Giordano’s website proudly claims various awards, including “The Best Pizza in America”.  We weren’t disappointed.  Giordano’s is a ‘must’ for any pizza-lover visiting the Chicago area.

Who says men traveling on motorcycles can’t be cultured?  Saturday and Sunday are reserved for visiting two world-class museums; the first on our ‘must see’ list is The Art Institute of Chicago (111 S Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL; (312) 443-3600).  We buy a weekend pass and take the Metra train to the end of the line, Union Station (with its ornate Beaux-Arts Great Hall, opened in 1925.)  From Union Station, AIC is an easy fifteen-minute walk.  Admission is $18 USD for adults.

Art Institute of Chicago houses one of the world's greatest collections of impressionist paintings - a 'must see' if you love Monet

Art Institute of Chicago houses one of the world’s greatest collections of impressionist paintings – a ‘must see’ if you love Monet

Founded in 1879, AIC opened at its present location in 1893, and is renown for its superlative collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings.  You don’t need to visit the Louvre in Paris to appreciate the master paintings of Cezanne, Degas, Gaugin, Renoir, or Monet.  (Ed.  French letters with accents needed for some of these names.)  In May, AIC opened a new wing, expanding the facility to one million square feet making it the second largest art museum in the United States.  Plan to spend the better part of a day there.  AIC allows photography of its permanent collections (tripods and flash are not permitted.)

AIC is full of surprises and one of them is the Court Cafe.  Museum food is usually over-priced fare suitable only for the desperate.  The museum’s self-serve Court Cafe is cheap and cheerful.  We were impressed by the near-haute cuisine lamb soup and Italian wrap sandwich ($7.95 USD).

Our second ‘must see’ cultural institution is the renowned Field Museum of Natural History (1400 S. Lake Shore Dr, Chicago,  (312)922-9410; adult admission $15 USD), founded in 1893 and named after benefactor Marshall Field (of Marshall Field’s department store fame.)  From Union Station, the Field Museum is most easily accessed via taxi (it’s about a $10 USD fare), but hardy souls can walk forty-five minutes to the lakeside Museum Campus where the museum opened in 1921.  Considered one of the finest natural history museums in the world, walk between the massive pillars of this impressive building designed in the style of a Greek Temple and into the main hall where you’re greeted by the display, “Fighting African Elephants”.  This looks like a sculpture of two elephants in combat.  In fact, it’s an amazing example of taxidermy (by Carl E. Akeley, considered the father of modern taxidermy) that has been a centrepiece of the museum’s collection on display since 1908.

Incredible taxidermy greets visitors to the Field Museum of Natural History

Incredible taxidermy greets visitors to the Field Museum of Natural History

The Field Museum (like AIC) is too big to see in one day.  Select a couple of exhibits to or take a free Highlights Tour (available on weekdays during limited hours.)  We toured The Ancient Americas (permanent exhibit) and viewed the 150 black-and-white photographs of the Road to Freedom:  Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement 1956-1968 (temporary exhibit, runs to September 7, 2009.)  The Field Museum allows photographs of its exhibits.  (Tripods and standing lights are allowed if a permit is obtained.)

Chicago is a great city with great public art in public spaces.  Millennium Park (55 Michigan Ave.) is a 24.5 acre park in downtown that serves as a centre for art, music, architecture and landscape design.  Visit the impressive Crown Fountain where 50-foot high glass block towers book-end a reflecting pool.  On warm days, kids splash in the water, waiting impatiently as a face (one of some 1,000 Chicagoans used for this art piece) appear on the tower and, to everybody’s delight, eventually spews water out of the mouth!

Equally impressive is Cloud Gate, the 33-feet high, 66-feet long, 110 ton elliptical polished stainless steel sculpture, which, despite its official name, is simply ‘The Bean’ to locals.  Its 12-foot high arch allows people to stand underneath the piece and the multi-curved mirror-like surface gives a fantastically distorted reflection of the surrounding cityscapes.

Cloud Gate, affectionately nicknamed 'The Bean', is an impressive piece of public art in downtown

Cloud Gate, affectionately nicknamed ‘The Bean’, is an impressive piece of public art in downtown

Chicago used to have a reputation as a less-than-savory city, but our hosts say the city has spiffed up its image immensely as it works on its bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics.  Only a few years ago, the city’s bus fleet was made of dingy, smoke-spewing, battle-scarred vehicles that looked like refugees from a demolition derby reality show.  Today, the buses are pristine white with a good number of them powered by ultra-modern, environment-friendly hybrid electric-diesel systems that quietly whoosh the vehicle down the road.

Chicago is a terrific destination city.  The city has a lot more to offer than one can take in over a few days.  Restaurants are wonderful and meals are very reasonably priced.  (We dined at a couple of excellent establishments in Downer’s Grove (fish tacos at Emmett’s Ale House) and in nearby Lisle (Mexican cuisine at Yerabuena Lisle).  The city is home to two of the finest museums in the world.  Combined with the Chicago’s historic architecture, outstanding parks and public art, not to mention the city’s reputation as Mecca for blues and jazz lovers, America’s ‘Second City’ deserves to be number one when planning your next getaway.

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