My husband and I love the city and feel extraordinarily lucky to live so close to what is arguably the most exhilarating city in the country.
By Janice Llanes Fabry
My husband and I love the city and feel extraordinarily lucky to live so close to what is arguably the most exhilarating city in the country. Apart from New York, however, we’ve visited some pretty great ones. The bustling marketplace at Boston’s Faneuil Hall, the cobblestone streets of Philadelphia’s Center City, the vibrant waterfront of Miami’s South Beach and the clanging cable cars of San Francisco all come to mind. The rich history, the arts, the restaurants, the diversity, and the high-octane vitality of these urban landscapes are inimitable.
One that had eluded us is Chicago, so when our 30th wedding anniversary rolled around this summer, I thought I’d surprise Jan with a long weekend in the Windy City. With invaluable suggestions from friends who know Chicago intimately, I booked our flights, made reservations, and ordered special event tickets. After menacingly warning the entire family not to ruin the surprise, I ended up spoiling it myself with a slip of the tongue. Other than that, however, our trip went off without a hitch and now Chicago ranks up there with our favorite cities.
After a short two-hour flight, we landed at O’Hare and hit the ground running. At once cosmopolitan and neighborly, Chicago is the quintessential big city with a small town feel. Everywhere we turned we were greeted with Midwestern hospitality, as well as breathtaking architecture. The fact that the Chicago River runs through an urban goldmine of skyscrapers renders the city utterly distinctive.
We took full advantage by taking the Architectural Foundation’s fascinating 90-minute boat tour. The knowledgeable guide aboard the First Lady took us through each building’s architectural style and the history, including the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. She shared wonderful anecdotes about the city and the architects that designed and built it. There are a myriad of other tours that showcase some of the most prominent buildings in American architecture, including a Frank Lloyd Wright walking tour.
The city also boasts three of the country’s tallest buildings, the Willis Tower (formerly, the Sears Tower), the Trump International Hotel, and the Aon Center (formerly, the Standard Oil Building or “Big Stan”). For dazzling panoramic views, the John Hancock Center’s 94th floor observatory or its 95th floor’s Signature Room for lunch is the place to go. It’s located on Magnificent Mile, along with posh hotels, stores, and restaurants in the River North area.
We discovered that the city has many contrasting regions. The Loop, the West Loop and the South Loop are named for the El tracks that loop around a rectangle of historical landmarks. There’s Wicker Park, Lincoln Park, and Hyde Park to the south.
The Far North Side is home to Wrigley Field, the second oldest major league ballpark in the country after Fenway. Months before, I had ordered tickets to a Chicago Cubs vs. Arizona Diamondbacks game through StubHub because how could anyone visit Chicago without routing for the home team? Along with a throng of fans, Jan and I hopped on the train to the park, where, under the original art deco marquee, the excitement was palpable. We got a kick out of spotting hundreds of fans on rooftop bleachers perched atop bars outside the ballpark.
Unfortunately, just as we sat in our seats along the first baseline, ordering beer and peanuts, spying the ivy-covered outfield walls, and the original scoreboard (manually operated since 1914), torrential rains swept through the stadium. We all piled inside, but after an hour and a half, Jan and I bailed before things became potentially ugly among the rowdy, fun-loving, beer-drinking crowd. Thousands of wet diehard fans, however, stayed behind. Never mind that the cross winds off Lake Michigan whipped through the stadium, nor the fact that the Cubs have yet to win a World Series. (Later, we learned that after a couple of rain delays, the Cubs won 8-1).
One evening, we caught a Second City improvisational show, for which it was well worth ordering tickets in advance. The talented comedians were as funny as their famous predecessors, Joan Rivers, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Stephen Colbert, and Tina Fey, to name a few. Ironically, there were a hundred 10-year-old boys from a Long Island summer camp sitting behind us. We were as amused by the kids’ giddiness at the risqué sketches as we were by the performers. Afterwards, we enjoyed a late night snack that’s practically a Chi-Town requirement, delicious deep-dish pizza. Hey, we’re on vacation!
The next day we burned off the extra calories by renting bicycles at the lively Navy Pier and riding alongside the beaches and parks of beautiful Lake Michigan. We also visited the Loop’s remarkable Millennium Park, which opened only eight years ago. Much like Manhattan devoid of Central Park, it’s difficult to picture Chicago without the sprawling Millennium’s promenades, gardens, and fountains. On our visit, we happened to come upon “Taste of Chicago,” a culinary festival of huge proportions. That’s what it is about a city. There’s often a seductive surprise right around the corner.
Millenium Park’s year-round centerpieces, however, include architect Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a magnificent outdoor concert venue, as well as artist Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, a luminous stainless steel sculpture mirroring the city’s skyline and affectionately known as “the bean”. Like most of the other goofball tourists, we photographed ourselves in the bean’s reflection.
Another high point of our trip was a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago in Grant Park. The second largest museum in the U.S. after our Met, it has one of the most comprehensive collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. Obtaining our tickets through our concierge precluded us from having to wait on a very long line, which would have driven my husband crazy.
Though we dined at some memorable restaurants, notably Spiaggia, no trip to Chicago is worth its salt without munching on the famed and flavorful cheese/caramel Garrett’s Popcorn. No doubt, our first taste of Chicago left my husband and I wanting more.