Thursday, 13 June 2013

Chicago, Illinois – “Simply Magnificient”

This world class city is a great city to explore and enjoy
 Monday 9th to Monday 16th2012
For many a year I have wanted to go to the “Windy City” (so named after the city’s history of bellicose “windy” politicos, notorious for spinning a line) and in July 2012 my wish came true.  It is one of America’s great lifestyle cities and the birth place of skyscrapers.
Temps were wonderful at an average high of 84F/average low of 63F.  Summer colour can be seen all over the city.
One afternoon there was a thunder storm and guess what - no waterproofs!
Over 44 million fellow visitors flock to the city annually seduced by its pioneering architecture, world class museums and galleries, vibrant nightlife, Michigan Avenue shops and the bustle of the Loop.  The Loop (the birth place of the skyscraper in 1885) – the City’s central business district and “heart” is Chicago at its most iconic.  The City covers some 228sq. miles of which 5% is devoted to parkland.  It has a population of just below 3 million.
It’s not possible to see everything and to do everything that Chicago has to offer in one trip but to make sure that I maximised what I did, I came up with an “Agenda” to be a flexible guide and not to be cast in stone.

I landed at O’Hare International Airport (3 domestic terminals (1/3) and 1 international terminal (5) a very busy location on the City’s northwest side, about 17 miles outside the city centre.  Travel options into the city centre are:
·         (CTA) Blue Line El Train runs 24hrs and costs $2.75 one way - say 45 minutes.  The station is under the main parking garage, a short walk from most of the terminals.  Follow the signs marked – “City Transport”.
o   Ventura card soon to be coming
·         Airport shuttle dropping you off at your hotel for around $27.
·         Taxis are your most expensive option and you are at the whim of the traffic, so $45 upwards.

I was so lucky in sitting beside Maina Bagwanadee on the flight, (she hails from the city) not only did she review my Agenda and made changes, she suggested restaurants and areas of the city to visit; she also took me to the CTA and advised me where to get off for my hotel.  A massive thank you from me.

Who do you fly with and from where?

Virgin had a sale on and was the cheapest option from Heathrow, London.  The alternative was out of Manchester with US carriers.  I wanted a direct flight and have always wanted to fly with Virgin – this was the opportunity!!   Airbus with 312 passengers plus 16 staff on the way out (7hr flight) at a height of 38,000ft.  Both flights were so relaxing with this carrier.

The Hotel

My hotel - W Chicago Lakeside, 644 N Lake Shore Drive at E Ontario St   A lake front location with rooftop bar – Whisky Sky.  It had a gym and small swimming pool so this permitted daily exercise.  As well the hotel has its own restaurants and bars.  Thus a wonderful base (well located) to have in the city.  One negative was the busy dual carriageway (Lake Shore Drive) between the hotel and the lake.  The plus was the cerulean blue of Lake Michigan dotted with white sailboats, whitecaps glinting in the sun and lots of people enjoying the lake’s special and inviting shoreline.

Getting Around

The public transport system is extensive and the service remarkably efficient -  The Chicago Transit Authority’s subway and elevated train system (better know as the El) runs on eight lines and are colour coded.  You can purchase Visitor Passes which permit unlimited travel for a set number of days.  3 days $14.  You can buy passes at the airport on arrival.  Buses also accept Transit Cards and Visitor Passes as well as coins and bills. 
Also check out the Ventra, which is soon to replace the Chicago card.
Activities/Sightseeing (Delectable Options) (This is not in any order of preference.)
I was on the go early every day and got back to the hotel late.  I must have covered miles in all that I did and saw and here are a few of the activities that were excellent:-
·          Chicago City Centre Tour – best experienced on a boat (Chicago Architectural Foundation’s Cruises being best.  Here it is the architectural river cruise – tickets at the base of the stairs at the southeast corner of Michigan Avenue Bridge at Wacker Drive where all cruises depart.)
·          Visit Millennium Park (a project to celebrate the 21st Century) and The Bean – bounded by Randolph St, Monroe St, Michigan Avenue & Columbus Drive. Must.
·         Navy Pier – 600 E Grand Avenue - is a bustling recreational and cultural centre (3,000ft long & 400ft wide). Must.
·          Historic Water Tower – North Michigan Avenue - one of the city’s most familiar and treasured landmarks which was built between 1867 and 1869 and survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  It witnessed the city’s survival and rebirth and is a continuing inspiration for generations of Chicagoans.  It was so special to look up at this unique building.
·       Art Institute of Chicago – 111 S Michigan Avenue - one of the top museums in the world.
·       Harold Washington Library Centre – 400 S State St - largest library in the world. Go all      the       way up to the winter garden, very pretty and not expected
·       The Shedd Aquarium – 1200 S Lake Shore Dr - largest indoor aquarium in the world.        Explore an exotic world with some 20,000 animals.  I found this visit fascinating as I did the       “Girl with the Dolphin Tattoo” and walked there and back from my hotel. Must.
·       Sears Tower – 233 S Wacker Dr.  103rd floor Observatory (1,451ft) – tallest building in      the       US – western edge of Loop (enter on Jackson St). (Now called the Willis Tower.)    Well     worth the money spent to get to the Skydeck and then onto one of the Ledges –   dare walk on   Air? - $17.50.   You also have a “360” view of the city far below.  It is    fascinating to watch    the busy roads teeming with cars and with the clarity on the day you          were able to see          four surrounding states.  Must.
·       The Lakeside Path (20miles+) – explore the shores of Lake Michigan (3rd largest of great             lakes & 5th largest freshwater lake in the world) by walking or renting a bike.  I looked a    couple of times at hiring a bike but alas never found the time to do this despite having my       cycle shorts.  However I did walk sections of the path as well as numerous miles   each day in     the city.
·       North Avenue Beach (City’s most popular) or Oak St Beach.
·       Chicago History Museum – 1601 N Clark St.
·       Chicago Culture Centre – 77E Randolph St.
·       Lincoln Park (1,200acres!) and Zoo (free).
·       Cocktails at the Signature Room – John Hancock Tower.  Again I visited the tower which             was a short distance from the hotel but did not go to the top as I did the Willis Tower the    day      before.
·        The Historic Maxwell St. Market;
·       Adler Planetarium
·      Segway Tour – again I did not find the time to participate but saw lots of people enjoying   themselves on this special tour round the city.
·       Tourist Office – 1st Fl of the Chicago Cultural Centre  Good     information and helpful staff.
·       Within the Cultural Center in the Preston Bradley Hall see the 38-foot Tiffany glass dome
     thought to be the largest Tiffany dome in the world.
·       State Street – still prime retail and entertainment corridors.
·       Michigan Avenue – shopping and very busy.
·       Dan Ryan Expressway – busiest roadway.
·       Chicago Country Musical (early July) in Grant Park.
·       Rock Around the Block (mid July) Lakeview.
·       Chicago Folk and Roots Festival (mid July) Welles Park.
Dining out is a huge part of the city’s culture; there are over 7,300 restaurants.  In July you need to know you’re A-B-C’s!  (Alfresco, Brunch & Cocktails).  More relaxed and down-to-earth than in other major cities, something that is reflected in the proliferation of reasonably priced restaurants.  Portions are generous so when asked – do you want the full portion or half – when in doubt go for the half?  Most visitors stay in the River North/Magnificent Mile area.  Wandering away from the loop will generally result in a more unique dinning experience and an “adventure”.  Rush St., Halsted St in Lincoln Park and Wrigleville are recommended.
The diversity of what you can eat is massive:-
·      Italian – beef joints
·      Steak houses
·      Tapas bars
·      Burger places
·      Barbecue and rib joints
·      Pizza (deep-dish pizzas)
·      Hot dogs
·      Meat-free
·      Mexican
·      Cheap-but-terrific ethnic restaurants
·      Old-school delicatessens
·      Funky neighbourhood bistros
·      Popcorn shops.  Garrett popcorn shop – 26 W Randolph St
     (Caramel-and-cheese popcorns!)
·      Doughnuts – Doughnutsvault  (401 N. Franklin St)– yum!
·      Relaxed weekend brunches.
·      Sushi
There are soooooooo many wonderful restaurants in Chicago – it’s a food-lover’s dream so you will have no difficulty finding a place to eat.
·         Restaurants I tried and liked were Maggiano’s (Little Italy)  516 North Clark St. – wonderful food,  Su Casa (Mexican), here the margaritas were intoxicating!! and Timothy O’Toole’s.  Attempts to have a meal at the Frontera Grill – 445 N Clark St (said to be best Mexican food in US) failed as there was always a queue and thus a long waiting time.

Breakfasts were excellent with such exciting and extensive menus.   I ate in a few and liked them all but I would mention Yolk at 355 E. Ohio Street –  Also West Egg Café at 620 N Fairbanks Ct ( At E. Ontario St).  Perfect place for breakfast in the heart of the city.  Excellent quality and spotless service at good prices.  What a great way to make a start to the day!
(Tipping – 15% - 18/20% for excellent service – calculate tip before sales tax of 9.75%)
I enjoyed a visit to Fox & Obel on 401 East Illinois – such interesting quality food and drinks.  The location is recognised as the best gourmet market in the city and well worth a visit.
Drinking in Chicago remains a serious pursuit – you’ll find more sports bars than in New York and Los Angeles combined.  Also popular are the city’s beer gardens.
The bar scene tends to be quiet early in the week, picking up on Wednesday and through the weekend.  Beers tasted were Goose Island (312 & Honker’s Ale), O’Toole’s Amber Ale, Stone Arrogant Bastard, Tyranena Bitter Woman (IPA) and Old Style, a lager brewed in Milwaukee.
My favourite bar was Timothy O’Toole’s,  a quality Irish sports pub (45 TVs) with a restaurant menu.
Here I met Joe Beck from Cincinnati who was on business in the city and we shared a number of pints one evening.  Thank goodness it was not too far back to my hotel!
Another favourite place was the Hard Rock Café at 63 West Ontario, a large interior on different levels with a great atmosphere and good choice of real ales.
(Tip 1$ for round of drinks.)
Chicago has one of the best music scenes in the US. The city’s musical identity is rooted in the blues.
·         Buddy Guy’s Legends – 754 S Wabash Ave
·         House of Blues – 329 N Dearborn St
·         Premier Jazz Club – Green Mill Tavern – 4802 N Broadway, Uptown
·         Excalibur – 632 N Dearborn St – is perhaps the most mainstream club in the city.
Other Information
  • Dial 911 for emergencies
  • Dial 311 (event info)
  • Get “Chicago on the go” – available on the App Store.
  • – packed to the brim with everything you could possibly need to book your trip to the city.
  •  City of Chicago – Official Homepage
  • Pick up the free Chicago Reader and the New City – lots of up-to-date information.
  •  - entertainment details.
  • The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 burned for 36hrs destroying most of the buildings in downtown Chicago, all of which were made of wood.  In 1874 a bylaw prohibited the building of wooden structures downtown.
  • Chicago prides itself on being one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the US.
  • Al Capone (1899-1947) – the city’s reputation for lawlessness was secured in the 1920s.
  • Hot Tix - 72 E Randolph St– a ticket agency provides half price tickets for theatres on the day of performances.
  • Chicago is on Central Standard Time (one hr behind Eastern Central Time and 6 hrs behind Greenwich Mean Time.)  2nd Sunday in March clocks are set 1 hr ahead and ends on the 1st Sunday in November when clocks are set back 1 hr.
  • International direct dial 01144 for UK.
Just a wonderful city that I will never ever forget.  Ever wonder where the wonder has gone?  My advice is go to Chicago and wonder; you can only be fulfilled.  I was.
Almost a year on it is so enjoyable to remember all that I did, all that I saw, all that I wondered about and I would love to go back again but with so many cities around the world still to be seen, the opportunity to do so, alas is remote.
April 2013

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