Travel: Chicago 2007 Travel Notes

In May 2007, I traveled to Chicago on my way to Madison, Wisconsin. This is a short impressionistic report based on less than two days spent in the city.

Getting in and out of Chicago

No, I didn’t spend much time in Chicago: Barely more than 48 hours on my way between Ottawa, ON and Madison, WI. Take away the time spent sleeping, eating, traveling or indulging in a movie and I’m left with not much more than twelve hours to cover the United States’ third-biggest city.

As I’m an impatient tourist, this ended up suiting me just fine: I had enough time to see the high points of the city before leaving again with a list of things to do the next time I’m in the neighborhood.

My first glimpse of the city was, predictably, the world-famous O’Hare International Airport. Though renowned for delays, immense terminals and frantic atmosphere, O’Hare caused me no major problems: the signalization was clear enough, I had enough time to get where I was supposed to go, and the size of the place only seemed appropriate given the amount of traffic it handles.

O'Hare Airport
(A very small part of) O’Hare Airport

But a main objective of my “Chicago/Madison 2007” tour was “no layovers at O’Hare”: I opted for staying in Chicago an extra day on both sides of my Madison event, and get to/from Madison by bus. The various horror stories heard in 2006 about the flakiness of the Chicago/Madison connection proved true once again in 2007 as storms forced the cancellation of all flights between the two cities on the day I was slated to get to Madison

My prefered solution, traveling by bus, proved unexpectedly popular: Our ride going from the downtown Union Station to Madison was re-routed to O’Hare to pick up some of the stranded passengers. It added an extra hour to the three-hour bus ride, but even that was preferrable to being one of the fifty-some people left on the curb at O’Hare, waiting for another bus.

Union Station, Main Hall
Union Station, Main Hall

As for Union Station, well, it’s a decent transit hub, though its focus on rail relegates the bus stops to a somewhat unfriendly stretch of street on the far side of the station. Finding it was an adventure, and waiting for the bus itself even more so.

I have far better things to say about the elevated metro/subway/light rail system. The “El” is not just an iconic fixture of Chicago, it actually worked well for getting where I wanted to go. I had no trouble getting from O’Hare to my hotel near Lincoln Park, then to/from downtown. Even a late-night trip on the north side of the city wasn’t a problem thanks to the Red Line.

Aboard the El
Aboard the El, just north of The Loop

I ended up getting two 24-hour transit passes at O’Hare, and those served me well throughout my entire stay in Chicago. Even the continuing reconstruction of the system had only a minimal impact on my travels around time: the worst problem I had was walking an extra two blocks downtown to find an open station.

El station
Downtown El Station at dusk

Northside

Both of my nights in Chicago were spent at the Days Inn Lincoln Park: A nice, unpretentious hotel happily located between the Diversey Red Line station and Lincoln Park itself. The rooms were decent, the price was right, the complimentary continental breakfast saved me a lot of time and the staff was helpful: I recommend it. (It helps that the hotel is right in between a Borders and a Barnes & Noble bookstore.)

The North Side of Chicago is, of course, the home of Wrigley Field. I may not have much of an interest in baseball, but couldn’t resist snapping a picture of the famous billboard as I made my way north to a reading.

Wrigley Field Billboard
(Self Explanatory)

The other attraction of note is, of course, Lincoln Park. I didn’t spend much time in the park itself (and couldn’t muster the patience to go at the zoo), but I was amazed at the quasi-tropical environment created inside the Lincoln Park Conservatory. A restful place, well-worth visiting. The orchid room is fantastic.

Inside the Lincoln Park Consvervatory
Inside the Lincoln Park Conservatory

The “Magnificient Mile”

Walking down the length of Lincoln Park toward Chicago, the John Hancock Tower dominates the skyline. The Sears Tower may be curiously obscured, but the big slab of dark metal that makes up the Hancock Tower just calls attention to itself.

John Hancock Towe
John Hancock Tower

Fortunately, it also marks the first blocks of “The Magnificient Mile”, an upper-crust commercial artery that links Chicago’s downtown to its coastal North Side.

Magnificient Mile
Magnificient Mile: Looking South

As a tourist attraction, it’s very well-designed: the avenue looks inviting enough for a stroll, leading straight to familiar brand names.

Magnificient Mile
Magnificient Mile: Looking North

Bulgari, Marcus Nieman, Disney and so on: Whatever your poison is, it can be found here, buried somewhere between the tourists, the street vendors and the bizarre ornaments that enliven the avenue.

Metal Moose Sculpture
Magnificient Mile: A Metal Moose on the Loose!

Once you’re done walking down the Magnificient Mile, you’ll be standing right at the entrance of downtown Chicago.

Chicago River

Besides the Loop, the most distinctive feature of downtown Chicago is the river that defines its shape. North and West of the river: not much to see. South and East: The Loop!

Chicago River
Chicago River: Looking east toward Michigan Lake

This being said, the river is slowly beign surrounded by buildings. Near the iconic Michigan Avenue bridge, Donald Trump is building yet another tower.

Chicago River
Chicago River, looking west. The new Trump tower is to the right.

The bridges themselves remains just as impressive regardless of how many high-rises surround them.

Chicago River
Chicago River: Bridges

The buildings stop south-west of The Loop, but the river itself goes on for a while.

Chicago River
Chicago River: Tours

The river stands next to Chicago’s most unique residential buildings: the two “Corncob Towers”, more formally known as “The Marina Towers”. (You may have seen them lately as the stars of an Allstate auto insurance TV spot.)

Chicago River at dusk
Dusk over Chicago River

Yes, the lower floors of the towers are open-air parking spots. Here’s a closer look:

Zoom on the Marina Towers parking levels
Corncob, er, Marina Towers: Detail of the lower-level parking (Valet only!)

The Loop

From a distance, Chicago can look like most other big American cities. But there’s one thing that immediately sets it apart, and that’s The Loop of elevated transit tracks that surround some downtown city blocks.

The Loop
The Loop & The El

A familiar downtown scene: You can be walking down between skyscrapers when you’ll hear an awful roar and see a train passing by overhead. Welcome to Chicago.

Typical Scene in The Loop
The Loop: Typical scene

It gets more fun once you realize that the El goes over actual roadways.


The Loop: Under the El

While The Loop is surrounded by the elevated tracks, its main attraction is far more pedestrian: This is where you’ll find the greatest density of high-rises in Chicago (indeed, if I’m not mistaken, anywhere in North America outside of New York).

Architecture fans will be boggled by the mixture of styles and approaches. Old brick-style building endure next to the newest glass-and-steel experimental pieces, and the effect is absolutely charming.


The Loop: Detail of a Building

Better yet is the accumulation of public art.


Alexander Calder’s Flamingo at the Federal Center Plaza

Other cool sights abound just outside The Loop. After passing through Santa Monica last year, I had a bit of a thrill finding the other end of Route 66.


This is where it starts.

The Loop is also the best place to get a vertiginous view of Chicago’s top skyscraper, the curiously unphotogenic Sears Tower.


Sears Tower

Parks

Those who have seen enough skyscrapers (or just want to look at them from a distance) can always take a break and have a look at the parks that connect The Loop to the lakefront.

The top attraction is easily the brand-new Millennium Park, which brings together a few pieces of high-tech attractions for everyone’s delight.

In the last few years, for instance, the “Cloud Gate” sculpture (which everyone calls “The Bean” for obvious reasons) has become one of Chicago’s top photo magnet. I quickly found out why as soon as I was within viewing distance: It’s a mesmerizing piece of work that demands to be photographed from all possible angles.

Millenium Park: Cloud Gate
The Bean (er, “Cloud Gate”)

Needless to say, I indulged.

Millenium Park: Cloud Gate, again
The Bean (Again)

I’m sparing you my twenty-odd other shots of The Bean in favour of the Millnenium Park’s other top draw: The Crown Fountain, an ingenious combinaison of video projecting technology and waterworks that gives the illusion of water running down an animated brick facade. From time to time, an extra jet of water comes out of the wall, looking awfully like a multi-storey spitting face, as below.

Millenium Park: Fountain
Crown Fountain: It spits on you, Chicago-style.

It goes without saying that the effect is far more impressive in person.

Other highlights of the park include a band shell that looks like shredded metal (a Frank Gehry design, naturally), a botanical garden and security guards in Segways.

Those with more classical tastes will head over to the nearby Grant Park and have a look at the immense Buckingham Fountain while contemplating the Chicago skyline.

Grant Park: Buckingham Fountain
Buckingham Fountain

Chicago parks: they’re good for everyone.

Lakeside

The parks, surprisingly enough, don’t lead directly to the lakeside: In order to get to the Millennium park to the Navy Pier, for instance, you can’t just go through the new “Condoland” development that has paved over the ex-“Family Golf Center” that was on my maps as late as 2003: Trying to do so at the moment leads to a very frustrating pedestrian dead-end that requires almost ten minutes of back-tracking. No, it’s a bit more complicated to get back north of the Chicago River, and then go east to the Navy Pier.

Navy Pier
Navy Pier

Nobody will be surprised to learn that the Navy Pier is a collection of tourist traps and pricey attractions loosely placed one alongside the other. Don’t go for the place: go for the view. If you make your way to the far end of the pier and then double back on the deserted north side of the pier, you can catch a view like this one:

Sun and Clouds over Chicago
Sunset over Chicago, sort of.

The other really good location from which to look back at the city is to be found at the Museum Campus, on Solidarity Drive just west of the Adler Planetarium. If the sun and the weather are with you, you’ll catch a spectacular panorama of downtown Chicago’s landmarks.

Chicago Downtown Cityscape
Cityscape

It goes without saying that the other big lakeside attraction is Lincoln Park, given how it stretches for kilometers north of Chicago’s downtown. Don’t miss it, if only for a walk next to the lake.

South Side

I didn’t spend much time on the South Side of Chicago: Our bus tour did a perfunctory tour of Chinatown, Washington Park, Hyde Park and the University of Chicago campus, and that pretty much satiated any fascination I might have had with the area.

Chicago Chinatown
A view of Chinatown. In fact, pretty much the only view of Chinatown.

The University of Chicago campus is very nice, of course, and it was an unexpected treat to see the site of the Fermi’s 1942 controlled nuclear reaction. The only thing I do regret not having had the time to see on the south side of the Loop is the Museum Campus: Next time, next time…

Eating


Unrelated: Some reading material. All but the last three boxes are free papers.

Prior to my trip, colleagues kept scoffing at my description of Chicago’s must-eats: Pizza and Hot Dog. Well, I stuck to my convictions and made it a personal mission to partake of Deep-Dish Pizza and Celery-Salted Dogs.

I managed the Pizza early on: I interrupted my walk down the Magnificient Mile to sneak down a street to Pizzeria Deu, the lesser-known sister restaurant to the classic Pizzeria Uno. Dropping by well after lunch time, I got served quickly with a Coke/Sausage Pizza combo. I was a bit disappointed by the pizza, but that’s just a way of saying that I’ll have to be back to check other types of Deep-Dish pizzas.


My Own Deep-Dish Pizza at Pizzeria Deu

It took a bit more effort, my last day, to find a decent Hot Dog place near downtown: My guides indicated a place that had since closed down, and it took some detective work to end up at Portillo’s, where I got a very satisfying Chicago-style hotdog. Once again, my late arrival led to speedy service.

Farther away


Madison, Wisconsin: State Capitol.

I won’t bore you with my entire Madiscon/Wiscon convention report here (if you can read French, head over to my Wiscon report at Fractale Framboise), but at least I can briefly mention that Madison is a perfectly likable city: A cross between a small government city and a big college town, Madison feels small, friendly and very intellectual. It’s a shame I didn’t see much more than downtown.

Parting thoughts

Perhaps the most enduring impression I keep from my quick breeze through Chicago is how it feels like an unpretentious city.

Chicago is a city that works really hard at making you understand that it’s working really hard. There’s little self-aggrandizement here as a cultural or intellectual centre. Chicago just gets down to business and makes things happen. The public transit works well, the downtown core seems rejuvenated by the Millennium Park and the lakeshore is a wonder.

My biggest regret is that I didn’t have time to visit any of the fine museums of the city. But that’s the advantage to whirlwind visits: There’s always something more to do the next time around.


Self Portrait via shiny curved bean

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