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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As a tourist attraction, it’s very well-designed: the avenue looks inviting enough for a stroll, leading straight to familiar brand names.
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.
Once you’re done walking down the Magnificient Mile, you’ll be standing right at the entrance of downtown Chicago.
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!
This being said, the river is slowly beign surrounded by buildings. Near the iconic Michigan Avenue bridge, Donald Trump is building yet another tower.
The bridges themselves remains just as impressive regardless of how many high-rises surround them.
The buildings stop south-west of The Loop, but the river itself goes on for a while.
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.)
Yes, the lower floors of the towers are open-air parking spots. Here’s a closer look:
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.
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.
It gets more fun once you realize that the El goes over actual roadways.
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.
Better yet is the accumulation of public art.
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.
The Loop is also the best place to get a vertiginous view of Chicago’s top skyscraper, the curiously unphotogenic Sears Tower.
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.
Needless to say, I indulged.
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.
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.
Chicago parks: they’re good for everyone.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.