A Travellerspoint blog

America's Northern Midwest: Chicago

I had been to Chicago twice before and the city had never left a great impression on me. In fact, my first visit suggested Chicago was unfit for human habitation. I was interviewing for medical school one February and staying on campus. When I walked out of my room into the street an Arctic wind hit me in the face full blast, wringing a stream of tears from my eyes. Seconds later the tears froze on my cheeks. I made it to the interview but I'm not sure if I listened to a word. There was no way in hell I was going to be moving to that tormented place. My second visit had better weather but a paucity of inspiring sights and experiences. I was hoping that with more experience traveling and all my Internet research that I could show my family a more exciting and interesting city than I remembered.
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When we reached Chicago we drove straight for the Navy Pier, a popular entertainment complex which was providing a relatively inexpensive venue to watch the Fourth of July fireworks over Lake Michigan. It's probably a fun place on a regular day with carnival rides and exhibitions but as the evening set in the limited open space became more and more crowded and oppressive. The food options were awful and the breeze off the lake brought in cooler temperatures than we were dressed for. By the time the fireworks were halfway over I was pushing us towards the exits ahead of the rush. The view of the skyline was more impressive than the fireworks themselves.
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In the morning we were eager to explore the third largest city in the country. We drove straight to Chinatown for brunch. The view from the traditional Chinatown Gate was encouraging with a long line of Chinese restaurants and other businesses but we soon discovered that almost everything was concentrated on this one street. At the end of the street was a plaza with several more restaurants including Joy Yee, a Pan-Asian noodle shop where we had a pleasant meal. Aside from the restaurants there was little sign of Chinese culture and few of the pedestrians and customers were Chinese. Unlike either of New York's Chinatowns or the ones in Boston or San Francisco, it wasn't the kind of place where you could suspend belief and imagine you had been transported to the other side of the globe.
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People have many different images of Chicago but few think of it as a beach town. That's somewhat odd because I'm hard pressed to think of any American cities that have as many beaches close to the city center as Chicago. Even living in Miami we have to schlep across the bay to get to Miami Beach. People forget that Chicago is along the shore of a lake so large it might as well be an ocean and there are actually twenty-four public beaches within the city limits. We picked Oak Street Beach, not far from downtown, and I was surprised by how much sand there was. I would never have known I wasn't at the oceanside. The towering skyscrapers just behind the beach made the incongruous feeling of being at the beach and in the city even more acute.
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One thing that we weren't expecting was that Chicago would have the most beautiful and impressive downtown of any American city. Naturally the first one anyone would think of is my hometown of New York City but I found Chicago's to have more interesting architecture, more space between the skyscrapers and therefore more sunlight, and a more energetic vibe overall. We walked up and down a long stretch of North Michigan Avenue that is known as Magnificent Mile. We ducked in and out of high-end boutiques and enjoyed amazing views of historic buildings and the Chicago River. The rippled, aquamarine surface of the water was a splendid accompaniment to the distinguished skyline.
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South of the river a series of enormous parks occupies the space between Michigan Avenue and the Lake Michigan shoreline. Here we found the reflecting Cloud Gate sculpture, affectionately known to locals as The Bean. Artist Anish Kapoor has never provided a detailed explanation of the sculpture's meaning but the prevailing interpretation is that the reflection of the sky and clouds on the polished metallic surface is like a doorway from the ground into the heavens. It's a perfect sculpture for a public place as the distorted reflections make for awesome photographs and the curved underside invites pedestrians to walk beneath.
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Bistro night was at The Girl and the Goat, a very buzzy restaurant whose owner had been featured on the Top Chef cooking competition. We had made our reservation weeks in advance and naturally the restaurant was packed and full of energy. It was a great night out after a long day of sightseeing although the menu wasn't quite as innovative as we were expecting.
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We started the next day at a farmers market uptown before moving on to the curiosity shop Woolly Mammoth. The market was good-sized but unremarkable and Woolly Mammoth was mostly focused on taxidermy and the grotesque, which wasn't as fun for us as the offbeat boutiques we'd visited in Wisconsin.
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We were more impressed by the greenhouses at the Garfield Park Conservatory in central Chicago. This was our third botanical garden of the trip even though I'm not particularly interested in botany. However there's something about greenhouses that I find impossible to resist. In the best ones I feel like I've been transported to a primordial Earth unsullied by human civilization. The Garfield Park Conservatory was particularly lush and aesthetically pleasing, a wonderful respite from the urban expanse.
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We went directly from raw nature to one of the extremes of human audacity. The Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) was the tallest building in the world from its completion in 1973 until 1998 when it was surpassed by the Petronas Towers in Malaysia. I wouldn't call the tower ugly but its black, block-like composition doesn't carry the same gravitas as the New York City skyscrapers that held the title before it or the innovative and beautiful Asian buildings that surpassed it. The main attraction for travelers is the Ledge, a small glass-floored balcony that projects outward from the observation deck to give visitors the illusion of being suspended hundreds of meters above the city streets. It was somewhat annoying being forced to watch the painful social media antics of those in the line ahead of us once they took their places in the box. Exaggerated expressions of terror and handstands seemed to be the most popular choices, accompanied by low grumbles from the line once people had gone over their time allotment in search of internet-based validation.
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We planned to have dinner in one of Chicago's ethnic neighborhoods. My research advised me there was a Little Italy just west of Interstate 90 in the center of the city, but once we arrived we didn't see much except for a couple of fairly low-end restaurants and pizza places. It seemed like a typical generic residential area with a lot of businesses catering to college students, unsurprising since the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago was a block away. There may have been a more Italian flavor to the neighborhood in the past, but to someone who cut his teeth on Little Italy in Manhattan and the North End in Boston it was pretty disappointing. Even The Hill in St. Louis would easily take the title of the best Italian neighborhood in the Midwest over Chicago's version. Instead of stopping we drove uptown to Little Vietnam, also known as Little Saigon. I was surprised to find out that Chicago had a Vietnamese neighborhood given that the vast majority of war refugees emigrated to California and Texas. However, Argyle Street was packed with authentic pho restaurants and Vietnamese boutiques. The only drawback was that the commercial part of the neighborhood was quite small, occupying only a few blocks of one street. It had begun pouring by that point and we couldn't have done much exploring even if there had been anything to see so we picked the most promising restaurant and were soon tucking into steaming bowls of delicious pho.

Our last full day in Chicago was centered around the Taste of Chicago, the celebrated food festival that had given me the idea to make Chicago the culmination of this road trip. One of my medical school roommates had told me about it and made it sound like the gastronomic experience of a lifetime. When I looked it up, it did sound good. Dozens of Chicago restaurants setting up booths in a park for samples of their specialties? Count us in. It sounded like a food hall on steroids.

On the way to the festival we stopped off at the Shit Fountain. The unusual sculpture was created by local artist Jerzy Kenar in response to all the dogs that have been allowed to defecate on his property without a clean-up afterwards. Surprisingly there was no outcry from the community or the city and the fountain has become one of Chicago's offbeat attractions.
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We hadn't made it as far south as Grant Park on our long walk down Michigan Avenue earlier in the week, but we discovered it had one of the best views of the spectacular Chicago skyline we'd seen yet. Especially with the rococo Buckingham Fountain in the foreground, there couldn't have been a more beautiful setting for the Taste of Chicago.
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Sadly, the culinary prowess of the festival failed to live up to the setting. It was far less a showcase for Chicago's bistros than a smorgasbord of fast foods, mainly dominated by every conceivable variety of sausage. It was reminiscent of a food court at the world's largest sports stadium. There was no shortage of patrons lining up for bratwurst, pizza, turkey legs, nachos, and burgers but I think we could have eaten just as well without paying the steep admission by walking up and down the block outside of Wrigley Field. I don't know whether there was a more restaurant-oriented selection when the festival started out in the 1980's or if I had just completely misunderstood the concept. Either way the food festival we'd chosen as an anchor for our road trip was one of the biggest disappointments. The funny thing was that by that point we'd had so much fun and seen so many amazing places in four states that it hardly even mattered.
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We didn't stay at Taste of Chicago as long as we'd expected but we had a back-up plan. Two days earlier we'd spotted the Crown Fountain just south of The Bean but couldn't let the kids play in it. This time we'd come prepared with bathing suits for the kids. As soon as they saw the water they plunged in and had a great time while we watched the faces change on the singular LED monoliths from which the water spewed.
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That was pretty much the end of the trip. We had a little time the next morning to stop at a couple of Polish and German grocery stores on our way to the airport but didn't encounter anything very surprising. Chicago had shown us an amazing downtown but had batted well below its size when it came to ethnic diversity. Overall I left with a greater appreciation of the city than on my previous visits but I didn't get the impression that Chicago was a world class city on the scale of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or even Boston. Nevertheless it had been a great itinerary and there's nothing I would have changed. Minneapolis, Madison, and especially Milwaukee had been unique and fascinating cities as well and the experience had recharged my determination to visit all the remaining major American cities.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 07:16 Archived in USA Tagged chicago midwest tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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