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Trip Report Chicago Trip Report

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Up until recently, I'd never been to Chicago, though I'd heard people rave about it for years. Well, in late July, I finally go the opportunity to GO for a whole week! And it is just as awesome as you've heard. I spent the first couple of days on my own, some time mid-week on business, and then finished off the week with my hubs, who flew out to join me.

Here's my trip report:

Day 1
I caught a cab in from Midway, and, because I'm chatty, I discussed all kinds of things with my cabbie on the way in. Just as we passed Wrigley field, he said, "It's so hot here right now," in an apologetic tone. I almost laughed out loud. "I'm from the Deep South, sugar," I said. "This feels like spring!"

About a half hour (and $40 or so) later, he pulled up at the entrance to my hotel - the Hotel Intercontinental Magnificent Mile. What a place! Originally built in 1929 as a men's athletic club, the hotel is ideally located - to the north is Lincoln Park, the Willis Tower, and the Chicago History Museum, and to the south is Millennium Park, the Chicago Art Institute, and the Field Museum. Plus, you're situated in the midst of Chicago's main shopping corridor, convenient to the river. Check in was swift, and though my room on the 8th floor had no view to speak of, it was clean and comfortable. (And $200 per night. FYI.)

After freshening up a bit, I did some exploring in my immediate surroundings, buying a few souvenirs (There's an Accent Chicago store, which sells all types of mementos, in the Water Tower Place shopping complex, along with a Macy's and tons of other stores.) and a cute pair of sandals.

Then, I explored the Water Tower itself. The stone structure was built in 1869, and it's famous today for being one of the only structures to survive the Great Fire of 1871. Legend has it that families used it as an orienting landmark to help them find the ruins of their homes in the aftermath of the fire. Today, the structure (and part of the pumping station across the street) serves as a visitor's center, with free literature available about local tourist attractions. The Water Tower also offers small, local exhibits from area artists. (The week I was there, it was a series of closeup photographs of some truly WILD manicures.)

By this time, I was getting hungry. I stepped into Bar Toma, right near the Water Tower, for a bite. The restaurant is lauded for its pizza, but not being quite hungry enough to polish one off by myself, I chose two small plates: the fried calamari and the treviso and goat cheese crostini. (Treviso is some kind of cooked cabbage. In Bar Toma's preparation, this really reminded me of balsamic roasted onions. It had a sweet, caramelized flavor to it.) Both appetizers were really delicious, and I didn't come close to finishing the crostini. I washed everything down with a glass of pinot noir for good measure, shopped a bit more, and turned in for the evening.

Day 2
I had set up a free Chicago Greeter tour for 10 a.m. on day 2, but I awoke early with a rumbling stomach. I headed for Wildberry Cafe, tucked into the first floor of what appears to be an office building bordering Millennium Park. Word had it on the intranets that it was a great place for a filling meal to start the day. The waitress recommended the fresh berry crepes or pancakes, and I was happy to oblige. The crepes were delicious - creamy, beautiful to look at, studded with fresh berries and a bright coulis. I wolfed them down with a frothy latte, and I was on my way.

Still early for my tour, I decided to explore Millennium Park a bit. Wow. I LOVED it. The music pavilion, designed by Gehry, is a wonder and one of the most amazing permanent public performance spaces I've ever seen. It's a marvel of ribboned steel, and the capacity is impressive. Cloud Gate (AKA The Bean) was interactive and so fun! I loved walking underneath it and seeing it reflect the city skyline on its curved surface. I also enjoyed some great people watching at the Crown Fountain, where faces of real Chicagoans spout water while the young (and the young at heart) play in the water. Kids and marathoners joined together to cool their heels. (I may have slipped off my shoes for a little bit. Maybe.)

By this time, my tour guide was waiting. I met up with Kara at the Chicago Cultural Center, itself an architectural and historical wonder. After discussing my interests a bit, we toured the building. The center was originally built as Chicago's first public library and features intricate craftsmanship. There's a large dome of Tiffany glass, marble walls, and painstaking mosaic tile work throughout. Afterwards, we legged it through the theatre district for a bit (I wanted to find out where the Chicago Theatre was, for a tour I'd scheduled later in the week.), and then we headed to Marshall Field's (now a Macy's). We admired Field's business know-how (He's famous for declaring, "Give the lady what she wants!") and poked our noses into The Walnut Room before heading next door to The Palmer House Hotel. The famous Peacock Doors here were designed by Tiffany himself, weigh more than a half ton, and are worth a million dollars. Wow. We finished up by making our way to some of Chicago's most notable public art installations: the Picasso, Chagall's Four Seasons, and Calder's Flamingo.

By this time, I needed to cool off. I decided to take a dip in my hotel's retro pool. The pool is original to the building, and I totally felt like Esther Williams swimming in it. After lots of laps, I ran through the shower and got a quick snack, then took a well-deserved nap.

I woke ready for more fun. I had tickets to an early showing of Million Dollar Quartet at the Apollo Theatre, and I was anxious to get there. I took a cab (because the Apollo is a loooong way from the Intercontinental), and readied myself for an evening of music.

The Apollo is a small thrust theatre, and I daresay there isn't a bad seat in the house. I happened to be on the very first row, and I could've reached out and touched the performers many times throughout the production. The show is about the afternoon that four music greats - Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis - spent an afternoon making music together at Sun Studios. (If you've ever toured Sun Studios, in Memphis, you'll learn more about it. The reality is that it was largely a publicity stunt, and that once the still photo was snapped, the men most likely went on their way. But the show is a hugely entertaining idea of what might have happened.)

The cast was energetic and extremely talented. All the performers played instruments (guitar, piano, etc.), sang, and acted. (I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to cast this show.) The end vignettes (especially one where Shaun Whitley, the actor playing Carl Perkins, literally jumped, with his guitar, and STOOD in the curve of the upright bass, playing and singing his heart out) were AMAZING. Jerry Lee Lewis, played by Lance Lipinsky, was astonishing. The whole thing was just wonderful. (And, near the end, Elvis - played by Robby M. Kipferl - shimmied my way and draped his scarf around my neck! What an absolute HOOT!) I had a magical time. Honestly, if your toes don't tap during this show, I can only assume you have no feet.

After the show, it was a quick, breezy walk to Perennial Virant, a locavore restaurant about a mile from the theatre. I chose the crispy braised goat, washed down with some rose. It was smoky and delicious, served on a bed of creamy grits. Service was lightning-fast and incredibly cheerful. A cab back to the hotel, and to bed!

More to come . . .

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    Day 3
    On day 3, I stopped at Starbucks for a quick breakfast, then headed to the river for an architectural boat tour. I booked one of the early morning tours offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. You board the vessel at the Michigan Avenue bridge, which was only a block or two from my hotel.

    I really loved this tour. A docent from the foundation points out major landmarks along the river, informing you about style, who designed each building, and more. I had never thought much about how buildings are designed to speak to their surroundings, to the other buildings in the area, to the history of the city they are in, or in honor of other great architects. We learned about the Chicago Tribune building (chunks from other famous structures around the world are embedded in its base), the Wrigley Building, Marina City (Locals call it the corn cobs, but I thought it looked more like two flowers with ruffled petals.), and more. She also pointed out where the Great Fire started. The weather was gorgeous, and I got a nice, shady seat on the forward deck.

    After the tour, it was lunch time. I headed back to the old Marshall Field's building for a ladylike lunch in The Walnut Room! The story goes that, back when Field still walked the halls of his store, he caught a milliner serving her customers chicken pot pies in her shop. Livid, he confronted the hatmaker. She explained that the ladies got hungry while shopping, and rather than having them leave the store entirely (perhaps not to return), she opted to feed them in the store so they could go on buying items. Needless to say, Field knew wisdom when he heard it. Shortly thereafter, he had this very refined watering hole installed on the premises.

    The dining room is gorgeous. I had a window seat (and a waiter from Pocahontas, Miss.!). I almost got the trademark chicken pot pie, but due to the heat of the day, I chose instead a corn soup garnished with pepitas and a lovely shrimp salad sandwich. What a treat! It was light, summery, and delicious!

    After resting a moment back at the hotel, I was off again. I decided to make the 2-3 mile walk to the Chicago History Museum, up near Lincoln Park, via the lakefront. It was a beautiful day, and I saw so many people out swimming, jogging, riding their bikes, and enjoying the sunshine! (Incidentally, Chicago has a bike rental program. You'll see kiosks of the blue bikes throughout the city. You rent one, hop on, ride it around, and return it at any other kiosk. My only advice? Print out the locations of all the kiosks before you hit the ground. That way, you'll know where you can pick up bikes and drop them off. The maps at the kiosks are only for the immediate area, and so aren't as helpful as they could be.)

    I made it to the museum, which is set at one end of a beautiful park full of trees, riotous perennial beds, and public art. I loved this museum. First, I headed upstairs for the big exhibits on Chicago history. I learned about the early settlement of the area, Fort Dearborn, and the rise of the city as a center for meat, steel, and furniture. Other exhibits explored the expansion of the railroad system, the Great Fire, sports and entertainment, and the Chicago Jewish experience. I particularly enjoyed the hall of dioramas on the first floor. Such detail!

    With tired feet, I headed back to the Magnificent Mile for food and a rest. Bar Toma it was, for the second time. Unable to resist the pizza, I chose one loaded with spinach and cheese. Yum! After a quick stop for some Garrett Popcorn (caramel cashew . . . mmmmmmmmm), I went to my hotel room, laid down on the bed, and doubted if I'd ever move again!

    Day 4
    Day 4 was the first day of the business conference I was in Chicago to attend. I went around the corner to the Gleacher Center and spent the morning learning, networking, and hearing from experts. Our group did break for a working lunch, which we had at Heaven on Seven, a New Orleans-style restaurant. (The irony is not lost on me.) I had a cup of delicious gumbo, a big ol' chicken enchilada (Hey, it was on special!), and a sinful chicory creme brulee.

    Once our afternoon sessions ended, I high-tailed it to the Chicago Theatre for their behind-the-scenes tour. (Because it was a dark night at the theatre, we got to see nearly everything - back stage, the green room, dressing rooms, the works.) I am so glad I took this tour! It's a gorgeous historic building. We even got to go on stage! (They asked if anyone had a song. I couldn't resist belting the last few lines of All That Jazz! Very appropriate, no? Acoustics were amazing, with the sound traveling right back to you.)

    Backstage, there are all these signatures of people who have played at the theatre: Frank Sinatra, Kathy Griffin, David Copperfield, all kinds of folks. And the building itself is a marvel of French Baroque and marble and chandeliers and decorative plaster work. Highly, highly recommended.

    After the tour, it was back to bed for me, as I had another early morning for the conference the next day.

    More to come . . .

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    Day 5
    Early morning found me back at the Gleacher Center for another half day of sessions. We broke for a pretty late lunch. I had been trying to get a meal at The Purple Pig all week, but it was always too much of a wait. (And they don't take reservations. Sigh.) Because I was stopping by at an off-time, I was able to walk right in and get a seat at the bar!

    I had the pork shoulder, served on a small bed of mashed potatoes, and then I also got a bowl of peas with bacon and croutons. YUM. The peas were bright and lemony, and the pork shoulder was meltingly tender. (I would've liked a bit more mashed potatoes, but I suppose a girl can't have everything.)

    After eating, I decided to walk out to Navy Pier. It was a bright, clear day. The carnival barkers were out, children played in the fountains, and the ferris wheel spun against a blue, blue sky. I enjoyed the views and popped into the free Stained Glass Museum. It offers a dazzling collection of stained glass doors, windows, and other decorative panels.

    On the afternoon of day 5, hubs flew up to the city to join me for a few days. After a quick rest, we headed to Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill for supper. We'd made reservations for an early dinner. (And I was glad we had, because by the time we left, the line stretched around the street corner!) We had an AWESOME waiter (full of great personality, with a remarkable handlebar mustache) who gave us excellent recommendations. As we sipped our mojitos, we sampled lots of goodies: the street food trio, the ceviche, a bowl of deliciously flavored green beans, and an amazing creamy squash dish. We finished off with a seasonal berry shortcake for dessert. It was a marvelous meal, and service was prompt, knowledgeable, and FUN!

    After that, it was back to the hotel. Hubs was beat from a day of traveling, so we turned in early.

    Day 6
    We started with a quick breakfast at Starbucks so we could arrive at Willis Tower EARLY. We were there about 20 minutes before it opened, and we watched the line get longer and longer the closer it got to opening time. We bought tickets for the Sky Deck, then zoomed up to the 107th floor for some of the best views of Chicago. You can see 4 states from up there! It was a clear, sunny day, and my legs trembled a bit as I stepped onto the Sky Deck. (You're kinda fighting centuries of biological instinct to do it! Hubs kept saying, "Do I see some cracking in the plexiglass?" as I stood on the clear surface. A comedian, that one!) It was wild! We took lots of photos and oohed and aahed and picked out landmarks below.

    Then, it was off to the Chicago Art Institute. We got there shortly before it opened and lined up. (You will adore the homeless man who comes out to sell copies of Streetwise Magazine shortly before the museum opens. He sells the publication for $2 each to help support himself and tells tons of schlocky jokes!) After a quick stop to purchase our tickets, it was off to American Gothic. (I found it very dour. The subjects looked Puritanical and unhappy.) We also spent some time in the Indian, Asian, and Himalayan art collections. We sat for a while in front of Chagall's America Windows, which are a nice echo of his Four Seasons installation in front of Chase Tower. In the Greek/Roman/Byzantine statuary collection, I found faces I recognized from our trip to Italy last year. (My old friend Hadrian!) I'm also positive that the gorgeous gold body chain I photographed in the British Treasures exhibit would have looked GREAT on me.

    Tummies rumbling, we went in search of food. A museum employee (from Clarksdale, Miss., no less!) directed us to a beautiful open-air courtyard on the museum campus, where we lunched next to a bubbling fountain and fed our extra bread to sweet little ducks. Brian ordered chicken, and I had a delightful eggplant sandwich.

    Refreshed, it was off to the modern wing. Up on the third floor, we explored an extensive Picasso collection, as well as work by Kandinsky, Dali, and Miro. Then, it was off to the Impressionists. Monet's Water Lilies and Stacks of Wheat series, Van Gogh's Bedroom and Self Portrait, and the vibrant, saturated work of Renoir. Eager for a change of pace, we decided to check out the historic armor. We finished up on the lower level with the Thorne Miniature Rooms. What fun! So precise, so perfect, appointed beautifully with a slavish devotion to detail.

    After all that, we were POOPED! (And honestly, there's so much we didn't even cover. You could spend days in the Art Institute and still not see everything.) It was back to the hotel for a rest before we ventured out again.

    That evening, I'd booked us a reservation at Russian Tea Time (right across the street from the Art Institute, and, incidentally, right where Route 66 starts) for dinner in honor of hubs' 39th birthday. What a great find! We decided to get the sample platter for 2 and a couple of glasses of wine. We got to try so many different treats! On the appetizer platter, we had steamed dumplings (mmmmmmm), stuffed mushroom caps, carrot salad, tabbouleh (with no tomatoes or onions, and some different spices than what we use to make it at home), hummus, shredded beets, and all kinds of yumminess. My favorites were the dumplings with garlic yogurt and the hummus. I also loved the beets on a slice of dark rye bread with a dollop of sour cream on top. (I decided it would make a fantastic appetizer for a party.)

    Then, we had a big main course platter. The stroganoff and the big chicken meatball were both amazing. The stuffed cabbage reminded me of my mom's stuffed squash. We waved off dessert, but the waiter knew it was hubs' birthday, so he brought us a free piece of chocolate strudel with a candle in it. Needless to say, we walked very S-L-O-W-L-Y back to the hotel!

    Final installment to come . . .

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    Day 7
    We woke up on day 7 not hungry for breakfast. Still full from the night before, decided to skip it and have an early lunch. We rolled out of bed and hopped in a cab for the Field Museum. Wow. I was sooooo impressed with this place. We stared in the lobby with Sue, the biggest, most complete T-rex skeleton ever discovered. Then, we moved on to the Evolution of Earth exhibit. We traced the rise of life on Earth, through continental shifts and mass extinctions. This is the exhibit where you'll find the museum's dinosaur collection, which is one of the most extensive I've ever seen. It's also strikingly presented, alongside beautiful paintings of the creatures as they might have appeared when they lived.

    By this time, it was nearly 11 a.m., and we were getting hungry. We stopped for a quick lunch in the museum cafe, which is a Corner Bakery (not ideal, but serviceable). Then, we headed to the Grainger Hall of Gems. O. Em. Geeeee!!! Stunning jewelry and stones. So many glittery little darlings! I wanted to take them all home! We took in the Jade Room, as well, before backtracking to the main level for the Egyptian collection.

    Now, the Egyptian collection is extensive, but its narrow passageways and tight spaces make it unsuited for really large crowds. A series of summer camp groups had chosen this particular day to visit the Field Museum, and it was quite a challenge to make one's way through this portion of the museum with any sort of time or focus to truly grasp what you were looking at. We escaped to the Africa exhibits, which were blissfully deserted. We stroll back to the Tsavo lions (of Ghost in the Darkness fame), which killed 140 men before being dispatched themselves. Yikes! After that, w exited via the Pacific Islander exhibits (again, almost deserted) and headed for the hotel.

    After a nap and a shower, we were up and at 'em once again. We had dinner reservations at Coco Pazzo Cafe, which was a wonderful little place not far from the hotel. Hubs got the veal ravioli, and I had the duck pappardelle. I washed my pasta down with a glass of red wine, and they gave us a pistachio semifreddo dessert on the house! (Service had been a tad slow when we first arrived.)

    Then, we hopped a cab to go see The Second City! I'd gotten tickets for hubs in honor of his birthday. He loves comedy, but there aren't tons of opportunities to watch is close by. What FUN! The cast led us through an uproarious two hours of scripted and improv mash ups. I particularly loved Katie Rich and Holly Laurent. If you book reserved preferred seats, you sit a lot closer to the action. Thus, you have a greater chance of becoming part of the show. (We didn't do this, but FYI.) We had an amazing time, stopping at the Capital Grille before bed for tea and a mile-high slice of coconut cream pie. What a night!

    Day 8
    Our last half-day! We didn't go see any attractions, but I did walk down to Pierrot Gourmet in the Peninsula Hotel for breakfast before I left. What a homey little spot! I had a GIANT breakfast flatbread and a big cup of strong coffee. Delicious, if pricey! Stray newspapers abounded, so I settled in with one of them, ate, stretched my legs, and hugged my coffee cup close.

    Then, it was off to pack, check out, and make my way to the airport! We adored Chicago and can't wait to go back. What an amazing city!

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    I'm glad you had a such a good visit to one of my favorite cities. One small correction..if you were in a cab from Midway to the Intercontinental, you passed Cominsky Park where the White Sox play; Wrigley Field is on the north side of the city. (Unless your taxi driver really went out of his way to extend your trip)

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    Well written report.

    You really made good use of your time in Chicago. I love the Chicago Greeters program. I did a Old Town/Lincoln Park Zoo/Chicago History Museum walk with the greeter--it was so enjoyable.

    Thanks for reporting back

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    Great report! I'm going to have to go to the Art Institute of Chicago one of these years. It's always weird for me to call that tall building "the Willis Tower" after all those years calling it "the Sears Tower".

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    What a great and well-written report!

    The Divvy bike share program is really great and there's an app you can download onto your cell that tells you which station is closest to you at any time and how many bikes are available, etc. I bought a year pass for $65 and just had a guest use it everyday he was here -- he loved it. There are no additional charges as long as you check the bike in within 30 minutes (intended for transportation rather than sightseeing).

    Visitors will likely buy the 24 hr passes or perhaps there's a weekly?

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    Great report. I have been to Chicago a few times and have only seen a few of the places you mentioned. Can't wait to go back and see new places.

    I wish you would have seen Marshall Fields before it was Macy's. They have changed a few things around that, IMHO, have not enhanced the building. Still such a beautiful building.

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    Glad you enjoyed Chicago, my birthplace of long ago...and where we often visited while in Illinois, Missouri (now in Boston area). You mentioned the Lakefront, Millennium Park, and Art Institute which was a favorite place and we sought out special exhibits. I happen to especially enjoy the Impressionist works. Don't know why you "picked on" American Gothic, a classic piece which seems to you dour...but likely you don't appreciate Grant Wood's style, an artist from wife's hometown of Cedar Rapids. A new book out: "Grant Wood a Life" explaining hidden themes...although I don't much agree with the author Evans' biases.

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    This is why I am reluctant to write trip reports.....this one (and many of maitaitom's) are hard to live up to!! :)

    Thanks for such a detailed report (althought now I can't stop thinking about the FOOD!).

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