Lilaki's Trip Report: Chicago, July 1 - 5

Jul 7th, 2009, 10:50 AM
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Lilaki's Trip Report: Chicago, July 1 - 5

Hi Fodorites,

I’m back from our trip and am slowly piecing together my trip report.

First, thank you to EVERYONE who has helped me on this forum. I have spent hours upon hours planning this trip and this forum has been absolutely invaluable!

A bit about ourselves … DH and I are in our early 30's from Toronto. We travel quite a bit for work and once or twice a year for fun. We move pretty quickly and aren't big into beach/lounging around vacations.

DH had a conference in New Orleans from June 28 – July 1. The original plan was for him to fly home on July 1 (our Canada day); but then we noticed that all flights from MSY – YYZ go through ORD. So we thought, why not plan a weekend getaway in Chicago? I flew into Chicago from Toronto and DH flew up from New Orleans. My flight landed at around 1 pm and I was at the hotel around 2:30 pm. I caught the blue line from O’Hare station and got off at Clark/Lake where I caught a quick $5 cab ride to the Swissotel. DH took the same route a few hours later. The blue line ride in was great; I smiled as we zoomed past traffic!

Thanks to citylights … you were spot on with your description of how to buy the farecards and transit passes. I had $2.25 ready in change for the farecard and used my credit card to purchase two 3-day passes. The farecard is not a plastic card, per se; more like a really thick paper card with a plasticized coating. I guess Toronto isn’t that advanced because single ride fares are still considered tokens and tickets!

The Hotel

We stayed at the Swissotel on Wacker. I saw a great rate on Orbitz, contacted the hotel and they matched the price (and also gave us the first night at 50% off). The hotel was nice; although, service was indifferent. I wouldn’t stay at this property again because it was a bit out of the way from the action. Next time, I’d prefer to stay either IN the Loop or closer to Mag Mile. But again, the price was right!

I had requested a high floor and a view of Millennium/Grant Park in the hopes of seeing some of the fireworks show. However, the front desk and concierge both told me that there were condos block most of the view so we’d be best off to head out to the streets to see the show. Our room was on the 30th floor.
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Jul 7th, 2009, 10:59 AM
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First Day in Chicago

I unpacked at the hotel and quickly set out to check out the Loop area. As a single-female during this part of the trip, I never felt unsafe or anxious…Overall, we both felt very safe for the whole trip. I did notice the heavy police presence at major intersections; but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m not sure if that is ‘normal’ for Chicago or ‘normal’ for the holiday weekend.

DH’s flight arrived around 5 pm and he was at the hotel by about 6 pm. We both LOVE the fact that the airport is connected by train to the city … something that Toronto is HOPEFULLY working on!

We went to Bella Bacino’s for dinner and enjoyed our first Chicago-style deep dish pizza. I passed the restaurant on my way back to the hotel and put our order in so we wouldn’t have too long of a wait when we got to the airport.

After dinner, we stopped off at the CVS on Columbus (near our hotel) to pick up supplies (water, snacks, etc). We caught the Navy Pier fireworks from the hallway windows on our floor.
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Jul 7th, 2009, 11:01 AM
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Thursday, July 2

We headed down to the Bike and Roll location at Riverwalk and Columbus. The location was to open at 9 am. When we showed up at 9:30 am, we couldn’t figure out why no one was there. So we called the Millennium Park location and headed back there instead. I was more than a little peeved about this for a few reasons. First, I had been emailing back and forth with the folks @ the company and the assured me that the Riverwalk location didn’t require reservations and that they would still honour the online reserved prices. Second, this location was literally right in front of our hotel and it was uber-convenient. And third, I stupidly followed the directions from the person over the phone and we ended up walking in a ridiculous circle to get to the Millennium Park location (we should have just cut across Columbus to Randolph but the person on the phone told me to walk down Wacker to Michigan and then up Randolph).

We finally got ourselves sorted out and onto bikes by 10 am. We did a ½ day rental and the folks at the Millennium Park location honoured the online prices for us. We rode our bikes through Millennium Park then along the lake to the Museum Campus. DH loved Soldier Field – the combination of old and new. We rode past the aquarium, Field museum, the planetarium and then around Northerly Island. We went to went back up the lake towards Navy Pier, parked/locked our bikes and walked around Navy Pier. I’m glad we didn’t make a special effort to go there during our trip. Good with kids, perhaps, but definitely not for us. We used this time to grab lunch @ Billy Goat Tavern (just to say we ate there) and then rode on. We rode past Oak Street beach and then up to a lagoon-like area where we ended up on a concrete structure that jutted right out into the lake. It felt like we were the only ones there! I looked at a map when we got back to the hotel and figured that we made it up to La Salle Street. We were getting tired at this point and we had to hustle back to Millennium Park to beat the 4-hour rental deadline.

Overall, cycling was a great way to see the city. We would not have been able to cover that much ground without the bikes (or maybe a car). Museum Campus is a huge area and that would’ve required a LOT of walking to see all of the different buildings.

We had a few hours to kill in the afternoon so we decided to head up Mag Mile. DH ended up buying a pair of shoes @ Nordstrom but they were kind enough to let us pay and leave the shoes to be picked up the next day. We spent a bit of time on Mag Mile but hustled along as we had tickets to the Cubs game that night. We caught the red line train @ Chicago and took it up to Addison. We literally just followed the fans!

The Wrigley experience was definitely interesting. I’m not a baseball fan (DH is) and even I enjoyed the game. It is VERY different from a Toronto baseball experience. We were in the TINY minority not wearing some sort of Cubs paraphernalia! We had seats in the second last row of the stadium but we could still see everything going on. I wouldn’t necessarily call what we ate dinner, but it was darn tasty! Chicago-style hot dogs, thick cut fries, chicken tenders, peanuts, etc. It all added to the game experience!

Getting home was an interesting adventure. The line extended from the train station, all the way back to the entrances @ Wrigley. We were a bit concerned that it would take us forever to get home (and the cab option looked dismal as traffic was practically at a standstill on the streets). It only took us 20 minutes to make our way onto a train! That’s impressive given the volume of people exiting the stadium.
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Jul 7th, 2009, 11:03 AM
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Friday, July 3

We made our way to the Bongo Room for breakfast. I had read on Chowhound that you can ask for single orders of the legendary pancakes to maximize the experience. So, we did just that. This may sound crazy, but to me, this was the best food experience of the trip! Everything was so unique and tasty! Single order pancakes are definitely not cheap … but we were so full that we didn’t need lunch!

From the Bongo Room, we took the #146 bus over to the aquarium. I had bought tickets via Ticketmaster and this was one of the best decisions of the trip. The line was absolutely crazy!!

One tip for Canadians purchasing these tickets … for some reason, the Ticketmaster website doesn’t let you print at home. The only option online for Canadians is to hold the tickets at the Will Call window at the aquarium. This seemed to defeat the purpose of AVOIDING the lines. So I called Ticketmaster directly and spent 30 minutes on the phone with a poor soul who was trying to ‘get around’ the system. The rep said that he’s always encountered this problem with Canadians but generally, if you buy over the phone, the tickets will get emailed to you and you can print them before you go. Luckily for me, this option worked. The other option would be to purchase tickets at a Ticketmaster outlet somewhere else in Chicago. This was my Plan B if the telephone rep wasn’t able to do it for me.

The aquarium was truly amazing. I can see how you can spend all day there! In total, we spent 2.5 hours there. We didn’t watch any of the shows except for the reef dive (that was cool). The tickets were expensive but totally worth it.

Back on the bus to Roosevelt station and up to Mag Mile. We started at the ‘top’ (so to speak) and made our way down, picking up DH’s purchases from the day before along the way. Our feet were starting to ache at this point and we didn’t really last very long (it was VERY crowded this day). After Nordstrom, we hopped on the bus back towards Wacker.

As a side note, we made very good use of the buses in the downtown area. Our hotel was about a 10-15 minute walk from the nearest station so buses became our best friends! And many a time, we had a bus driver just drop us off wherever we had asked even though there was no designated stop.

Back to the hotel to rest up, change, etc. We had dinner reservations @ Frontera Grill. We decided to take a cab as my feet were really starting to scream (I have plantar fasciitis). We got to Frontera for our reservation at 6 pm and still had to wait about 20 minutes. I had heard/read great things about this restaurant but we were both a bit underwhelmed. We don’t have a lot of opportunities for great Mexican food at home so whenever we’re in the US, we love to pig out at Mexican restaurants. I’m not sure if it was all the hype that disappointed us or if it was the food itself. Either way, I don’t think we’ll go back there next time we’re in Chicago.

It was about 7:30 pm by the time we left the restaurant and the downtown area was really starting to buzz. Folks were streaming in all day to camp out for the fireworks that night. We walked from the restaurant over to the Loop and found Garrett’s Popcorn. The line up was HUMUNGOUS. We couldn’t believe people would line up for POPCORN! After 30 minutes of standing around and chatting to the super nice locals in line (who convinced us we wouldn’t regret this!), we got our hands on some Chicago Mix popcorn. Now, I am NOT a popcorn fan (i.e. if I never had popcorn ever again, I wouldn’t be sad) but this stuff was UNBELIEVABLE! I don’t want to even THINK about how bad this was for our arteries! The flavours were awesome and it was totally worth the wait! I want some right now … it was THAT good.

We wandered around Millennium Park a bit – took some pictures of the Bean and the Pavilion. It was SUPER crowded in the park.

Around 8:30 pm, we decided to head back to the hotel to drop off the popcorn (we would’ve gorged ourselves otherwise) and grab a jacket (it was cooling off). According to the research I did online, the show would start at 9:30 pm so we figured we had time to kill. We hand planned to watch the fireworks from Randolph and Columbus and that was just a quick walk from our hotel. As soon as we got up to our room, we heard the first BOOM of the fireworks (it was 8:55 pm). Panicked, we ran to our window and saw that we could see a GOOD majority of the fireworks show! We were both pleasantly surprised! We pulled up the chairs to the window, put up our feet, and devoured our popcorn while watching the show. It was great. I think we were one of the few rooms that could see IN BETWEEN the condos along the lake front so we had a fantastic show!
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Jul 7th, 2009, 11:05 AM
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Saturday, July 4

We woke up super early today. We had reservations for the 8 am architectural boat tour with Chicago Line Cruises. I had set the alarm on my BlackBerry for 7 am; we bounced out of bed, raced around getting ready and headed out the door. I looked at my watch as we closed the room door and it said 6:30 am. I looked at DH and asked him what time it was and he said 6:30 am. We both looked at each other and then at our respective BlackBerries and then back at our watches. We went back INTO the room to check the clock and turn on the TV. And then we had a major Homer Simpson moment … D’OH! Our BlackBerries didn’t set to local time (which we KNEW but for some reason ignored when setting the alarm)! So 7 am was 7 am in TORONTO … and 6 am in CHICAGO. NO WONDER we were SOOOOO tired!!!

In retrospect, we should’ve gone for breakfast at Fox and Obel because it was right next door to the dock; but we were so tired that we just went back to bed for an hour!

The boat tour was great. Chicago Line offers a 50% discount on the 8 am weekend cruises AND you don’t have to pay a booking fee since you can call them directly to make reservations. PLUS, the waters were so quiet because it was so early and there were only 20 people on the whole boat. This tour was also interesting because we went through the locks and also onto the lake. Overall, I highly recommend this tour. The guide was very knowledgeable and answered all questions very thoroughly. Other than waking up an hour early, this was a very nice start to the day.

After the tour, we walked over to Fox and Obel. We ended up buying bread, cheese, pate, fruit, etc. to make a picnic lunch. We also bought some mustards that we hadn’t seen at home.

In the afternoon, we headed over to the Art Institute. We were losing steam as we were coming to the end of our trip but we soldiered on. From our Paris trip last fall, we learned to grab a guide at the entrance and spend 10 minutes plotting out our route (instead of wandering around aimlessly in the museum). I had been to the Art Institute ten years ago when I came to Chicago on a family trip; I remembered it being grander than it was this time around. But perhaps it was because we were just at the Louvre in the fall? Anyway, the highlight (for me) was the paperweight collection tucked into the lower level. I don’t wear jewellery, have very little interest in glass/crystal but I found the paperweights to be beautiful and so unique. We were the only ones there and I’m SO tempted to become a Baccarat paperweight collector!!

After the Art Institute, we went through the Loop for some shopping (as DH had missed out on Day 1). The area was quite busy and my feet gave out pretty soon! We passed Garrett’s again and decided to come back after dinner. It was very rainy and cool today so we decided to head back to the hotel to dry off and rest up.

We had reservations at Province but DH wanted to try another style of Chicago pizza so we went to Lou Malnati’s in the South Loop. We arrived at 5:40 pm hoping that there wouldn’t be much of a wait. Much to our surprise, the place was PACKED and we had a 30 minute wait. It ended up working out quite well because we put in our pizza order as soon as we put our names down on the list and the pizzas were ready just after we finished our salad. We both agreed that we liked the pizza better at Bacinos … we found the Lou Malnati’s pizzas to be quite bland. But, the crowds would have told you otherwise! We couldn’t believe the line by the time we left!

Re-energized, we took the train back to the Loop, walked through Millennium Park one last time and headed back to the hotel to pack up.

Sunday, July 5

We had an 8:30 am flight back to Toronto. We woke up at 5 am (the PROPER time), dragged ourselves out of the hotel and took a cab to Clark/Lake to catch the 6:01 am train to O’Hare. I had another Homer Simpson moment when I looked at my BlackBerry and couldn’t figure out how I screwed up our departure timing so badly (for a few seconds, I convinced myself that we were going to arrive at the airport at 8 am for an 8:30 am flight!).

The flight home was pleasantly uneventful (and I got to finish the movie I watched on the way to Chicago) and we were back home by 11:30 am!

Overall, we loved Chicago. It was a great city to visit and we hope to come back soon. We want to sample more Chicago pizzas and try some Italian beef sandwiches. Next time, we also want to go to a blues club and up to the Signature Room to catch a sunset. I’m normally trying to cram a ton of things into trips with the “who knows when we’ll be back” attitude. I’m learning (slowly) that we don’t need to do it ‘all’ because there will always be a next time!

Thanks again to everyone for all of their help/advice/tips!

lilaki
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Jul 7th, 2009, 11:18 AM
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yk
 
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Hi lilaki, great report! What a fantastic trip. Thanks for posting.
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Jul 7th, 2009, 11:40 AM
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Great report from a great city!
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Jul 7th, 2009, 11:46 AM
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Glad you enjoyed yourself. I think the early start to the fireworks show caught many people by surprise.
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Jul 7th, 2009, 11:51 AM
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hey citylghts,

i have to say, given that it was already uber crowded on the streets, i am glad we were able to watch the show from our room!

do you know - did the early start create more chaos @ street level?
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Jul 7th, 2009, 11:59 AM
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Super trip report! Thanks...sounds like a great time.

And I always like to leave a few things un-done as it gives me a reason to have to go back; taking along someone who's never been there helps too!
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Jul 7th, 2009, 12:33 PM
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I don't think it did, but we were still on our way to stake a spot when we heard the opening salvo of the show. So, we probably missed a couple minutes while we were walking under the trees.
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Jul 7th, 2009, 03:13 PM
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Great report. We were just in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend, and loved the city. I think you'd enjoy staying on/near the Magnificent Mile more because it's so close to everything.

We really enjoyed the Fields Museum which is definitely worth going to. We thought the Signature Room was overrated.
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Jul 7th, 2009, 03:48 PM
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Wonderful report -- so glad you loved Chicago! Thanks for posting lilaki!
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Jul 7th, 2009, 07:52 PM
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I'm glad that you had a good time, despite the rather rainy weather on the 4th.

"I did notice the heavy police presence at major intersections; but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m not sure if that is ‘normal’ for Chicago or ‘normal’ for the holiday weekend."

The beefed up police presence was due to the Taste. The City was trying to avoid the same problems (i.e., shootings) which occurred at or around the Taste in the past few years. Luckily, there were no shootings this year, although some individuals who brought loaded firearms to the Taste. There were still some fights there which caused mini-stampedes towards the exits and some fights right afterwards which the police broke up pretty quickly.

Yes, the early fireworks caught me a little by surprise, too. I was waiting - interminably - in line at the Porta-Potties (behind this woman who, rudely, cut 3 of her youngsters in line ahead of me, after I had been waiting behind her, alone, for over 15 minutes - grrrr) when they first began. I still was able to see 85-90% of the show, though, despite having to wind my way back through the crowds to our seats at the bandshell.

IMHO, you would have had a difficult time getting to a decent place to view the fireworks, waiting until after 8:30 p.m. to go to them. So things worked out for the best for you.
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Jul 8th, 2009, 05:18 AM
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hi all,

thanks so much for all the feedback...

exiledprincess ... wow - good to know re: the police presence! to be honest, i was wondering what had happened to make chicago suddenly feel very safe ... when i went 10 years ago, there was definitely less police and it was a bit 'creepy' if you turned a wrong corner.
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Jul 10th, 2009, 05:45 AM
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Great report! Chicago is a great destination for a vacation. Lots to see and do.
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Jul 10th, 2009, 07:41 AM
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lilaki,
Great post and feedback on your trip...thanks! I'm a newbie to the forums and have used some of your tips for our upcoming w/e to Chicago (my wife and I).

Re; Architectural Tour...I may have seen it somewhere along the forums but now I know for sure....you can avoid Ticketmaster's fees if you call Chicago Line directly to book your tour. Their ticket office number is 312-527-1977.
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Jul 10th, 2009, 08:28 AM
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hey tipperary_ed,

oh - that's great to know! i don't remember reading that on the forums.

i will say though, the 50% discount for an 8 am tour with chicago line was a good savings! in general, we found the attractions/activities very expensive (we did not get a city pass) so any savings were appreciated.

when are you going on your trip?
lilaki is offline  
Jul 10th, 2009, 11:06 PM
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Just for a clarification, t_e: The Chicago Line is not the Chicago Architecture Foundation. The CAF's River Cruise only operates on the Chicago River.
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