Ok, so why visit Chicago?? It’s probably not the first place that springs to mind when picking a North American holiday, but as we found out it’s got lots going for it. Before the trip my knowledge of the city came from stuff like the Chicago marathon, their love of deep dish pizza, Edward Hopper’s painting ‘Nighthawks’, being called the Windy City and watching The Good Wife. Fairly standard stuff, apart from that I was a bit clueless.
Here’s some great things about the city:
It’s so flat!!
Chicago’s dead easy to get around on foot, but if walking big distances aren’t your thing or you want to venture further afield, the L (elevated train system) is cheap and straightforward to use. On our walkabouts we found Chicagoans so likeable and friendly, the city was far less crowded than New York and I’d say a lot more relaxed too.
Make the most of FREE stuff!!
One of the best things was the amount of free stuff to enjoy, including:
A public park slap bang in the Loop where you’ll find Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavillion and the Crown Fountain. Definitely a tourist magnet, Cloud Gate’s seen from North Michigan Avenue and is a landmark that just lures people in.
Free views anyone?!
As much as I wanted to experience the Sky Deck in the Willis Tower, I didn’t like price tag, especially when I found out a well known ‘secret’ spot with a fantastic view for free in the John Hancock Centre. Venturing up to the Signature Room on the 95th floor rewarded us with a great view for nowt, in our case we nipped into the ladies toilets where the photo was taken, as the restaurant wasn’t open yet.
We got another free view at Cindy’s in the Chicago Athletic Association, this cool bar has a terrace overlooking Millennium park and cracking cocktails to go with it!
Chicago Cultural Centre
We loved its Tiffany-stained glass domes, marble lobbies and mother of pearl mosaics.
Lincoln Park Zoo
Easy to get to, lots of different animals (200+ species) to see and free to boot; what’s not to like?! We spent a couple of hours there easy!
Museum of Contemporary Photography
Centrally located, just off Millennium Park and the Chicago Institute of Art. It was one of our lasts stops before our plane back to the UK and I’m glad we managed to fit it in as this small but perfectly formed museum likes to show contemporary work from new national and international photographers.
The city has so much free art on display, some donated by world famous artists, such as Picasso, Miro, Chagall and Henry Moore. We saw many wandering around the city, whilst many were in the city’s municipal buildings.
Garfield Park Conservatory
Easily reached with a trip on the L, this is one of the largest conservatories in the country and was well worth a trip out. There’s a beautiful palm house, fern room, dessert house and tonnes more. If you LOVE succulents, cacti, ferns and palms you will absolutely LOVE this place!
National Museum of Mexican Art
Another highlight reached by a trip out of town on the L, this museum’s located in the Pilsen neighbourhood. The area itself has lots of character with street art and this gem of a museum, full of thought provoking and beautiful pieces. I wished we’d been able to spend more time to really explore Pilsen, in particular see the colourful murals and try out some of amazing Mexican food we kept smelling.
Explore the outer neighbourhoods
I kept reading about Chicago’s hipster suburbs and in hindsight we should’ve done more of it. The 606 is a useful stretch to consider – an elevated park trail linking four neighbourhoods together (Humboldt Park, Wicker Park, Logan Square and Bucktown). A couple of hours spent in Wicker Park before our flight home were definitely well spent, soaking in a bit of suburban culture and a tasty Furious Spoon ramen feed en route.
Chicago by night
Many of the buildings become illuminated and bring the city’s skyline to life at night.
Obviously not everything’s free (shame), here’s some of our favourites:
Chicago Institute of Art
A place I could’ve stayed all day – their collection of American Art, Impressionist and Post Impressionist pieces were plenty to satisfy my artistic needs. One high point was seeing Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, I was like an excited child when I spotted it from afar!
Architecture boat tour
This was one of the best things we did – learning about the history of the city, the architects and their buildings that shaped the area after the Great Chicago Fire from interesting and knowledgeable guides. I can’t recommend doing this more, 75 minutes well spent!!
Great food scene
Maybe it doesn’t possess the reputation of other cities, such as New York and San Francisco, but Chicago has plenty going on. With lots of fantastic independent restaurants and bars, the city has a great food and drink scene to brag about, it’s not all deep dish pizzas and hotdogs either!
Some of our food highlights included:
Minghin Cuisine – this all day dim sum joint was our first port of call after landing in the city. With lots of dim sum classics and roasted meats to choose from, I was completely in my element and ordered far too much (no surprise there!), and ended up being so full I couldn’t manage any more food until the following day!
Korean at Crisp was a great lunch stop – quick service, inexpensive menu choices (korean burritos, bibimbap, sandwiches, fried chicken etc) and really tasty food. My Seoul steak bowl of bulgogi beef and rice, paired with two awesome sauces was particularly good, inparticular their mayo based ‘atomic sauce’ and ‘smoky spicy BBQ,’ a spicy gochujang sauce.
Japanese at Momotaro was booked weeks in advance after reading fab reviews. The restaurant, located in popular Fulton Market District had an interesting cocktail list and mixologists who definitely knew their stuff. Waiting staff were helpful, which was much needed as the menu covers a lot of bases, so even for those knowledgeable with Japanese cuisine it may take of bit of deciphering. For me the hot dishes stood out more compared to the sushi, but on the whole we enjoyed the experience.
The Publican in Fulton Market District is one of the city’s current hotspots (along with Momotaro), it’s basically a large beer hall serving great food and lots of it! Expect a menu heavily laden with seafood and pork dishes, brought to diners sitting at long communal tables stretching across the hall from end to end.
Tanta, this Peruvian restaurant really showed off the art of fusion food, with a concoction of European and Asian influences their menu makes a point of the cuisine’s diversity. I really liked the helpful serving staff, great cocktails; the Pisco Sour is recommended, great plates ideal for sharing and a lively atmosphere. We really loved the anticuchos skewers with New York strip, potatoes, corn and huacatay and the chafe aeropuerto, a side dish of pork fried rice in a hot bowl, topped with a shrimp tortilla and a huge smack of spicy garlic in there for good measure. Enough to get scare off vampires!
Frontera Grill (N. Clark Street) was our Saturday brunch spot. A popular haunt with locals and tourists alike, it soon became full after we arrived and I’m not surprised – great brunch cocktails, lots of choice on the menu, really friendly staff and tasty food.
Chicago has great specialty coffee shops committed to serving direct trade coffee, we visited a few whilst we were there including Bowtruss, Intelligentsia and Asado. These three are definitely worth popping into with skilful baristas and great coffee!
I had no idea Chicago had a thing for doughnuts, but the city has shops aplenty with a huge variety for anyone with a sweet tooth to try! We saw many people going in for breakfast, one with a coffee seemed the done thing, from a long list we tried Firecakes, Do-Rite and Glazed and Infused, our favourite was definitely Firecakes. Personally I found many just too big and too sweet (emphasising my lack of a sweet tooth), however saying that I still wish we’d managed to try The Doughnut Vault and Bombobar also.
Have you been to Chicago, what did you make of it?
Is there anything we should’ve done that we didn’t?!