[small disclaimer: we took this trip two years ago, in September 2018, but it’s still a very good guide I believe! By the way, I just looked up the restaurants and bars we went to and it seems that all are going strong, amazingly, despite covid stress!!]
Friday September 14th, and our long anticipated mini-holiday to Chicago!
Friday morning and Marie had ordered us a four two’s cab to La Guardia Airport. Very amiable and talkative Greek Driver. Most of the 4 2’s chaps like to talk a lot.
At La Guardia we shared a Aunt Annie’s pig-in-a-blanket (hot dog in pastry, but in this case pretzel pastry) and Marie went back to get more pretzels, this time a cup of bite-size buttery soft pretzels. Wonderful little salty pillows of delight.
Less than two hours to O’Hare, Chicago. Beautiful Airport with a glass roof and the city looked clean and nice so far. We got a CTA train to Clark (50 minutes) on the Blue Line and changed onto the Orange Line for the 7 minute journey to Roosevelt and a couple of blocks walk to our hotel, The Best Western in Grant Park.
Friendly staff at the Best Western and in a great area. Octavio on the reception gave us a food tip to start, Devil Dawgs a three minute walk away. You seat yourself and order at the counter. What a perfect place to start, with a wide choice of classic and funky hot dogs, sliders and shakes. Chicago is especially famous for hot dogs and deep dish pizza. We shared a classic Chicago dog – served on a poppy seed bun with relish, very spicy pickled chillies, a dill pickle and tomatoes – and a Sig Ep dawg with bacon amongst other things. There’s something very addictive about the Chicago dog!
We couldn’t resist a milkshake too, and went for the caramel pretzel one because it was something we couldn’t get back home. You suck the pretzel bits up through a wide straw. What were we doing to our bodies already?! And what was it with pretzels today?
We loved the place and the dogs though.
We then took a long walk around. Before I carry on, a brief outline on Chicago: Downtown is often called The Loop because the L train stations loop around it. In the North you have Lincoln Park amongst many other neighbourhoods (we’d say suburbs in Britain, but in America “suburbs” usually refers to the real out-of-city, people washing cars and sat in rocking chairs on porches feel etc). The North is said to be very safe, affluent. As is a lot of the city. In the South you have some very bad, no-go areas and gangs, gun wars etc. Also in pockets of the west of the city.
Anyway, back to our walk. We sauntered slowly down beautiful, wide avenues amidst many parks, past the famous Buckingham Fountain and along Lake Michigan and marinas, and then a unique pedestrian walkway and foot bridge that connects Maggie Daley Park with Millennium Park. In a nut-like shell, you would never guess in a million years that Chicago has dangerous areas of the city because a lot of Downtown is stunning, especially on a sunny day! You wouldn’t naturally think of Chicago as a beach and marina city too, but because the lakes are so vast it’s really pretty much like being next to the sea. Yes, it has beaches!
I took a lot of photos. There were also a ton of dog walkers in the city, and mostly proper, big dogs like retrievers and labs rather than the silly, yappy small dogs you often get in New York.
We then came to Cloud Gate. This is a large, mirrored bean shape sculpture in Millennium Park. It’s usually just called “The Bean”. It’s not only ingenious but beautiful. My brother Martyn would have a field day taking photos of this, as he loves photos distorted by glass or mirrors. It draws the tourists, but in a very manageable way. Not crazy. In the centre of the Bean, all the mirrored images form a very clever centre point.
Of course we took a lot of shots.
We happened to pass another impressive and unusual piece of city art next, The Crown Fountain. It’s, well a surface waterfall/trickle over a continuous video over mosaic stones amidst mist spraying fountains. The video is simply everchanging faces of some of the city residents, often kids. Really striking, I took a photo in passing (the figures give an idea of scale)…
We sat at a bar in the park, a tier below Cloud Gate, and sipped drinks – Marie a slushy cocktail, myself a Goose Island beer, on an idyllic afternoon and a perfect way to start the few days here.
In the evening we went for deep dish pizza at a branch of Lou Malnati’s near our hotel. Delicious, especially the crispy edges, although quite touristy with long waits.
Day 2 –
Saturday, and a full day ahead. We started with a great breakfast place called Goddess and The Baker, sharing a big mocha latte and huevos rancheros. We also bought sweet goodies to take with us, a smores bar and an oatmeal chocolate chip raisin cookie.
Marie’s mom had suggested via text we look at a giant Calder sculpture (Alexander Calder was a famous sculptor known for whimsical, public designs often in metal). This one was of a flamingo in red metal, head buried in concrete (at least that’s the way we read it). Marie chatted to a nice old German man there for a while, in Chicago on holiday with this wife and off to New York next.
Again we had a beautiful, though this time more typical city centre walk and we were racking up the steps and trying to avoid getting sore feet. We went down the Magnificent Mile, a lot of posh shops. Marie went in the large Burberry shop and chatted with the friendly staff after introducing herself as from the corporate office. We looked at the mixture of classic style and more weird clothes. They have a new line starting on Monday, from Burberry’s new Italian designer. Apparently they’re keen to return to their style from the 1990s. As well as some really desirable, very smart items on display were indeed, yes, the signature check baseball cap and jogging trousers.
As I say, still some great clothes on display too though, especially the original trench coat and other traditional coats.
Marie bought a witches hat for Halloween at Target. The architecture in Chicago is breathtakingly ornate and extraordinary. Even Target was in such a building. One of the “bucket list” things to do in Chicago is – apparently – the architecture tour, which is a 90 minute boat tour. We wouldn’t get around to that but will save it for a future visit. You’d think architecture to be a dry subject but even those friends who’ve been to Chicago – and who you wouldn’t credit with such an interest – rave about it.
One other noticeable thing about the city – leastways we noticed – are the spiders!! Emma, it’s still worth visiting Chicago! On all the grand avenue street lights there are webs and big spiders everywhere. Personally, we quite like them.
From the Magnificent Mile, we then got on a bus to a more out-of-town district, to Lincoln Park. You pass the rich Gold Coast by the river and then you’re in Lincoln Park, which contains several neighbourhood towns/villages and also the free zoo. It’s so nice up here, with big open spaces and lots of greenery. We spent about an hour at the zoo, just getting glimpses of some favourites like otters. Not the best zoo we’ve been to but it is free, and on a hot sunny day too.
On to another bus next, to spend time looking around the shops, restaurants, cafes, bars and we just strolled around the main streets of Lincoln Park. We got off at where we heard was a good place to alight, on Armitage and Holstead Roads in the Sheffield Village area.
We found a topnotch, very popular and large Spanish restaurant, Cafe Ba-Ba Reeba. We hadn’t intended to eat so much but very much enjoyed several tapas and shared a pitcher of peach schnapps sangria. Our biggest blow-out of the trip, at $80 between us!
Enjoying ambling around Lincoln Park, we also passed an old pizza restaurant, The Oven Grinder, that had a massive crowd of people waiting for tables outside. Even to the point of being sat almost on top of one another on all the steps. We’d not seen anything quite like it! We learned that across the street was where the St Valentines Day Massacre occurred. Next door to the restaurant was where the mafia used their lookout, and is now a lawyers office. There is a Gangsta bus tour, The Untouchables tour, and sure enough it arrived a moment later!
We then fancied a coffee somewhere. Marie looked up a highly rated coffee house called Collectivo. A walk there took us to another area, a little more busy and really hopping. We also loved Collectivo and sat outside next to the quite busy but attractive street. Marie had an horchata latte and I a strong drip coffee. Jazz is mostly not our thing, but just across the street a middle aged and excellent sax player and a young guy accompanying him were laying down some smooth fat beats, which notes were happily adding to the atmosphere of the evening. Marie made a point of crossing the street to tip them five dollars afterwards.
Wandering over to a more down-to-earth area, with bright neon lights and more bars and eateries, Marie was keen to try a hot dog at an infamous place called Wiener’s Circle. Yes, another hot dog if you please. It’s a basic shack style takeaway (takeout) well known for the servers being both humourously entertaining and for being rude to the customers. And the customers seem to love it, based on reviews!Three cheeky and funny laydees served Marie a hotdog which we ate at an outside table. One guy in front of us, a bit tipsy, turned round to us and said “this place is legendary.”. He asked the woman serving him for four quarters as part of his change. She replied, “no you can’t, mother$%&@r, you’ll take all dollar bills”!
We also got artisinal dougnuts from Firecakes on the way back to take to the hotel. In the lift were two very happy and drunk LSU American football fans who couldn’t resist boasting about their famous victory from tonight.
Day 3 –
Yolk diner was literally a stone’s throw from our hotel, so ideal for breakfast even if there was a bit of wait outside in strong sun! It was very good.
A short trip back to the hotel, as – to be honest – after such a breakfast we were feeling somewhat potacious.
noun: inclined to need the potty after rather too much rich food]
Back out to begin our day, we were heading out to the suburbs today to Oak Park and to visit Ernest Hemingway’s birthplace (and museum). We thought this would make a nice contrast and would be a gentle diversion. In all honesty we didn’t quite know what Oak Park would be like. Michael Palin visited the birthplace in his Hemingway series in the 1990s.
We took an L train for around the 40 minute ride. On board were a group of Brits, who we got chatting to once we got to Oak Park. They were from Manchester, Yorkshire and Scotland and work for a furniture company. They’d been in Michigan for two days and Chicago for two days, and were here to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and museum. FLW moved to Oak Park, later in his life I believe.
The Brit we got talking to said he lives in Otley near Harrogate and my sister’s family!
Oak Park turned out to be ultra posh and quiet but with a nice wee High Street and lots of big leafy avenues and tremendously graceful, fascinating. “old-money” big houses with Victorian details.
We soon came to the Hemingway House. It’s very unassuming and we were almost the only ones here. Entering, the staff were very sweet and enthusiastic. A small tour had already started fifteen minutes ago but we joined it and though the nice old guy’s narrative was random and scattered, it was very enjoyable and at the end we started the next tour too to get the first fifteen minutes we’d missed (this time a young woman, probably a student, gave the tour and it was just us two and a young chap).
We all know Hemingway was a womaniser, drunkard and a difficult man. This is alluded to at times, but the main focus is on his childhood because he left this house when his grandfather died. Hemingway was 6, and they had to move down the street.
Marie has read some of his books at school, and I’ve never read Hemingway but bought The Sun Also Rises from the shop.
As I mentioned, lovely staff who couldn’t answer enough of our questions but we had to move on because it was now about 3pm, we still wanted to see a bit more of Oak Park and we had a reservation at a fashionable new restaurant, Mi Tocaya, an hour away in the Logan Square area of Chicago.
We briefly had a look at the Frank Lloyd Wright House, used the toilets by the gift shop and took a slow meander back to the train station.
Walking back, one house was very beautiful (well, they all were), and had an “open house’ sign outside. It was huge too. Marie looked it up, and it was re-done very tastefully inside, has six bedrooms, four bathrooms, an acre garden etc etc….$900,000. Compared to New York that’s a snip.
We fed a squirrel on the next door garden (we’d bought nuts the day before).
Mi Tocaya is real Mexican cuisine, and not typical of the style of restaurant you often find in America and Britain. It’s from acclaimed chef Diana Davila. Even though it’s in the Michelin guide it’s not expensive. Most mains/entrees are less than $20 and tacos are $4 each. We were a bit early for our reservation at 5.15 so we had an iced fruit tea in Starbucks across the street.
They let us in to the restaurant on time, and the staff were very jolly and welcoming. It turned out the menu on Sundays is different to other days but we had no problem choosing. In particular, the fried oysters – so temperature hot we had to jiggle them around in our mouths like hot potatoes – were absolutely delicious. Marie had a mezcal cocktail and I had a local Chicago brewery can of pale ale. We chose to sit inside, and the place soon filled up! If you’re more than ten minutes late for your reservation they give your table away, it’s that popular. Music was lively.
We walked next to the Logan Square train station, which meant a few minutes walk down a tree lined, leafy street with desirable grey stone town houses (not so much brownstones, they’re called “graystones”). Another lush, well-to-do area, we sat on a bench by the middle grass strip between the two sides of the avenue and relaxed for a while. People were playing frisbee and several groups were having picnics.
Now we thought to have a drink in the centre, and Marie found online that there’s a tiki bar. We’d never been to one, apart from in a pub garden in Moseley (Birmingham, UK) two or three years ago! Night time now, Three Dots and A Dash is one of those “hidden secret” kind of places. It’s down a dark, flame torch lit alley way (next to a Firecakes Doughnut shop), and a bloke with a long beard ushered us down some steps to the downstairs bar.
It was great! To begin Marie had a painkiller and I a bourbon special then we shared a zombie. They’re about 14 or 15 dollars each so three between us was enough! They serve food too, pu-pu platters. Maybe next time.
The bartender recommended another tiki bar, Mother of Pearl, in Manhattan though it doesn’t have the speakeasy, darkly lit vibe. A wee bit squiffy, we bought doughnuts from next door to take back and took excedrin before bed.
Day 4 –
After breakfast at Goddess, we were to do something proper touristy this morning: Willis Tower sky deck! Apart from the view at the top you can experience giddiness by stepping onto a glass box (a “ledge”) overlooking the abyss below.
Normally the queues are very, very long but a Monday morning wasn’t too bad at all. We even stopped on the museum/information floor to read a lot of stuff though everyone else – especially kids of course – were running past to get to the lifts.
103 floors up you can enjoy views all around the city as far as Indiana and even Wisconsin! There’s quite a good gift shop. Marie bought a purple Chicago t shirt.
And, yes, Marie and I waited for our photo opportunity moment on a ledge. Marie was surprised that she wasn’t nervous at all!
Even though as a courtesy groups are only supposed to spend a maximum of 90 seconds on a ledge, many were on there for minutes at a time.
We were really glad we did it. Oh, many spiders were on the outside of all the windows of the 103rd floor!
Then we had time for a traditional Chicago Italian beef sandwich at an Al’s, and a coffee at Dollop sat on comfy leather chairs before heading back and getting our luggage.
A truly fantastic long weekend!