I lived in Illinois for 13 years and only visited Chicago once.
I lived near the bottom of Illinois, about 50 minutes from the Kentucky border. Chicago is a 6-hour drive north (for the Californians, picture driving from L.A. to San Francisco). It sits at the top of Illinois, right on the great lake, Lake Michigan, and is world renowned. It’s known for being the residence of then-Senator Barrack Obama, Kanye West’s hometown (gotta love Yeezy), the Bears football team, the Cubs (World Series Champs!! FLY THE W!!) and White Sox baseball teams, Willis Tower, the Bean, Magnificent Mile, Navy Pier, canals that run through the city, and for having the highest murder rate in the United States of America, among other things. However, much like Saint Louis, if you stay in the more populated, touristy areas, you should be fine.
I finally made the 6-hour trek to Chicago because I was shortly moving back to California, and it was literally “now or never”. One of my best friends lived at the time in Springfield, Illinois, which sits exactly halfway from where I lived and Chicago, so I picked her up on the way and off we went. She has been to Chicago numerous times, so it was good having a sort of pseudo guide. My younger brother (whom you’ll recall from my Eclipse blog; remember: don’t be a Travis) is getting his Ph.D. at a Chicago-based university, so he would join us once we arrived.
You can take the Amtrak from various locations throughout Illinois to Chicago, but that takes forever, so we decided to drive. Hotels in Chicago are like any large, metropolitan city: ridiculous. To stay in any downtown hotels or on the river walk, an average room costs $300 to $400+ per night. Not gonna happen. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare hotel, around $100 per night, and just took the Amtrak into downtown. This is how a lot of Chicagoans get around, because driving and parking in the city is horrendous (not to mention, many apartment complexes offer extremely limited to no parking). A one-day pass costs $10 per ticket, and they offer various passes like 3-day, 7-day, annual, and so on.
Once we made our way into downtown and located my wandering brother who got off on at the wrong exit, we grabbed a quick bite to eat at some hipster Mexican restaurant, and then it was off to sightsee. We walked throughout downtown on our way to Navy Pier, so we could take one of the scenic boat tours through the waterways that run right through the heart of downtown Chicago. We passed iconic attractions like the Trump International Hotel, a 30-foot statue of Abe Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address next to a modern-day man (sadly no longer there; they moved it last year to a museum in Peoria, Illinois), Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower), Tribune Tower, Merchandise Mart, etc. We’d end up seeing all these buildings from the boat (which offers a better view, in my opinion) and learning their history while taking our tour.
We toured with Chicago Cruise Lines, which offers a wide variety of “cruises”: Architecture Cruise (the one we took), History Cruise, Architectural Cocktail Cruise (fancy), Fireworks Cruise, Architecture/History Lake Cruise in the early morning, and lastly, the Jazz Cocktail Cruise (fancy schmancy). All these cruises take around 90 minutes- except the fireworks one is 2 hours- and they all cost $43 (!!) per adult ticket (except the early morning one for $30; downside is you must be there by 8 am), and $22 per “youth” ticket. I’ve bought a lot of tickets in my travels, and this is certainly on the extreme steep end of the spectrum. Nonetheless, it’s a fantastic way to tour the downtown skyscrapers and historic buildings, as well as get live commentary by the guide. The daily tours run periodically throughout the day. Be advised, there aren’t a lot of them (4 to 6 a day, depending on time of the year), so if you want to do a tour, make sure you check the times and are at the pier when you need to be. The last tour is usually around 4 pm (again, depending on when you go). The Chicago Cruise Lines website has all the exact times listed for the different times of the year.
The boat is open, so you get a 360-degree view of the buildings as you slowly float your way through the canals, and it’s easy to get pictures without anything obstructing you. We went on the last tour of the day, so the sun was setting and it was cooling off (we went in June), so it was very pleasant and enjoyable. The guide was very knowledgeable about the city of Chicago and gave a lot of information about the various buildings that line the canal. We learned about the Merchandise Mart- known as the Mart- which is so large that it had its own zip code until 2008. When it opened in 1930, it was the largest building in the entire world; however, it’s been easily surpassed by today’s buildings.
We learned about the Civic Opera House, which opened its doors in 1929 and is still the second-largest opera auditorium in North America, one-upped only by NYC’s Metropolitan Opera House. We learned about Marina City, one the most famous “mixed residential” (meaning owners and renters) buildings in the world. I was surprised to learn that to rent a one-bedroom here, it costs only (lol) between $1650 and $1750 a month, which is pretty equivalent to California prices. Except in this building, you’re right on the iconic Chicago river way and smack-dab in the heart of downtown. Not a bad price in terms of big city living. We learned about numerous other iconic Chicago buildings as well, but I’ll save y’all the boring horror of going over every single one of them.
After our boat tour, we decided to call it a night and head back towards our respective train areas (my brother was going north, while we were going west). As we were walking back, we passed the Tribune Building which has a pretty awesome feature: chunks of rock and building fragments from very famous places around the world. These include: Pearl Harbor, House of Commons in England, Mt. Rainier in Washington, Omaha Beach in Normandy, Petra, Antarctica, the Great Pyramid of Giza, Taj Mahal, the Alamo, the Great Wall of China, Ab Lincolns Tomb, Norte Dame in Paris, the Berlin Wall, and many more. Some of these stones and building fragments are much too high up to touch, but a lot are within reaching distance. I specifically remember we got to “touch” Antarctica and the Great Pyramid.
The next day we headed to Millennium Park, where the famous Bean is located. It’s actually called Cloud Gate, but nobody calls it that, and if you do, you will immediately “out” yourself as a tourist. Even though I had never been to Chicago before this, growing up in Illinois you hear about it all the time, and we know it’s typically referred to only as The Bean. It’s a public sculpture, and therefore completely free to view (although parking in the surrounding area will cost you) and has been in the park since 2006. All the pictures I’ve ever seen of The Bean show it to be clean and shiny; however, when we went there it was disgusting and dirty. I don’t know if the city cleans it periodically or just for photos, but it needed it BAD.
Within spitting distance of The Bean is a fountain called Crown Fountain, named after the Crown family who was very prominent in Chicago during the early 1900s, and is also free to view/run around in. It’s a favorite spot for locals, especially children, in the summer because, like I said, it’s free. It’s designed with a video display that is used for various things throughout the year.
I’m extremely grateful and glad I was able to visit Chi-Town before it was too late. Obviously, I could visit Chicago whenever, but it’s a lot less likely once you move more than halfway across the country and are a single mother. I was disappointed I never got to see my beloved Bears play at Soldier Field, but I did get to see them play against the Rams (and annihilate them) when the Rams were still at the Dome, so all ends well there. Chicago gets a bad rap these days (they don’t call it Chiraq for nothing) but this city still has a lot more to offer than just gun violence and murder. There’s a TON of history here, and what I got to see was seriously just the tip of the iceberg. Don’t pass up visiting this city out of fear or media hysteria; just be smart about your travels and aware of your surroundings.
And with that, I say, DA BEARSSSSSS.