Chicago, IL. One of the premier and full-bodied metropolises of this planet. I have been there thrice. I might go there again. The Windy City never disappoints.
Chicago, has something for everyone. From backpacking solo travelers, to romantic honeymooners, to comfortable family travelers to wild a bunch of friends to the culturally and musically oriented or those traveling for work. Very few destinations can boast of this abundant potpourri of experience.
Now if you are planning to visit Chicago for the first time, give yourself at least three to four days. If you do not have that luxury, it is a pity, but you can still get a kick out of your first visit to this city of cultural abundance.
Coming straight to the must have Chicago experiences:
Spend your evening abode a cruise boat on the Chicago River to explore the stunning architecture of the city
This experience is not the one to be missed or skipped for the next time. You cruise on the Chicago River passing through one of the world’s best man-made structures, the entertaining and well-informed tour guides colorfully narrate the history of this bustling metropolis as you pass by each building. They take you into the Lake Michigan through the water lock, talk about how the city of Chicago reversed the water flow – earlier the river water emptied itself into Lake Michigan and now Lake Michigan empties itself into the Chicago River. You learn how the once toxic river has been turned around into a tourist attraction and a means of commerce. A lot of lessons to be learnt on civil cooperation and government initiative. I see no reason why we in India cannot get to work and cleanse our Holy Ganga.
I guarantee you that ten minutes into the tour, you will be teleported into the past time when these building were being stood up, the story, the challenges and the triumphs of human ingenuity and spirit. The tours cost about $40-50 a pop.
Look down from the Ledge (Skydeck) @103 floor
While extremely touristy, but surreal. Take the express elevator up the Sears tower (now called the Willis Tower) to the 103 floor. The ride takes you up 1,450 feet atop the second highest building in the Western Hemisphere. The view of Chicago and Lake Michigan is unmatched from this vantage point. There are no obstructions, literally, to how far your eyes can see. You get a 360-degree view of Chicago and nearby towns. Depending upon the time you go up, you could see the city and the lake flooded in bright golden sun light or the psychedelic interplay of natural and man-made light during twilight. Irrespective, the view from the ledge, a glass protrusion, that suspends you mid-air from the 104th floor is worth braving the tourist crowd. I have been on the ledge, alone, with strangers and with people I enjoy spending the time with. The view never disappoints, always gives perspective. I suggest you take it.
Kindle the love for art, history and our marine cousins
Those who visit Chicago and do not make time for visiting the amazing museums and the aquarium have a very special and dark place reserved in hell. Chicago is home to some of the best art and science museums in the world. If you have the luxury or time, then this leg should be a two to three-day affair. The purposefully yet leisurely strides through the vast museums will enrich and exhaust you, will consume your time and fill you with wonders of what can be best in humanity. If you are short on time, make a day’s plan to the Museum Campus by the Lake Michigan. This 57-acre park has some of the top-notch musing spots you can find in this city. So, consider this the fast food for the museum hoping crowd.
I am listing my absolute favorites ones
- The Field Museum of Natural History (Museum campus)
- Alder Planetarium (Museum campus)
- Shedd Aquarium (Museum campus)
- Art Institute of Chicago (Grant Park)
- Museum of Science and Industry (Lake Shore)
Lake Michigan, the lake front and the Navy Pier
A totally confusing experience for my Indian mind. When I first heard of Lake Michigan, I pictured it to be big enough to ride a boat in and small enough to see where the opposite shore was. Boy, how wrong was I? When I first set my eyes upon it, I realized the sheer magnitude of my ignorance. The amazing water body is 58,000 square kilometer in area and has a depth of over 900 feet. For all practical purposes, it behaves and seems like an ocean. The cruises and the architectural tours from Chicago take you a few nautical miles into Lake Michigan to view the Chicago Skyline from a distance. Personally, for me, being in a river or sea is a deeply emotional and emptying experience. I have always felt connected to everything that is in this universe while around a water body. Every time I have been to Lake Michigan, I have felt that expansive feeling.
Now if you are near Lake Michigan in Chicago, do not shy away from visiting Navy Pier. Especially on weekends. The pier is a hub for locals and tourists alike to catch up to the events scene of this new-modern metropolis. The Chicago skyline view from the Navy Pier is only next to the ones you get from deep within Lake Michigan on a boat.
Indulge in the Gastronomical extravagance called Chicago
The Chicago Deep Dish Pizza at Giordano’s
Now, if you are in Chicago there absolutely has to be a Lunch or dinner at the Giordano’s. The home to the famous Chicago Deep Dish pizza. Mind you, these is by no way fast food. It takes at a bare minimum 45 minutes to bake your pizza. Yes.
And no, you cannot finish off a deep-dish pizza by yourself. Really No. So as a solo traveller, you ought to find like-minded people to go in with you and share the gourmet overkill or be prepared to carry one back to your hotel room or give it to a homeless chap on the street. No matter what do not miss this experience.
The Chicago Dinner (A Vegan paradise)
Eat like a tribal glutton at the Chicago Dinner. Oh, I forgot like a Vegan Tribal Chief. For a Indian vegetarian like me, no place sounds more pleasing than a vegan restaurant in the US of A. I do not have to worry about what ingredients are being served up. I can pretty much pick anything and dive straight in. On my colleague Doug’s and Abhilash’s suggestion, I tried out the Chicago Dinner and woo hoo. The Buffalo wings are to die for and so is the Ruben Sandwich. If you are vegetarian or a vegan, Chicago offers you plenty.
The Cloud Gate or ‘the Bean’ at The Millennium Park
The tourist magnet, the Bean, the shiny jellybean-shaped installation majestically reflects the Chicago skyline and everything around Michigan Avenue. At most times of the day, you could see hordes of people trying to capture of their image juxtaposed with the towering marvels of Chicago, the beautiful sky and the drifting clouds. If you have an hour, do visit this nice art installation, take some good photographs for keep sake, stroll along the nicely tiled walkway and enjoy the cosmopolitan nature of this beautiful city.
The famous Chicago Theater and the bustling music scene
Performing arts scene in this industrious US city is enviable. You have many play houses and theatres – but not more iconic than the Chicago Theatre. A little trivia – it is owned by The Madison Square Garden Company. Right in the heart downtown Chicago, this one is hard to miss.
There are other luminaries in this list that have served up path-breaking jazz and rock n’ roll for a whole generation of Chicago peeps. Here are a few to bob your head into for some real good music action:
Enjoy American Baseball at Chicago Cubs Ball Park at Wrigley Field
Now for some seriously play time. If you are in Chicago and can get your hands on a Cubs game ticket – you have certainly cracked the code to fun in life. About x miles out of downtown is Wrigley Field Stadium. I was lucky to have a box suite access thanks to my employer (Grant Thornton) for a Cubs Game. The environment on a balmy afternoon in the ball part was electrifying. I even ate a quintessential (vegan) hot dog at a baseball game.
This experience is pretty cool. It is a sport America is passionate about, and you can just tell being there. Now as an Indian who grew up to Cricket, baseball is a close primate cousin. You can relate to it; the rules can take some time to get used to but the game play pretty easy to follow. So please do try to get in if you can.
A walk down the Magnificent Mile
Certainly, worth a walk. The mag mile is known for its upscale shopping experience and eateries. Try going there in the evening and you will not mind loosening your purse strings. If you are on a mission to shop and take home something special for your friends, families or heck just yourself then spend your lavish evening and some dough. You will not be disappointed.
In my future travels to Chicago, as I experience newer dimensions of the city I will try to keep this blog updated. Until then, adios.