Road Trip! Destination: Chicago
So, does one summarize the cultural, historical and physical immensity of Chicago in one short (say, a weekend and change) visit?
One does not. Did we mention that Chicago is sort of big?
Still, you can get a decent-sized taste of Chicago (but not at Taste of Chicago, which is over for the year), in a few days' time, particularly if you make ample use of your nights. Here are just a few of the highlights, some obvious, and some not.
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.
Stacked like hotcakes
Finding great food in Chicago isn't really a problem. But then, you factor in the cost and hassle of getting a reservation at an international dining destination like Alinea (ranked No. 4 in Bon Appetit's list of the 20 most important restaurants in America), and maybe it's a good idea just to meet all your energy needs for the day at the beginning.
If breakfast is, indeed, the most important meal of the day, then Chicago clearly takes this seriously. In just one neighborhood, the South Loop, great breakfast spots seem stacked up like hotcakes. One has to admire the concise precision of names like Waffles Chicago, which serves Red Velvet waffles, Green Tea waffles, Mexican Chocolate waffles, Cheddar and Short Rib waffles and Albondigas waffles (pork and lamb meatballs and a spicy tomato stew).
There's also Yolk (four locations), which does all manner of Benedicts, frittatas, French toasts and scramblers. Recommended: Zamboni Crepes (scrambled eggs, ham and spinach folded into two sweet crepes and topped with hollandaise sauce).
Chicago History Museum
Pittsburgh's nostalgia-industrial complex is second to none, but Chicago does a fair amount of self-mythologizing (and serious historical soul-searching), too. It's impressive how central a role this crossroads city has played in just about every historical drama our country has seen: transportation, industry, food, civil rights, urban planning successes and disasters, catastrophes and recoveries. The Chicago History Museum helps you get your arms around “The City of Broad Shoulders” in a way that's well-organized and memorable.
Plus, in the kids section, you can get inside and become the meat in a giant Chicago (hot) dog, Not too many picturesque Chicago skyline photos can top that.
“Bean” there, done that
Every city needs a “front yard” of sorts, the role that Point State Park plays in Pittsburgh.
Few pull it off as spectacularly as Chicago. Adjacent to Grant Park, the vast swath of green between Downtown and Lake Michigan, is Millenium Park, finished in 2004.
Among its many superlative attributes is public art that's actually fun, instead of inscrutable, like “the Bean” (Anish Kapoor's heavenly “Cloud Gate”). There's also the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Frank Gehry's spectacular bandshell, filled with concerts during the warm months. There are also promenades, pedestrian bridges, flowers and fountains aplenty, and it won't cost you a dime to see.
Art Institute of Chicago
It would kind of be travel story malpractice not to mention the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the world's foremost art museums, when talking about Chicago. Seeing Georges-Pierre Seurat's “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” in person is a bit different from seeing it on a computer screen, and seeing something amazing that you've never seen before is practically guaranteed.
Current exhibits include “Beyond the Great Wave: Hokusai's Images of Mount Fuji,” Japanese prints from the 1830s, and “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity,” featuring works by Degas, Monet, Manet, Renoir and Seurat.
Everybody says to go to Hot Doug's for a reason — the place deserves every ounce of its fame as a temple of tubular meats. But be prepared to wait. For hot dogs.
Chicago's Dog House isn't exactly a secret (it was featured on the Food Network), but the tiny hot dog joint near Depaul University has surprisingly smooth, speedy service. You can get a good Chicago Dog here, or go wild with their specialty game sausages: smoked duck, alligator, rabbit, pheasant, wild boar, buffalo and so on. Plus, they serve “Frips,” a cross between fries and chips, created with a “spiral cutter retrofitted with an electric drill.”
Vegetarians, don't fret — the Chicago Diner is one of the best places for meat-free comfort food in the country. They even pull off appealing vegan “cheese” dishes and burgers, which is no small challenge.
If you do one cliched touristy thing in Chicago, go see the Cubs play. There are three reasons to do this as soon as possible. One, is to witness the crumbling majesty of the ancient, ivy-coated “Friendly Confines” — one of the final remnants of old-time baseball.
See it before it's defaced with a blaring eyesore of a Jumbotron and $500 million of other advertising garbage/signage.
Two, revel in the rare chance to feel superior to a long-time rival! The Buccos are soaring, the Cubs are fading, and Pirates partisans can finally hold their heads high.
Three, go see and feel the energy of a neighborhood, Wrigleyville, that's seamlessly integrated with its ballyard. See how a city neighborhood comes alive with energy when it's surrounded by bars, stores, restaurants and streets full of fans, instead of strangled by lifeless moats of asphalt parking lots.
Architecture River Cruise
Chicago is almost too big to process visually when you're standing in its midst. One way to get a good sense of the city's scope, history and vertical character is to take a river cruise, hosted by the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
As your open-top boat floats slowly down the Chicago River, you can witness the rise of this remarkable city through its amazing architecture. Chicago is like a vast outdoor museum of 20th-century skyscraper development, and a good guide can give you a sense of each building's significance — whether it's an International Style masterpiece or simply featured in “Ferris Bueller's Day Off.”
The most influential comedy troupe and venue in the world, Second City, has not only stayed relevant since 1959, it's helped define the cutting-edge of comedy to this day.
Second City's brand of smart, satirical, improvisation-based comic sketches has set the gold standard for American comedy and trained the comic sensibilities of performers including Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, John Candy, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell.
Sets are a mixture of scripted, improvised and semi-improvised material, with improvised musical accompaniment. Often, the best all-improv sets start after 1 a.m. Guest stars, like Second City alumni and “Saturday Night Live” members, also tend to show up unannounced with some frequency.