Chicago, Illinois

So before I continue with this post, I should probably include a disclaimer; a daytrip to the States was definitely not one of my best laid plans….

I flew out of Gatwick on the Friday evening, landed Friday evening stateside and flew home on the Saturday evening… Safe to say, I did not feel all that chipper arriving back in the UK, however I am pleased I managed to explore Chicago and got a glimpse of what the Windy City has to offer.

I arrived into Chicago in the early evening, hopped in a cab and made my way downtown. I must admit the skyline of Chicago is not one that I am all that familiar with, however it was very exciting catching a glimpse of its towering skyscrapers as we got closer.

I was staying at the Hyatt North Place hotel, in the River North neighbourhood which is filled with upscale restaurants and trendy bars. I had lucked out with my room which was super welcoming after a long haul flight.

I was completely exhausted on arrival due to the time difference, so I decided to stay in, have a shower, and eat dinner before fully exploring the following day. I ended up ordering the most incredible meal from an Italian restaurant down the road called RPM. It definitely wasn’t the cheapest of meals, but my god was it delicious – those crispy brussel sprouts!

Safe to say I slept preeety well that night in my huge big American bed.

The next morning I woke up fairly early and made my way out into the city. I wandered along the huge boulevards and streets, passed the typical American fire stations and continued into the main district of the city where I would be boarding a boat and taking an architecture tour!

I realise this might sound like a bit of a random activity, however it makes much more sense when you understand that Chicago is a city which excels in amazing skyscraper architecture and is renowned worldwide for this.  A journey through the downtown area of Chicago is a trip through the history of the development of the modern city.  I have always been fairly interested in architecture; I was therefore super excited to hop on board.

There are many architectural tours offered in Chicago, however I ended up settling on the original tour provider; Wendella Boats who have been operating since 1935.

A good deal of the early program focused on explaining how the flow of the Chicago River into Lake Michigan was reversed by the building a canal to connect the river’s South Branch to the Des Plaines River.  All of this proved to be interesting along with insights into how the river became a focal point of the city.

Our boat navigated through the Main Branch of the Chicago River and travelled up and down both the North and South Branches.  It passed famous structures such as the Wrigley Building and many other structures which I had never heard about.   It turned out that I had a lot to learn!  We saw examples of architecture from the Historic Revival, Art Deco, Mid 20th Century Modern, Post-Modern, and Contemporary periods.  Most of the talk focused on the buildings surrounding the river and the architects who designed these wonders of Chicago.

We began with the Wrigley Building with its famous clock eventually ended with the Willis Tower (the Sears tower).  Along the way we viewed the Tribune Tower, Marina City, Merchandise Mart, Montgomery Ward Warehouses, Boeing building, Lake Point Tower, and the Trump International Tower.  We learned about a multitude of architects and architectural firms along with information about the struggles and challenges that came about to create the modern city of Chicago.  Eventually our tour ended where it began near the Michigan Avenue Bridge.

This was really an interesting tour, and I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed it.  I believe the mix of stories, history, and insights would be memorable even if a person didn’t have a strong interest in architecture.  The tour was really about the growth of a city and its determination to establish an identity as a unique urban destination.

Also, can I just put a shout out to the [Brown family] on my boat who marked their 2018 family reunion in matching branded t-shirts? Legends. And the members of whom I sat next to on the boat – generally the sweetest people.

Having left the boat trip, I decided to just wander around and get a bit of a feel for the city, when I say this, I mean I went shopping, of course. You can’t go to the states and not come back with a whole haul of US candy and makeup! There was Macys, Target, Sephora… oh America.

Shopped out, I headed to Millennium Square to catch a glimpse of one of Chicago’s most iconic landmarks – Cloud Gate (aka the Bean).

The bean is a large public sculpture that was unveiled at the opening of Millennium Park in 2004. It now serves as a famous symbol of Chicago and is one of the city’s most photographed attractions. The Bean is one of the best ways to capture Chicago’s beautiful skyline while still being in the photo (that is, if unlike me you visit when there is no rain!) Designed by the London-based artist, Anish Kapoor, his work was selected out of two proposals that were submitted in 1999 for a ‘showpiece’ sculpture that would sit in Millennium Park. At first, many Chicagoans were extremely critical of this piece of metal – especially since the structure was under construction during the inauguration of the park in 2004. Anish Kapoor did not completely finish the sculpture until May 2006 when it was really displayed as a magical visual.

Even before it was given an official title, Chicagoans were quick to dub the reflective steel sculpture ‘the Bean’ after its peculiar shape. However, it’s official title is ‘Cloud Gate’ since 80% of its surface reflects the sky and bends the reflection down into a gate shape.

Today, The Bean has multiple geotags on Snapchat and it’s comical how people always seem to have the urge to touch the sculpture’s silvery surface. Cleaners come twice a day, once in the early morning, and once at night, to polish and clean the entire thing. Meanwhile, there are cleaners who come and wipe down the bottom six feet (to get rid of fingerprints) up to seven times a day! The Cloud Gate is an icon of Chicago, and one of the best attractions that every visitor to the city should take the time to see.

From the Bean, I headed across the park to the Crown Fountains.  Designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, the Crown Fountain is a major addition to the city’s world-renowned public art collection.

The fountain consists of two 50-foot glass block towers at each end of a shallow reflecting pool. The towers project video images from a broad social spectrum of Chicago citizens, a reference to the traditional use of gargoyles in fountains, where faces of mythological beings were sculpted with open mouths to allow water, a symbol of life, to flow out.

Plensa adapted this practice by having faces of Chicago citizens projected on LED screens and having water flow through an outlet in the screen to give the illusion of water spouting from their mouths. Super cool!

I continued wandering and decided that it would be a good plan to see all the architecture I had learned about earlier, from up in the skies. Where to do this in Chicago? The Sears tower, of course (well, the Willis tower as it is now known..)

I wandered across to the tower and started the queue inside. Just a little tip, there is an option to fast track your ticket and avoid the queue which is definitely pricey, but certainly worth it if, like me, you are short on time.  The wait time for the normal queue was over three hours which I certainly did not have time for!

Having paid my fast track fee I headed to the lift to the 103rd floor and made my way up to the clouds. Little side note – the lift up to the top travels at a crazy 1,600 feet per minute! The tower itself is 1,450 feet high (1,730 feet including twin antenna towers), and is the eighth-tallest building in the world; However, it is the second tallest building in the North America and the Western Hemisphere after the new One World Trade Centre.

Weather permitting, the observation deck at the very top of the tower allows for a panoramic view of not only the surrounding Chicago area, but of the Prairie State’s neighbours to the north and east: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana. At 1353 feet above the streets of Chicago, the tower’s Skydeck bathrooms boast the longest climb up from ground level of any lavatories in the Western Hemisphere. That isn’t to say that there aren’t restrooms in America that reach a higher altitude. The Heavenly Mountain Resort of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., for instance, offers a public facility 9000 feet above sea level. However, since said facilities sit comfortably on the terra firma of the mountainous Sierra Nevada, its ground-to-loo distance pales in comparison to that of the tower’s 103rd-story facilities… Little bit of pointless knowledge for you there.

After spending some time up at the tower I made my way back down to earth as it was soon time to leave for the airport. There was however one thing that I refused to miss whilst being in Chicago – what could that be? Chicago deep dish pizza of course!

From my prior research in coming to Chicago, I read that there were two main spots in the city to get the proper pizza pie: Lou Malnati’s and [Giodinos]. On recommendations from friends who had visited before me, I opted for Lou Malnati’s which absolutely did not disappoint.

It’s worth noting that you can’t make an advance booking for Lou Malnati’s so you just have to join the queue on arrival. Don’t worry however, the queue goes down quickly and you can pre-order so that your pizza will be made as soon as a table becomes free. Once I had made my order, I headed into the restaurant where luckily there was a seat free at the bar. What else to do therefore? Drink some wine of course.

One glass of wine down, a table became free which was great news as by this point, I was starving. I had ordered the ‘Malnati Chicago Classic’ which is made with lean sausage, some extra cheese and vine-ripened tomato sauce on the restaurant’s trademarked ‘buttercrust’.  Hunger got the better of me so I ordered the ‘small’, which when it arrived at my table was HUGE. I should have gone for the personal.

As expected, the pizza was delicious, oozy, saucy, doughy and cheesy. Exactly what the Dr ordered. I however, as hungry as I had been before, could only manage one slice. ONE SLICE. Even I was disappointed in myself. That just goes to show how huge it was. After a little while of staring at the uneaten pizza on the table in front of me, I soon accepted defeat and asked the waitress if I could have the rest to take away. That pizza must be the worlds most travelled portion of leftovers, I took it all the way back to England with me!

That very much brought my short but sweet trip to Chicago to an end. I left the restaurant and headed to the hotel to pick up my bags, and grabbed a cab back to the airport.

Funnily, I was lucky to be upgraded on the flight which meant plenty of room however, annoyingly, I fell asleep before the flight took off and was woken up by the plane wheels landing on the tarmac at London. That has NEVER happened to me before and I admit, I was a bit annoyed to have missed the whole inflight service!

Anyhow, It was a brilliant trip and I am pleased I managed to squeeze so much into such a short space of time. Admittedly, when I returned home, I felt pretty horrendous for a couple of days… hence a day trip to America not being my best laid plan. It was fab to explore Chicago however and I would definitely like to return today – if anything, just to prove I can eat more than one slice of pizza!

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