Visit America’s Second City – Chicago

Tara McHugh

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The city of skyscrapers is famous for it’s blues music, baseball team, Lake Michigan and the legendary Chicago deep dish pizza. Tara McHugh spent a week in the America’s ‘second city’.

What can we say about this glorious city? Not enough! The Windy City is not as big or glamorous as New York and it doesn’t have the Hollywood appeal of Los Angeles. Yet, millions flock to the home of the best food and cultural destinations in the United States every year. From cultural institutions, historical site and original architecture, this city truly captured our hearts.

Sporting traditions and passions are very strong in the city. The city’s NFL fans unite to cheer on The Bears in the Soldier Field. A sporting ground that holds now also holds very special memories for Irish rugby supporters. While the baseball fans are divided into two groups – White Sox and Cubs, who recently ended their 108 year drought earlier this year, winning the World Series title. In addition to the millions who flooded the street’s to celebrated the team’s victory, they also dyed the city’s famous river a beautiful “Cub’s blue.” The dye job wasn’t a once off, the river is also dyed green every March for the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

Chicago Skyline – Photo Credit (Author’s Own)

Day 1

I love travel, but hate the long haul flights, and find the palaver at airports really irritating. Somehow though, it all went surprisingly well as I hit the ground in Chicago. We’d pre-cleared American customs in Dublin airport before our departure, ensuring the process ran smoother. We took the Blue Line ‘L’ train from Chicago’s O’Hare airport to the downtown and ordered an Uber to our hotel – the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile. The hotel was centrally located on the Magnificent Mile, the main shopping street in the city centre and a street I will become very familiar with in the coming days.

Day 2

After a good night’s sleep, we were ready to explore the city. On recommendation, we went to the Kanela Breakfast Club at Millennium Park for breakfast. The 40 minute wait for a table was well worth it. The menu consisted of pancakes, waffles and french toast, each more delicious than the other. Leaving the Kanela Breakfast Club with very full tummies, we walked to Navy Pier for the annual U.S. Navy Blue Angels Air Show. Navy Pier is the stereotypical tourist attraction, amusements, ferris wheels and over-priced restaurants. Nevertheless, it was worth visiting the pier to see the Air Show, featuring military and civilian flight aerobatics, historic aircraft, simulated water rescues and parachute teams.

Having an architectural background, I was very interested in the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise. We decided to do the twilight river cruise, departing at 7pm. The tour is quite expensive at $48 for a 90 minute tour, but after doing the tour we’re glad we spent the money. Acknowledged as one of the “top tours in Chicago and one of the top ten tours in the US” by TripAdvisor users, the cruise is a must for tourists and Chicagoans alike. CAF certified volunteer tour guides interpret more than 50 buildings along the Chicago River. You’ll learn how Chicago grew from a small settlement into one of the largest cities in the world in less than 100 years, as well as gaining a knowledge and appreciation for the diverse architecture along the river banks.

Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise – Photo Credit (Author’s Own)

Day 3

Chicago is often referred to as “the city of neighbourhoods”. Although it is a busy and diverse city, it is a place where you can feel part of the community. We decided to stretch our horizons and leave the confines of downtown to explore what the suburbs had to offer. Chicago Food Planet’s Bucktown and Wicker Park Food Tour came highly recommended. The narrated, guided food tour visited six locations in the adjoining artsy and alternative neighbourhoods. Local delights were sampled from speciality restaurants and quirky local cafes as our tour guide, Donna explained why natives love to live and eat in the second city. The tour lasted 3.5 hours, as we sampled pizzas, doughnuts, iced hot chocolate and Italian sausage sandwiches, to name a few.

We were blessed with lovely weather during our visit to Chicago, deciding to make the most of the sunshine we rented bikes from Navy Pier to cycle the lakefront of Lake Michigan. The 26 miles of lakefront are complete with bike paths, bathing beaches and beach bars. We rented our bikes from ‘Bikes and Roll Rentals’ on Navy Pier, a credit card and photo identification were needed to rent bikes. A whole day could easily be spent cycling along the lakefront, unfortunately our legs were not able for that length of cycle. We rented the bikes for approximately 4 hours, managing to cycle from Navy Pier to Lincoln Park Zoo.

Day 4

Our first stop on the penultimate day of our trip was for the most important meal of the day – breakfast. Europeans could learn a thing or two from Americans when it comes to breakfast options. We ate in The Cheesecake Factory, ideally located in the basement of the historic Water Tower. Built in 1869, the Water Tower gained prominence after the Great Chicago Fire, 1871. It was one of the few buildings in the city to survive the devastating fire.

Cheesecake Factory Menu – Photo Credit (Author’s Own)

As the name suggests, The Cheesecake Factory is the home of cheesecakes. It also serves breakfast, lunch and dinner options, but no meal is complete without one of their 50 signature cheesecakes. Located on the 94th floor of the Water Tower, the 360 Chicago offers breathtaking views of the city and Lake Michigan from over 1,000 feet above the Magnificent Mile. The views of the city were extraordinary, stretching out to Navy Pier and the Museum Campus.

Views of the Chicago skyline from 360 Chicago – Photo Credit (Author’s Own)

Day 5

To explore the city on our final day we chose to do an open top bus hop on / hop off bus tour. Giving us more flexibility it allowed us to see more of the city and gave us an insight into the history of the city. The bus tour company we chose was called “Big Bus Tours.” We were in for a treat. The two hour long tour visited the city’s main attractions, while our tour guide, Mike gave us a detailed history of the city from it’s devastating fire in 1871 to the city’s modern steel skyscrapers.

Our final afternoon in Chicago was spent on Magnificent Mile, stretching over 13 blocks and consisting of more than 460 stores, it is a shopper’s dream. Magnificent Mile “has an indulgence for every passion and every pocket.”

Whether you’re in the mood for comedy, jazz clubs, fine dining, glittering skyscrapers, or an afternoon of shopping, Chicago has it all. During the 19th century, Chicago was a hub for the shipping industry; today it is better known for its vibrant music scene, but its history as a major port city is still reflected in Chicago’s vibrant waterfront district. Design and architecture enthusiasts should plan a trip for some of the country’s most cutting edge buildings and monuments.

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Tara McHugh