Yesterday I woke up at 5:00 am Chicago time and I figured I might as well get ahead of the crowd at the Arlington House Youth Hostel and take an early shower. At 6 am I was already on the Internet, recording my first impressions of this exciting city and by 6:30 am I had left the hostel. It was still pretty dark outside and the sun was just slowly starting to come up.
I walked through the quiet Lincoln Park neighbourhood all the way to the Lake Michigan Shoreline where the cool wind was just howling off the lake. Joggers, bicyclists and power walkers were already out in full force. I strolled around for about 15 minutes, but when the wind got too strong I decided to take a bus and head south to a neighbourhood called "Old Town", near North Street and N. Wells Street. It's a tidy, well-kept neighbourhood of historic homes and the location of the Second City Comedy Club, a place that has spawned so many comedic talents.
After a brisk morning walk around Old Town I hopped back on the el-train and went to check out downtown. I got off in the Loop and headed out towards the openness of Michigan Avenue and Grant Park. Interestingly the wind in between the buildings in the Loop was much stronger than in the open areas just off the Lake Michigan Shoreline.
Michigan Avenue and Grant Park are one of the areas where Chicago's beauty is most striking. Daniel Burnham's city plan of 1909 that preserved a huge amount of green space right on the shoreline of Lake Michigan was a brilliant decision, and visitors and local residents alike benefit from the huge green zone between the Loop and the lake. Grant Park's beginnings actually date all the way back to 1835, when foresighted citizens, fearing commercial lakefront development, lobbied to protect the open space. Burnham's vision of the park as a formal landscape with museums and civic buildings became reality: today Grant Park holds 3 of the city's most distinguished museums: The Field Museum of Natural History, the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planterium.
The Buckingham Fountain is the centerpiece of Grant Park, the city's grand "front yard," and it is set within a handsomely landscaped garden, one of the city's finest examples of a Beaux-Arts-style landscape design. It is an exact replica of the fountain in Versailles, just twice as large, and with those measurements it is one of the largest free-standing fountains in the world.
At the north end of Grant Park is Millenium Park, at an investment of $495 million Chicago's most ambitious public undertaking. Unsightly railroad tracks and parking lots were turned into a multi-media outdoor entertainment area during the last few years. Among Millennium Park's prominent features are the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the most sophisticated outdoor concert venue of its kind in the United States; a winding mirror clad bridge over Stetson Street, designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry; and "Cloud Gate" ("The Bean"), a hugely popular sculpture inspired by liquid mercury, designed by British artist Anish Kapoor. On this beautiful sunny morning, the reflections of the city's skyscrapers had an almost surreal feel to them.
I still had about an hour and a half before my friend Linda would arrive at the Randolph Street Station, so I decided to head north on Michigan Avenue towards two of my favourite buildings: the Wrigley Building and the Chicago Tribune Tower. The Wrigley building serves as the headquarters of the Wrigley (chewing gum) company and was built in 1920 by the company's founder, William Wrigley Jr. It was the first of a series of landmarks at the southern end of the Magnificent Mile.
The design of the Tribune Tower was the result of an international competition for "the most beautiful office building in the world," held in 1922 by the Chicago Tribune newspaper. The various competition entries proved extremely influential for the development of skyscraper architecture in the 1920s. The winning entry, with a crowning tower with flying buttresses, is derived from the design of the French cathedral of Rouen and gives the building its striking silhouette.
The area around the Michigan Avenue Bridge and Esplanade looking westwards along the Chicago River is an absolute mecca for an architecture buff like me. You'll find a mixture of classic skyscrapers, many of them built in Art Deco Style, as well as more modern skyscrapers built over the last 30 years. This has to be one of the most impressive urban vistas in existence anywhere.
I continued to walk west on Wacker Drive and walked past a number of the north-south streets that connect the Loop with the areas north of downtown. I wanted to capture another fascinating building: Merchandise Mart, an impressive building at the north bank of the Chicago river between Wells and Orleans street, was built in 1931. At that time, when it was constructed by Marshall Field and Company to replace H.H. Ricardson's Marshall Field Wholesale store, it was the building with the largest floor area in the world and today it is the second largest building in the United States after the Pentagon.
A short hop on the el-train later I got off at Randolph Street to pick up my friend Linda who was scheduled to arrive at 10:25 am on the South Shore Railway Line. We have known each other since we are 10 years old (almost 30 years!) and grew up in Austria, and Linda herself moved to the United States a few years ago. We hadn't seen each other for 2 years and this was the time to reconnect.
Linda arrived a few minutes late and after a heart-felt greeting we headed off to the Chicago Cultural Center to try to pick up a 3-day transit pass. Much to our surprise we were told that the closest location for multi-day transit passes was the Marriot Hotel at 549 North Michigan Avenue, about 20 minutes walking north of where we were. We were a bit surprised that it would be so inconvenient for visitors arriving in the Loop to purchase transit passes, but off we went with Linda's suitcase in tow and we were finally able to pick up our coveted 3-day transit pass at the 2nd floor gift shop of the Marriot Hotel.
We decided to get rid of Linda's luggage and headed north towards the youth hostel on the bus. By that time it was about noon and we were both voraciously hungry. So we plunked ourselves down at a cozy spot called the "Pasta Bowl" on Clark Street and I had a really delicious gorgonzola pasta that I absolutely devoured.
From there we went back to the Arlington House, dropped off Linda's luggage and rested for a bit since we were both pretty tired after this hefty lunch. At 4 pm we got going again and headed down to the Golden Mile, Chicago's main shopping area along Michigan Avenue, north of the Chicago River. The place was absolutely hopping with people. We picked up a little gift for Linda's daughter at H&M and then headed up into the John Hancock Centre, Chicago's third highest building.
The view from the John Hancock Centre was amazing and the sun was just getting ready to set. Chicago's skyline is impressive, crowned as it is by the Sears Tower. After our high altitude excursion we strolled along Michigan Avenue and for dinner we headed back into the Lincoln Park area where we had a very filling Mexican vegetarian burrito dinner on Lincoln Avenue.
Exhausted from all this exploring and eating, we went back to the Arlington House to crash in our bunk bed...
About the author: Susanne Pacher is the publisher of http://www.travelandtransitions.com. It deals with travel to foreign countries and is chock full of advice, tips, real life travel experiences, interviews with travellers, insights, cross-cultural issues, and many other features. Participate in our travel story contest http://www.travelandtransitions.com/contests.htm and win great prizes, a fabulous cruise to the Amazon. Life is a Journey - Explore New Horizons.