Travelogue: Chicago (August 2009)

Chicago. The windy city. My mother had a professional meeting there and, remembering fondly the weekends we spent with my folks when we all met in New Orleans and in Philadelphia, Ashley and I spoke with them and arranged a rendezvous!
Though thunderstorms were passing well south of New York, air traffic and JFK were planning for the worst. Thank goodness for United’s text updates as to the departure status of their planes. Instead of waiting at the airport, we spent our delayed time–3 or 4 hours–at home and out to dinner, having confirmed that United guarantees that the plane will not leave before the newly scheduled departure time. As a result of delays, we ended up arriving in Chicago around midnight Friday night.
Chicago was humming with activity as we rode downtown. When we lived in Los Angeles, we were obsessed with visiting cities, but since we’ve moved to New York, nearly all of our travels have centered around more rural areas. Seeing this new city reminded both of us how much we enjoy touring metropolitan areas. It was invigorating: though our many delays and a nap on the plane had drained us a bit, seeing the busy streets and full bars and restaurants gave us a second wind. My parents had generously picked up the bill for our stay at the Downtown Marriot which was ideally situated on Michigan Avenue (“Miracle Mile”) and, after we checked in, we found our way to their room and took the chance to briefly catch up.
Our room had an excellent view across Michigan Avenue to the city and when we woke we saw that we could just make out the lake beyond the buildings. However, it was the buildings that we would focus on this first morning: my family had booked a architectural tour, so after a light breakfast we took a cab to Navy Pier and boarded the low, flat boat that would take us up the Chicago river.
Our tour guide quickly won Ashley and me over when he began to integrate quotes from Chicago’s Nelson Algren into his very detailed and interesting tour. Sailing up the river allows one to see a broad sample of the major movements in city architecture over the past 100 years. It was wonderful to be able to see so many wonderful buildings and I think we both came away with a greater appreciation of both the city and its architecture (and urban architecture in general, for that matter).
After the tour we went to Frontera Grill for brunch–the more casual restaurant belonging to Rick Bayless, one of Chicago’s local celebrity chefs (he’s often on PBS touring Oaxaca). We each got different things and, as my family always does, we shared bites and drinks. Everything we had was wonderful. I’m not sure why, but I feel as though we often find ourselves going to Mexican or Mexican-influenced meals with my folks. Perhaps my favorite was our tex-mex meal at Mesa Grill in New York, although we still talk about a Mexican dinner at a restaurant called Babita with my dad in Los Angeles (San Gabriel, really).
Following brunch, Ashley and I broke off for more touring. We had printed out several walking tours from, so we headed to the lake front where the “Gold Coast” tour began. The lake front was lovely, and we soon came across a beach where volleyball tournaments were being played. We walked on and nearly gasped when we turned around and saw the downtown skyline far off, above the water.
After heading a bit further we went past another beach where volleyball was again king, before heading back inland to continue the tour. We realized, as we continued on, that we had taken ourselves on another architecture tour–only this time the subject was residential houses. Walking down lovely, tree-lined streets, what we found most impressive was being able to see an 18th century home across the street from a 1920s home, and then a few blocks away find a modernist apartment. There were even two Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes on the tour (one is a shared credit with Louis Sullivan).
Skirting the original Playboy mansion, we weaved our way back through the neighborhood to Michigan Avenue, where we window shopped as we made our way back to the Marriott. We expected to pass Garrett’s, who recently left NYC but who has the best caramel popcorn in the world. I’m not exaggerating. When the one we expected to see was closed, we decided to keep going to the one south of the river. We smelled it about the same time we spotted the crowd that had gathered, and decided that we should just enjoy the smell–particularly given that we had some amazingly good peanut brittle from California’s See’s Chocolates waiting back in our room.
A brief respite and we re-joined my parents and headed down to Navy pier; my folks had reserved us spots for a dinner cruise out on the lake. A cold wind had picked up from the lake and we were glad to get inside the boat. We took our time looking around before our dinner started and particularly enjoyed seeing the downtown skyline at sunset over a glass of bubbly.
It was fun catching up on the day’s activities with my parents as we frequented the buffet. And while the buffet was good, it was clearly the view that was the highlight. As the evening continued, we enjoyed a chocolate fondue bar and, before we knew it, we were setting up on the upper deck to watch the fireworks they launch every day in the summer. We joined my parents who were enjoying the cool lake breezes on the deck and watched the show-a bigger show than that which we saw on the 4th of July! The cruise was a real pleasure and much less repetitive of our earlier architectural tour than I had initially feared.
The following morning, we set off to explore south of the Marriott, heading down Michigan Avenue and over to Millennium park. I really enjoyed seeing Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (“the bean”), where the convex and concave surfaces made for beautiful and interesting reflections. Nearby, a band was warming up in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, which was designed by Frank Gehry. Ever since seeing the completion of his Disney concert hall in L.A., I think both Ashley and I feel a (unjustified) personal connection to anything Gehry, which I am sure added to our appreciation of the venue. It seemed like an excellent place to listen to the summer concerts. Wandering on, we again found ourselves at the lake. After a brief stroll, and funnel cake for me, we caught a cab to the neighborhood of Wicker Park.
Wicker Park, the actual park, was where we started our tour–also printed out from Frommer’s. We had gone to the neighborhood in large part because we thought it would have interesting stores and cultures, but before we knew it, we were back on another architectural tour. Fortunately, Ashley and I really enjoyed the tour, but we took a brief break to check out some of the streets we had glimpsed, where boutiques and restaurants were concentrated–and had a lite lunch outside at a Thai restaurant. The weather continued to be stellar–sunny and warm and Chicagoans were out in force, soaking up the sun with outdoor seating at all of the cute restaurants lining the road. It was hard to imagine, in fact, that it ever gets as frigid as we know it to get (although the volume of people running and enjoying their time outdoors gives one a sense of how precious weather like we had is). We ended up in Bucktown, where we did a bit more window shopping before hailing a cab back to the hotel.
Our flight was late that afternoon, and my parents had already moved to the conference center hotel, which was convientently located near the airport. Before we left for New York, we had one last meal together at McCormick and Schmicks–where Ashley and I indulged in a terrific sampling of Oysters!
Chicago was an excellent weekend trip; and we hope we’ll have an opportunity for another such trip soon. We not only had a chance to visit my family, but also to remind ourselves how much we like urban escapes, even while living in New York City.

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