The Windy City of America is indeed quite blustery, but also mind-blowingly packed with places to go and things to see. Chicago is a vast array of international communities all interwoven into an amazing microcosm of the world. For those who have yet to see Chicago, I urge you to walk the streets, ride the subways, and taste the food. This city is a veritable whirlwind of excitement.
I came into Chicago with some mixed feelings, honestly. I did not know what to believe – the news, the ill tidings of “disaster” and crime, or the in-between. Plus, I had the experience of that one time O’Hare International Airport lost my luggage coming back from Japan. While I had told myself “never again,” alas, there I was again.
My first day in Chicago was relatively fast-paced. I shuttled over from the airport on the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Blue Line, looking out the window the entire time. The outskirts of the city were quiet, from what I could see, with tree-lined streets, some ramshackle buildings with interesting architecture, and a speckling of murals and graffiti.
Having to transfer trains during the “loop,” which is in downtown, several people offered to help me with my luggage and help me find my way through the station to the next platform.
When traveling through Chicago, I highly recommend taking the train. The stations are navigable, the platforms are clean, and all the information you need about arrivals, departures, and delays can be found overhead.
Furthermore, if you are a visitor who plans to do a lot of train-hopping, the CTA system has unlimited CTA passes for 1, 3, 7, or 30 days. Otherwise, it is 2.25 USD per ride, not including transfers.
Now, for the attractions.
Lincoln Park and all I found
Do “free attractions” make you excited? I know they make me giddy, but that is not why I went to Lincoln Park. In fact, I did not even realize Lincoln Park was entirely free admission until I got there. Some guys at the hostel were talking about the zoo, and being an animal lover, I had to go.
Though it was cold and later in the day, I made my way towards the Lincoln Park Conservatory, a greenhouse filled with various plant species from all over. I loved the fern room, in particular. Nestled amongst the vines and tendrils were dinosaur figurines.
Then I walked down towards the Lincoln Park Zoo. Hardly any of the outdoor exhibits were open, but the various houses, like the Monkey and Bird House were warm and had great information alongside recreated habitats for the animals.
Also, at the Lincoln Park is the North Avenue Beach, which I did not get close enough to – as the wind was blowing me sideways – but was breathtaking from afar. There is also the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago History Museum, and the Lincoln Park Archery Range.
Chicago History Museum
Story has it this used to be the Chicago Historical Society, and while I believe it, this building is now so much more. For those who are curious about the birth and growth of this fabulous city, the history museum is a must-see.
You can learn a lot combing through the old archives of the library and perusing the exhibits. I personally loved the “Facing Freedom in America” exhibit, which is about immigrants learning what it means to be “free,” and the gigantic Chicago-style hot dog in the “Sensing Chicago” exhibit.
I was on my way to the Art Institute of Chicago when I found Grant Park, which is also home to Millennium Park, the area’s latest installment. Upon later learning that the park has over 300 acres of green space, I immediately knew I had seen not even half of it. What I did see was the jaw-dropping beauty of the Buckingham Fountain, which shoots water 150-feet into the air every hour.
Some buskers were playing saxophone, adding to the soothing ambiance of the area. It is where you will find several museums, the Petrillo Music Shell, Congress Plaza, the Skating Ribbon – a civic ice rink in the winter – and plenty of outdoor recreational activities to go around.
The Field Museum
Although located in the Grant Park area, the Field Museum deserves some praise. This place was superbly educational and piqued my interest in all the right ways. The Field Museum is said to contain 4.5 billion years of history under its roof, and I do not think that is a false statement.
There are dinosaur fossils (the T-rex is named SUE and has a 600-pound skull), ancient civilization relics, the Grainger Hall of Gems, and an experience “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” by meeting colossal animatronic spiders, crickets, and more. On second thought, if you are an arachnophobe, stay away from that one.
If you are afraid of heights, I do not recommend this or the Skydeck Chicago (at the Willis Tower). But if you do want to see a panoramic view of an amazing city, this is where you go. 360 Chicago features the Skywalk, an open-air walk that is open until late, so you can see the nighttime illuminations.
I would compare it to the sights from Tokyo Metropolitan Building at night. Oh, and the elevator ride up to the 94th floor, 305 meters up from the ground floor, takes only 40 seconds. You feel like you are a comet.
Chicago Cultural Center
I said it before, and I will say it again: What makes Chicago amazing is the culture. It is truly unique. At the Chicago Cultural Center, you get a taste of how this culture came to be. There are exhibitions in both fine and performing arts, free events, and “Wired Fridays,” which is a midday dance party.
I really recommend just going for the architecture, especially to hear about the history of the stunning Tiffany glass dome. The best part is that it is right on the edge of Millennium Park.
And if you get inspired by the performing artists you find at Chicago Cultural Center, be sure to sign up for open dance classes at one of the many fine studios in the downtown area. I recommend Joffrey adult open classes or those at the Lou Conte Dance Studio.
Did I have fun in Chicago? Totally! Do not let the bad rap and movie depictions scare you away. Chicago, in my opinion, has much more character and beauty than New York City. Cannot say much for the prices being much cheaper, but at the least, the air smells clean, there is plenty of green space, and the jazzy soul of the city shines through.