Who says you can’t go home again? I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and went back to visit family just recently. What I found was a beautiful city with flowers blooming along litter-free sidewalks – in stark contrast to the “Windy City” I remember. I was happy to re-visit my favorite landmarks – the Wrigley Building, Tribune Tower, and Merchandise Mart – and was agog at the sight of the stunning architecture interspersed between these historic sites.
The list of the city’s designers reads like a who’s who of renowned architects: Daniel Burnham ushered in the era of soaring steel-framed skyscrapers. Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Robie House at the University of Chicago. Mies Van Der Rohe designed many of the buildings at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Frank Gehry designed the Pritzker Pavilion and the BP Bridge in Millennium Park. More recently, the Modern Wing addition to the Art Institute was designed by Renzo Piano.
If a visit to Chicago is on your agenda – and I think it should be – here are 12 useful tips:
- Save money getting into the city from O’Hare Airport: I have my brother-in-law to thank for suggesting Executive Limo. They whisked me into Chicago for about half of what other companies were charging and the driver was very pleasant.
- Buy a CityPASS The Chicago version (they are also available for nine other U. S. cities) includes admission to The Field Museum, Skydeck Chicago, Shedd Aquarium, Art Institute of Chicago or Adler Planetarium, and Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago or John Hancock Observatory at about 50% of the regular combined admission charges. While I never mind saving money, what I really loved about the Chicago CityPASS is that it allowed me to take the VIP route and skip the ticket lines, thus saving tons of time.
- Follow this advice about visiting Chicago attractions: To avoid the crowds, start early – especially in summer and during school vacation periods. Weekdays are generally the least crowded, with Monday being the best day to visit the Museum of Science and Industry and Tuesdays and Wednesdays the least crowded at the John Hancock Observatory. Remember that the Art Institute is open late on Thursday night (and free for Illinois residents from 5-8 pm).
- Stay safe. I was advised not to take the public bus to the Museum of Science and Industry because it travels through an area of Chicago with a high crime rate. Having said that, I felt perfectly safe everywhere else and just took the same precautions I would take in any other big city.
- Choose one of the narrated tours offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. CAF offers “Chicago’s Loop by “L,” which includes the history of the city’s elevated trains, as well as buildings within the downtown area, but my favorite are the architectural boat tours. The 92-story Trump Tower, completed in 2009, sits alongside the Chicago River and is best viewed on one of the narrated cruises.
- Don’t miss CAF’s shop on Michigan Avenue, which is chockablock with books, clothing, puzzles, and home accessories for lovers of architecture as well as a wonderful large 3-D map of the city.
- Pace your appetite. Chicago is a great foodie city and some of my favorite places are described here, but you will burst unless you have a dining game plan. After the first couple of days, I realized that I needed to eat light at at least one meal a day. I also made sure I got a significant amount of daily exercise.
- Walk down Michigan Avenue. I did this several times and it always took longer than it should have because I just had to stop and gawk at the amazing architecture.
- Walk around Millennium Park. I like the outdoor sculpture, the flowers, and the trees, but the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion doesn’t begin to compare with his magnificent Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Having said that, check the concert schedule for Millennium Park venues.
- Take the Riverside Walk, especially the section between Michigan Avenue and the lake front.
- Watch the sunset from a skyscraper. When it was completed in 1970, the John Hancock Center was the tallest building in the world outside New York City. Today, Chicago has three higher towers, but I still think the Hancock’s 94th-floor observatory provides the best view of the city, lake, and beyond to four states. Of the super skyscrapers, it has always been my favorite. Go to www.sunrisesunset.com for the daily sunset times if that’s when you want to visit the Skydeck or the John Hancock Observatory.
- Allow plenty of time for the legendary Art Institute.
As I approached the great bronze lions that flank the front steps of the Art Institute, I had a flashback to arriving on a yellow school bus with my fellow fourth graders (at least one of whom had gotten sick en route to the city).
That memory made me smile, but when we entered the French Impressionist exhibit and my eyes landed on Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte I found tears blurring my vision. For me, that large and evocative painting is The Art Institute of Chicago – a place I visited dozens of times over many years with various members of my family.
Those memories came flooding back as I stood staring at the painting. Apparently you can take the girl out of Chicago, but you can’t take the Chicago out of the girl.