Day trip: Chicago

I had to go to Chicago earlier this week for a magazine story I’m working on. It’s hard to go to Chicago and JUST work, because there is so much to do and see there. In my opinion, the city of Chicago is second only to New York – it has fabulous museums, great shopping, a thriving theatre district, gorgeous lakeshore, interesting neighborhoods, hopping nightlife, and restaurants for every taste.

I’ve been there many times – it’s an easy 5-6 hour drive from central Iowa. If you drive in to the city on a Sunday, you’ll avoid the horrible traffic, which is one thing I DON’T love about going to Chicago.

Booking a hotel can be a bit of a challenge, too. Chicago has a lot of huge conventions, so if you hit it at the wrong time, you might find it difficult to find a single room in the whole city. I’ve stayed at some of the big monster properties, like the Marriott on Michigan Avenue, as well as some of the boutique hotels. All tend to be very pricey. You pay for location. A few of the ones I’ve stayed in off the beaten path were in scary locations (i.e., near porn shops) and/or in noisy areas (one hotel room I stayed in was so close to the El platform that I literally could open my window and talk to the commuters). That’s why people tend to stay in the really touristy area on (or very near) Michigan Avenue.

So I was pleased and surprised by the quality and location of the hotel I booked for this week’s trip. It was recommended by John Perkins, the alum I was going there to see, and it was only a few blocks from his high-rise apartment building. Located on Printers’ Row in the area referred to as The Loop, Downtown, and the Financial District, the Hotel Blake offered basic guest rooms for just $143 per night (AAA rate). That’s a very good rate for Chicago. The rooms were lovely (the whole hotel is very nice), with king beds and soft pillows, and the rate included breakfast. I was traveling with my good friend and VISIONS photographer Jim Heemstra…neither of us liked the free breakfast, but honestly, I didn’t expect anything at all, so donuts and granola bars were better than nothing.

The hotel is within walking distance of the big museums, but once we got checked in we hopped a cab to the Shedd Aquarium because it was getting late and we didn’t want to spend the time walking when we could be hanging out with beluga whales. (The aquarium closes at 6 p.m. on weekends.) It’s a good aquarium – I’ve been there before with my family – but the thing I noticed this time was that there are more gift shops and snack bars than exhibits. And they’ve added a lot of very child-friendly hands-on displays (actually, more like play areas than displays) but really haven’t added to their aquatic holdings.

If you’ve never been to an aquarium, this one is pretty impressive – especially the dolphins and beluga whales and the spectacular view of Lake Michigan. But after you’ve been to other ones (the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta comes to mind) this one sort of pales in comparison.

Nevertheless, it was fun, and Jim tried to help me take better photos of fish in dark tanks through reflective, finger-printy glass. He does this really well, but me – not so much. (Who knew I could change my ISO to 1600?? I should really read the manual.)

After they kicked us out of the aquarium at 6 p.m. we walked north past Buckingham Fountain (always spectacular). After a quick beer at the Congress Hotel, it was dark enough to go through Millenium Park – a truly fabulous place – to see The Crown Fountain by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. It’s so much fun to sit and watch the faces change, and the kids go crazy when water starts shooting out of it. Later we met a group of cool college-age tourists, all from different countries, who were in the park for a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert (with its new music director, Riccardo Muti). They asked us to take their picture by the giant bean-shaped mirrored sculpture called Cloud Gate, which I totally love during the day but doesn’t look like much at night.

Normally, I have a “no chain restaurant” rule, but we broke it Sunday night because we wanted to hear live music. So we went to the House of Blues for food, beer, and a great band for no cover charge. (As we were leaving, the guy at the door was charging a $10 cover, so we must’ve gotten there early enough to avoid it.)

On Monday, after our work was done, John and Jim and I went to the French Market (131 N. Clinton), which I have to say was not so much French as it was Food Court. We all tried to be adventuresome by buying food from the RAW place (“100% organic raw vegan”), but we decided that the little one-taste samples tasted a whole lot better than the actual entrees. So we balanced the healthy food with a large paper cone of Belgian fries with flavored mayo. And then ate dessert. I can’t say I highly recommend this place, but it was sort of fun.

Next time I go to Chicago, I swear I will eat Ethiopian food – something I can’t find in Iowa.

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