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CityTips: Chicago

21 Sep

Occasionally, friends ask me for recommendations on where to shop in other cities.

And one of my favorite TV shows of the 2000s was a long-forgotten Travel Channel show called Let’s Shop, in which the host would visit a different city each week and tell viewers where to shop in addition to offering other travel suggestions. Nothing fills the void.

Until now.  The Malls Across America CityTips offer tips on shopping and sightseeing in different cities (and not necessarily just ones in Americas).

The first city? Chicago.

Why visit Chicago? Imagine Fifth Avenue with wider sidewalks and cleaner streets. The culture and mainline shopping are as amazing as in New York, with an entirely different vibe Exceptionally easy access thanks to a central location and serving as a hub for two airlines plus low-cost access through the city’s second airport.

In other words, a convenient urban weekend getaway for those who want the dense urban experience of New York, but not New York, or are attending a conference in Chicago and could stick around a few extra days (and should!).

What to see? Although this blog only celebrates shopping, life is more than shopping (really). In fact, I write another blog about museums.

So here are more suggestions than you can follow in a brief weekend:

  • If the weather’s decent enough, take a boat tour of Chicago architecture. For those who didn’t realize it, Chicago—not New York—is America’s most architecturally innovative city. It houses America’s first steel-framed skyscraper and was the early home base to Frank Lloyd Wright. More recently, the city’s Millennium Park launched a new age of urban park design. One of the unique ways to see the architectural landmarks of Chicago (and, in turn, learn a bit about the city and its history) is by taking one of the many architectural cruises, which float out out to Lake Michigan and back through the Chicago River while gliding past several Chicago landmarks. Best tour: by the nonprofit Chicago Architectural Foundation. About 2 hours (includes waiting time). Located at the beginning of the Magnificent Mile (a section of Michigan Avenue north of the Chicago River and the main area where tourists hang out in Chicago).
  • After the boat tour, check out the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum, which tells the history of Chicago by telling the history of its river, which has been reimagined and, when necessary, reengineered to serve the ever-changing and growing population of the area. Rises 5 stories from the river itself to the streets five stories above. About 45 to 60 minutes.
  • Still interested in the history of Chicago? Check out the Chicago Historical Society, which tells the story of a brash, boosterish city that rose to become America’s Second City (until Los Angeles overtook it in terms of population). About 2 hours, plus transportation time (located a bit north of the main tourist area).
  • World class art your thing? Then check out the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the largest and most famous in the world. Its signature painting is the classic American Gothic, but its collections rival that of the better known Metropolitan Museum in New York and its art school is second to none. Amazing collections of American and European art (including one of the best collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in North America), native American art, Asian art, architecture and design, and medieval armor, among others. Minimum 2 hours, located at the edge of the tourist area. Could spend days.
  • Natural history? America’s premiere natural history is the Field Museum, located at the edge of the park that has the fountain prominently featured in the opening credits to the tv show, Married with Children. One of the characteristics that I admire most about this museum are its mesmerizing, immersive exhibitions, like full-size replicas of a wigmam, streets in Africa, and boats that sailed the Pacific. Its animal galleries probably cover the same territory as an introductory, university-level biology course and its galleries on Africa, the Pacific, and the Ancient Americas provide a similar quality introduction to these cultures. The Hall of Gems and Hall of Jades display jaw-dropping natural and human- worked stones. Minimum 3 hours, plus transportation time. Could spend days.
  • Museum of Science and Industry. Another best-of-its-kind museum in Chicago, this museum compliments the Field (don’t know if they’d say that, but I do), by exploring the wonders of engineering and industry. Among its highlights: a working coal mine, a gallery celebrating major innovations of the past 100 years and another celebrating main street of old, exhibitions on transportation featuring bikes, ships and planes, and one of my favorites: the working coal mine. Minimum 3 hours, plus transportation time (located outside of the primary tourist area). Could spend days.
  • Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. An excellent introduction to Judaism and Judaica through its permanent exhibition, and various aspects of Jewish art and culture through its changing exhibitions. Minium 90 minutes. Located just south of the Chicago River on Michigan Avenue, at the end of the tourist area.
  • See a show! Chicago has a thriving theater and comedy community; in fact, its Steppenwolf Theatre Company served as the training grounds for some of the best American actors including John Malkovitch, Laurie Metcalfe, William Petersen, and Gary Sinese, as well as playwrights like Tony Award-winning Tracy Letts. Second City offers comedy and a host of other local theatre companies also produce shows.
  • Check out the North Pier, which offers a variety of activities for the entire family.

Where to shop? To be honest, there’s enough shopping in the main tourist districts—the Loop (just south of the Chicago River and west of Michigan Avenue) and the Magnificent Mile—Michigan Avenue just north of the Chicago River—that I haven’t explored much else in this city. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Design Within Reach, which sells reproductions of mid-20th century modern furniture. At various times, the reproductions are authentic or not, and “within reach” is a bit of a stretch in terms of prices, but it’s pretty to look at.
  • Bloomingdale’s Home Store built in a converted theatre, which is near Design within Reach. In keeping with its theatrical home, the presentation of merchandise is dramatic. Includes table ware, kitchen, bath, bedroom, and furniture departments.
  • Room & Board, my favorite furniture store in Minneapolis from which I bought some of my favorite pieces of furniture and has since expanded throughout the US. Features comfortable, clean modern furniture that anyone would proudly display in their home.
  • Walgreen’s on the Magnificent Mile: there are two, one in the Wrigley Building (as in the gum), the other across from the Water Tower. The only place you can get a flu shot, pick up a missing office supply, and get a bottle of wine and dinner, all in the same place. (The Walgreens across from the Water Tower Place is my favorite Walgreens but, since it was remodeled, the Wrigley Tower Walgreens is a close second.)
  • Crate & Barrel, which is based in Chicago, has a flagship store on Michigan Avenue.
  • Eataly, a 50,000 square foot gourmet department store, partly food court with the best sandwich I ever ate and a Nutella bar, part food hall a la Harrods in London (complete with counter service in the fish and pasta departments), part cooking school, part grocery emporium, and every bit an eyeful. Named after the country of its origin with a more apt verb in its name.
  • The Magnificent Mile also features all of the luxury shopping standards: Sak’s, Nordstrom’s, Neiman’s, Bloomingdales and, for something more affordable, Macy’–plus the stores that hang around them like the Gap and Zara. It’s really like a Fifth Avenue with wider sidewalks. It also has a couple of indoor, multi-level malls, like Water Tower Place and 900 North Michigan Shops.
  • But skip the Macy’s on the Magnificent Mile. Instead, go south of the Chicago River to the Macy’s in the Loop. That was the original Marshall Field & Company. It’s a flagship for the city, a bit better than a typical mall-based Macy’s but not quite as exciting as the New York’s Herald Square or San Francisco’s Union Square stores. This store is also the home to the original Frango mints, a Marshall Field standard that has been adopted by every store that ever bought out Field’s, including Daytons, then May Companies, then Macy’s.

Where to eat? To be honest, I’m still a bit sour on food in Chicago since my favorite diner there—the Cambridge House—closed to make way for a condominium.

But one must eat, so I’ll make some recommendations.

  • Chicago is famous for its pizza. But prime among its pizza joints is Gino’s East.  Prepare to wait in line–and yes, it’s worth it.  (Don’t go to Uno—you can go to Unos anywhere.)
  • Billy Goat Tavern, the classic burger joint that inspired the classic Saturday Night Live skit, has a few locations in the heart of the tourist area.
  • Chicago has great Greek food, but I do not have a specific recommendation.
  • Lawry’s, for whom the seasoning is named, has its signature steak house location in Chicago.
  • Weber Grill, the restaurant of the Webber Kettle grills, also has a restaurant in Chicago.
  • Chicago also has great Greek food.  A concierge can probably suggest a few places.

To be honest, I usually eat at the slightly-better-than-fast-food threesome: Panera, Cosi, and Corner Bakery (whose first stores were in Chicago). They’re not exactly gourmet offerings, but the food is relatively healthy and Panera has its own points card.

Where to stay? For people who want to stay near the heart of the city, Chicago’s Loop and Magnificant Mile / River North areas offer a host of hotels, starting with mid-range to luxury options. Some of my favorites (mid-range to upper mid-range, mostly Marriotts because that’s who has most of my points):

  • Allerton: a classic hotel in the heart of the Magnificent Mile with adorable (smallish) rooms.
  • Comfort Inn & Suites Michigan Avenue, a superbly located hotel (half a block south of the Chicago River) with equally reasonable rates, nice rooms, free Internet and free breakfast.
  • Courtyard by Marriot Downtown River North, which is basically a standard Courtyard in a good location.
  • Fairfield Inn Chicago Downtown/Magnificent Mile is actually on a sidestreet, but one of the funkiest hotels in the chain, featuring an updated 1960s London aesthetic.
  • Inn of Chicago, a classic hotel that’s just 1 block east of Michigan Avenue. It’s more basic than some of the hotels in the area, but it has historic charm, an unbeatable location, and provides a comfortable night’s rest.
  • Intercontinental, which was remodeled in the early 1990s and maintained ever since. A classic hotel with all of the modern conveniences, including a Walgreens across the street.
  • Marriot Magnificent Mile, the ultimate conference hotel, and the site of the first major conference I planned. Large rooms, comfortably appointed, and the excellent services and amenities one expects from Marriott.

Also note that Hyatt Hotels are based in Chicago, so they have a significant presence in the city.

Other tips.

  • Avoid driving and road-based transit to the airport (either one). The roads clog up more than most drains in showers of homes of hairy people. Chicago’s MTA—or subway system—has stops at both Midway and O’Hare Airports. The stations are a bit of a schlep from the airports but the ride is much more stress free.
  • In fact, use the MTA to get around most of Chicago (except to the McCormick convention center, which seems to be off of anyone’s radar).
  • But if your business is limited to the Loop and the Magnificent Mile / River North areas, you can walk to just about everything.
  • No matter what time of day the need arises, the Walgreens across from the Water Tower can take care of it. They’re open 24 hours.
  • Chicago has some of the coolest and most extensive collections of converted 1900s-era warehouses.

This is probably more than a weekend’s worth of stuff. And I didn’t even begin to suggest day trips outside of the city.

But that’s the point: Chicago is an endless source of fun. Come once to fall in love with the city (my favorite time of the year is early to mid fall); come again and again to discover its many nooks and crannies.