Sunday, September 11, 2011

Chicago in a Day

Another plus of living in Milwaukee is it's close proximity to Chicago.  Either by car or by train, the trip will take you about an hour and 15 minutes.  The train line, Amtrak Hiawatha, departs from both the Milwaukee Intermodal Station (MKE) and the Milwaukee Airport Railroad Station (MKA).  For those of you air travelers, the MKA station has connections to Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport.

A few Saturdays ago, my friend Mike was visiting and, along with Dave, we headed over to the Hiawatha at the MKA station at the brisk hour of 8am.  After seeing that parking was only $5 for the day, we happily printed our $40 roundtrip tickets at the self service stand and waited a few short minutes to board.  We ended up on the quiet car, which was vigilantly upheld.  The quiet car ride allowed for a pleasant nap for Dave and undisturbed scenery gazing for Mike and me.
We arrived at Union Station a little before 9:30am and, even though we had a lot to see in our ~11 hr day in the city, we decided our first order of business was breakfast.  We cut up Jackson St (all of these street names seem to be President's names) and headed for the Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue.  Known for it's shopping and dining, we were aiming for a place that had an outside patio.  We had luck with The Gage and enjoyed a reasonably priced brunch before we headed out on our sightseeing adventures.

Fueled up from brunch, we meandered across Michigan and Columbus and headed south through Grant Park to see the renown Buckingham Fountain in the center of the park.  The 84 year-old fountain, said to be inspired by the Latona Fountain in Versailles, is quite the sight with its large center display and numerous jets. The backdrop of the city isn't too shabby either.  The fountain is meant to represent Lake Michigan, with each seahorse representing a bordering state (Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin). You can catch a water show every hour from mid-April through mid-October.  If you wait until after dusk, you can see the same show but with the addition of choreographed lights and music.  Unfortunately, we did not stick around for the show, but I have it on my to-do list next time for sure.
Turning north, we walked back through Grant Park and made our way to Millenium Park.  Technically an extension of Grant Park, Millenium is a public art venue at its core.  One of its highlights is the Jay Pritzker Pavillion, which is home to the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra, Grant Park Music Festival and many other musical acts.
Not far from the pavillion is Cloud Gate or "The Bean".  We weren't the only tourists interested in a closer look and feel of this 3-story steel sculpture.  Created by Anish Kapoor, the sculpture is undoubtedly captivating.  As you get closer, you're immediately drawn in by the unique, distorted reflections of the city and sky.  When you're within striking distance, it then becomes quite fun to see your own distorted reflection and make your way through its curved archway.  The only real downfall to this attraction is its popularity! Don't count on getting any amazing non-people filled pictures while you're there...unless of course you get there extremely early.
Feeling oh-so-done with the swarms of tourists at The Bean, we started our many mile walk to the Navy Pier right on Lake Michigan.  On our way, I was noticing the lovely Riverwalk area.
Although Navy Pier was also crowded, I immediately got a great vibe as we approached.
We found many Mid-Westerners happily drinking with friends either out on restaurant patios or simply walking around (open containers allowed once inside).  It was more than easy to join in the merriment, as we decided to rest our feet and grab some beverages at Harry Caray's outdoor patio.
After our refreshments, we walked the rest of the length of the pier and noted all of the activities.  There were numerous boat launches for guided tours of the city from the lake, the Childrens' Museum, carnival games & fun-houses, and tons of restaurants & bars.  There is also a fireworks display every Saturday at 9pm (ending Oct 29).  
At this point in the afternoon, really interesting low-lying clouds set over the city.  I loved the photo ops they created but it was nice that they didn't stay and block out the August sun for too long.
Knowing that we also had other attractions to hit, we headed out from the pier and walked north along the shoreline towards the John Hancock Observatory.  Eager to see the city from 1,100 ft up, we paid our $15 admission and headed up almost 100 stories.  Note: you can also buy a CityPass for $76, which gains you access to your choice of 5 attractions including the J.H. Observatory, Willis (previously Sears) Tower's competing SkyDeck, the planetarium, the aquarium, the Field Museum or the Art Institute of Chicago.

The J.H. Observatory offers the city's only open air SkyWalk and also provides a multimedia tour free of charge to all patrons (narrated by David Schwimmer for any of you Friends fans).  It also provides an interesting overview of Chicago's storied history, with particular attention to The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 where the city had to literally build itself back up from the rubble.  Then there is of course the amazing views...which is not lost in translation on anyone.  Lake Michigan's vibrant shade of blue never looked so beautiful in my opinion and I was entranced by the full 360 views of greater Chicago.
We finished up our Chicago-in-a-Day experience with dinner closer to the downtown Loop area.  Upon recommendation from my friend Eden, we shuffled into avec on Randolph Street.  Careful though... the restaurant is about the size of a narrow hallway and it does not take reservations.  Hence, make sure to get there early or be prepared to be tremendously patient while waiting for a table.  At least there is a long bar that can help you pass the time.  Our experience at avec was tremendous.  Small plates is the name of the game here and we couldn't get enough.  My favorite was the stuffed dates :)
After dinner, we squeezed in one more drink at the Elephant Walk in the financial district and then scooted back over to Union Station to catch our train.  Unfortunately, the last train back to Milwaukee leaves around 8pm.  Even though we had planned ahead and got into the city early, it would be nicer if there was a later option.  Although, in our case, we had jammed so much sightseeing into our day that we were completely exhausted and ultimately appreciative of getting back on the train to rest!

As we reflected on our day during the ride back, we all agreed that, for such a large city, Chicago was extremely well organized and impeccably maintained.  We're all excited for trip #2 to discover more of Chi-Town, now my neighbor to the south!


  1. Isn't Chicago fabulous!? Love that you can make it a day tri. Looks like you saw all the well known attractions. I have never done the Observatory before, what a unique way to see the city! :) Looking forward to more posts! Especially those from a certain foreign city.

  2. love these pictures! I can't wait to visit Chicago.

  3. O I love chicago!! love your blog! cute pictures!