Chicago is our kind of town

After last night’s blogging marathon, we slept pretty late this morning. On our way out of the hotel, around noon, we made a feeble and unsuccessful attempt to convince the front desk staff to give us an upgrade. We’re constantly reading hotel reviews on Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other similar sites where the reviewers mention receiving an upgrade at check-in. We had no idea how that happened, and, after taking a stab at it ourselves, we still have no idea how that happens. We’ll have to research it for our next trip.

The only part of our conversation with the guy at the front desk that wasn’t a failure was the part where he recommended a nearby Italian place called Volare for lunch. We took his suggestion and enjoyed some awesome ravioli (Kurt) and rigatoni alla vodka (me), served to us by a great waitress who called me “honey” and told me I “did a really good job” when she came to clear my plate. When Kurt ordered, he asked whether she recommended the lasagna or the ravioli, and she said, “that depends, are you feeling meaty?” She seemed like a Rosie.

After lunch, we decided to try to catch a boat tour of the city offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. It was recommended in my road trip book, and also by Slavisa (the bellhop who brought our bags up last night). We just missed the 2 pm tour, so we got tickets for 3 pm and then killed the extra time checking out Millennium Park. The park is full of awesome stuff, including tons of sculptures, gardens, and fountains. We saw the “Cloud Gate” sculpture, better known as “the bean” — a huge, shiny, silver bean that reflects everything around it. We also saw the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, which is a large outdoor music venue with a really cool stage that is basically a huge sculpture itself.

When it was getting close to 3, we headed back to the river and boarded Chicago’s First Lady. That’s where we met Captain George, who was taking us on our cruise. He introduced himself, told us to use the handrails when moving around the boat (“otherwise you’ll trip, and that’s not the trip we have planned for you today”), and said the most important guy to know on the boat was Juan the bartender (“he can get you a hot coffee…[break for laughter from the audience sitting & sweating in Chicago’s humidity]…or a cold beer”). He also taught us that the bathroom on the ship is called “the head,” and “it’s unisex, so make sure you lock the door.” I loved him like crazy.

But then he introduced us to the docent, Alan, from the Architecture Foundation who would narrate the tour. And Alan is the one who really stole my heart on this trip. Before beginning, Alan (probably in his late 60s) put some Avon sunscreen on his legs. With that out of the way, he proceeded to preface the tour by providing us with “300 years of history in just a couple of minutes.” The best part of that was when he taught us that Chicago gets its name from a Native American word meaning “tall, smelly onion grass.”

The tour was 90 minutes long, and it was awesome. We explored the Chicago River — the main part, along with the north and south arms. And all along the way, Alan (Chicago Architecture Foundation class of ’96) told us all kinds of fascinating stuff about Chicago and its impressive number of really cool buildings. We learned about different styles of architecture, including signature features of buildings designed by various Chicago-based firms. We also learned about the use of the river in city planning — it once was gross and toxic, so buildings had no windows facing it, no residential development occurred along it, and statues near it faced away from it; now it’s clean and awesome, so newer buildings line it with tons of windows, and huge condo and apartment buildings are everywhere. When Alan explained how the river used to be toxic and disgusting, he told us about some genius engineer who decided to reverse the flow of the river, which cleaned it right up (sending the polluted water right down to St. Louis). He also said that Wisconsin and Indiana sued Illinois for taking water out of Lake Michigan, and that as a result an agreement is in place that the federal government has control over water-related issues in that area. The lawyer part of me wanted to ask a lot of questions about that, but the tourist part of me didn’t want to interrupt Alan while he was giving his awesome talk.

Alan also talked about the famous Chicago fire started in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn — he even pointed out a building a few blocks back from the river that stands where her barn once stood. We got to see the Navy Pier and the locks that separate the river from Lake Michigan, although we didn’t venture out onto the lake (which is 6 feet higher than the river). At one point during the tour, the air started to smell really chocolatey. I thought I was imagining it because I was hungry, but a moment after I detected it Alan stopped, mid-sentence, and instructed everyone to take a few whiffs, explaining that a local chocolate factory was obviously open and working today.

When Alan talked about the Sears Tower, he told us that it’s now called the Willits Tower. He then went on calling it the Sears Tower, and explained that it’s the tallest building in the U.S. (and used to be the tallest in the world until somewhere around 1995). He also showed us buildings designed to have no corner offices (with only elevators in the corners, no windows), buildings designed to have 16 corner offices per floor, and buildings designed to have no corners at all (by an architect who believes there are no right angles in nature, so there shouldn’t be any in buildings either). Near the end of the tour, we even saw a cool wavy building designed by “a lady architect.” The tour was hot, but we both really enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to anyone visiting (or even living in) Chicago. Definitely worth the price of admission ($32 per person).

After the tour, I chickened out of talking to Alan (he was too much of a celebrity and was surrounded by groupies already when we left the boat). We walked back to the hotel via the Tribune Building, which is awesome. It’s Gothic on top and bottom, but modern in between, and along the street there are pieces of major events, locations and attractions from all over the world embedded in the building, brought back by journalists working there. We saw items from the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China, the White House, the Great Pyramid, and rubble from the World Trade Center after 9/11, just to name a few.

Because the weather was still nice, we hopped on the El and went to Wrigley Field. The Cubs are on the road this week, but Kurt wanted to see Wrigley. We took some pictures (Kurt under the big Wrigley Field sign; me on a giant noodle — the second statue that I was unable to climb myself, requiring a boost from Kurt). Then we walked around the perimeter, peering in through the bars at a couple of places where you could actually see in to the field itself. I was fascinated by the houses around the field with bleachers on their roofs, which I was not aware of prior to visiting the field.

After taking it all in, we got back on the El and returned to the Magnificent Mile. We started looking for a place to eat, and we quickly settled on the Weber Grill (because it was close to our hotel, and because we just recently purchased a Weber Grill). When the girl at the door told us it would be a 20-30 minute wait, we decided we were too hungry to wait, so we left to look elsewhere. And thus began an hour-long search for a restaurant. We first walked to a restaurant owned by the winner of the first season of Top Chef Masters (the Frontera Grill, owned by Rick Bayless). We arrived there to discover that it’s closed on Mondays, and we noticed a homeless person using the patio area of the restaurant as his changing room. We then headed for a place where we could get 1,000 Open Table points if we made a reservation, but the prices on the menu were ridiculous. Only after wandering away from that place did we notice people eating outside at a pizza place, causing us to realize that we should obviously give deep-dish pizza a try before leaving Chicago. So after walking for what felt like forever, we settled on Giordano’s, which is supposed to have some of the best deep-dish pizza in the city (we Googled it, so it must be true). There was a huge line and a long wait there, but we were too tired to care. We ordered a famous stuffed pizza with cheese, pepperoni and green peppers to go. During the 45 minute wait, we had some beers at the bar and rested our weary feet. When our pizza was ready, we brought it back to the the hotel and ate it in the room while watching a really bad movie called Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. The pizza was so unbelievably delicious, we didn’t even mind how terrible the movie was.

All in all, we did a bunch of cool stuff today and are discovering that Chicago is really an awesome town. We’re looking forward to another day here, and we’ve already discussed the need to return someday when the Cubs are in town.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *