In many ways, Chicago is like every other city. Generations of people and buildings overlap as reminders of the past, witnesses of the present, and springboards to the future. The city seems to breathe in and out as waves of people and cars navigate its sidewalks and streets. It sings the songs of diesel engines, street musicians, and car horns. Its colors blur in the mirrors of its glass buildings: taxicab yellow, brick red, asphalt black. It has an electricity that gets the pulse racing and can make a person feel charged with life. In this telling Chicago could be any city. Seeing it like this, though, is only a minute of its existence, and this particular city deserves a longer look.
Video by Chris Pritchard from his “Places in Time” series.
It is difficult to nail down just one thing that defines Chicago. Many have tried. They say it’s heart and soul is about architecture, finances, or politics. Chicago is about all of those things, but it is more than that. It is a complex grouping of everything that makes the human race tick, pushes it to thrive, and occasionally causes it to stumble and lose its way. No one thing encompasses this city and holds it still for very long. Therefore, no one visit is enough to completely understand it. Even one visit, though, can be enough to loosen one’s own stale understandings of the world and leave them to feel a little new and green again.
Hubby and I have spent time in Chicago before, but it had been a while since our last visit. It won’t be our last. I went in to this trip thinking I knew what to expect, seeing it as “just another city I had been to before”. I quickly learned how wrong I was. I hadn’t taken into account the vibrancy and inventiveness of the place. Before our four-day visit was over, I was breathless, almost exhausted, by all I had taken in. We did more than just sightsee. We saturated our thoughts into the city, thanks to time spent with a well-informed local. Even then, though, we recognized that it was not enough.
Allow me to introduce you to our well-informed local, Mr. Rolf Achilles. When I spoke with the concierge at the hotel where we stayed, I told her that we wanted to experience as much of the spirit of Chicago as we could in such a short amount of time. She recommended we hire Mr. Achilles as a private tour guide for the city. Her description of him was, “he is like a walking Encyclopedia Britannica on Chicago”. She wasn’t kidding. You can look on his website to see his long list of achievements, projects, and interests. There is also a History of Chicago Timeline on his website, which starts way back in 1673, before any keystone was laid for what is now known as Chicago. It is as impressive as anything else he has done.
When we finally met Mr. Achilles, we discovered that although the concierge’s description was spot-on, there was more to him than just bookly information. He loves his town. His love for it bubbled over in waves until, suddenly, we knew we were in love with his town too.
In the short amount of time we spent traveling around with him, Mr. Achilles quickly became a trusted friend. He is not just an expert on all things Chicago. He is an experiencer of life. He savors rich experiences as well as mundane ones and then he turns to you and offers you a bite.
We were given three bites of Chicago while we explored the city with Mr. Achilles: Public Art and Architecture, the Chicago History Museum and Old Town, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
For these tours, we took cabs to our destinations, with Mr. Achilles indicating to the driver special neighborhoods and spaces we needed to thread our way through so that we could take in the majority of the city along the way.
Public Art and Architecture
Chicago is a city packed with public art. On nearly every block there seems to be a famous statue or structure by someone we have all heard of. Mr. Achilles showed us these works of art and spoke about them as if they were offerings of love from their artists and patrons.
The Chicago Picasso is an untitled sculpture, weighing in at 160 tons and standing up to 50 feet tall. It was was unveiled in 1967 and has since become a beloved icon of the city. It was designed by Picasso in France (he never visited Chicago), but it was built by the American Bridge division of U.S. Steel in Gary, Indiana.
At the time, the statue was seen as a bit odd-looking, but then it was Picasso, so it was accepted. In fact, Mayor Daley, who did the unveiling, said in his speech, “We dedicate this celebrated work this morning with the belief that what is strange to us today will be familiar tomorrow.” Not only has this sculpture become so familiar to the people of Chicago that children regularly slide down its base (see photo for evidence!), it is a point of reference for meeting friends, and is a place of celebration and holidays. The Chicago Picasso even gets decked out with hats for different occasions!
Agora is the name of the grouping of 106 cast iron figures wandering the southern side of Grant Park. They are 9-feet tall, headless and armless shells, grouped in clumps, just as crowds seem to group whether they mean to or not. The artist, Magdalena Abakanowicz, hates crowds and described them as “brainless organisms acting on command, worshipping on command and hating on command.” This particular crowd, with its height, texture, and color seems more like a forest of branchless trees, though, and just as harmless.
My take on the grouping was that they were contemplative, as if their arms were folded back behind them, their movement is forward toward better ways of being, and their body shells were waiting to be filled with great ideas. But then, I am an optimist.
The Four Seasons by Marc Chagall was unveiled in 1974, when the artist was 87 years old. Unlike Picasso, Chagall had visited Chicago many times and fallen in love with it. The Four Seasons is a mosaic, not only of glass, marble, stone, and brick (some of which was from Chicago herself!), it is a mosaic of the seasons, the people, the experiences which make up the life of the city. Like Chicago, The Four Seasons is complex and difficult to take in completely in just one visit. It is, after all, 70 feet long, 10 feet wide and 14 feet high. All four sides are covered in dreamy scenes of life from all the various walks of life which call Chicago home. It’s colors and happy images make this my favorite of all the public art we saw on our tour.
UIC Skyspace: The University of Illinois Chicago houses a large work of art at the corners of Roosevelt Road and Halstead Street. UIC Skyspace is by James Turrell and was unveiled in 2006. It is a free-standing elliptical work of art meant to be experienced inside and out, taking note of the interplay of light. To go inside it is to walk into a quieter sanctuary of soft light; a place to sit and read, perhaps, or to experience one of my favorite activities, people watching.
Richard Lippold’s Untitled (Radiant I) was locked up tight in the lobby of the Inland Steel Building on the day we visited, but we could still see it by pressing our noses and cameras to the glass. Taut wires of various materials zig zag out from criss-crossing steel rods, giving it the presence of a star radiating out from the dark sky. It was installed in 1957 and was the first abstract work of art to be on permanent display in Chicago.
We saw many other sculptures on this tour, but I did not get photos of all of them. Below is a list of addresses for everything we saw, including distances from the Four Seasons Chicago hotel, where we stayed, in case you are keeping track of step-counts like we do. More information about each piece can be found by clicking on the links provided.
- The Chicago Picasso: Located at 50 W. Washington St., it is 1.3 miles from the hotel, or approximately 2600 steps.
- Agora by Magdalena Abakanowicz: Located at the corner of S. Michigan Ave. and E. Roosevelt Dr. It is 2.3 miles from the hotel, or approximately 4600 steps.
- The Four Seasons by Marc Chagall: Located at 10 S. Dearborn St. It is 1.4 miles from the hotel, or approximately 2800 steps.
- UIC Skyspace by James Turrell is located on the corner of Roosevelt Road and Halstead Street. It is 3.3 miles from the hotel, or approximately 6600 steps.
- Richard Lippold’s Untitled (Radiant I) is in the lobby of the Inland Steel Building at 30 W. Monroe St. It is 1.5 miles from the hotel, or approximately 3000 steps.
- Jean Dubuffet’s Monument with Standing Beast is located at 100 W. Randolph Street, which is 1.3 miles from the hotel, or approximately 2600 steps.
- Claes Oldenburg’s Batcolumn is at 600 W. Madison Street, which is 2.1 miles from the hotel, or approximately 4200 steps.
- Hubertus von der Goltz’s Crossing is located at 334 N. LaSalle Street, which is 1.2 miles from the hotel, or approximately 2400 steps.
- We would have seen Alexander Calder’s Flamingo, had it not been covered up for maintenance. It is located at 50 W. Adams St., which is 1.6 miles from the hotel, or approximately 3200 steps.
For even more information about these and other public works of art in Chicago, check out the Public Art Guide put out by the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs.
Stand on almost any corner in Chicago, and you will probably be standing in the shadow of a famous architect. This city has developed a reputation for setting the world on fire with its forward thinking architectural designs and designers. Styles and methods born in Chicago eventually become things we take for granted in other parts of the world.
Besides the ground-breaking drawbridges, Chicago developed the modern skyscraper using a steel frame. Windows were made larger, thanks to these frames, so light could enter the whole floor of a building, instead of just the outer offices. These days, all around the world, the windows seen in older skyscrapers are called Chicago Windows because they were developed here. Next time you find yourself walking in a town with buildings dating back to the first of the last century, look for windows with a large, fixed center panel and two operable windows on each end. That is a Chicago Window. A prime example of this style of window can be see in the Marquette Building at S. Dearborn St. and Adams.
The Marquette Building is 1.6 miles from the hotel, or approximately 3200 steps.
Just down the street from the Marquette Building is a whole complex of buildings designed by a man who ushered Chicago and the rest of the world into what is known as the Modernist style. That complex of buildings is the Federal Center Complex and the man is Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. For many years, “Mies”, as so many call him, was the head of the School of Architecture at Chicago’s Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology). Driving around Chicago, one can see many of his designs and many designs created in the likeness of Miesian design. These buildings are free from ornamentation, they are steel and glass structures with plate glass windows, and which reach toward the heavens with all the simplicity modern technology affords it.
This complex of buildings is located at 50 W. Adams Street, the same location as Alexander Calder’s Flamingo. This means that it is 1.6 miles from the hotel, or approximately 3200 steps.
Out of the Miesian school of architecture grew innovative students, such as Bertrand Goldberg, who designed the Marina Towers to be a city within a city. Completed in 1964, the corn-cob towers contained condos and all the amenities one might need to function in life, such as stores, restaurants, a gym, bowling alley, etc. Now the iconic towers house a hotel, a concert hall, and several restaurants.
Marina Towers are located at 300 N. State St., which is 1 mile from the hotel, or approximately 2000 steps.
Chicago History Museum and Old Town
Chicago History Museum
The second tour we took with Mr. Achilles was to the Chicago History Museum. While there, we talked of the fire that destroyed Chicago, of ties to Abraham Lincoln, stained glass windows by Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Magic!
The Chicago History Museum has vivid dioramas which tell the history of the city. Mr. Achilles told us that the dioramas had been there for a long time–well before they went out of style at museums–and they stayed around long enough to come back into style again. They have since been cleaned up and restored, providing excellent visuals for Chicago’s history.
Mr. Achilles is the curator for the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows at the Navy Pier in Chicago. He has also helped to curate the windows shown in the Chicago Room at the History Museum, which is flanked on all sides by a gallery of historic windows from names such as Tiffany and Wright.
The Chicago History Museum houses information and artifacts from its complete history. A giant locomotive engine sits on the second floor of the museum next to one of the first rail cars used for city transit (which went on to be what is now called the “L”). Walk through all the halls of the museum to taste every generation’s contribution and inventions, including those from the furniture industry, the brewers, and the meat packers. Even the slaughterhouses contributed to fashion and furniture (leather goods), as well as food preservation methods, such as canning on a large scale.
Chicago has been the site of helping to define human rights and civil liberties. It hasn’t always been pretty, but the struggles which have taken place in Chicago have been felt around the globe. This museum does an excellent job demonstrating with visuals and audio the contributions made and the battles fought.
While at the History Museum, we were treated to a personal demonstration of magic by Jeanette Andrews, who has been doing magic tricks since the age of six! I thought for sure I would be able to tell how she chose the different cards she did or how she made the rubberbands move in and out from our fingers, but I never got it. I walked away happily mystified.
This video and more from Ms. Andrews can be seen at JeanetteAndrewsMagic.
The Chicago History Museum is located at 1601 N. Clark St., which is 1.1 miles from the hotel. That is approximately 2200 steps.
When we had seen everything we had gone to see at the museum, we walked through the tree-lined streets of Old Town, a neighborhood which was settled first by the Potawatomi, Miami and Illinois nations before it was settled by German Catholics. We stopped into a Bavarian-styled church in the neighborhood that survived the Great Chicago Fire, St. Michael Redemptorist Catholic Church.
The church has an altar made of silver, gold and onyx, featuring St. Michael the Archangel as, what looks like, a soldier of the Crusades. There are 16 stained glass windows in the church depicting the life of Jesus and Mary, which were designed and built by the Mayer Window Art Institute in Munich, Germany. It is a building quilted with colors and design and well worth a visit. My understanding is that the parish offers tours of the building. Call ahead for information first, though.
St. Michael’s Catholic Church is located at 1633 North Cleveland Avenue. It is 1.6 miles from the hotel (approximately, 3200 steps); or .6 miles from the Chicago History Museum (approximately, 1200 steps).
Old Town is also home to Second City, the world-famous comic improvisational theater which has become known for churning out the world’s greatest comedic actors. Some of their alum include Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers, Dan Aykroyd, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, to name just a few.
Second City is located at 1616 N Wells St. which is 1.3 miles from the hotel, or approximately 2600 steps.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Our last stop in Chicago was its world-famous Art Institute of Chicago. We had been there years ago, but not with Mr. Achilles, who opened our eyes to the art surrounding us. We ended up learning so much and getting so much out of our conversation in the Institute that, not only did I forget to take pictures, we ran out of time for Millenium Park! One more reason to return to the Windy City, I think!
The Art Institute is perhaps best known for its collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artwork. The elite of Chicago were the first to collect these “fuzzy” paintings before they were thought of as anything of value.
Beyond that, there are some other iconic offerings by Edward Hopper and Van Gogh, as well as one of the most identifiable paintings, American Gothic by Grant Wood.
Mixed in with the artwork is art of another kind — furniture and home furnishings, such as tea cups and silverware. They serve to illustrate how the designs of the home can define an era.
In doing research for this article, I discovered a program near and dear to my heart that the Art Institute has started: The Cultural Distance: Half-Mile Tour. The link takes you to a PDF of a tour which walks you a half mile through the AIC, enriching your body as well as your mind! They have other distance tours as well on their website under Mini Tours.
The Art Institute of Chicago is located at 111 South Michigan Avenue, which is 1.3 miles from the hotel, or approximately 2600 steps.
Below you can read where we stayed and how we otherwise fared in this very walkable city. As always in this series, the goal is to demonstrate how we were able to achieve at least 10,000 steps a day while exploring a different North American city. All step calculations were taken from the front door of the hotel to the front door of each destination.
Where we stayed and why
We chose the Four Seasons Chicago for several reasons. First of all, it’s the Four Seasons. It’s hard to bicker with a luxurious choice like that. The Four Seasons has a wide range of advantages, not the least of which is access to their concierge services. Karen, Michelle, and Adelina all worked with me at various times to set up our tours, plus, they gave us a long list of restaurant recommendations, and they made sure we got to and from the airport without problem. Besides that, we were able to request an extra, empty refrigerator so we could keep low-calorie options in the room for breakfast and lunch.
Waiting for us in the hotel room when we checked in were several personal notes from the concierge and front desk staff, along with a plate of gorgeous strawberries, a couple of beautiful plums, a succulent peach, and some bottled water. All healthy choices given to us as a thoughtful gift, after I had told them about Hubby’s weight loss and desire to keep it off. Of course, we couldn’t eat all of it right away, so we stored it in the empty fridge to munch on for the next few days.
If that wasn’t enough, the Four Seasons Chicago is located within walking distance to everything we needed access to, such as restaurants, grocery stores, and Walgreens.
The Four Seasons Chicago is located at 120 East Delaware Place.
Groceries and other necessities
Potash Market: This little store had everything we needed during our short stay in Chicago. It is located at 875 North State Street, just .2 miles from the hotel, or approximately 400 steps.
Walgreen’s: Located just up the block from Potash Market was a quieter Walgreen’s. It is located at 933 North State Street, just .2 miles from the hotel, or approximately 400 steps.
Sadly, we did not drink coffee outside of the hotel. This is a big surprise for someone like me who loves her coffee, but I did think to ask Mr. Achilles where was the place for a cuppa Joe. His response was, without a doubt, Intelligentsia.
There are several locations around Chicago (and New York, Pasadena, LA, and Atlanta). To find them go to Intelligentsia’s website.
The order in which I have these restaurants is not the chronological order in which we ate at them, it is the order in which I rate them. I start with L2O for a reason. It was, without a doubt, our favorite. We met a friend there, which only served to enhance the experience, but we all agreed that between the level of food and the level of service, it was bar none. Two other restaurants mentioned below were fantastic and, if we had only eaten at them in Chicago, our experience would have been great. But L2O took everything to the next level and blew us away with flavor, innovation, and service.
L2O: L2O stands for “Lake to Ocean”, so it is a restaurant heavily influenced by seafood. My experience as a vegetarian, though, was no where near second class. In fact, on a couple of fronts, our friend or Hubby mentioned that, in some way, they wished they had my serving–until they tried their own and decided they were over-the-moon happy with what they had ordered.
Reservations are recommended and can be made on OpenTable.com.
L2O is located at 2300 N. Lincoln Park West. It is 2 miles from the hotel, or 4000 steps. Although we did not walk there, we did walk back!
Blackbird: Don’t let my gushing about L2O lead you to believe that Blackbird isn’t worth your time. Quite the opposite. Blackbird knocked our socks off too. They just didn’t pick them up, launder them, and put them back on our feet when we were done like L2O did.
But seriously, Blackbird was delicious. The waiter who took our orders was very knowledgeable about what was on their menu and what it tasted like. When I mentioned I was vegetarian, he recommended the salad of endives with crispy potatoes, basil, dijon, and poached egg, minus the pancetta. For my entree, he suggested crispy buckwheat crepes with feta, artichokes, maitake mushrooms and ginger broth. I think I embarrassed Hubby as I slurped everything off the salad plate. I am a sucker for poached eggs in salads and this one was better than most. The crepes were outstanding as well; very fresh, spring green sorts of flavors that were grounded in the earthiness of mushrooms.
For what it’s worth, everyone we spoke to in Chicago about Blackbird–and there were quite a few–said they had been to this restaurant several times and they had loved it.
Reservations are recommended and can be made at OpenTable.com.
Blackbird is located at 619 W Randolph in a skinny building that has a small number of tables. The walk is 2 miles from the hotel, or 4000 steps. Although we cabbed to the restaurant, we walked back to the hotel.
Naha: We met another friend at this fine restaurant–delicious as Blackbird and just as attentive, service-wise. In fact, the waiter was kind enough to realize we were catching up with friends, so he checked in when he sensed a quiet moment, even though we didn’t leave him with many opportunities. We had a lot of catching up to do! The wait staff had the perfect balance between being attentive and letting us enjoy one another’s company. We never felt rushed or interrupted, nor did we wonder where our waiter went, and the food was delightful.
This restaurant was recommended by others we spoke to as well. It got hopping soon after we got there, so it seems like a popular place. Reservations are recommended and can be made at OpenTable.com.
Naha is located at 500 north clark street, which is .9 miles from the hotel, or 1800 steps. We walked to and from this restaurant.
Panera Bread: When we first got to town and just before we left we needed something to eat. Hubby found us a Panera Bread located .6 miles from the hotel, or approximately 1200 steps. We got soup and/or sandwiches and were set for the rest of the afternoon.
At the end of the day, Chicago has everything a person could want in a city–all of the conveniences and luxuries. Still, Chicago is a city set apart by its richness in culture, heritage, and talents. It has given the world gift upon gift but continues to be looked upon as “The Second City”. Maybe that’s what makes it so special, though. It’s the younger brother to The Big Apple. It’s the kid always having to prove himself. And, in doing so, it changes the world in ways no one ever expected.
As for me, I can honestly say my own world was shifted from four days spent learning this city. I can only imagine what it must do for those who live there.
Have you visited Chicago? If so, what did you see that I didn’t mention here? Share your tips and ideas in the Comments Section below to help others who might be planning a visit to Chicago.
This article is dedicated to my friend Gabi who is getting ready to start a new phase of her life in The Windy City. Good luck, Gabi! The world is waiting for you!