The Windy City…well, more like the Torrential Down Pouring Thunder Clapping Lighting Striking City, somewhat reminiscent of a South East Asian capital in the heart of the monsoon season!! At least this is how Chicago chose to welcome us to her shores. The site of huge skyscrapers emerging from the daytime stormy gloom was slightly apocalyptic yet cool. This storm was so intense that bolts of blinding lightning struck buildings several times within reach of Betty (with the worst cracking right into a carpark so close it made us both duck) making for an entertaining yet harrowing navigation into the tourist office, where Sarah jumped out only to come back like a drowned rat (she had walked literally 10 meter (30 feet) to the tourist office and back).
Wet map in hand we hunted for a free place to park. Ending up outside a nice little Vietnamese place called Bon Bon with free WIFI. HINT: park out the front of places like this, restrictions permitting , as all you do is go in, buy the cheapest thing on the menu and obtain the WIFI code. Once you have this you can come back to your van at the end of the day and internet your heart out!! The spring rolls were great by the way too and the owner liked us that much that we scored a free tub of coconut ice cream, BOOM!! He also told us this is apparently one of the only parts of this area of town that doesn’t have parking meters. Being located not too far from the center we opted to construct the folding bikes and trundle in saving the subway fare for, yep you guessed it, beer. Taking the most direct route out to Lakeshore Drive hugging Lake Michigan we hit the beginning of the Mother Road Route 66 which is posted with a street marker on the corner of Michigan Ave and Adams St.
Venturing further into the Loop district, the heart of the beginning of the modern skyscraper and lending itself to The World’s Columbian Exposition in 1892- 1893. Enthusiasts of architecture will be in heaven whilst towered over by buildings like the Monatuak, the Rookery and the Monadnock, designed by the likes of Burnham and Roots, and Alder and Sullivan. A great read on the World’s Fair is ‘The Devil in the White City’ by Erik Larson, kindly given to us by our new friends from Buffalo earlier in the trip. You’ll be surprised by the amount of famous facts, inventions and people involved (one of note is Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, so named because, well, it won the blue ribbon. The Devil in the title refers to one of America’s first serial killers HH Holmes. This is a great book to read before coming to Chicago as it gives a great insight into the cities darker and skyscraper emerging past.
We next headed to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago for the Money Museum to have a crack at breaking the safe, albeit we failed, though we did get to lift a million dollar bills. Be sure to have photo ID as Matt was refused entry the day before for not doing so. With fists full of dollars (not at all) we headed outside to enjoy more of the Loop’s architecture. It becomes apparent that in the era when most of these building were designed a flaw in the lack of internal fire escapes became an issue. Install ad hoc external metal grated staircases – bingo bango, problem solved. Some of these are 15 stories high and you’d be hard pressed to get scaredy cat Matt onto one of these! Entering the Rookery Building, a Burnham and Roots designed space which was then redesigned by Frank Lloyd Wright several years later, you will take a moment to marvel at the engineering feat of the elaborate Oriel staircase which takes pride of place in the interior.
Moving on toward the shore line again we passed the Congress Hotel which is supposedly haunted, so much so that celebrity chef Pete Evans had to leave midway through his first night without even checking out. You can get the facts from an ex ghost tour guide here. Across the road, take in the Buckingham Fountain that shows all it’s glory every hour on the hour, performing a 20 minute bursting water show and shooting water 150 ft into the air with a musical background.
One other great thing about the city of Chicago is the expanse of Millennium Park, which in Grant Park? ,Jackson Park? Within these parks there are numerous free shows on movie screens, free morning yoga classes (which get packed!) along with music concerts. There’s is even a pair of fountains in Millennium Park, Crown Fountain, which display videos of faces of Chicago residents and the city encourages people to play in it. Being big kids at heart we jumped at this sound advice to take our next morning showers within them, minus the soap and shampoo.
Also located within Millenium Park, and great shelter for an inevitable impromptu Chicago downpour, is the now world famous, yet originally temporary Bean sculpture (it’s actually called Cloud Gate but I don’t think we’d heard anybody call it that). Whilst taking the traditional outside shots of yourself reflected in the super smooth stainless steel surface, be sure to take a shot from underneath looking up to take a truly psychedelic shot, man.
When hunger calls in Chicago, there’s only one choice for all true tourists – deep dish pizza. Having done a little research, this one got the double thumbs up from most reviewers, so we turned our bikes in the direction of Lou Malnati’s. Splitting a small deep dish pizza (owing to the travellers budget and scared of increasing waist lines) the peperoni topped cheesey goodness arrived. Lucky one wasn’t ordered each as half was more than enough to fill ones belly.
Taking yet another one of the numerous American breweries we promptly arrived at the Goose Island Brewery only to have the heavens open up, yet again, with a torrential soaking. Going for the beer flight was the best way here to sample the offering without stumbling out of this waterhole. Retiring for the night in our roadside abode we felt content with the long yet pleasurable tour of one of the most understated industrious yet alluring cities.
Awaking to the hum of the Gutter birds (street sweepers), and not wanting to outstay our welcome (a tip for free campers), we relocated to the free parking up the road from the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen. Now despite the reports that this is one of the heaviest gang influenced areas in the state we were welcomed by the predominantly Hispanic locals as we cooked breakfast. The attractive sidewalk gardening outside some of these houses would lead you to believe that this is also one of the more community centered neighbourhoods in the city. A long yet flat ride back into the heart of downtown, we admired the Carbide and Carbon building, Trump Tower and other surrounded skyscrapers, before heading down below to the home of the famous Saturday Night Live ‘Cheezeborger’ skit, The Billy Goat Tavern. This place has been here since 1934 but was made super famous after the skit was aired. A little hard to find, but totally worth the stop if you’re after a dirty greasy feed.
Heading back to the van, we stopped for some cheap ($1 each) hot street tamales and the Mexican Art Museum which was now open. Unfortunately the main exhibits were being changed over, although we did enjoy some of the very contemporary hangings on offer. The small gift shop also has some great Mexican offerings for souvenir hunters, but as we were heading south of the border in a few months, where prices would be more within our budget, we looked but didn’t touch. And so with the sun rising high within the sky it was time to venture onwards and westwards to where Matt felt completely at home.
Next stop, cheese country.