“…in a few hours [we] were in that astonishing Chicago–a city where they are always rubbing a lamp, and fetching up the genii, and contriving and achieving new impossibilities.” (Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, 1883)
The trip that eventually took us to the great parks of the American Southwest began in Chicago, my first taste of the city beyond its formidable airport. We did not have much time: Our train from DC arrived in the morning, and we were to depart again the following day. This was an amuse-bouche visit. We had several highlights in mind, but were determined to keep to a leisurely pace. I think we succeeded.
Our hotel, The Blackstone, kept our bags. It was once hailed as “The Hotel of Presidents”: Twelve U.S. Presidents and numerous screen, theater, and opera stars stayed here in the course of the 20th century. Still an impressive Beaux-Arts confection on the outside, the hotel’s personality felt a bit diluted inside, but this was a convenient, affordable (Marriott rewards points!), and welcoming base camp for everything we wanted to see. Refreshed with a shot of coffee in the lobby, we set out for our first stop: the Art Institute of Chicago.
If I had more time in the city, I think I’d start further up Michigan Avenue–at the Chicago Cultural Center, a unique public space. Formerly the Chicago Public Library, this breathtaking building now offers free performances, exhibits, lectures, and a place to read, meet, and wander (don’t miss the two majestic stained-glass domes; the Tiffany Dome is the world’s largest of its kind). On the Center’s first floor is the excellent Choose Chicago Visitors’ Center, a vault of information and tempting offerings, including a wide variety of tours exploring the city’s many neighborhoods, personalities, and incarnations. I wish I could plan out my acquaintance with Chicago here, and one day I will.
For now, we strolled up the southern reaches of the Grant Park, formal, cold, and asleep. Starlings and a lone northern flicker accompanied us in a garrulous, mottled cloud, a reassuring presence on that rainy morning:
Soon, the watchful lions of the Art Institute came into view. The museum just opened, and there was a line stretching out from the front entrance. It moved quickly enough, and we actually enjoyed the opportunity to soak up some of the city’s architectural texture as we shuffled through. If you’d rather not wait, know that the museum’s other entrance on East Monroe Street opens at the same time, largely unnoticed (you’ll enter the Institute’s Modern Wing then).
If you decide to wait by the main entrance, look towards East Adams Street across the way. It bears the marker for the beginning of the historic Route 66. The route never actually departed from exactly there, but the sign is picturesque and monumental in what it represents.
Right behind the sign is an excellent place for dinner, the Russian Tea Time. The restaurant is owned by a Russian woman from Uzbekistan, so the menu has that unique blend of Russian and Central Asian cuisines that I miss and that is exceptionally hard to find done so well outside of Central Asia (definitely call in advance for a reservation. This is a popular spot for a scrumptious dinner before a performance at the nearby Orchestra Hall, theaters, or the Art Institute).
Finally inside the AIC, we struggled not to lose our heads. The place was much larger than expected. The museum’s website, thankfully, offers a number of guides to help you acclimate (there are apps!): my favorite are the Pathfinder, an interactive floor map that helps you through the large space, from collection to collection, and several of the mini-tours, which you can print out or pick up at the museum, for inspiration.
Determined to treat this visit as a preview, we confined ourselves to three destinations: the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection on the main building’s second level; American Modern Art, 1900-1950 on the second level of the Modern Wing; and the European Modern Art, 1900-1950 on the Modern Wing’s third level. This still resulted in a lot of walking: The Modern Wing is gorgeous but, we found, unintuitive and cumbersome to follow, with its disparate three-level sections connected only through the first floor.
Our senses were at their limit by lunch. Still, the exhaustion was worth it.
Truthfully, the meander through the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection was an homage to my mother, who loves those periods (so they were my first introduction to art as a child). AIC’s holdings did have some surprises, however. After seeing it so often in reproductions, I did not anticipate to be blown away by Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. There was a depth, an intensity to the painting I had not felt until I stood right before it: Why is everyone so frozen, so unemotional, despite the cheerful colors and light? The brushstrokes, at once frenetic and exacting, unnerved too. The canvas was full of static. My eyes went immediately to the figure I had never noticed before, yet, she was clearly the emotional focus, the centerpiece of the painting: a girl in a red dress, twirling (or running?), her hair blowing behind her, one of only two moving figures in this amber-trapped world (the other is a lap dog with a pink bow by the towering couple). No matter how closely I could see every detail of this painting online, no matter how dulled my perceptions were when I first walked into the room, I was unprepared for the reaction of seeing this live.
There were several delicious, surprising stops just like that one: Toulouse-Lautrec’s nightmarish At the Moulin Rouge, Ferdinand Hodler’s arresting Day (Truth), Grant Wood’s deadpan American Gothic, and the entire Modern Wing, where the artworks, the building, and the Millennium Park beyond combine into one immersive masterpiece. It has been a while since I’ve enjoyed being present at a museum like this.
I could spend a day, several days at the Art Institute, but, by 1 pm, it was time to pause and rest. Terzo Piano, on the Modern Wing’s third level, was a great venue to do just that (the restaurant is, technically, not part of the museum, so surrender your audio-guides downstairs. You will have to keep your tickets if you wish to return). A reservation is recommended and easily gotten through Open Table. Terzo’s views of Michigan Avenue and the Millennium Park are alone worth the visit, but the food is good too, with an emphasis on organic and local ingredients. This was a pleasant lunch, unhurried and relaxing.
Rejuvenated, we then headed out to one of my favorite moments of the day: the descent on the Nichols Bridgeway, “the sidewalk in the sky,” a 625-foot pedestrian path linking the Institute’s third floor to the Millennium Park. Despite the cold and the rain, I found myself lingering, drinking in the view of the park, the stainless billows of Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion, and the grove of skyscrapers, including my favorite building in Chicago, Jeanne Gang‘s Aqua Tower (can you spot it below? Its wave-like balconies vary in shape and size on every floor, depending on a variety of environmental factors. This building is an organic, harmonious part of the city).
The Bridgeway deposited us at the heart of the Millennium Park. I will make a point to return here in a warmer season. That day, it merely served as our passage to the riverfront. We hurried through, stopping, inevitably, by Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (it will always be “the shiny kidney” to me), an absorbing sight.
Our destination was 3 blocks beyond the park in the Riverside Gardens on the southeast corner of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, another Beaux-Arts ode in stone, and Wacker Drive, the launch pad of Chicago’s First Lady Cruises, the official cruise line of the Chicago Architecture Foundation. There are many river architecture tours to choose from, several leaving from the docks nearby, but I liked CAF’s mission and wanted to support its work. The organization offers a kaleidoscope of tours around town–by boat, walking, trolley, bus, bike, segway, metro–led by volunteer docents. Our guide for the next 90 minutes was a lifelong Chicagoan who loved her home town and was a retired engineer, excited about the city’s architecture and history and an expert on both (becoming a volunteer docent for CAF is no easy task).
We enjoyed the tour immensely and remained on the upper deck despite the cold and the rain, along with three very enterprising sparrows.
“Maybe we can show government how to operate better as a result of better architecture. Eventually, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful great city left in the world,” predicted Frank Lloyd Wright, whose mark is prominent in Chicago’s features. A colorful army of architects got to showcase their talents here over the past 150 years. I am no connoisseur of skyscrapers, but even I was impressed by the flight of imagination unfolding before me in brick, metal, and glass.
The tour begins, fittingly, across from the site of Chicago’s first home built by a non-native settler, belonging to Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, a fur trapper.
It goes on to explore all three branches of the Chicago River and traces the complicated relationship the city shared with it as this modest trading post grew into the “stormy, husky, brawling, City of Big Shoulders:”
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action…
Building, breaking, rebuilding…. (Carl Sandburg, Chicago, 1916)
River banks look so genteel now, lined with elegant riverside pathways and rough warehouses reincarnated as cool apartments, but you can still feel the energy, the grit just below the surface. Here are some of my favorite views from the river:
The tour concluded by 5. We were nearly frozen by then, despite the regular supply of hot tea from the boat’s bar–frozen but happy. Boats run from April to mid-November. In late October, there was plenty of space, but it sounds like tickets sell out quickly in more hospitable months. Still, purchasing tickets online saves a little money ($35 instead of the full $38 fee), and you can ensure that you will get in at the time that fits best into the day’s plans. On our next visit, I would love to take the sunset tour–even on a congested, rainy day, changes in late-afternoon light enhanced the scenery.
Surprisingly hungry, we were grateful for our early reservation at the Russian Tea Time. Having considered a musical outing for the evening, we opted for room service and a movie instead. We will come back soon. This leisurely preview certainly whetted the appetite.