Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Big City Fun in Chicago Part 1

Just got back from Chicago for the first time and it was pretty fun.  Haven't been blogging or writing for a week as I've been "out of the office."  I had a bit of a sore foot and caught a cold at the end but it was a nice visit to a big city.
Iconic Chicago Theater
This post covers items one to three about nine touristy things to do in Chicago but it has the theme about the fun things to do in any big city with really tall buildings and mass transit. 
View Chicago Downtown in a larger map

1. The Subway and Trains
How do you get to downtown Chicago, The Loop area, from the airport?  You take the blue line CTA train from O'Hare Airport.  It isn't the speediest option as it stops at over a dozen stops before getting downtown, but it gets you there in 45 minutes regardless of traffic.  It is also cheap (cost of a regular bus ride).  If you drive or take a cab, it depends on the traffic and when we arrived, it would have taken longer by car as the traffic was crawling on the freeway when we could see it from the train.
Pretty nifty wall wraps advertising a new iPhone grocery app in the train station.
Red Line Subway Station
Buy a multi-day CTA pass from the machines at the airport (and it isn't too hard to find the CTA stop at the airport if you follow the signs either) so that you can ride the trains for an unlimited number of times.  We bought 7 day passes and rode the train at least twice a day, making it easily pay off for cost and convenience.  If you pack a single suitcase with rollers that you can comfortably lift you can get around the subway / trains without too much trouble if you are in decent shape and it isn't rush hour in the morning or evening.  BEWARE of many stairs, but not usually more than one or two floors worth at any time.  We took the Blue Line in from the airport to Jackson station where there is a tunnel that connects over to the Red Line trains.  The Red Line is the tourist's best friend as it takes you within half a mile or closer to most tourist destinations.
Metra Commuter Train
Getting to the Museum of Science and Industry was a little harder by CTA as you need to catch the train and the bus, but we took the Metra from downtown instead.  The Metra is only covered on your train pass if you buy the more expensive pass (we didn't - but ask for help from the CTA staff at the station or airport).  The Metra had commuter trains running on it and these were kind of neat as they are train cars that have two levels.  I've never been on one and it was fun, especially after seeing the movie Source Code which happens on a Chicago bound commuter train.  Source Code was a pretty good movie too that is well worth seeing if you have a chance.
L Train / Loop
You can also ride the L Train(s) around The Loop area downtown and get places faster.  The subways are fairly clean, but show their age.  The same goes for the trains themselves, but they are air conditioned and run frequently so it works pretty good.

2. Shopping and Entertainment Districts
This Near North Side area containing the The Gold Coast / Magnificent Mile is shopper's paradise.  Many, many mid to high-end stores in this area, many of which are flagship stores that are big and nicely done up.  Dining abounds in this area with every block having multiple restaurants if they are not all shop fronts. Very fun to shop and look around in.
John Hancock Center
If you aren't into fashion and home accessories the options are more limited but there is a Lego Store, Candyality at Water Tower Place, American Girl for girls, a Best Buy at the John Hancock Center (also with a nice sky deck view and the 6th tallest building in the United States).  You can also view the historic Water Tower which survived the Great Chicago Fire.  This tower is quite a cute little structure that reminds me of some of the castles from Dragon Quest.
Historic Water Tower
You can also walk along the river walk here that separates the Near North Side from the Loop Area. Note all the bridges that can be raised to allow larger ships to pass!  Iconic Marina City (the lower floors are a parkade!) and the very sleek and tall Trump Tower are a few of the fantastic sights along the river.
Marina City
Trump Tower
We stayed in this area at the Homewood Suites by Hilton which was just a block from the NE exit from Grand Station on the Red Line.  There must have been 2 dozen excellent restaurants within a two block radius of our hotel, along with malls and supermarkets.

3. Eating Out With Deep Dish Pizza And Much More
We scratched the surface of dining out in Chicago.  As a tourist you walk and walk and walk and then you eat and eat and eat.  This city has a lot of see and eat with near infinite variety.  Some of the things we wanted to try was Chicago Deep Dish Pizza and the funky fusion and tapas restaurants there.  The tourist information and places like Yelp and many more will give recommendations for many places to eat out at.
  • Sushi Samba. South American influenced Japanese food and tapas.  Tried sushi rolls, and a number of other tapas that were very tasty.  Different spices and zesty citrus livened up the meal.  The children's bento boxes are awesome here.
  • Weber Grill. Tasty BBQ / Grill dishes.
  • The Purple Pig. Had a number of tapas style dishes that were shared.  We had an awesome dinner by appetizer.  The pork shoulder and the turkey were very tasty and tender, but the turkey was huge as it was a massive drumstick (Fred Flinstone style).
  • Pizzeria Uno. Very nice deep dish pizza and a spinach salad.  Had a nice crunchy crust and lots of filling. Takes 45 minutes to cook, but it's a good thing you can order in advance and wait in line.
  • Giordano's Pizza.  Another long wait, and pizza's take 45 minutes to cook too, but they gave out glasses of ice water.  It was a record breaking hottest day of the year the day we went.  The deep pizza here was tasty too with a very good but less crunchy crust than Uno's, homemade sausage, and was much cheesier.  They make a very good eggplant parmesana.
  • Bubba Gump Shrimp Restaurant (this is a chain, but still a fun experience).  Easy access to it as we were at the Navy Pier with its many attractions (see the ferris wheel and stained glass collection here!)
  • Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery (just for convenience as we needed to see Blue Man Group that night, but the micro-brew and burgers were good!)
  • Foodlife and Foodease at Chicago Water Tower Place.  This is a pretty amazing modern take on restaurant quality food that you can buy from a massive hot and cold buffet or prepacked in the fridge.  An absolute zoo of people grabbing food.  Reminded me of those Natural Lawson supermarkets in Japan kicked up a another notch in food quality.  I hope this idea spreads but it looks like it needs a big customer base to work.  If you are in the area, well worth seeing and eating at, especially for lunch.

Continued in Part 2.

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