Standing a thousand feet above the Windy City the best friend and I scrambled around the glass-walled observation deck at 360 Chicago as a summer thunderstorm rolled across the city. Protected from the rain and wind that pummeled the streets below, we eagerly moved from one side to the next capturing photos of the natural event. Then, just as quickly as the storm had arrived, it moved across Lake Michigan and the sunlight returned. We lingered behind a little longer just to enjoy the view and relish the fact we were in Chicago, and it would be a trip we would never forget.
Planning for the trip began months earlier. The best friend deferred to my judgment as a “professional travel photographer” to create an itinerary for our trip. After spending hours reading travel articles, Yelp reviews, and tourism sites I had created a wish list of places to eat, shop, and tour. That initial wish list included shopping at the Chicago French Market, visiting some of the filming locations for Chicago Fire and The Blues Brothers, taking the scenic Classic Lake Tour from Shedd Aquarium to the Navy Pier, and visiting one of the many unique and interesting museums (International Museum of Surgical Science, anyone?). But eventually I began the daunting task of whittling the wish list down to something more manageable for a 10-hour day trip. It was like picking teams for an after school game of kickball: you’re either on my team, or you’re not. I’m certain if some of the potential destinations had the personification of a young child I would have received several teary-eyed looks and stares of disdain. But after several days of picking, choosing, and culling, I came out with a reasonable itinerary for our Chicago adventure.
Choosing stops for our day trip might have been difficult, but choosing a stop for lunch was easy: we wanted to dive into our very first deep dish pizza. We waited until the madness of the lunch rush hour ended before heading across town to Gino’s East. The dark, quiet interior was a welcome respite from the crowds and noises on the streets. It took nearly an hour for the deep dish pizza to cook, giving us a chance to relax, enjoy an appetizer, and browse the photos we’d already captured.
But once the pizza arrived everything was set aside to enjoy the culinary experience. It was like eating a pizza on a cake, which I consider to be fantastic since I believe every meal should include cake. It was like chewing Mr. Wonka’s Three Course Dinner Chewing Gum: each bite of the pizza was a delicious full and complete meal. We ate in silence, enjoying each bite immensely, eventually fighting off the food coma that soon followed. We left Gino’s a couple pounds heavier (though the best friend certainly didn’t look it) and decided to walk it off by heading up Michigan Avenue and our experience with the thunderstorm views atop the John Hancock Center.
The “center” of the Chicago tourist experience is an area known as The Loop. This section of the city is bounded by the Chicago River to the north and west, Lake Michigan to the east, and Roosevelt Road to the south. Within The Loop are many parks, restaurants, shops, and museums, including The Chicago Cultural Center. Avid fans of architecture will enjoy a walk through the historic building, especially standing on the second floor beneath a beautiful glass dome. Even with the massive throng of people on the street outside, it was quiet and peaceful inside the air conditioned building. We made a quick stop at the Visitor Center on the first floor before heading up the ornate staircase to the second floor. At this point the photography geekiness of the best friend and I came out in full force as she perched up against a wall and I laid on my back beneath the dome to capture a few photos. Hey…to each their own, and we’re photographers. A half hour later we were satisfied with our photos and set out on the next stage of our adventure.
Across the street from the cultural center was Millennium Park, part of a long string of parks between the towering skyscrapers and Lake Michigan. The heart of the park is the well-known sculpture Cloud Gate, more popularly known by it’s nickname The Bean. Designed by British artist Anish Kapoor, The Bean is comprised of 168 highly-polished stainless steel panels welded together with almost invisible seams. It is probably the most-photographed landmark in the city, and certainly the most-selfied on the day we visited. Dozens of people crouched in the cool shade beneath the sculpture and dozens more snapped photos of their reflection in the panels. As I went about trying to capture a unique composition of the sculpture, the best friend slinked away for her own unique angle shooting through some nearby shrubbery (and apparently snapping a few photos of me which have probably disappeared by now). A long line of picnic tables gives visitors a place to enjoy a meal or give their feet a break for a few minutes, but we didn’t have a few minutes so it was off to our next stop on the itinerary.
The Bean is a good starting point for experiencing The Loop. Heading south along Columbus Drive through more parks and recreation fields visitors will find The Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Plantetarium. You can also take Shoreline Sightseeing’s Classic Lake Tour, a 40-minute tour on the water to the Navy Pier with scenic views of the Chicago skyline. But the best friend and I decided to go north from The Bean, heading to the Navy Pier. Originally opened in 1916, the pier today is a one-stop destination for shopping, eating, and entertainment. We walked the half-mile long pier, meandered through an amusement park with a large and colorful Ferris wheel, peeked inside a few of the shops along our way to the end. The end of the pier was peaceful, far removed from the noises of the city. I watched a large sailing vessel moving silently across the lake and enjoyed the cool breeze coming off the water. I could have spent the rest of the day right here, but it was already the end of the day and time to leave.
Getting around Chicago is just as easy as any other city: take the city bus, hop on the infamous elevated train, or just shout “Taxi!” for the quickest trip between two destinations. But as we left the Navy Pier we opted for a slower, more scenic mode of transportation through the city: water taxi. The Shoreline Water Taxi was a 20-minute peaceful ride along the Chicago River to Willis Tower (locals still call it Sears Tower). The boat slowly motored along the river in the middle of an urban jungle of skyscrapers and historic bridges, giving us an opportunity to capture a few more photos, give our feet a rest, and enjoy the views. The peaceful ride came to an end and we hustled across one final bridge and back to Union Station, marking the end of our day.
It certainly would have been easy enough to drive to Chicago. But we wanted a full day experience free of the hassle of heavy traffic, finding parking, and inevitably missing an important exit and getting lost (though that wouldn’t have been the worst thing to happen at all). Instead we decided to take our first ride on Amtrak (we had both previously ridden trains in Europe, but never in the US). Just before arriving at Waterloo Station in Indiana that morning I received a text message informing me the train would be about two hours late. We took this as an opportunity, deciding to get a snack in town before rushing out the door mid-conversation to chase down a stunning, warm sunrise across a farm field. Shortly after capturing a photo of the sunrise we were boarding the train and speeding toward Chicago. As we took our seats we both erupted with giddiness and laughter, much to the chagrin of the people still trying to sleep behind us. The best friend tried to take a selfie to mark the occasion, only for it to be ruined by my many unhelpful facial expressions (hint: I loved Jim Carrey’s The Mask when I was a kid).
Flash forward to the end of the day and we were back on the train again, heading away from Chicago. As the train pulled out of the sheltered alcove beneath Union Station we were greeted with a brilliant, warm sunset reflecting off the glass buildings. It created a perfect bookend for our day. We should have been exhausted, but the excitement still coursed through our veins and refused to fade. In some ways that excitement still hasn’t faded even now, almost ten months later. The best friend suddenly erupted into a fit of uncontrollable laughter that lasted nearly twenty minutes. It was charming and wonderfully contagious, making nearly everyone within earshot smile. It was a fitting end to our Chicago adventure. The fading sunset wrapped the train in darkness, almost making you wonder if it had all just been a dream.
I will never forget my Chicago adventure with the best friend, the deepest pizza we’d ever eaten, the view of a thunderstorm from a thousand feet above the ground, our efforts to capture unique photos of our experience, or her bout of uncontrollable laughter. I will never forget, nor would I ever want to forget. Instead, I will simply wait until Chicago beckons me to return again. I would do so in a single heartbeat without any hesitation because this was by far one of my favorite adventures ever. It left that kind of impression on me. What kind of impression did it leave on you?