Day 3 – The City of Chicago

When you think of Chicago, what do you think of? Generally, Chicago is seen as a bit of a worn-out city full of all sorts of criminal elements, organised crime and mafia operating out of pizza joints. Certainly not somewhere you’d want to settle. A grim old industrial city where you wouldn’t want to be out after dark.

That impression seems to be something that not many people seem to want to correct about Chicago. Indeed, before going, one of my girlfriend’s co-workers asked why we were going there to such an apparently down-trodden city. I’ve been once before, when I was a kid, and barely remember any of it. I’ve passed through the airport numerous times as a kid and the only memories I have of Chicago from then are that it seemed all the shops closed at 6pm on the dot and where a good frozen yoghurt stand was in the airport.

But returning to Chicago now shows that it’s a great city full of character and history.

I’ll start off, first of all, with how we got there. As mentioned elsewhere we stayed at a hotel near the airport. The hotel offered a shuttle service to the airport and we know that there’s a train going from the airport directly to the city centre. This is what we use. Getting to the airport on the shuttle works well – the shuttle is every half hour, picking us up from the same spot at O’Hare. From there, go down a few levels to the subway, grab a ticket to get through the barrier and so on. Takes us, in total, between an hour and an hour and a half to get to the main station in Chicago.

Before we get into some photos I will mention that, throughout this entire blog, I am NOT going to put photos on that show either myself or my girlfriend. There are some crazy stalker people out there (you know who you are) and I don’t want to be receiving death threats via brick-through-window.

Now then. We get to Chicago. There are a few things we fancy doing, but these mostly include the Willis Tower and having a look at Navy Pier and the general waterfront area. We manage a lot more than that, which I’ll try to go through in order.

Firstly, we have the Willis Tower. This was close to the station we arrived at, just a few minutes walk. Obviously we have to find it, but we’ve printed off plenty of maps beforehand and, well, it’s a big tower.

That’s the one!

Outside there there are a whole bunch of tour buses coming and going. We’ll move onto these in a bit, but first the Willis Tower.

The Willis Tower actually used to be called the Sears Tower. That’s probably the name it’s still best known as. A quick look on Wikipedia tells us it was built in 1973 and, when completed, was the tallest building in the world. Obviously the tallest building seems to change from year to year, but it’s still pretty high at 442 metres. Currently the tallest building is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (which I’ve also been up).

The tower used to be owned by the American department store group Sears, who then sold the building. It was still called the Sears Tower for a while until, more recently, insurance broker Willis Group Holdings decided to lease a large amount of it. Seeing as though Willis now had a majority of the building, they could rename it if they chose (which obviously they did).

Enough of the quick facts – as you can tell from the picture, the Willis Tower is an odd “group” structure – it’s not just a single tower. Well it is, but it doesn’t seem like it. It looks like nine buildings, all of different heights, smushed together. It’s boxy but looks good and distinct.

The top of it is crowded. If you watched Billy Connolly’s Route 66 recently, you’ll see that he went to the top of it and had a look around. And it was empty. Not so in reality. The bearded Scot must have had it cleared for him. Let’s have some piccies:

If you have a look at the first picture, you’ll notice a helicopter flying about. We did actually wonder if the helicopter was actually timed so tourists like us could get a decent shot of it to help out with the scale of things.

The first and second photos also show some of the different types of buildings there are. Look at the ones closer to ground level and how ornate some of them are.

The third picture shows some of the park area around the waterfront, unfortunately blocked by buildings.

Up at the top of Willis Tower they have three small glass rooms. This is the Skydeck and is free to use at the Willis Tower, unlike the one at the Eureka Skydeck in Melbourne (but it is quite different to that).

This was also featured in Billy Connolly’s Route 66 and, in fact, we think he used the same little glass room thing that we did. The blatant rip-off merchant!

Basically, it’s a small glass room a few feet in either direction. It’s got a glass bottom, top and sides. You go in and there’s nothing but a quite clear piece of glass between you and the afore-mentioned 442 metres until you go splat. No piccies of this, because they’re all of us in it. But there were loads of people lining up to stand in it for about 20 seconds and get their picture taken (and we were some of those people), as well as children – and adults – who were too scared to go in.

We spend a bit of time up in the Willis Tower and come back down again. When we’re down we decide to start taking one of these bus tours.

Now, I don’t know if anyone here has ever taken one of these tours before. You can get them all over the place now. Before this trip we’d taken three – one in New York, one in Sydney and one in Dubai. The bus tours are regular and you can get off at any of the landmarks you go past, then catch another bus a short while later. There are loads of loops. Only problem is that some of the tours are recorded. The one in Dubai definitely was – the bus driver obediently driving round whilst we all listened to the pre-recorded tour guide telling us the same thing over and over again. Can’t remember enough of the Sydney one – I think that was the same.

However, the New York one was not and it was brilliant. The driver drove, of course, whilst the tour guide pointed out what there was to see, told stories and interacted with us. We even asked them where a decent chinese restaurant was and found ourselves directed to Hell’s Kitchen for a very nice, very cheap meal.

Fortunately, this was also the case in Chicago and the tour guides were genuinely interesting. If you have the choice between a pre-recorded tour and a live tour for a little extra, get the live tour if you can. These guys are worth it.

We take the tour for a little bit, slowly heading towards the waterfront area. Chicago is certainly a nice place, full of diverse architecture and actually a good looking city. There’s a large metallic “art piece” (first picture) that nobody knows what it is, it’s just there for people to enjoy.

We get off the bus around here and find something to eat, which is a small and nice cafe from which we get some sandwiches and drinks. The drinks in America, in most places, actually have free refills. That is, if you get a drink in a cardboard container (like from a fast food restaurant) there’s a drinks machine that customers can use. Once you’ve finished your drink, go to the machine and you can fill it up again. I’ve since learned that most Americans take this for granted – indeed, when mentioning it on a forum once they were amazed we in the UK don’t do the same. What’s even better is that, in some restaurants, you order your drink and they’ll keep an eye on it – once it starts getting low they’ll come over and top it up.

Bizarre people…

Anyhoo, back to the tour. The tour actually includes a bunch of free gifts – well, not quite free. The tour goes past plenty of places that we didn’t do. Apparently, if you go to a particular place and present your ticket you get a Hersheys bar. Unfortunately, Hersheys is the chocolate equivalent of cat sick and cardboard mixed together – quite why Americans love the stuff is a bit of a puzzle. You can also do the same for some popcorn and a Chicago T-shirt. Popcorn – not bothered. T-shirt – now that we’re interested in, but unfortunately they don’t have our size (and it’s a bit pants too). But hey – nice thought.

There are a bunch of other offers on the ticket, one involving a discount on a speedboat ride (which we nearly do) and another involving a discount to see the Blue Man Group.

We carry on on the tour until we get to the waterfront area – a nice gardened section of the city along the lakefront and around Millennium Park. Where there’s a great big shiny wibbly thing. I can’t remember it’s name. It’s a big reflecting bubble – indeed, for all I can remember, “Big Reflecting Bubble” may actually be it’s name. In American tradition it contains a gift shop.

Walking through the park, there is a large “food fair” where people can basically buy any sort of food they want. There’s loads of stalls for hungry city folk and it’s really crowded. Heck, even McDonald’s of all people has a stall. There’s pizza, burgers, corn, basically all sorts. Unfortunately, this does spoil at least some of the park (it’s a big park) due to the stalls and the huge amount of portaloos they’ve put down.

And we manage to get to the fountain. Big fountain. People who have watched Married With Children will recognise this as THE fountain.

We want to get a fridge magnet. We always try and get one now from the various places we go. And, strangely, they sell them at a small food place on the corner for a few dollars.

Yeah, the picture’s of rubbish quality. I only took it with my 2 megapixel phone. So sue me.

Back to the tour and a quick nugget of information from our new tour guide, who has spotted that we’re Brits and wanted to know if we did anything special for the Royal Wedding (no we bloody didn’t – and if you guys like our monarchy enough you keep ’em!). Want to know why Chicago’s called the windy city? It’s not especially windy. True, it is next to a great lake and I have to hold on to my hat on the tour, but that’s not the reason. Back in the 1930’s I think it was, American cities competed to hold regular events called the World’s Fair. These were where people would show off their new technologies and they were basically a big boon to the hosting cities at the time. Think the Olympics. In any case, Chicago was in the running and they were getting quite boastful. A newspaper in a rival city basically called Chicago a “windy city”, windy as in boastful but full of air – their boasts would amount to nothing. Chicago, deciding to take this perceived insult on the chin, started calling itself the Windy City in defiance and the name stuck. I think Chicago actually did host the World’s Fair that time around too, proving it’s doubters wrong.

In any case, back to business. Our next stop is Navy Pier, a big old pier and tourist attraction. There’s plenty to see and do and even a small funfair on top. We did wonder if, if we did some rides there, whether that’d class as another theme park, but decide against it.

On the bus again and we’re driving along various streets and learning all sorts about Chicago that I can’t remember. Some quick pieces of information – Chicago actually has several rivers running through it. There are lots of bridges which have to be raised if large boats want to pass through.

However, this barely happens. But the bridges still need to be manned. Apparently the people in the little bridge houses just sit there all day doing nothing, with the bridges actually needing to be operated once a month, if that. They probably just sit there playing on Xbox Live all day.

Another random fact – apparently a homeless guy decided to live IN one of the bridges. He’d built himself a nice little home in some space in there, with TV and fridge and everything, having tapped into the electric grid. Only problem was when the bridge did need to be raised (on that odd occasion) and his entire home would turn 90 degrees on its side.

Also on our trip around Chicago is another place Billy Connolly briefly visited – the water tower. I don’t remember it’s exact story but apparently it was quite useful when Chicago burned to the ground. There’s a load of shops around here – some sort of shopping mile and it’s quite busy. The tour bus dropped us off at the bottom and we decided to have a quick look. We walked up the mile and actually caught up with the same bus!

There’s a whole bunch of other places we went past, some quite famous. Also two of the ugliest buildings you can think of called the Corn Cobs – at least that’s their nickname. Two circular buildings at angles. A large amount of these buildings is used as a car park and it’s easy to see why.

Now the tour around Chicago is over, but we’ve decided to go see the Blue Man Group. This is proving to be a costly day! Fortunately the next day’s just travelling so the budget will balance out.

To get there we have to find the theatre, Briar Street Theatre. This is in a completely different part of Chicago and distances are BIG. So it’s time to take the L.

The L train should be instantly familiar to anyone who’s watched ER. It’s a favourite show of my girlfriend and she’s started getting me into it too. Basically, it’s a subway but, instead of running underground, it is elevated above the streets. This means it has to wind around buildings and gives some really good sights. This, in itself, is another highlight of Chicago.

In any case, we find our correct stop and head towards the theatre. We initially were a bit wary heading outside of the main “tourist” area, thinking we’d be set upon by gangs of pizza-munching mafia bosses or something. But again, Chicago surprised us with just how pleasant a city it is. We headed there in the evening, as it was starting to get dark. I think the show was due to start between 7 and 8. And there were still a lot of people on the streets, but they were just going about their usual business. None of them looked like they wanted to do anyone any harm, nothing threatening, nothing like that. Hell, I feel less safe venturing out my front door. It’s a nice-looking neighbourhood.

At the theatre itself we don’t actually manage to get a discount with our tour tickets but we get some discounted seats anyway, in the balcony with a slightly obstructed view. Still a fairly good view. And it’s a weird show as three men, painted blue (obviously) generally mess around with music, sound in general, drums that produce colourful splashes and get the audience involved. Then they let the audience play with their giant bouncing balls (!). It’s a tad surreal but very enjoyable.

The show finishes late in the evening and, even then, we decide to grab a meal. There’s still people milling about in the streets, going about their business, but no drunks, no gangs and also importantly, no chavs! It’s great! We pop into a small chinese place and have a good meal, then navigate the L train back to the main station, get on the train back to O’Hare and wait for a bit until the endlessly-looping hotel shuttle passes by and we catch a lift.

Chicago is a great place now. Maybe years ago it deserved it’s reputation as a seedy hotbed of crime and deprivation but certainly not now. We’ve been to a few great cities over the years – New York, which used to have it’s problems, Melbourne, Sydney and Dubai. Chicago certainly belongs on that list. Yes, it probably does have it’s problem areas. We only experienced a small part. But every city is going to have these places and it was certainly worth a day.

Now, I apologise to those reading this who were expecting nothing but theme parks. But whilst the trip was primarily about the parks, there was still so much that we did. In order to write about it fully, more for myself than anybody else, I am going to write about everything I can.

Next up is another non-theme-park day (but, as I mentioned, necessary) as we travel from Chicago to Sandusky in order to visit Cedar Point.

Previous – Day 2 – Six Flags Great America

Next – Day 4 – Chicago to Sandusky

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