Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning…proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.
– Carl Sandburg, American poet and writer
The first and last time I was in Chicago was for an industry conference three years ago in early April. The first day of the conference at McCormick Place, I looked out the convention center windows with amazement as the snow came “down” horizontally, thanks to the cold and wind off Lake Michigan. Although I stayed a few days after the conference, I didn’t get to see much of the city, but I knew I would return.
So it is June: Here we are on family vacation and I have my check-off list for the week. We gave the kids a list of sites and told them to look them up on the Internet, tell us something about each site, and let us know which ones they were interested in seeing and why. At the top of Isabella’s list was the Shedd Aquarium (1200 South Lake Shore Drive, 312.939.24380) – it was Jacob’s close second. She loves animals and marine animals the most, next to dogs and horses. I admit that thoughts of going off to antique shops while they went to the aquarium came to mind. I figured if you’ve been to the Monterey Bay Aquarium there was no need to go to another aquarium. I was pleasantly surprised.
The Shedd Aquarium is huge – and not a crowded as Monterey. Isabella got to touch a sturgeon, we saw an exhibit of the marine life from the Great Lakes, we watched some amazing fish swim in the round tank that is the Pritzker Caribbean Reef, and we saw many sharks – including the leopard shark with its interesting tail fin – at the Amazon Rising and Wild Reef exhibits. We took in the aquatic show of beluga whales, penguins, and dolphins. I’m not usually a fan of watching these kinds of shows, but our emcee explained that they train the animals, which happens to be conveniently entertaining, in order to get them used to being handled for their medical check-ups. I appreciated knowing that piece of information. For the kids’ sake, I endured the Ice Age 4D mini-movie, which was also shown at the aquarium.
After the aquarium, we walked over to the Field Museum (1400 South Lake Shore Drive, 312.922.9410), Chicago’s natural history museum. We watched a 3D movie on the woolly mammoths and the other big animals of the Ice Age, saw a lot of dinosaur casts and original skeletons, including Sue, the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever discovered. Jacob used to love dinosaurs, and he and Isabella had a field day naming them all, which were housed in the sprawling and comprehensive Evolving Planet exhibit.
We had spent so many hours at the aquarium that we rushed through the Field Museum, which is impressive for its massive building and numerous exhibits. We’ll have to catch the Inside Ancient Egypt and the other exhibits another time. I recognized Bushman, the giant gorilla who was orphaned as an infant and lived the rest of his life in captivity at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. I remembered reading about him when I was a child and being intrigued by photos of him, especially his human facial expressions. When he died on New Year’s Day 1951, his massive body was stuffed and is on exhibit at the Field Museum.
We walked back from the two sites along the waterfront. It was a balmy warm late afternoon, perfect for seeing the Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain in Grant Park and the Lurie Garden – with its wooden walkways and shallow troughs of water that was home to coins and weary bare feet, including my daughter’s – at Millennium Park. From there we walked through a free concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, which was designed by Frank Geary, who – David tells me – is a famous contemporary architect who designed, among other structures, the Disney Opera House in Los Angeles. The kids weren’t interested in staying for the concert, but afterwards I ventured back to listen to the music of Daniel Lanois, who is a producer for artists such as Bob Dylan and Peter Gabriel but also a songwriter and musician, known for his pedal-steel infused music.
After a long walk, the kids were relieved when we finally came upon one of our destinations – The Bean. I’d seen it before, but it is such a mesmerizing sculpture that I don’t think I will ever tire of or be jaded seeing it again. I was also looking forward to showing them the Crown Fountain, with its twin glass towers facing each other and faces of local residents reflected on the glass. After a certain amount of time they open their mouths to spout out a stream of water. When I first saw it, nobody was around with a chill in the April air. But today the shallow pool between the glass towers was a noisy playground, with a bunch of screaming kids in swimsuits skipping and running through the water and then clamoring beneath the gushing water coming from the towers’ mouths. It was a quintessential Chicago summer scene.
We returned to Lurie Garden because The Purple Pig (500 North Michigan Avenue, 312.464.1744), which was highly recommended to us, was too crowded to get in. Dark clouds scuttled above us and soon sprinkles and then a light rain fell. We left our umbrellas at our hotel room, but I’m not sure we would have opened them if we’d had them, given that nobody seemed to notice the rain at all. It is the difference between hardy Midwesterners and Californians.
We ended up eating a late dinner at The Gage (24 South Michigan Avenue, 312.372.4243), which was recommended by local friend Maria Diecidue and not too far from where our hotel is. It’s a boisterous tavern restaurant. Jacob and I ordered seared sea scallops with Korean BBQ short ribs and Chinese broccoli with toasted peanuts and kimchi, which was nicely paired with a smooth Oregon pinot noir. After eating the tender scallops, I realized that all the scallops I have eaten before in my life have been overcooked. Isabella ordered chicken strips and fries. Being a French fry fiend, I couldn’t help reaching across the table to snag some fries. I couldn’t stop eating them. Crispy on the outside, the fries had a consistency inside that was like whipped potatoes – light and fluffy and like “buttah” – seriously. I have never had a better French fry, and I fear none will ever come close.
We’re staying at the Congress Plaza Hotel (520 South Michigan Avenue, 312.427.3800), which is close to many of the attractions on our list. It’s a historic hotel, of which many former Presidents have been guests. David pointed out that it is old in the classic European way. And, in the classic European tradition, we have a room with a view. The “L” train rumbles through the Loop below us and the skyline is graced with the Willis (nee Sears to the locals and will always be referred to as the Sears) Tower and the rooftop of the Chicago Public Library’s Harold Washington Library Center branch, with its painted aluminum – to look like copper with patina – owls sheltered by acroteria at the corners of the building. The architectural history, the architecture overall, the Loop – it doesn’t get any better than this.