Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Chicago - birthday weekend in the Windy City

Funhouse reflections in Anish Kapoor's Bean.
30 degree days in the middle of April were a thing of my East Coast past as far as I was concerned, so the couple of frosty days spent in Chicago over my birthday were quite a throwback to the old days.

I had never been to Chicago, but had always heard great things about America's third largest city. I must say, it lived up to its reputation. From its stately and diverse urban architecture to dense, lived-in, quirky neighborhoods peppered with parks, to the stunning and unexpected blue color of Lake Michigan's waterfront - Chicago has a bit of a New York vibe that can catch you off guard from certain angles, but retains a solidly unique character of its own.  We had two full days to explore, and tried to pack in as much fun as such a short time allows.

First, Flo treated me to a room at the Intercontinental on the Magnificent Mile, with a gorgeous 22nd story view, and the glamorous, Burberry-clad bustle of Michigan Avenue right below our feet.

view from hotel
On Saturday morning, after we processed the fact that it was 30 degrees outside, we donned a few extra layers and set out on a walk around the heart of the city. A steely, overcast sky gave the buildings a kind of brutish atmosphere.

On to Millenium Park, where we enjoyed photographing that world famous bean, and Gehry's open air performance pavilion.

Cloud Gate, aka The Bean (Anish Kapoor)

Jay Pritzker Pavilion (Frank Gehry)
Though the temps were starting to warm just a teeny bit by then, I was still mighty glad to learn that the Nichols Bridgeway - leading from the park to the Art Institute of Chicago - is heated. In fact, it was hot as a skillet. I tried standing on it barefoot, and couldn't bear it for more than a few seconds.

Designed by Renzo Piano, another world famous architect, who is also responsible for the modern wing of the Art Institute, to which this bridge leads. As an added bonus, the bridge offers some pretty great panoramic views from the top.

So, we enjoyed perusing all the great public art throughout the park. Our only beef was that every square inch of this park seems to be bought to some multi-national corporation or another. Boeing galleries. Wrigley Square. BP Bridge. McDonalds Cycle Center... really? I understand the reasoning, of course, but it's a little sad when glorious public spaces are named after giant profit-sucking conglomerates. Oh well.

 Boeing Galleries have nothing to do with Boeing whatsoever, but do have lots of cool sculptures.
After Millenium Park, and a 2 hour lunch at The (VERY tasty) Gage Chicago, we visited a spot that's a bit off the beaten tourist path - the National Veterans Art Museum. This small museum was started in the 80s by a group of Vietnam vets who told their stories through art. It later expanded to showcase work by vets of other wars. It's a small collection, but a worthwhile one, balancing artistic expression and the trauma of fighting, meeting somewhere in the middle to tell of what war does to the individual who lives through it.

They also have poetry readings, lectures, and a pretty active community presence in general. The work is highly political, of course. What is it, if not an expression of the vets' opinion on their experience?

In the late afternoon, after the temps climbed to a balmy 42, we explored the galleries, boutiques, antique shops, dive bars and epic murals of Wicker Park and Bucktown. These hoods definitely have character, something like Brighton Beach meets East Austin, where a tattoo parlor abuts a Scientology exhibition decrying the horrors of psychiatry, where a creepy lady saw us gawking from the outside and was adamantly insisting that we come in and educate ourselves. No thanks, not even if Tom Cruise is inside prancing around on a unicorn.

the colorful walls of Wicker Park 

In the evening we decided to be conventional again, and shell out a lot of money and time for a tourist trap, so we headed to what was once the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere - the former Sears Tower! After an egregiously long wait to get up to the top, we made it to 106th floor just in time for some beautiful dusky shots...

...and to claw and shove our way onto the precipitously protruding glass cubes that let you walk 4 feet outside of the building.

Eat your heart out, Empire State.

On Sunday we began our excursion with a visit to the Contemporary Art Museum. They had, among other collections, an interesting exhibition called "Destroy the Painting", showing works from a movement that took place in the 1950s where artists literally "assaulted" the canvas. The resulting torn, burned, and twisted forms were the final product.

The museum building itself has some lovely and elegant forms, which stood in start juxtaposition to the exhibit.

Seeing as how Sunday was a MUCH nicer and warmer day than Saturday, we enjoyed a leisurely promenade along the lake shore. I was really surprised by the color of Lake Michigan's water; I expected the typical brownish gray of a large northern lake, not the Puerto Rico turquoise I was looking at.

In the afternoon we took the architectural boat tour that had been recommended to us as a must-do in Chicago.  It was the perfect day for it. Cruising along on an open air boat in bountiful sunshine, margarita in hand, learning about the storied past of Chicago's architecture... it was quite a perfect ending to our afternoon.

from the boat.
Trump's "Giant Phallus #79"

On the Riverwalk

After dinner, we tucked into a corner of Andy's Jazz Club - this is Chicago, after all, gotta have it! - and grooved to some great jazz tunes. Perfect birthday spent with my favorite world traveler.

Chicago tips and tricks:

Towers. Do not eat or drink at the towers. WAY overpriced everything, and the food/drinks we did have were gross. The views are worth it though, if you don't mind the wait. The glass cubes at Willis tower are way fun.

Food we loved. The Gage in Millenium Park - terrific. Tortoise Club in downtown - also terrific. Eno Wine Room on the Mag Mile. We didn't eat here, but loved the wine flights and the chocolate flight was absurdly good. We ended up buying a bunch of chocolate to go. Siena Tavern, Near North Side - great food, great drinks, and great atmosphere. But the service was slow and flaky, so go at your own risk.

Thanks for a great time, Chicago!

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