State Twenty Four: Illinois

Chicago - she sure is pretty
Chicago – she sure is pretty

We picked the Windy City of Chicago as the starting point for road trip number four, and what a great place to start. For a long time known as America’s Second City before being surpassed by Los Angeles, Chicago is still much preferable to her Californian cousin. It would seem to have one thing in common with LA though – the traffic – which is what we first encountered having endured a 90 minute journey through immigration.

Once we’d waded through the miles of traffic jams and made it into the city, we headed to the Wicker Park neighbourhood, to the north and west of down town Chicago. We parked up at the House of Two Urns, our chosen B&B just a five minute walk from the Division stop on the Blue Line, dropped our bags and hurried out to our first appointment – with the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Our first taste of the NFL, or any American Football for that matter, was for the visit of the New York Giants. We pretty much knew nothing of what was going on, and the ball is surprisingly hard to keep track of, but the crowd were crazy and the food was dirty good. The Bears won by the way, that much we could tell.

The Willis Tower stretching into the sky
The Willis Tower stretching into the sky

After a much needed night’s sleep, we were ready to hit the town. Our first full day began with a trip to the very top of the Americas’ second tallest building, the Willis Tower. The views over downtown and onto Lake Michigan are awesome, and you can even step out onto a glass platform suspended 527m above the street if you’re so inclined (we weren’t). It’s pricey at $18 per person, but it is a really cool experience.

After our battle with vertigo we went on a hunt for a Route 66 photo op. On East Adams Street you can find the very spot where the Main Street of America begins. After that slightly unnecessary stop we went to the Chicago Fed, for a tour of their Money Museum which is a fun and free way to spend an hour, plus you get a free bag of shredded money as a souvenir – what more could you want?!

The Cloud Gate, or "bean"
The Cloud Gate, or “bean”

Being the culture-vultures that we are we the Art Institute of Chicago was calling our names, but not before some lunch. After wandering aimlessly for a good ten minutes we found where we wanted to be – the Billy Goat Tavern tucked away under Michigan Avenue. If you think you can’t find it, don’t give up, the burgers are incredibly tasty. Fueled up, it was time for some art, and there can be few better places for it than the Institute. Van Gogh, Hopper, O’Keefe…they’re all in there along with thousands of others – American Gothic is worth the entrance fee alone. Just behind the Institute is Millennium Park, and the jewel in the crown is Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate”, the giant polished steel bean that has become such an iconic park of Chicago. It really is a sight to behold, and makes for some brilliant pictures.

After a spot of beer-tasting at Rock Bottom we hopped on the tube to another Chicago institution, Lou Malnati’s. The Chicago deep dish pizza really isn’t a pizza as we Europeans know it. There’s the pastry-like crust and the vast, and I mean vast, amounts of cheese involved. When it arrives at your table don’t be fooled by the diameter – there’s more to it than meets the eye! If you’re in Chicago you absolutely must sample one.

Taps at the Goose Island brewery
Taps at the Goose Island brewery

Day two in Chicago began with a walk to Lincoln Park, the free zoo and the view of downtown make this a must-see in the city. It also marks the beginning of the Lincoln Park neighbourhood, packed with tree-lined streets, beautiful red-brick houses plus coffee shops and bars abound, it is a very nice place to spend a couple of hours. It also has, at one end, the Goose Island brewery where for $10 you get a great tour and a tasting session with five of their delicious brews, plus a free glass! However disappointed we might’ve been that they’d sold out to Budweiser, they still brew all their beers on the premises and they’re about as tasty as you can get.

Just one deep dish pizza in Chicago didn’t seem fair, we had to know if they’re all as good as Lou Malnati’s. Just up the road from the Goose Island brewery is Pequod’s Pizza. You know the drill, deep dish, buckets of cheese…its tricky to make a call between the two, Malnati’s is slightly more cheesy, Pequod’s is more tomato-y, so it depends what you’re after.

Another of Chi-Town’s famous skyscrapers is the John Hancock Tower and here’s a tip – you don’t have to pay to go up. If you join the queue for the Signature Lounge cocktail bar you can get up top for the price of a cocktail – plus you get to drink a cocktail! The view is spectacular, especially at night, and the cocktails were very good.

Chicago is a great town. For such a big city its surprisingly easy to get around, and there really is a huge amount to see and do. There’s also a huge amount more of Illinois to see – but we only had a couple of days and if you’re going to Illinois, you really have to do Chicago. We’ll definitely be back.

A deep dish pizza pie at Lou Malnati's
A deep dish pizza pie at Lou Malnati’s

Rate the State 

Good for: Architecture, music food, fantastic views over Lake Michigan.

Bad for: Chicago, as with most big American cities, is pretty expensive to stay in.

Overall: 9/10

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