As a first time visitor to Chicago I had of course planned on the famous Sears tower (actually now called the Willis tower), and maybe a museum or two. What really caught me by surprise was the enormous amount of attractions here. My friend Thanh is a Chicago native and has been trying to convince me that the city has a lot to do besides freezing you half to death. I hereby admit it, Thanh: Chicago really does have something for everyone and it is an awesome city. But I still say it is best to go when the city is not buried under a foot of snow. My trip was in September and I enjoyed very nice weather, actually.
The Willis tower is one of those requisite activities for Chicago visitors, and I was actually pretty intrigued by it because of its status as the tallest building in the Western hemisphere. I have been to the Empire State building and to the Twin Towers before they fell, but I was having a hard time imagining something on a bigger scale than that. This was an impressive sight that photos really can not do justice to. The building rises up 110 stories into the air! The skydeck is the place to get the views here: Views that are honestly unlike any I have ever seen. You can easily see virtually all of Chicago from this high perch, but as beautiful as it was, it was not the coolest thing there. The Ledge is on the 103rd floor and is for those true thrill seekers. You get to step out there onto a pane of (obviously extremely sturdy) glass and literally look down through your feet to see the whole 103 stories below you. This is a serious rush that is the best and most thrilling attraction I have seen at any big tourist attraction like this. Better than any thrill ride, and I promise you it gets the adrenalin going. There was a wait of around half an hour, and it can be much longer if you go during the peak times of the day, like late afternoon. Early morning is the time to visit.
The Art Institute was a place that I had medium-ish expectations for, because I think I figured it was just another museum. It is not brand new, so I was not expecting anything cutting edge or terribly unique. I actually quite enjoyed seeing some of those paintings that you normally only see in a textbook as a kid. Rather a surreal experience to realize you are gazing at the original work of Monet, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and so many others. It was much like being at the Met in NYC (one of the highest accolades I can give it), in fact, and this museum certainly created a wonderful impression with me. My favorite part of the Art Institute was the new Modern wing. Not only is simply one of those mind-bendingly gorgeous architectural spaces, it is filled with brilliant light, tremendous modern art, and a totally different vibe than the rest of the museum. The atmosphere is less hushed here, more full of excitement, and deservedly so. The collection of modern art alone could nearly take up an entire day. We spent roughly six hours at the Art Institute and left lamenting that we did not have another whole day to devote to it.
The Magnificent Mile was my favorite shopping of the trip. This is the best place in Chicago to walk, sight-see, and shop. I would, however, highly suggest using more sense that I had, and avoiding the 3 inch heels. You really will need to walk quite a bit to get to all the gorgeous upscale stores here. We went in late afternoon, and while it was attractive then, the area really is beautiful at night. Tons of lights, and I hear it is far more spectacular during the holidays, when they really go all-out on decorations. The big stores like Bloomingdale's are here, as well as the smaller luxury ones like Louis Vuitton and Burberry. A huge selection of restaurants that ranges from fine dining to casual hot dogs are here. We stopped for some fantastic Italian sandwiches at Portillo's- highly recommended.
Chicago has so much to do that I can truly say I do not think I really got to scratch the surface here. I will happily admit that I did not give enough credit to Chicago before, and I now think it is a really great place to stay and to play.
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