August 08, 2013

Chicago, Illinois

Like standing in front of Cloudgate, also known as the "Giant Bean" in Chicago, Illinois, traveling lets you gaze into your own reflection. Every time I hop on a delayed flight, navigate a new metro system and try to hail a cab after I'm exhausted from walking all day I think, why do I do this?

Then I think, I can't NOT do this. I live for this. I love the freshness of a new place, lying in a hostel or hotel bed after a long day of exploring and soaking in exciting culture and sights. After almost a year since traveling I was craving another trip. I needed to go away somewhere.

Chicago has been on the list of those places to check out on a quick getaway and it was definitely quick. After work on Friday we rushed to the airport and flew the few hours from Toronto to Chicago. We landed in Chicago late Friday night at stayed at the boutique W Hotel City Center in the middle of the financial district. I am not sure if I like or loathe hotels that remind me of obnoxious nightclubs. It had some nice features though and the location near Michigan Avenue, Navy Pier and the theatre district couldn't be beat. 

Chicago is not too far from Canada, in fact, the customs agent was wondering why we didn't just drive there. We were wondering the same thing although for a weekend getaway we took the faster route. The city is everything Toronto is not and should be: beautiful architecture, bustling entertainment life and a hip--without being pretentious and stuffy--atmosphere. I also love the accent. Two girls walking on the street in front of us were talking about how they were excited to go to "Tap Shap," also known as Top Shop. 

Grant Park is in the Loop area of Chicago. The "loop" covers much of the historical centre of the city and includes the Chicago Cultural Centre and Art Institute of Chicago. Public art, such as the giant bean, is a big feature of the windy city and there are pieces by Picasso, Miro and Chagall. 

Shopping is always an important part of travel and there is lots of it on Magnificent Mile. Besides the obvious souvenirs, there are the much more expensive souvenirs you can find at Tiffany's, Burberry, Coach and Nordstrom. There are a few places for the budget-friendly shoppers though. For the best deals on bulk chocolate, skip the Hershey's chocolate store and go to Ghirardelli's instead. We got 80 chocolate squares for $30. God bless America. 

After a morning of walking, we stopped for a quick sushi lunch in the financial district. Then it was off to see Book of Mormon at the Bank of America theatre. Seeing the show was pretty much the sole reason for going to Chicago. The show came to Toronto earlier this year, but the tickets sold out at an alarming rate. 

Was it worth it to travel all the way to Chicago to see the show? Absolutely. I suppose we did see another wonderful city while we were there. As a musical lover, the show was the highlight though. It was hilarious, offensive, musically catchy and compelling.

After the show we headed for dinner at the Lonely Planet-recommended Avec Restaurant. We knew we wanted to have dinner somewhere nice, hip and cozy. The restaurant has been nominated for a few James Beard Foundation awards for Best Chef Koren Grievson and Outstanding Restaurant Design and Graphics.  

The atmosphere was definitely cozy. There were people crammed into large, communal wood tables with barely an inch of space in between "tables" and a stainless steel bar to see right into the kitchen. The menu consisted of a selection of small and large plates ideal for sharing. 

The small plates included many selections of cheeses, cured meats and olives. We started with the chicken liver crostini with roasted apricots, pickled fennel and mint. The bacon-wrapped, chorizo-stuffed dates looked out of this world and are apparently one of the restaurant's well-known starters. We were happy with our choice of creamy pate with a touch of sweetness from the roasted apricots.

For a large plate, we shared the wood-oven roasted pork shoulder with bomba rice, clams, peas and smoke paprika. This looks and sounds like a strange dish and when it first arrived on the table we didn't really think it consisted of a "large plate;" however, this pot was like Mary Poppin's carpet bag. The more pork I pulled out of the pot, the more flavours and food appeared. Beneath the meat was also a cheesy mixture of rice, peas and clams. This dish gave me that warm, comforting feeling of taking a hot one-pot meal out of the stove on a cold day.  

After dinner we took a Wendella Architecture Boat Tour of the city. Architecture is an obvious focus of the city. Many of the famous industrial buildings, such as the home of Wrigley's Gum, have now been turned into condominiums or office buildings. One of the classic buildings, built in the prairie style, was so long, the tour guide said the factory workers used to roller skate from one side to the other. 

Late evening was the perfect time to start the boat tour as it was light out when we started going up the river and we watched the sun go down and the city lights flicker on by the end. 

Similar to Paris, France, they are focusing on making the riverside a desirable space to hang out and walk. Navy Pier is one of the main attractions on Lake Michigan with a giant ferris wheel, museums and shopping. Daniel Burnham the architect and planner 1893 World's Columbian Exposition wanted to link islands and spaces to highlight the waterfront. He envisioned Chicago as being the "Paris on the Prairie." 

The river cruise was the perfect ending to a busy day of running around the city. Plus, they were filming a Blockbuster movie on the river, so we got a peek at an upcoming feature film.

We started Sunday morning with a breakfast of champions: cupcakes and coffee at Magnolia Bakery. They had a special Chicago cupcake with a blue, sparkly icing and white chocolate decorative wafer.

Magnolia Bakery Chicago Cupcake

I want to live in this place. Everything is perfect, from the colours, counters to vintage accessories and especially the cupcakes. While you're sipping and eating, you can watch the staff decorate and style the beautiful desserts with skill, precision and talent. 

I didn't realize there was a Magnolia Bakery in Chicago. On Sunday morning, Mike said he heard there was one and we ventured off to find it for breakfast. I have only been to one in New York City, so their cupcakes are a rare occasion to taste what cupcakes really should taste like, as well as cheesecakes, pies, puddings and muffins. We also split a red velvet cheesecake...

For the afternoon we walked downtown for a bit and explored the weekend Randolph Street Market. The antique, vintage, art and fashion market only happens about once a month. I wish I had brought more bags because I wanted to buy all of the coloured glass, mason jars, distressed wood and vintage jewellery I could see. My modest find was a Blue Jar vintage mason jar. 

Our last stop in Chicago was for deep-dish pizza. There is only one place to eat deep-dish pizza in Chicago: Pizzeria Uno. Then there is the other place down the street where you can also eat deep-dish pizza: Pizzeria Duo. Chicago is known for its high crust of up to three inches stuffed with toppings similar to a pie rather than a flatbread. It's actually a cheese and tomato pie. Last time Mike was in Chicago, he ordered the large with his friend and even the servers thought they couldn't finish it. A large pizza is about enough pizza to feed a family of four. 

A small pizza was still a lot of food. After walking and market browsing, a slice of real pizza hit the spot. Afterwards, we headed to the airport and fly back home. I was exhausted after trying to fit all of these things into one weekend. It was all I needed to get my travel fix back until my next big adventure. 

Learn more about what to do and where to go in Chicago with Lonely Planet Chicago 6th Ed.

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