Story and photos by Betsy Marvin
America’s “Second City,” blows the competition away, so given a chance for a long weekend in the coolest summer on record, I breezed on up there without thinking twice!
For lovers of architecture, art, food and music, Chicago provides tons more than a weekend’s worth, but a four-day sampling included gold-medal tastings in each category. A compact downtown area loaded with restaurants, galleries and museums makes it convenient, and great public transportation takes the visitor to farther highlights, like Hyde Park, the North Side, or hubs of various ethnicities.
Arriving on a Wednesday afternoon, we had a chance to stroll Michigan Avenue before heading through Millennium Park on our way to dinner. The summer series of symphony concerts in the wildly beautiful Pritzker Pavilion was headlining a “twilight Baltic north” program featuring Sibelius. We paused half an hour to listen to the lovely music and watch the musicians, but even more, the audience — astonishingly disparate, with attire ranging from corporate to blue jeans, ages running from infancy to eighties, and, it must be said, attention going from rapt to, well, offhand. What appeared to be a cocktail party was going on in the rear, and picnickers spread blankets and enjoyed wine and gourmet fare or a good old Chicago hotdog while they basked in the evocative melodies.
We reluctantly took our leave and continued meandering south, past the much photographed “Cloud Gate,” where a mirrored shape of myriad curves reflects and warps the glorious façades of Michigan Avenue, as well as countless photographic adventurers seeking the wackiest angle or oddest distortion. They stand in formal groups or crouch or lie under the structure, close up and distant. We passed the Crown Fountain, hugely popular with young families, where children splash in the shallow pool between two monoliths bearing giant faces of Chicagoans, the “fountain” water spouting out their mouths.
Here, approaching the north end of the monumental Chicago Art Institute, with its new wing and massive collections, we cut west to continue to the elegant old world Russian Tea Time restaurant on Adams. Here some Uzbeks produce an array of astounding flavors in their colorful dishes. We cannot resist the Russian Tea Time Platter for Two, actually two large plates in sequence. They start out with black bread and then a plate of dumplings, salads (including “beet caviar,” an ethereal blend of beets, walnuts, prunes and garlic!), hummus and tabouli, and that’s followed by another platter of hot foods, like creamy stroganoff, stuffed cabbage and Moldavian meatballs. Of course, one can have real caviar, too, at $75 per ounce. To wash it all down, chilled vodka and red wine flow like water, along with beers from both Eastern and Western Europe. Flights of vodka, consisting of tiny vials of three different flavors, or a selection from the menu’s vast “Vodka Portfolio” adds excitement to dinner.
Daytimes, we managed to walk about seven miles on average, enjoying the impressive old and new architecture of the Loop area and the Magnificent Mile to the north, doing a bit of window shopping on the side. For a different perspective, tour companies offer boat rides with guides, along the river and canal.
The large building along Michigan between Washington and Randolph, the Chicago Cultural Center, houses a tourist information center, café, galleries and various event and meeting spaces. Completed in 1897, this graceful Beaux Arts structure formerly contained the Chicago Public Library. A photographic display of Chicago landmarks, a studio of works by special-needs artists and several temporary exhibitions may be seen through tours or a casual walk-through. One fascinating room honors the GAR, the Grand Army of the Republic, as this organization endowed the library, and it’s an extraordinary space. A gorgeous Tiffany dome has recently been restored, and the grand hall at the south end features decorative mosaics on its arches.
The Orchestra Hall, a Daniel Burnham design from 1904, lies to the south, between Adams and Jackson. Posters out front announce current and future programs, and the box office, north end of the lobby, is open 10-6 weekdays and Saturdays, 11-4 on Sundays.
The Architecture Foundation, sponsoring exhibits, tours and a fascinating shop, is just down the street. The atrium contains a small museum of temporary exhibits about Chicago’s buildings. In this centennial of Burnham’s great plan for Chicago, the exhibition features the Model City, with a large and precise scale model at its center. Surrounding this, explanatory and auxiliary information boards encapsulate five themes of conceptual planning.
For anyone, Chicago native to first-time visitor, seeing this overview of the downtown is a stunning experience, and tourists and residents alike find themselves lingering as they recognize structures and thoroughfares. Adjacent is an office for booking guided architectural tours, some of the best in the city. You can see downtown as well as outlying areas on foot, by bus or boat, and have an informed lecture about history and buildings.
For us, the jewel of Chicago is the Art Institute. The regular collection contains a surprising number of well-known Impressionist paintings, the famous Thorne miniature rooms, Hopper’s Nighthawks and Wood’s American Gothic. There is also medieval armor and African sculpture and much more. Just opened in May, the new Renzo Piano Modern Wing addition not only houses 20th and 21st century art, but provides a soaring bridge to Millennium Park, a new north entrance and visual link to outside structures. The rooms, light and spacious, show off gems of the modern collection, from early Picassos to the present.
Clustered near this area of Michigan Avenue are scores of private galleries, while the Museum of Contemporary Art lies only a few blocks north of the river. We also enjoyed the small collection and temporary show at Loyola University’s art museum, just behind the old Water Tower.
Having confined our cultural treks to a small area, we decided to venture out for dinner, and found that taxi costs, round-trip, were more than compensated by lower restaurant prices where fewer tourists flocked. We went to Greek Town, centering on the intersection of South Halsted and Adams, where the Greek Islands is, and found it so delightful we went back two nights later to its neighbor to the south, Athena. Such delicious aromas and tastes of olives, lemon, oregano, lamb and wine; we stuffed ourselves and neither evening made it to the baklava.
For another cultural experience, we drove west to visit the Ukranian Village, where descendents and immigrants from the former Soviet state east of Poland and Slovakia live and work. Our first clue of ethnic difference appeared on signs, with Ukrainian names of lawyers, doctors and business owners and we noticed restaurants (our main focus) advertising vareniki, deruny and stuffed cabbage. But soon a recognizable Russian Orthodox church came into view, and we knew we’d hit pay dirt.
On the basis of online reviews, we chose Sak’s Ukrainian Village, and weren’t disappointed. Passing through a dark bar with a Cubs game on the TV and wild game on the walls, we found a quiet room in back. A sweet-faced woman took our order, an assortment of their offerings, and soon brought us steaming borscht, sour cream on the side. The potato pancakes, pierogi, saurkraut, sausage, slid down all too fast, and we found no room for dessert, but a choice between ice cream and jello came with the meal, and we managed a few bites. For this tasty meal plus the 15-minute cab ride, we still spent less than had we stayed in the Loop for dinner.
The best part of a quick visit to Chicago is that there’s always more for another visit, and we’re already planning it. And hope to see you there, too!
If You Go
Hyatt Regency Chicago
151 East Wacker Drive
Chicago Illinois 60601
While on this trip we stayed here overlooking the river and about the only good thing about it was the view. The bedroom and bath were large but there was hardly anything in them. Absolutely no place to put our stuff. There wasn’t any dresser, so nowhere to put anything that didn’t require a hanger. There were no washcloths and when I stuck some milk in the chock-full fridge (“minibar”) I immediately got a knock on the door, and an officious little lady said they would bring us a fridge and charge us $25 for it. If you like nice views, don’t mind keeping your socks, t-shirts and unmentionables in your suitcase the entire time, and care little about being nickel-and-dimed, this may work for you.
Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park
200 North Columbus Drive
Chicago, Illinois 60601
During a previous stay, we had accommodations here and the experience was deliciously delightful. Located just behind the Hyatt, it has typically been more expensive but due to the times, pricing is much more competitive. Definitely worth a look.
100 East Chestnut
Chicago, Illinois 60611
On another visit we spent our stay at this charming Old World style hotel in the Starwood chain. Located near Loyola, in the Gold Coast area, it’s just around the corner from Water Tower Place, half a block from the Magnificent Mile. We were comfortable there, although it wasn’t luxurious, and as I recall, the internet access was in the lobby. I’d stay there again and be delighted, especially with the price – quite reasonable.
A more recent addition to the hospitality scene is this website which offers privately-owned accommodations, ranging from studios to 3 bedroom apartments located in brownstones, high rises and B&Bs in historic homes. Offerings are dispersed throughout the city in many neighborhoods including Downtown Chicago, the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park. Although I have yet to stay in any, the prices and locations are tempting, particularly as they all include kitchens, except for the few rooms in the B&Bs, which offer breakfast in the rate.
Sak’s Ukrainian Village
2301 W. Chicago Ave.
(between Oakley Blvd & Western Ave)
Chicago, IL 60622
212 S Halsted St
Chicago, IL 60661-5404
Greek Islands Restaurant
200 S Halsted St
Chicago, IL 60661
Russian Tea Time
77 East Adams Street
Chicago, IL 60603
Top photo: Crown Fountain, Millennium Park.
Betsy Marvin has a Masters Degree in Architecture and feels at home just about anywhere she can find buildings of any size, particularly if they’ve been standing almost a century or more.