Our Train Trip to the West – Part I

Chicago, IL

We toured Chicago in two stages. The first when we arrived from New York and the second after our railroad trip, before boarding the plane that would take us back to NY. Let’s start then at our first day in the “Windy City”.

Sunday, May 4th:

We arrived in O’Hare around 9.30 am and took a shuttle bus that brought us to our hotel, The Whitehall, about one hour later. As we arrived three hours prior to their check-in time there were no available room for us, so we left our baggage in the lobby and started to get our bearings in the city. First a cup of coffee at a Starbucks’ nearby, where we planned what to do next. I had been in Chicago more than 48 years ago and I had a memorable, although by now vague, experience at the Museum of Science and Industry, so Marité and I agreed to go for a return visit. First we boarded a L train that took us downtown. (L stands for eLevated, but where we were it was underground, not elevated.) Then we changed to a suburban train, part of the system known as the Metra, which left us at the 57th St stop near to the Museum.

Dawtown Chicago
Downtown Chicago

The museum is housed in the former Palace of Fine Arts build for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and the only structure still standing from that famous fair. When I had visited it before, I was 19 year old and the many exhibits had struck me as unique, but mostly they had faded from my memory. However, I still remembered what I pictured in my mind as a gigantic train engine and it was still there, but now it didn’t look so big. I also remembered entering in a German U-boat, which also was still there, but it claustrophobic reality didn’t appeal to us this time, so we didn’t go inside. Most other exhibits seem to have been either updated from the time I had been there or added in later years. It is a great museum though, specially for kids. There are a lot of interactive displays covering many scientific breakthroughs and it was worth the visit.

Hancock Building
Hancock Tower

So we went back to our hotel. This time we took a real elevated train and we had a good view of the loop from it. Our room was ready and it had a clear view of the Hancock building just one block away. We were also only about half a block from Michigan Ave., close to what is called the Magnificent Mile, a string of high-end shops and boutiques. But we weren’t interested on that now. We had been up since 4 am and preferred to lay down in the comfortable bed and rest for a couple of hours.

After our siesta, we took a shower and went out for dinner. We were near Rush St, famous for its restaurants and night life, but we didn’t go to any of them, instead we went to McCormick & Schmicks’, a seafood restaurant that belongs to an upscale chain and that was near the hotel. We had eaten in one of their restaurants, while we visited Pasadena, a few years back. We had had a good experience then and we decided to try again. We weren’t disappointed. Marité had convinced me not to try the fresh oysters and was reluctant to try some pan-fried oysters as an appetizer. But we ordered these, and found them delicious. The main fish courses were also excellent.

After dinner, we went for a walk at Michigan Ave, and decided to go up the Hancock Tower. It was a clear night, and the view from the 94th floor, where the observatory is located, was stunning. We highly recommend a visit.

We returned to our hotel and went to bed. It had been a long day, but very enjoyable.

Next morning we didn’t do any sightseeing. Marité slept late and I wandered about a little, before we got ready to our railroad trip. We invite you to join us as we board The Southwest Chief. We can return to this page later, to complete our tour of Chicago, after we finished our journey to the West.

Sunday, May 18th:

We arrived back to the Whitehall Hotel around 4.00 pm. This time we got a room that wasn’t as nice as the one they had given us two weeks ago. We had problems with the telephone, the television set, the ventilation system and some of the lights. Still it had a comfortable bed and we took advantage of it, to rest for a couple of hours.

For dinner, we went again to McCormick and Schmicks’. It was conveniently located near the hotel, we had had a good experience before and we didn’t had any decent seafood for awhile. So the choice was obvious.

We took a short walk after dinner, but didn’t stay out long. The night was cool and we still had not recovered from our long railroad trip. So went back to the hotel for a good night’s rest.

Monday, May 19th:

This morning we did walk around the Gold Coast, a fashionable area north of the hotel, with beautiful and historic townhouses (including the original Playboy Mansion) set in tranquil and tree-lined streets. Then we continued along Lake Shore Drive, which borders the Michigan Lake and returned to the shopping area of the Magnificent Mile, not to buy anything, but to stroll among Chicagoans and tourists that frequent this district.

By now it was past lunchtime and we were looking for a place to eat. We passed a restaurant-pizzeria called Gino’s, which Frommer’s mentions as having, according to many Chicagoans, “the quintessential deep-dish Chicago-style pizza.” So we dived in to check it out. The place was full, but we got a table. The young waitress did warned us that it would take 45 minutes to have our pizza cooked to order. Although we were hungry, we decided to order and wait to see if the pizza was up to its reputation. It was good: the crust was golden brown and the ingredients were fresh. If you like to try the pizza home you can order one and it will be delivered (frozen) to your door, no matter where you live in the United States. Click here if you want to give it a try.

We continued our walk heading downtown. Before we crossed the Chicago River, we could appreciate the older and magnificent skyscrapers that have made Chicago famous for its architecture. Newer and modern glass structures also line the banks of the river. After crossing one of the many bridges that span the river, we entered the Loop: the downtown area circled by elevated tracks and the core of commercial, governmental and cultural buildings of the city. We turned east to walk the Millennium Park, which has a massive bean-shaped sculpture, Cloud Gate, with mirror shinning sides that reflect the surrounding vicinity. The park also houses the Jay Pritzker Music Pavilion, an outdoor concert venue, beautifully designed by Frank Gehry, with 4000 fixed seats and a large lawn area that can accommodate 7000 more people. How we wished we had something like this in New York City!

Buckingham Fountain
Buckingham Fountain

We headed now south and entered the Art Institute, the famous art museum with an impressive Impressionist collection. We got there less than hour before closing time, so we didn’t have time to visit the galleries, just its restroom. After the pit stop, we walked a while longer in the surrounding park and ended at the Buckingham Fountain, one of the city’s most recognized landmarks; build in the 1920’s. One of the largest fountains in the world, the Buckingham Fountain measures 85 m/280 ft in diameter. It features 134 jets powered by 3 pumps, its central jet pushes water up to 46 m/150 ft high. By the way, the fountain was not named by some anglophile after the London palace, but its a memorial to Clarence Buckingham, a member of a then prominent Chicagoan family.

By now the blue skies had changed to rain threatening clouds and it became colder. So we ended our tour and headed back to our hotel, and yes… one more dinner at McCormick and Schmicks’. The next morning we would fly back to New York City. We had a great time and many memories, some of which we tried to share here. Hope you enjoyed this narrative, as much as we did our journey.