Wednesday, April 23, 2008

THURSDAY THIRTEEN #64 -- Welcome to the Windy City




This week the TT theme is vacations and destinations, and I'm responding with an unabashed Valentine to the city I know best, the one I travel to and from every day for both work and pleasure – Chicago. Since I can’t imagine why everyone doesn’t want to live here,* it stands to reason I believe everyone should at least vacation in Chicago. Here are thirteen reasons why:

1. It’s easy to get here. Today, when everyone except the most casual flyer has an airline horror story, that’s important. You can get to Chicago (either O’Hare or Midway) from almost any major city without having to make a connection. You can also get here by Amtrak. (And probably Greyhound bus, but I’ve never done it.)

2. You don’t need a car to get around. In fact, trust me on this, it’s easier to get to and from the destinations I list here without a car. Only stubborn, gas-guzzling suburbanites insist on driving downtown, and frankly, we mock them. Cabs, public transportation and the tourist-friendly Chicago Trolley are all cheaper and believe me, you won’t miss the agita of looking for parking, nor will you be shocked when you see how expensive fuel can be when you add Cook County taxes. And perhaps I’m corny on this point, but every time you get on a commuter bus or train, you’re helping the environment.

3. Millennium Park. 103 N. Michigan Ave. Because I go past it every day, twice a day to and from the office, I completely take it for granted. And that’s a sin, because it truly is gorgeous. There’s “The Bean,” a way-cool sculpture actually titled Cloud Gate. There’s the amazing Crown Fountain, where diverse and ever-changing portraits of Chicagoans look out onto a reflecting pool. (And “spit” water for children to splash around in, as shown above.) There’s the Park Grill, a great place to enjoy drinks and a meal as you watch the city go by. And best of all there’s the PARK. The trees, the flowers … Shame on me for not admiring what I have at my disposal every day!

4. Wrigley Field. Clark and Addison. Home of the Chicago Cubs. The enduring cathedral of baseball, one of the last parks still standing where the Babe played. Christened “the friendly confines” by Ernie Banks, its ivy-covered walls give you a beautiful place to spend an evening or, better yet, an afternoon. Enjoy a beer or two, a couple hotdogs and a rousing chorus of “Go, Cubs, Go!” Wear blue.

5. Navy Pier. 600 E. Grand. A terrific place for people watching! You can take a booze cruise on the Lake, or ride the 150-foot high ferris wheel (which gives you an awesome view of both the city and the Lake), eat in a gazillion casual restaurants, see a movie on the IMAX Screen and maybe even take in a little Shakespeare. Moms and Dads, there’s a great Children’s Museum here, too. You can literally spend hours and hours at Navy Pier without getting bored. (Though as a native, I try to get out before the sun goes down because it becomes very, very touristy then.) But beware – there have been mime spottings.

6. Sears Tower. 233 S. Wacker. “On a clear day, you can see forever …” OK, in this case, on a clear day you can see about 50 miles. Let me be honest with you – there’s more to do in the area around the competitive John Hancock Building on Michigan Avenue. But the Sears Tower Sky Deck is just so much cooler and you can see further.

7. Museum of Science and Industry. 57th and Lake Shore Drive. My absolute favorite when I was a kid, and the absolute favorite of a new generation of kids today. The baby chick hatchery I loved so is still there (with new chicks, of course) as is the human heart you can actually walk through. There’s a real-live, captured Nazi submarine and one of the Apollo spacecrafts, too. Thinking about it now makes me want to go back.

8. The Field Museum. 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive. Don’t let the name fool you – it’s named for the Marshall Field family, not because it’s devoted to flora and fauna. Although the star of the museum is a pretty damn big example of “fauna.” You just gotta visit Sue, our T-Rex. Really, she’s the largest and most complete dinosaur ever assembled and she completely rocks. (I can’t get over how tiny her “arms” were …) In addition to just taking in the wonder of Sue, there are exhibits about how she was discovered and what her dino life must have been like. I think Sue is reason enough to go, but the Field also features special, limited-time-only exhibits. In years gone by, I’ve seen Jacqueline Kennedy’s wardrobe there, as well as an extraordinary exhibit about the history of baseball. As an adult, this one is favorite museum.

9. The American Girl Store. (American Girl Place) 111 E. Chicago. Looking for an antidote to the dubious images of girlhood sold by Bratz dolls? Bring your daughter here! Historically accurate and culturally diverse, the American Girl dolls and this store celebrate what makes us individual, as well as what we have shared, generation to generation. This place not only sells all the dolls and all their accessories, it has a theater and a café and special events for special little girls. I firmly believe that my niece, now 15 and patriotic and very socially involved, began “getting” what it meant to be an American Girl while playing with these dolls and reading their stories. Especially Molly and Kit, who inspired her to discuss what girlhood was like for her own Depression-era grandmothers. (Of course, now that my niece is in high school, she’s into camouflage and Green Day, so sadly, our AG days are behind us.) I’ll stop singing its praises now, except to add that Kit as portrayed by Abigail Breslin is jumping to the Big Screen (when else?) over the 4th of July weekend. If you have an American Girl lover in your life, seeing the movie and coming to this store could be highlights of her summer.

10. World-class restaurants. Have we had enough culture? Ready to eat, drink and be merry? Chicago offers plenty of places for that. Beef, pizza, seafood, pasta, fusion, even (ick!) sushi – we’ve got it all, and at a wide range of prices. I recommend you pick up a copy of Chicago magazine or ask your concierge for recommendations. That way you’ll find the spots that deliver the best of Chicago, if not the ones that are most popular with tourists. (For example, I recommend Ina’s on West Randolph. Known for her breakfasts, people often forget about Ina’s for lunch and dinner – maybe because the kitchen closes at 9:00 PM. I’ve had some of the best roast duck and salmon dishes EVER at Ina’s.)

11. World-class theater. I’m a big fan of our “Broadway in Chicago” series, and have seen everything from Wicked to Jersey Boys. We also have the Goodman and the Lookingglass Theaters. Often less commercial, but always the highest quality, these theaters are the stage homes to John Mahoney, Joan Allen, Laurie Metcalf, David Schwimmer and more.

12. Second City on North Wells. This is where it all began for everyone who makes us laugh today: Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Bill Murray, the Brothers Belushi, and oh, my fingers are getting tired from listing all the talent. The new crop is facile and funny and topical and terrific. Oh, and definitely adult, so don’t bring the wee ones.

13. Jer-ry! Jer-ry! Judge Mathis, too. Both of these shows tape here in Chicago and it’s not impossible to get tickets. It is impossible to get tickets for Oprah, so don’t even ask.

There are many more reasons, including Buckingham Fountain and The Art Institute, but since it's called the Thursday Thirteen, I'll stop here.

*Yeah, yeah. In winter, we get snow. Whatever. Most of the people who complain about the snow live in warm, sunny climes plagued by wildfires, mudslides, major earthquakes and hurricanes. When our snow melts, our homes are reliably still there. So just shaddup.

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