During our Great Lakes adventure last summer we intentionally skipped the western shore of Lake Michigan… why? A bit part was to avoid towing the trailer through Chicago! When planning a long weekend this fall we thought about a lot of destinations… we decided on Chicago for a lot of reasons… to visit family and friends, to experience the western shore of Lake Michigan, and to see if Chicago is really as cool as advertised. I had been to Chicago for work many times, but this was different… we had a fabulous time… Chicago is really a city for everyone!
From our house in Amherst, OH, we jumped on the OH turnpike heading west and took the turnpike all the way to Illinois! Other than the last 10 miles, the drive really couldn’t be easier. So what about the last 10 miles? Chicago traffic is notoriously bad, right? Yes, Chicago traffic is intense… I’ve driven to Chicago a number of times and I’ve never experienced anything other than a traffic jam driving into Chicago from the south. However, I’ve found that when I’m heading into the city sometime between 11am – 2pm the traffic is manageable.
We stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott Magnificent Mile which is located on the corner of Ontario and N. St. Claire. The Magnificent Mile is a hub of shopping and dining in downtown Chicago and is a great place for home base. The Courtyard by Marriott is a nice hotel and we enjoyed our stay… there are lots of hotels to choose from and I’m sure there are a number of good hotels in the area. Something to note about visiting Chicago… the room rates for hotels can be reasonable… the weekend of our visit there were multiple options under $200/night. However, when there’s a convention in town the hotels can sell out and the rates go through the roof. If you’re looking at a particular time to visit and rates are super high, there’s probably a convention and you may want to plan an alternate time for your visit.
Experiencing the outdoors in the city
When we arrived the weather was amazing – 65 degrees and sunny in mid-November! We immediately headed for the lake, which is about 20 minutes walking from the hotel. The lakefront in Chicago is fantastic… there is a walkway that goes on for miles and leads to a number of attractions. The Navy Pier is at the north end of the walkway and is a hub of activity in the summer. This time of year there are only a few things open, but we still had fun walking the pier and experiencing different views of the city, river, and lake. Shedd Aquarium, which I detail below, is at the southern end of the walkway. In between there are multiple little parks… we were shocked by how much we could enjoy the lake and outdoors right next to the city!
The lake isn’t the only spot in the city to enjoy nature… Millennium Park on E. Randolph is a beautiful park in the heart of the city. Millennium Park is the home to the “Bean”… a large bean shaped structure that is mirrored… it’s very cool and a great spot for some creative pictures!
There are a couple notable outdoor activities that we didn’t have a chance to experience, but thought we’d mention… Maggie Daley Park is a new and really impressive playground just east of Millennium Park near the lake. The Lincoln Park Zoo is a free zoo on the north end of the city.
So much to do!
There are lots of attractions in Chicago and a little planning goes a long way. First we looked at all the attractions available and each of us picked one that we would like to experience. Todd chose 360 Chicago at night, I chose the Art Institute of Chicago, and Daniel chose Shedd Aquarium. Next we looked at admission and found the City Pass, which includes admission to 5 attractions and fast entry. To break even we had to go to 3 attractions, which we planned on. From a financial perspective we broke even, but the fast entry was worth a ton. When we arrived at the Shedd Aquarium there was a 1-hour wait! We waited about 15 minutes! The City Pass can be purchased online and redeemed at any of the attractions. The City Pass is $98/adult and $82/child… the attractions aren’t cheap, so work this into your budget when planning.
360 Chicago (formerly the John Hancock building) is on N Michigan about 15 minutes from the hotel. This is a super cool spot… it’s a place you can settle in and stay a while. The views are amazing and there’s a snack counter, gift shop, and bar. We spent about an hour experiencing Chicago at night from all different perspectives. There’s also an area that tilts… for an extra charge the glass tilts downward while you hold on and look at the street below. We didn’t experience the tilt, but we saw a number of people try it out.
Art Institute of Chicago is about 1 mile from the hotel and has entrances on S. Michigan. and E. Monroe When you enter be prepared to check your backpack or larger bag… only small purses are allowed. Art Institute of Chicago is truly an amazing art museum… so many famous works by the masters… we were really blown away. The art also spans from ancient times to contemporary. Todd and I could have spent hours there, but cut it down a bit to keep Daniel interested.
Shedd Aquarium is about 2 miles from hotel on the lakefront. We took a cab there and walked back along the lake. Shedd Aquarium is one of the largest aquariums in the world and dates back to the 1920s. Our experience with aquariums is that they are often quite expensive and not very big… Shedd Aquarium is in a league of its own! Shedd Aqarium is huge and very impressive. Shedd Aquarium covers the world… fresh water, salt water, different continents, various climates. Shedd Aquarium also includes lots more than fish… visitors learn about what lives not only in, but around the water. When planning your visit note that an hour wait is not uncommon. The City Pass was a huge help to us. Also, the admission price is high (almost $40/adult), but it’s worth it and it’s clear that the money is being put to use.
Take a break from the city
Are you interested in a break from the city? We can relate! During our visit we took a train ride to Evanston to visit family. The train was very easy to figure out and Evanston is a beautiful town. We enjoyed walking around the Northwestern campus, which is on the lake, and had dinner at Smylie Brother’s Brewing Co. Smylie Brother’s is a casual spot with a friendly vibe… and has awesome soft pretzels!
To get to Evanston we got on the “L” red line train towards “Howard” at the Chicago station, which is on N. State St. We took the red line all the way to the end (the Howard stop) and hopped over to the purple line which we took to the Davis stop. The Davis stop is in the heart of Evanston. Though changing trains might sound complicated, it isn’t complicated at all… everything is really well marked and announced.
We love to eat and Chicago is a hub for great restaurants! When we pick restaurants we look for local spots and try to stay away from fast food and chains… we really enjoy the experience of trying new places! On this trip we looked for spots with moderate prices, inventive dishes, casual atmospheres, and where Daniel would be welcome. Wow… we had some great meals!
We loved Beatrix on N. St. Claire (less than 5 minutes from the hotel) so much we went twice! Beatrix serves lunch and dinner every day, brunch on Saturday and Sunday, and serves breakfast Monday - Friday. Beatrix has a kid’s menu, coffee bar, and full spirits bar. Some of our favorite dishes are the Supernatural Salad with chicken, the Fall Roasted Vegetable Salad with salmon, Green Chili Enchiladas (brunch menu), and Daniel loved the kid’s cheeseburger.
Hubbard Inn on W. Hubbard St., about 20 minutes from hotel, has great food and a really casual and fun vibe. Hubbard in is welcoming to kids, but doesn’t have a kid’s menu. Daniel tried the “Fried Chicken” which ended up being like gourmet chicken fingers… perfect! Todd and I loved the Bison Burger, Mushroom Flatbread, and the Scallops small plate.
Hungry for sushi but your kids aren’t into it? Us too! Roca Akor on N. Clark about 15 minutes walking from hotel, has a great selection of sushi, steak, and seafood. Lots of sushi places offer steaks, but often the steaks are really expensive cuts. Roca Akor has a good selection including Skirt Steak, which is moderately priced and perfect for Daniel. Todd and I enjoyed all of our food, but our favorite was the Hamachi Serrano Chili maki roll… great flavors and just enough spice. Roca Akor has a swanky feel, but is pretty casual and welcoming to kids.
We stopped at the Pittsfield Café for breakfast on our walk to the Art Institute of Chicago. Pittsfield Café is on E. Washington very close to Millennium park… about 25 minutes from hotel. It’s in the Old Pittsfield building which is under construction, so the entrance is on the side of the building. There’s a really nice little courtyard inside the building with a seating area for Pittsfield Café… very relaxed and welcoming. Todd and I had great omlettes… really fresh ingredients and not greasy or salty.
Looking for a place to relax for a while? Pinstripes on the river, which is on E. Illinois St about 10 minutes from hotel, is a great spot. We sat in the cozy lounge and enjoyed snacks and a drink. Todd and I had the Shrimp and Spinach Flatbread, which was fantastic, and Daniel had a cheese pizza that he loved. Pinstripes is a big place and also offers bowling and bocce ball!
One final note about dining in Chicago… make reservations. The great restaurants fill up quick!
As we drove back home we couldn’t stop talking about how much fun we had in the city! Chicago is a city where we could relax, enjoy being outdoors, and experience the fun of the city!