Tag Archives: chicago

Road Trip Diaries, Day 2: Where Route 66 Begins – Chicago

Chicago – the Windy City, America’s original Hollywood, and where old Route 66 began for those heading east to west! Yet today, I found out online that, sometimes, folks planning their own first-time Route 66 trip look to skip Chicago and start farther south in its suburbs. I urge you not to do this – you’ll miss some wonderful sights, as well as lose out on the “real feel” of this historic route!

In fact, Day 2 of our road trip was the only day that we did not have to get on the road and go anywhere, because we had planned an extra day in Chicago just to tour the enormous Field Museum of Natural History.

To start off our morning, we exited the hotel, made a right on E. Upper Wacker, and then continued down N. Michigan till we hit E. Randolph. There were multiple towering beautiful buildings greeting us along the way, many with plaques explaining their history. I absolutely love Chicago’s dedication to its architectural past! We started our day with breakfast at the popular Wildberry Pancakes and Cafe, then walked all the way through Grant Park to its end at the Museum Campus. Here are some pictures and highlights of our day.

I love this photo of Eric wandering outside of our hotel!

I love this photo of Eric wandering outside of our hotel!

  • The residential towers pictured below were right across the Chicago River from our hotel – and that’s not very far at all. These towers have been at their current site since 1964 and are part of the larger Marina City complex. The “corncobs” have marinas at their bottoms where they meet the river. The complex originally contained other buildings including offices, a theater, a skating rink, and a concert hall. House of Blues is now in the old movie theater, which has a unique saddle shape (though it’s also known as “the Armadillo”). While we didn’t get a chance to look at this complex up close, we could see activity in the form of cars parking in the lower-level garage floors. It was a little surreal watching cars backing right up to the edge … it looked like a few more feet and they’d go right in the river! Of course, that’s a scenario that has played out in reality in some Hollywood films and TV commercials!
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Marina City towers (note the cars parked in the lower half of the left tower)

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This Ghostbusters trash compactor was spotted on Michigan Avenue.

  • Wildberry Pancakes and Cafe is a very popular eatery in Chicago, as we discovered when we showed up relatively early and found a large crowd already waiting for tables to open. The Randolph Street location of this small Illinois chain is located right across the street from the northern end of Millennium Park. These eateries are well-known for their giant pancakes and massive omelets. Eric and I each had the Napa Valley Fig omelet, which is made with figs, scallions, applewood bacon, and Havarti cheese. He got the fruit for a side, I got the hash browns, and each of us a pancake side (his were the signature buttermilk, mine were fig and walnut multi-grain). The omelet was bigger than a Chipotle burrito and too much for me to finish; it was quite good, but I wished there was more filling to go with all that egg. My pancakes were very tasty, especially with syrup and butter; Eric found he preferred his buttermilk flapjacks (which he wolfed down before I could try them). Too full to walk so much as waddle, we had a long walk ahead of us with more than enough energy to burn off on the way!
  • The 24.5-acre Millennium Park, finished in 2004 and part of the much larger Grant Park, is a convenient walk across the street from Wildberry Pancakes. We entered through Wrigley Square, which has a magnificent fountain (though certainly not the most impressive you’ll see in the Windy City). A short stroll away is the crowd-pleasing Cloud Gate sculpture, better known as “The Bean.” This reflective artwork by Anish Kapoor is a huge crowd favorite, as evidenced by the number of people taking pics in front of it (myself included – can you spot the reflection of Eric snapping the photo)?
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Cloud Gate, better known as The Bean, in Millennium Park

  • I couldn’t help but be amused by the corporate names of the various plazas and promenades in Millennium Park etched in the stone alongside names of human donors – for example, AT&T Plaza, BP Bridge, and Chase Promenade. I wondered what happens when companies inevitably change names or merge with another. As it turns out, it’s happened several times already and they just change the name of the related structure … e.g., Chase Promenade was once Bank One Promenade. I think I’m more old school than I would like to admit, because that’s just weird to me. Of course, I also still find it incredibly odd that we name stadiums and football bowl games after corporate sponsors, too. I know, I know, welcome to the 21st century! By the way, the funniest corporate-named entity in the entire park is easily “McDonald’s Cycle Center”!
  • I’d feel weird if I didn’t mention the popular Crown Fountain at all, which is literally right next to Cloud Gate on the map, but we somehow completely missed it. There were some large events being set up in the park that day so it might’ve been covered up with a tent or something!
  • The Jay Pritzker Pavilion is the park’s famous bandshell which was more impressive up close than I thought it would be. The huge open green space underneath was wildly inviting.
Jay Pritzker Pavilion

Jay Pritzker Pavilion

  • We walked up Nicholas Bridgeway, a lengthy pedestrian bridge that gave us a nice view of the Lurie Gardens and revealed a little courtyard where bees are kept. The bridge ends at the Art Institute of Chicago.
  • The aforementioned Lurie Gardens are beautiful – you can find many bees and butterflies buzzing around the various flower plots, as well as humans resting their feet in the cool fountains on a scorching summer’s day.
  • Keep on strolling south out of Millennium Park and into the rest of Grant Park, and you’ll come to Buckingham Fountain, built in 1927, at its spot overlooking Lake Michigan. On our way past it, I worried to Eric that we might miss it. Moments later, it was right there and I realized what a funny thing this was to worry about – this fountain is massive. The cool spraying water beckons one to frolic, but a steel fence around the perimeter keeps would-be bathers out. During certain times of day, the fountain shoots water 150 feet into the air, well above the surrounding treeline. And if you’re planning to visit the fountain on your own Route 66 trip, you might be interested to know that this fountain is widely thought of as the terminus of the old route (although technically, it is not). At the fountain, you’re actually roughly a block away from the real terminus which was at Jackson and Michigan (later Jackson and Lake Shore).
Love and marriage, love and marriage ... glorious Buckingham Fountain

Love and marriage, love and marriage … glorious Buckingham Fountain

The Congress Hotel, built in 1893, has a great view of the Buckingham Fountain.

The Congress Hotel, built in 1893, has a great view of the Buckingham Fountain.

We enjoyed our walk, the terminus of which was to be the Museum Campus, especially since there were plenty of trees to give us shade as the day heated up. Event staff were already in place preparing for the Lollapalooza music festival the following weekend; we watched a young staffer liberally douse his head with a bottle of water. At last, we reached the air conditioned sanctuary …. *drumroll*

  • The Field Museum of Natural History! Part of Grant Park’s Museum Campus, which also includes the Adler Planetarium and the Shedd Aquarium, this museum opened in 1921 and is known as one of the largest (and most fantastic) natural history museums in the world. Its reputation is well-deserved – it is a national treasure that everyone should visit at least once. To quote a favorite Saturday Night Live character, “This place has everything.” It has so much stuff that there is no way one could possibly see everything in one mere day, even with the “basic” general admission ticket, which is the option Eric and I chose. (The theme music from one of Eric’s favorite YouTube shows, the museum’s The Brain Scoop, seemed to be stuck on replay in our heads throughout the day. :)) Here are a just a mere few examples of the many, many things you can see with the most basic ticket at this museum:
    • SUE – the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever discovered! She’s world-famous, and she’s right there in the atrium (with a replica skull – her real, 600-pound skull is upstairs in the balcony in a display case). SUE is named for the paleontologist who discovered her in South Dakota, Sue Hendrickson.
    • Inside Ancient Egypt – a two-story exhibit full of ancient artifacts, including over 20 mummies. Standing by one of the mummies, I had to giggle when I heard a small boy tell a wide-eyed young companion, “It’s going to come get you while you sleep.”
    • Evolving Planet – an incredible exhibit that takes you through the story of evolution with more fossils than I’ve ever seen in one spot – including some you’re likely not expecting to see, like a giant ground sloth! The exhibit’s amazing dinosaur hall will stun you with the sheer size of some of these things. Even better? Evolving Planet is illustrated with a collection of huge original paintings by Charles Knight.
    • The Gidwitz Hall of Birds seemed to stretch on forever with endless dioramas and displays about just about every bird you can possibly imagine.
    • Wildlife dioramas (along with plenty of others) aplenty, the Grainger Hall of Gems, and the Hall of Jades are just a few others that we (barely) had time for – there were plenty of things we didn’t!
    • When we were there we also found a special temporary exhibit about lichens at the top of a staircase on the upper level!

The front entrance to the Field Museum, which faces Lake Michigan. (Note: The Terracotta Warriors exhibit advertised here is not covered by the cost of your general admission.)

Meet SUE the T. Rex! You won't find anything like her anywhere else in the world.

Meet SUE the T. Rex! You won’t find anything like her anywhere else in the world.

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A stegosaurus fossil poses by the Charles Knight painting, perhaps remembering his youthful glory days …

Other tips, tricks and secrets of the Field Museum:

  • You’ll find plenty of great wildlife dioramas all over the three levels of the museum, but don’t overlook the Sea Mammals exhibits hidden in the basement – check them out on the map you’ll receive with your admission. The rooms with these dioramas are relatively small and filled with cafeteria-style tables, and so they can be easy to walk past on your way to the bigger exhibits.
  • Want to see a once-popular precursor to 3-D printing? You can find at least four vintage-style Mold-A-Rama machines in this museum that will make you your very own plastic dinosaur while you watch, for $2 (at this writing). This type of machine was once exhibited at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, and the idea of creating your own plastic mold was very popular for a time. However outdated the concept may seem to one today, the long lines of kids and families who found these machines in the basement were super excited. Want to make your own Field Museum-stamped green apatosaurus, based on the design originally modeled after the Sinclair Oil mascot at the World’s Fair? Look around the museum basement. (That’s the one I made … heh. Oh come on, you know I wasn’t going to leave without grabbing one.) Just be careful – your new figure will come out a bit hot.
  • You can’t have Chicago without a Chicago-style hot dog! If you get hungry during the day, your museum tickets allow for re-entry – so make sure to check out the Kim and Carlo’s hot dog cart out in front of the museum. You can eat while sitting by Lake Michigan and taking in the breathtaking view of the sail boats on the sparkling water (and the sight of Buckingham Fountain’s water shooting up over the trees, if it’s time for the fountain show). You can even see Chicago’s Navy Pier Ferris Wheel in the distance. Chicago-style hot dogs are served in a fluffy poppy seed bun with yellow mustard, sweet pickle relish, chopped onion, tomato wedges, a dill pickle spear, sport peppers, and celery salt. Kim and Carlo’s also serve a vegan version, so non-meat eaters can also enjoy!
  • After a long day spent browsing the museum, head back to Buckingham Fountain and you can grab a cold beer, water or soft drink and some food from outdoor eatery Buck’s Four Star Grill. The brats we ordered were nice and juicy, as were the pretzel buns they came in, but the toppings glopped on them were a bit much for me personally so I’ll get something else next time. The beer we had was A-1, though. It’s a good place to chill while you wait for the fountain show to start or just take a break from the summer heat (or try to).

The next day would find us up and on the road super early for our jam-packed first day of Route 66 … or at least that was our plan! As you’ll see in my next post, it didn’t quite work out that way …

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Road Trip Diaries, Day 1: On the Way to Chicago, and Staying in an Inverted Spyglass

Welcome to our road trip diary! This first entry will just cover our drive from Arlington, VA to Chicago; later entries will cover our journey on old Route 66.

Saturday, July 23 – Day 1 of our big road trip found us up early to hit the road for an 11+ hour drive from Arlington to Chicago. We had rented our car the day before. Enterprise didn’t have a standard available, so they upgraded us to an SUV for free – a silver Toyota RAV4. It was comfy enough, roomy, and promised to be able to handle the rough roads of old Route 66 well. The sound system left something to be desired. Oh well, we had a ride! On Saturday morning, after a breakfast of McDonald’s, we were off! I love the first few moments when you hit the road for a vacation and the anticipation is at its height.

Our travels took us through Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana – a new state for me, but not Eric – before finally reaching Illinois and Chicago. Eric is a pro at long drives (literally), and I had done all of the research and planning for the vacation, so that set us up as driver and navigator, respectively. I figured we’d switch at some point, but we never did!

We racked up plenty of tolls along the way as we took the fastest route of the Pennsylvania and Ohio Turnpikes, and the Indiana Toll Road. I had been down the PA Turnpike several times before and enjoyed seeing the cows, pastures, and mountains once again. At one point we could see a big herd of cows laying in a grove of trees to stay cool. At another, we saw a Pokemon Go player shuffling creepily through a wide open field, smartphone in hand … or maybe it was a zombie. We drove past the wind turbines of Johnstown. But my favorite part of the PA Turnpike is probably going through the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel.image

The Turnpike travel plazas are great, as you don’t have to exit and pay the toll just to get gas or use the restroom. The one we stopped at (North Somerset) was crowded – though not all that bad for a summer Saturday. I was expecting it to be way worse than it was. We picked up pretzel dogs from Auntie Anne’s and a couple of drinks and moved on.

The Ohio Turnpike’s travel plazas were much bigger and nicer (sorry PA) although the scenery was mostly just mile after mile of flat land and farmland. At Erie Islands plaza, we picked up Einstein Bagels for an early dinner, and then Eric found a crane game with an orange dino skeleton that would pick up your prizes for you. I won two things – a goofy wind-up turtle, and a triceratops figure with bright red painted eyes that looked kind of demonic. Eric left the former on the machine for a lucky child to find, and I kept the latter for myself … he was too creepy not to take home for future Halloween decorations.

By the time we reached Indiana, I was getting really punchy and doing this thing I do where I crack up for no reason. We saw more cows and calves running around. We started getting pelted with rain. It was mile after mile of cornfields until we got to the Gary area, but it was very pretty. Originally a country girl myself, I found it relaxing. Also, by this point we’d seen a couple of other interesting vehicles on the road – a car with a Route 66 license plate, plus these guys …

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This antique car first popped up as early as PA … by Indiana we were still driving alongside it at times!

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Check out this awesome Mayberry Sheriff’s Car! Look in the window and you’ll see it’s Barney Fife’s …I loved The Andy Griffith Show as a kid.

At long last, we reached Chicago! The traffic heading into the city was very slow, but no worse than DC’s. The skyline was gorgeous and made the long drive much easier. The sight of the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) looming over everything is especially stunning. There was no way to really capture how incredible it was with my camera. We soon learned from walking around the city that Chicagoans are very proud of their architecture, and they have every reason to be. Unique, well-preserved historic buildings are everywhere and they are beautiful.

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The Chicago Skyway Toll Bridge

We noticed a super skinny skyscraper as we headed into the heart of Chicago’s Loop area, and it turned out that was our hotel, the River Hotel. We  dropped off the car with the friendly and extremely helpful valet (and left him a good tip). The price to park valet seems extremely high in Chicago, but the alternative was for us to fumble around in a cramped parking garage ourselves and then haul all our bags … and the garage by itself, no valet, was still very expensive. We checked in at the front desk so late that they actually didn’t have any rooms left in the River Hotel itself, so we got upgraded to the Club Quarters hotel in the same building – and grabbed the very last room. They had oversold and that meant everyone after us would have to be walked over to neighboring hotels.

If you’re wondering how two hotels share the same building, it’s kind of a unique story (at least, it’s the first time I’ve ever encountered this). Our hotel is part of a building known to Chicagoans as “The Inverted Spyglass” – a nickname for the historic Mather Tower (later known as Lincoln Tower). The building was nearly torn down a few decades ago, and in fact, the original four-story cupola was removed. (It’s since been replaced with a new one.) The River Hotel has the rooms all the way up to Floor 10. Club Quarters, which provides hotel rooms for corporate members, has rooms in the octagonal part of the tower starting at floor 11. We were on floor 23. The octagonal tower is very skinny, so our room was small, but very nice for what it was. At the rate we were paying – a downright bargain in the heart of Chicago, right on the River and easy walking distance from Millennium Park – we were not complaining. Our bed wasn’t super comfortable, but it was good enough. The bathroom was tiny, but everything worked, the shower was deliciously hot, the amenities were nice, and most importantly, it was very clean. The room came with a small stash of library books, and there were reusable water bottles out in the hallway with a chilled water station. (I’m also remembering now that they offer free aromatherapy sleep kits and I meant to request one and completely forgot!) The view out of our window faced some great looking skyscrapers. Finally, the downstairs lobby was beautiful. Great attention to detail was paid when renovating this building – it was clear there were originally six elevators, now reduced to four, but the two old elevator spaces in the lobby were cleverly re-purposed as a brochure cabinet and a business center. The gorgeous old elevator dials were left alone even though they no longer worked! A warm and inviting lounge was around the corner with water, coffee, and comfortable chairs. There was also an Italian restaurant downstairs. For Day 2 we had plans to get up early, and we were exhausted from our drive, so instead of eating there, we pretty much just took a shower and crashed.

Day 1 Linkage: 

The view from our hotel window

The view from our hotel window