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.
- 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!
- 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)?
- 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.
- 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).
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!
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 …