I’m so glad we made the effort. I’ve never known much about Chicago, other than that it’s a big city in the middle of the Rust Belt famous for gangsters, political corruption, skyscrapers, deep dish pizza, and insanely cold winters, none of which make it especially appealing. But stepping off of the train in the middle of downtown, we discovered a vibrant, beautiful city of fascinating architecture, gardens, wonderful public art, friendly people, and enticing food choices. And it’s so clean! I’ve never seen such a clean city.
The Loop And Millenium Park
We started our day with a morning walking tour. We were happy to find that “Free Tours by Foot” offers Chicago tours—we’ve done several New Orleans walking tours with the same company and enjoyed them. Because the tours are “pay what you like,” the guides are highly motivated to make their tours interesting and engaging.
Our guide shared the architectural and historical highlights of downtown Chicago as we made our way through the downtown Loop and Millenium Park. And she gave us some great insider tips for places to explore on our own.
Learning something about a city brings it to life for me. The tidbits I remember are completely random—for example, Marshall Fields is responsible for the slogan, “The customer is always right.” And my favorite insider tip? The former Chicago Athletic Association is the best place in the city for a bird’s eye view of Millenium Park and Lake Michigan.
Millennium Park is a beautiful oasis of gardens and outdoor art in the downtown area. We originally planned to spend a couple of hours in the world-renowned Art Institute of Chicago, but the day was so beautiful we bailed on that idea and spent our time exploring Millennium Park instead.
The park is home to several extraordinary pieces of contemporary sculpture, including Cloud Gate (also known as “The Bean”) which offers a stunning reflection of the city skyline. Meant to look like an enormous drop of liquid mercury, it’s crafted from individual stainless steel plates polished to a seamless finish. It’s a tourist magnet but a truly beautiful one.
We were also taken with the Crown Fountain, a celebration of the people of Chicago. Inspired by historic water-spouting gargoyle sculptures, the artist created two 50-foot glass block towers that display rotating video images of 1,000 Chicago residents who blink their eyes, purse their lips, and spout water. Very unique, and mesmerizing.
Architecture River Tour
Home to the world’s first skyscraper, Chicago is known for its innovative architecture. For full immersion into the dizzying array of buildings that comprise the skyline, we embarked on an afternoon river cruise with the Chicago Architecture Center. It’s like traveling through a river canyon with walls of skyscrapers.
The boat is comfortable and the docents are excellent. If you go, the views from the bow are the best, especially if you’re interested in photography. I don’t know why it took me more than half of the tour to figure that out.
No Pizza, Thank You
With so many appealing food options in Chicago and only one day in the city, we were delighted to find Revival Food Hall downtown. We’ve found cool food halls in Portland, New Orleans, and San Francisco, and appreciate having creative offerings from local restaurants gathered under one roof. We enjoyed our lunch here so much that we stopped by again just before we caught the train home to pick up take-out for dinner.
About The Train To Chicago
The South Shore Train travels between Dune Park Station (right outside the state park) and Millenium Station for only $9.00 (half-price for seniors). It’s a great deal, but…the trip takes 90 minutes each way, and although the name of the line makes it sound like the train travels along the shoreline, it does not. It’s not a scenic trip. We were happy we brought our Kindles along.
Our only regret about Chicago? One day wasn’t nearly enough.
Exploring Indiana Dunes State Park
Indiana Dunes State Park is beautiful. It sits on the south shore of Lake Michigan and is surrounded by Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. For three days, we hiked miles of trails through the forest and the dunes, and there’s still so much we didn’t get to. We are coming back here, for sure. And we’ll also return to Chicago for another day trip.
About The Campground
Indiana Dunes State Park is a great location for exploring the national lakeshore and for a day trip into Chicago. The park itself is lovely, with miles of hiking and biking trails ranging from easy to challenging and a cool network of boardwalks (with very steep stairs!) that traverse the dunes.
The sites are spacious, with level concrete pads. The sites that back up to the dunes look to be the most private, with more vegetation. Electric only, with water spigots throughout, a dump station, clean bathhouses, and good Verizon.
Our former home town and you captured the sites so beautifully! Imagine the pools in front of the fountains full of children of all ages splashing on a summer day, or sitting in the grass at the Gehry bandshell listening to a concert as the skies darken and the city lights come up. Or the river full of kayaks or even dyed emerald green on St Patty’s day. Ahhh, truly some of my favorite things!
Leah, what a wonderful city to have as your former hometown! Love your description of the special memories that you have. We definitely want to return, and hope to experience some of the things you described.
And for next time … a program called Chicago Greeters— free, private walking tours almost anywhere (neighborhood, outdoor art, etc.) you want to go with vetted volunteers.
That’s a great insider tip! Thank you so much.
Shelly’s sister lives in a high rise on the Chicago River overlooking Millinium Park. We get downtown a few times a year. Our son lives in Park Ridge near O’Hare.
Pat, how lucky you are to have such a cool place to visit family! And with a view of Millennium Park!
Great photos of the city! Tent camped somewhere near Chicago years ago and took a day trip into town. Had a fun day and we were impressed but haven’t been back. Hope to talk Jim into another Midwest trip one of these years.
I’m glad you enjoyed the photos, Gayle. We’ve been pleasantly surprised by our travels through the Midwest and Chicago was fabulous. We’ll happily return!
You did such a fantastic job photographing and explaining this city! I confess I have never had Chicago on my “to see” list but you’ve changed my mind!!
How did you find the Free Tours by Feet? Was this through the Welcome Center? Just curious if they have such in other cities! Great idea, great deal!!
Sorry I’ve been missing for awhile but Mike is getting better and now I have time to read and comment!! It’s good to be back!!
Thanks, Geri, and welcome back! Glad to know that Mike is feeling better. We first discovered Free Tours by Foot while visiting New Orleans. Check their website—they offer tours in most big cities (and even in small popular cities, like Charleston). Every tour we’ve taken with them has been excellent. Booking for the tours is online—they’re popular, so be sure to book ahead.
Dave and I spent a fair amount of time in Chicago in our “other life” so I really enjoyed reading this blog. We’d fly in and out of there and always planned a few day layover to spend in the city. The Crown Fountain wasn’t there in those days – What a hoot!!!!!! I loved the architecture tour very much, especially having an architecture-crazy child with us often. (He grew up to get a Master’s degree in Architecture!)
Have you ever read “The Devil in the White City”? If not, you might try it. I read it after a trip to the city and enjoyed the story very much (if you’re interested in the city’s history and architecture woven into non-fiction literature).
Great blog and great pictures, as usual!
Thanks for the book recommendation, Sue. I love reading books about cities we visit. I can understand why you would plan layovers in Chicago. And how cool that Jesse was along with you to experience and be inspired by the remarkable architecture! You would love the Crown Fountain. So fun to watch the faces change. :-)
Ahhh what a great post on Chicago!! I lived there for 20 years and I must say, long cold winters aside it is an INCREDIBLE city with SO much to offer. The architecture is of course top notch, as is the Chicago Art Institute (for which you absolutely will have to go back to see), and of course the miles and miles of beautiful and each one different, beaches – which stretch from the city all the way up to the Northern suburbs. Each has its own character, with the ones close to the city sporting some incredible views of the skyline.
Another thing I love love about Chicago is the ethnic diversity. Our favorites for food are the well established authentic China town, Devon street (extensive Indian neighborhood), Argyle street for Vietnamese food, and I am just scratching the surface…
Your photos and description are wonderful and am so glad that you took the Architectural river tour and enjoyed yourselves so much. Chicago definitely has its share of issues and problems, but from a cultural point of view it is way up there… architecture, art, ethnicity, and for sure food.
Thank you, Peta—I’m so glad you enjoyed our little tour of a city you know so well! We definitely want to return, and I appreciate your suggestions for beaches and good food. And the Art Institute is absolutely on our list—it was hard for me to pass that up, but the day was so beautiful, and Millennium Park was calling.
Been to Chicago three times in my previous life for business and pleasure but your great post showed me a different perspective and some new things/places to see. Love the architecture and that fountain is a hoot! I don’t think it was there during my visit. The next time you visit, you may check out the dinosaur that was excavated from Fruita, CO.
I remembered that boardwalk at Indiana Dunes SP, but the beach looks empty.
ML, we would stay at Indiana Dunes again (it’s so beautiful!) but maybe get an Airbnb for a night or two to spend more time in the city. And yes, we would like to see the famous dinosaur! We’ve heard the Natural History Museum is fantastic.
We made a stop to spend some time checking out Chicago as we traveled back and forth across the country. Finding a place to stay with an RV isn’t easy. I think my favorite part was riding our bikes along the lake and looking up at the city. Such a strange sight. You did a lot in your day trip into the city. Beautiful spot to park and taking the train in was perfect.
Pam, whenever we can we prefer staying outside of a big city with our RV and traveling in by train/ferry/whatever. We’ve had good luck with that in New Orleans, San Francisco, and Chicago. I’d love to bike along the lake!
Wow, you guys pack a lot into one day! Chicago is one of my favorite cities. If it wasn’t for the winters…and the summers…. I’d live there in a minute! Every time we’ve been there, we’ve marveled at the architecture. So many cities have such dull buildings, but just about every building in Chicago’s downtown is interesting and unique and beautiful. So cool. I also love all the history and the diversity and the team loyalty… things that make a city feel like a real city and not just a place that transient workers live in for a couple years before moving elsewhere. I’m with you though on the pizza thing. I’d choose something else over the deep dish pizza (read:casserole) any day….
Having grown up in Northern Illinois, we visited Chicago hundreds of times. Glad you loved the Windy City too! You captured the beauty well. Thanks for the review of the park….looks great!
You must know the city really well, Debbie. It’s surprising to me how many people who read this blog either lived there or have spent a lot of time in Chicago. If you head back that way, Indiana Dunes is a great place to stay.
Haha, we do kind of pack a lot in, Laura! We figured we only had one day so we hit the ground running. I agree with you, if it wasn’t for the winters and summers, Chicago seems like the perfect city. We saw just enough to make us want to return for more! (But still, no deep dish pizza.)
I fell in love with Chicago on my first visit (early ’80’s) and it never fails to amaze me! Thanks for sharing so many views I’ve missed and many new ones I’d love to see “up close”.
I can understand how you fell in love with Chicago, Betty. We were pretty enamored with the city, too! I’m happy we were able to share some new places with you. :-)
Glad to hear you enjoyed my ‘home’ town. My folks lived within walking distance to the train station in the western suburbs (the home I grew up in), so taking the train into the city was a common occurrence for me. The Art Institute and Field Museum are so worth visiting. And riding your bike along the Lake Shore is always a fun excursion. Thanks for a wonderful tour of ‘my’ city!
So glad you enjoyed our tour of your former city, Ingrid. We are planning to return, and biking the lakeshore and visiting both museums are on our list. Thanks for the recommendations!
Eric and Laurel: Valparaiso, In., was my home for 49 years, so the Indiana Dunes State Park was our playground and we swam in Lake Michigan–only in August!!! Chicago was our city, and afforded us opera, symphony (Chicago Symphony Orchestra was tops among the world’s orchestras) and ballet, all of which we attended. It was a wonderful area in which to live and raise our family. Thanks for sharing.
Barbara, we’re so happy to hear from you! It sounds like you have many wonderful memories of Indiana Dunes State Park and Chicago. It does seem like a wonderful place to live. Hope to see you next year when we travel east!
Wonderful photos of a most beautiful city. We have to go back and do the river tour and spend more time exploring. Love that pic of you in front of the bean – very chic!!
90 minutes on the train sounds long, but the price is great given the price of parking in the city!
Thanks, Jodee. I had forgotten that you drove your motorhome through Chicago. You are a brave woman!! If you return, the train is a great option for getting into the city—and no parking trauma or sticker shock!
The lightrail makes going into a big city much more pleasant. Chicago looks grand with so much to offer.
We had a blast in Chicago, Debbie. We only scratched the surface!
Hey you finally made it to Chitown as some call it. Chicago is a beautiful city to explore along the lake & some of the neighborhoods close to the lake are interesting with architecture that represents the people who settled there originally. Of course after the Chicago fire much was rebuilt. It is a great city to walk. Thanks for all the photos to remember the city by & next time be sure to hit the Art Institute. Happy trails!
How fun to hear from you, Penny! Yes, we finally made it to Chicago, and we loved it. I thought of you while we were there. :-) Thanks for the great ideas for our next visit—you know how much we enjoy walking, and it would be fun to explore the lakeshore and the neighborhoods. And the Art Institute is on our list. We definitely need at least a few days!
Super header picture of Chicago. So artistic you should market it to Chicago Chamber of Commerce. It along with your enticing description might ALMOST make even me want to go there. I’m with you on the Fox. Great picture of you two in front of Chagall. You look so healthy and happy. Makes me smile. Never heard of or seen “the bean”. Great pictures. I can see by your dress that it’s fall there. Sheesh I wish it were here. It’s the almost the middle of October for heaven’s sake. But then I forget, when were you there? Water spouting gargoyles? You find the most interesting things including the boat tour. Indiana Dunes is the park I missed in the Midwest. Too close to Chicago LOL! Back on my bucket list after this post. Your pictures are fantastic.
Thanks, Sherry. I’m glad you enjoyed the post—I know you’re kind of allergic to cities, but Chicago is really beautiful and interesting. And being able to take the train into the city from such a beautiful state park is the best! Yes, you need to put Indiana Dunes back on your list and try to get there for the birding festival in May. That’s when we want to return.
One day in Chicago is better than none, and you covered a lot! A week was barely enough for Steven, so returning (who knows when??) is at the top of his list! Great photos!
Thanks, Linda. :-) I can understand how even a week in Chicago wouldn’t be enough! We were happy we made the decision to go into the city, and I’d love to return for more exploring.
Having grown up in a little town about 60 miles from Chicago, it was always a treat to go to the big city. It is also great fun to get a room in one of the high-rise hotels overlooking the river during the Christmas holidays, when the city is aglow with twinkling lights. If it wasn’t so windy and so cold during the winter, it might be a neat place to live. Sending good thoughts for your parents as those affected by the recent hurricane are evaluating their new lives. What a scary and sad situation.
LuAnn, I can only imagine how beautiful Chicago is during the holiday season. And cold!! Thanks for your concern about my folks—they made it through the hurricane intact, although it hasn’t been easy being without power and water. Apalachicola was hit hard, but nothing like Mexico Beach. Truly devastating.
You hit the highlights of Chicago for sure! Your photos are beautiful. I have been to Chicago several times, and had a blast each time I visited. Our daughters took the architectural boat tour also. They said they learned so much on that tour. The city look gorgeous from the boat.
Indiana Dunes State Park looks like a great place to hike. Not too many leaves are changing colors yet. I bet it would be awesome to hike with the fall colors in the air.
Thanks, Marsha—I’m so glad you enjoyed the photos. I agree spending time in Chicago is a blast! Lucky you to be close enough to visit when you feel inclined. I’ll bet the fall colors in Indiana Dunes SP are wonderful. It’s a beautiful place to hike.