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.