Hello from Chicago – what a fabulously photogenic city

I woke up at 5:00 AM Chicago time yesterday and thought I might as well get ahead of the crowd at Arlington House Youth Hostel and take an early shower. At 6 in the morning I was already on the Internet, recording my first impressions of this exciting city and at 6:30 in the morning I had already left the hostel. It was still quite dark outside and the sun was slowly starting to rise.

I walked through the quiet neighborhood of Lincoln Park until I reached the shore of Lake Michigan, where the cool wind howled from the lake. Runners, cyclists and motor walkers were already in full swing. I walked for about 15 minutes, but when the wind got too strong I decided to take a bus and head south to a neighborhood called “Old Town” near North Street and N. Wells Street. It’s a neat, well-kept neighborhood of historic homes and the location of the Second City Comedy Club, a place that has spawned so many comedy talents.

After a brisk morning walk through the old town, I got back on the el-train train and went to visit the center. I got off at the Loop and headed toward the Michigan Avenue and Grant Park opening. Curiously the wind between the buildings
in the Loop it was much stronger than in the open areas along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Michigan Avenue and Grant Park are one of the areas where the beauty of Chicago is most striking. Daniel Burnham’s 1909 city plan that preserved an abundance of green space right on the Lake Michigan shoreline was a brilliant decision, with visitors and local residents alike benefitting from the vast parkland between the Loop and the lake. Grant Park’s beginnings actually date back to 1835, when forward-thinking citizens, fearing lakefront commercial development, lobbied to protect the open space. Burnham’s vision of the park as a formal landscape with museums and civic buildings came to fruition: Today Grant Park is home to 3 of the city’s most distinguished museums: the Field Museum of Natural History, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Adler Planterium.

The Buckingham Fountain is the centerpiece of Grant Park, the city’s great “front yard,” and is set within a beautiful landscaped garden, one of the city’s finest examples of Beaux-Arts-style landscape design. It is an exact replica of the Versailles fountain, barely twice the size, and by those measurements it is one of the largest free-standing fountains in the world.

At the north end of Grant Park is Millenium Park, with an investment of 495 million dollars, the most ambitious public company in Chicago. Unsightly train tracks and parking lots became an outdoor multimedia entertainment area in recent years. Among the highlights of Millennium Park are the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the most sophisticated open-air concert hall of its kind in the United States; a winding, mirror-clad bridge over Stetson Street, designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry; and “Cloud Gate” (“The Bean”), a very popular sculpture inspired by liquid mercury, designed by British artist Anish Kapoor. On this beautiful sunny morning, the reflections of the city’s skyscrapers had an almost surreal feel.

I still had about an hour and a half before my friend Linda arrived at the Randolph Street station, so I decided to head north on Michigan Avenue toward two of my favorite buildings: the Wrigley Building and the Chicago Tribune Tower. The Wrigley Building serves as the headquarters of the Wrigley (chewing gum) company and was built in 1920 by the company’s founder, William Wrigley Jr. It was the first in a series of landmarks at the southern end of the Magnificent Mile.

The design of the Tribune Tower was the result of an international competition for “the most beautiful office building in the world”, held in 1922 by the Chicago Tribune newspaper. The various entries in the competition proved extremely influential for the development of skyscraper architecture in the 1920s. The winning work, with a tower topped by flying buttresses, is derived from the design of the French Rouen Cathedral and gives the building its striking silhouette.

The area around the Michigan Avenue Bridge and the esplanade facing west along the Chicago River is an absolute mecca for an architecture buff like myself. You will find a mix of classic skyscrapers, many of them built in the Art Deco style, as well as more modern skyscrapers built over the last 30 years. This has to be one of the most impressive urban views out there.

I continued walking west on Wacker Drive and passed through several streets from north to south that connect the Loop with the areas north of downtown. I wanted to capture another fascinating building: Merchandise Mart, an impressive building on the north bank of the Chicago River between Wells and Orleans Street, it was built in 1931. At that time, when it was built by Marshall Field and Company to replace HH Ricardson. Marshall Field Wholesale, was the building with the largest constructed area in the world and today it is the second largest building in the United States after the Pentagon.

A little hop on the train later I got off at Randolph Street to pick up my friend Linda, who was scheduled to arrive at 10:25 am on the South Shore rail line. We have known each other since we were 10 years old (almost 30 years old!) And we grew up in Austria, and Linda herself moved to the United States a few years ago. We hadn’t seen each other in 2 years and this was the time to reconnect.

Linda was a few minutes late and, after a heartfelt greeting, we headed to the Chicago Cultural Center to try to get a 3-day transit pass. To our surprise, we were told that the closest location for multi-day transit passes was the Marriot Hotel at 549 North Michigan Avenue, about a 20 minute walk north of where we were. We were a bit surprised that it was so inconvenient for visitors coming to the Loop to purchase transit passes, but we left with Linda’s suitcase in tow and were finally able to pick up our coveted 3-day transit pass on the second floor. Gift shop of the Marriot Hotel.

We decided to get rid of Linda’s luggage and headed north to the youth hostel on the bus. By that time it was around noon and we were both ravenously hungry. So we stopped at a cozy place called “Pasta Bowl” on Clark Street and had some really delicious gorgonzola pasta that I completely devoured.

From there we went back to Arlington House, left Linda’s luggage and rested a bit as we were both quite tired after this hearty lunch. At 4pm we hit the road again and headed for the Golden Mile, Chicago’s main shopping area along Michigan Avenue, north of the Chicago River. The place was absolutely packed with people. We picked up a small gift for Linda’s daughter at H&M and then headed to the John Hancock Center, the third tallest building in Chicago.

The view from the John Hancock Center was incredible and the sun was getting ready to set. The Chicago skyline is impressive, topped by the Sears Tower. After our high-altitude excursion, we took a walk down Michigan Avenue and for dinner we headed back to the Lincoln Park area, where we had a very hearty Mexican veggie burrito dinner on Lincoln Avenue.

Exhausted from exploring and eating, we returned to Arlington House to sleep on our bunk …

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