When my girlfriend and I started planning this trip we initially only pencilled in a few days in Chicago before catching the Californian Zephyr across country then after researching the city a bit more (our CSI:NY obsession helped too when Mac Taylor returned to his city!!) it was clear we needed extra time, so three days became eight. Chicago sits beside Lake Michigan and is known as "the Windy City" but this year it has seen a cold snap of epic scale in the form of a rare polar vortex, the lake is all but frozen, the beaches and roads covered with snow and temperatures as low as -25. We've arrived shortly after these events (but still very cold) and with this in mind we looked for tourist spots, specifically inside things to do and came across the "City Pass".
The Chicago City Pass is a must for anyone spending an adequate amount of time in the city, for $89 you get access to five attractions, two of which you have alternate choices/substitutes on (can replace with Adler Planetarium or Museum of Science and Industry), not only are you saving money (most attractions start approx. at $20 and rise to $35) you also go straight to any queue, which come summer months will be invaluable. Below are the attractions we visited:
The Field Museum: Opened in 1893, the Field Museum is one of the largest natural history museums in the world. Now, as an a chap from London who has had London's Natural History Museum on his door for much of his life I won't lie, for me it's not as grand or impressive however it is still very much worth a trip (imagine kids will love it), has some great exhibitions including (at time of writing) one about World Fair and how the museum came to be. The ticket comes with a 3D movie that explains the museums past and it's famous resident "Sue", the most complete T-Rex in the world and who doesn't like a dinosaur or two? Of course you do and upstairs is an abundance of them and it's all housed in a beautiful building right by the lake.
The Willis Tower: the tallest building in America, the Willis Tower (formally Sears Tower) consists of 110 floors, 4.56 million sq ft and cost more than $175 million to build, and on the 103rd floor you can go up and view the city 360 degrees and test your steel by stepping into one of the glass boxes that sits out from the building and allows you to look back down those 103 floors you just shot up in the elevator. It's one of the most popular attractions as it's become a highly visible icon on the skyline, there were 3 hour queues when we arrived which, thanks to the City Pass we skipped right to the front of. The views are magnificent, it's well run and it's open till late to get that sunset over the city.
The John Hancock Observatory: the Hancock is "the other tower" in Chicago, it's stands tall at the top of the "Magnificent Mile" and casts it's Darth Vader/stealthy shadow over all below it. It hosts offices, a massive Best Buy a Cheesecake Factory, and on the 94th floor is the observatory boasting an open air skywalk and views of the Magnificent Mile and beyond. Sadly, the Skywalk is currently closed as is large parts of the floor, which at no point was highlighted or explained... I had to ask where the Skydeck was to be told it was closed which was a disappointment, however the views from the other windows are pretty spectacular and still warrant the admission for me. We stayed at the coffee shop on the 94th floor and watched the stunning sunset and the city turn it's lights on. The Hancock will soon be renamed the "360" and the Skydeck will include a "tipping platform" so come summer expect a lot of queues!!! Personally, this has the best views of the City.
Shedd Aquarium: The snow was coming, the temperature was dropping so we fled to the Aquarium. Opened in 1929 the aquarium is host to more than 32,500 animals and is the largest indoor aquarium in the world it sits next to Lake Michigan, the Field Museum and Observatory (another option with the CityPass). Without the Citypass it costs approx $34 to enter and do all the things the pass allows: 4D movie, amphitheatre show and access to the "Jellies" exhibit. It's a big day out with lots to do and see. The amphitheatre show explains the care and training of the dolphins and Beluga whales, there's an underwater viewing section, sharks, an impressive Amazon section.... It's a big place. I've never been to an Aquarium like this so for me, it was a real treat with the Beluga whales being the highlight! Also while there go say "hello" to "Guinness" the resident alligator snapping turtle......... he's the massive dinosaur looking thing!!
Art Institute of Chicago: Established in 1879 the Art Instituate houses approx 3m works of art, the building sits inbetween Millennium Park (think the "Bean" and Gehry's architectural pavilion) and Grant Park, and is a mixture of old meets new in its sprawling three levels. The museum shows everything from photography (which was disappointing), ancient artefacts, contemporary works and the largest collection of French Impressionism outside of France. It's $23 to enter without the CityPass and we spent at least 4 hours there, it's that expansive a collection. Cannot recommend this enough, photography aside (there's the Museum for Contemporary photography down the road for that anyway) there is many highlights: six of the fifthteen Monet Haystacks series, Pollocks, a HUGE Andy Warhol and the stunning "La Grande Jatte" by Georges Seurat to name a few and if those don't interest you something there will.
So that's it five days, five attractions for $89 a saving of about (give or take depending on what you choose to see) $30 if bought separately. Apart from a few minor niggles, each attraction we have seen was superb and kept us warm from the cold and gave us some great memories of this wonderful City.
Further blog with photo's and few extras will be coming at the end of the stay here as have two more days to fill....... Shouldn't be hard!