I hadn’t really given Chicago much thought before we arrived there. It was the final stop on our 11-week trip – and at the thought of returning home to ‘real life’, I was almost too gloomy to contemplate the city of pizza, a reversed-flow river and Al Capone. I was already getting anxious about the flight home, our baggage allowance (exceeded) and how well I’d cope with the end of travelling. I wasn’t prepared for quite how much fun Chicago turned out to be.
For a start, Chicago has the rather cool suburb of Wicker Park. This isn’t the first place you might think of visiting, but for us, it was a must-see. We strolled around the funky little boutique shops, tried donuts from Stan’s by Damen station, and drank an afternoon away at Emporium, playing video games and trying various different hard ciders. It was a perfect lazy city afternoon.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We drove down from Wisconsin to Chi-town, stuck in vast lanes of slow-moving traffic, seeing the high skyline of the city grow ever closer. The sun shone, Lake Michigan glittered and eventually we checked into our art-deco-styled Hampton Inn right at the heart of the Loop. But not before playing the final round of mini golf of our trip, at the spectacular Par-King course in Lincolnshire, Illinois. Thirty-six superb holes of ‘skill golf’ fun. We loved it.
From our base in the centre of the city, we spent our days wandering the city streets, admiring Chicago’s architecture (take the Architecture Foundation tour, a wonderful cruise along that reversed river, with passionate experts telling you why each building is so special). We strolled out to Navy Pier, which was so naff and cheesy and touristy, we were soon strolling back again. We headed out to Shedd Aquarium and admired the sea otters and the sharks.
The Art Institute was wonderful, as was going up the Sears/Willis Tower, a la Ferris Bueller. We ate a huge pizza pie, at the famous Giordano’s, and drank Asahi in the Slurping Turtle on Hubbard. It was a joyful, touristy blitz of this lovely city, which prides itself on its good-time attractions and handsome beaches, washed by the lake’s gentle waves.
On our final evening, we headed back to Wicker Park to close the circle. On our wanderings down Milwaukee Avenue earlier in the week, we’d passed a little izakaya – a traditional Japanese restaurant – called Izakaya Mita. So our last night away from the UK was spent eating okonomiyaki, ramen, gyoza and yakitori and drinking chu-hai cocktails. Rather like our first night in Tokyo… which seemed an awfully long time ago to us as we remembered how shell-shocked we’d been by Japan’s first city’s bright lights and crazed glitz.
But somehow, despite the wonderful vibe of the city, the blue skies, the crowds thronging the streets and parks, we had the spectre of our return home and ‘real life’ hanging over us. Our wonderful sabbatical was almost at an end, and I can’t deny it didn’t tinge our final days in Chicago with sadness.
We wanted to be back at the beginning of our time away, stumbling out of Shinjuku station, eyes wide with alarm as we took in the mad rush around us. Or stood at the top of Mt Mizen having hiked our way up to the top in the early morning sun. Or gazing down Bryce Canyon and its patchwork of wonderful colours. Or swimming in Lake Michigan as the sun went down on another perfect Door County day. Such a plethora of memories… crowned by Chicago, lights ablaze, the moon high above the towers, and Brad and I walking down Magnificent Mile, admiring the graceful buildings, loving the fact we were simply tourists having fun in a city that wasn’t our own. Thank you, Chicago, for being the perfect end to a wonderful three months.