After walking past a homeless man sporting a mask on Michigan Avenue, it was evident why Chicago quickly reached Phase 4 status. The City of the Big Shoulders is taking the pandemic seriously, which is why America’s third-largest city should be on your travel radar.
Why visit Chicago? Round-trip airfare can be had for less than $200 from Spokane. We found a weekend fare for $197.80 departing Spokane International Airport. Much of Chicago is open, which can’t be said for other cosmopolitan cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and Austin.
There is plenty to enjoy in one of America’s first-class towns. Food and Chicago go hand in hand. The restaurants are reason enough to visit the capital of the Midwest. There are deals, and the bistros are considerably less than capacity.
A great place to start is About Last Knife (312-392-2440, 168 Michigan Ave., alkchicago.com), a clever play on the classic Chicago play and movie “About Last Night” from generations ago (the 1986 film with Rob Lowe and the 2014 remake with Kevin Hart).
ALK is housed in the Hotel Julian, which is apt since Saint Julian is the patron saint of hospitality and travelers. Hotel Julian (312-346-1200, 168 Michigan Ave., hoteljulianchicago.com), which is centrally located steps from Millennium Park, is offering autumn deals. It’s 30% off, just $69 a night for much of September for a comfortable two-bedroom.
Just take the elevator down to the lobby for a memorable meal at ALK. The signature dish, Wellington by the slice ($26), is a must for carnivores. Even during a pandemic, the tender English pie made of filet steak wrapped in parma ham and puff pastry, is delicious. The lamb lollichops ($26) and grilled Spanish octopus ($18) are go-to appetizers.
The Purple Pig (312-464-1744, 444 Michigan Ave., thepurpepigchicago.com), which is on the “Magnificent Mile,” doesn’t sound like a top-notch bistro, but it’s heaven for foodies. The pork belly with ginger glaze, carrot and espresso ($24) is sublime, and so is the milk-braised pork shoulder ($21).
The house-made hot dog ($19) coated with foie gras butter, pear mustard and black truffle, makes a mockery of the common and ubiquitous Chicago hot dog served all over the city. You won’t stop talking about the smoked pork tongue with tonnato sauce and salad Olivier ($15). However, nothing touches the half duck ($32), which is tender, tangy and otherworldly.
Chicago’s legendary deep dish pizza is difficult to decline, and locals love Lou Malnati’s (312-725-7777, 1120 N. State St., loumalnatis.com). The deep dish Malnati classic – lean sausage, extra mozzarella and vine-ripened tomato sauce baked in buttercrust ($28.75) – serves four people. It isn’t for those on a diet, but you’re on vacation!
For those who are health conscious and still want to experience a great tasting pie, there’s “Deep Dish the Lou” ($29.95), which serves four people. It’s spinach mixed with garlic, basil, onion, mushrooms and sliced tomatoes covered with three cheeses. The pizza goes a long way. It’s wise to order appetizers after dinner, since it’s doubtful you’ll still be hungry.
If you’re in a hurry, try Wow Bao (773-279-5216, 200 N. Michigan Ave., waobao.com), a chain of stores that serves hot Asian buns. The BBQ pork bao (two bao are $4.99) and the kung pao chicken bowl ($7.99) did the trick. For dessert, coconut bao (two bao are $4.99) is mandatory.
Apart from food, there is plenty to do in Chicago. For those enamored of the written word, there is the American Writers Museum (312-374-8790, 180 N. Michigan Ave., americanwritersmuseum.org, $14 for adults, $9 for seniors and students and free for those 12 and under), which is about 15 steps from Hotel Julian. It’s a self-guided tour.
Check out the Chicago writers exhibit. It’s aptly titled “Visionaries and Troublemakers.” It ranges from novelists like Saul Bellow to journalists such as Mike Royko. The latter, a fearless and funny columnist, inspired myriad journalism majors. Also, check out the tribute to the late, great film critic Roger Ebert.
The Children’s Literature Gallery is a fun way for kids to learn about classics such as “Charlotte’s Web” and a variety of Dr. Seuss favorites. The Mind of a Writer Gallery is an interactive section of the library that can be enjoyed for hours.
Contribute to the story of the day. Each morning, a staffer selects an opening line from a poem, novel or short story, and visitors can take the story in any direction. There are a number of cool interactive games in which you can compete with friends or family to fill in the gaps with scripts. It’s a look into the mind of a writer and an appreciation of words.
Chicago is a city to be seen, and there are a variety of ways to accomplish that feat. You can embark on a Shoreline Sightseeing Architecture Cruise Tour (312-222-9328, 600 E. Grand Ave., shorelinesightseeing.com) on the Chicago River. Your tour ($37), which features a guide detailing the array of Chicago structures, is a relaxed way to get to know the Second City.
You also could try a more active run with a history tour of Chicago via Urban Kayaks (312-965-0035, 435 E. Chicago Riverwalk, urbankayaks/chicago.com). A guide provides details as you paddle your way through the Chicago River for $65.
A popular way to view the city aka “The Third Coast” is from above. Visit 360 Chicago (888-875-8439, 875. N. Michigan Ave., 360chicago.com) and take an elevator to the 94th floor in the Hancock Building for a view of the skyscrapers and Lake Michigan from the 17,000-square-foot observation deck. It’s $25 for adults, $15 ages 3-11 and free for 2 and younger.
And you can always just hang out in Millennium Park, which is off what passes for bustle on Michigan Avenue. It’s a serene scene as folks sunbathe on the grass.
There is no city quite like Chicago. There’s a distinct food scene and a downtown that keeps pushing upward. A new skyscraper, which will be the tallest in the world, is in the works, and the residents are so friendly, they seem to be right out of the Pacific Northwest. Chicago is well worth the visit at the present price.
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