I just got back from a long weekend in Chicago. The event was the marriage of a friend I’ve known for over two decades. She moved to Chicago in the late 90s for school and I’ve visited her probably a dozen times by now. It’s good to get out of Portland and go to a bona fide big city every now and then. I love the diversity of people and neighborhoods Chicago has to offer. The museums, the atmosphere, the ease of getting around, the food – I fall a little more in love with Chicago every time I visit!
What to Do
Number one on any art lover’s list is to visit The Art Institute! I plan every visit to Chicago around the AI. There is something for everyone, and you will see recognizable painting after painting. To gaze at Georgia O’Keefe’s “Sky Above the Clouds,” Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” up close and personal will take your breath away. ($25 adult admission)
Worth noting: If you’re a hungry vegan in the Art Institute, Caffe Moderno on the 2nd floor balcony always has a vegan tomato white bean soup, served with a wedge of herbed focaccia. A bowl is $6 and surprisingly delicious!
It’s free, it’s huge – it’s Lincoln Park. There’s a zoo, a conservatory and plenty of greenery with skyscrapers on the horizon. The perfect city park! Take the North Avenue bus to the lake beach and wander around a bit, then walk over to the park. Yes, there is a small but nice beach and Lake Michigan is so huge, it really does feel like an ocean beach. We didn’t have a chance to squeeze it in, but the Chicago History Museum at the edge of Lincoln Park has changing exhibits and plenty of boat and walking tours, including ones for nearby Old Town and the Gold Coast.
I went on a river architecture tour from the Chicago Architecture Foundation last time I was in town and I cannot recommend this highly enough. There are many options of boat tours in Chicago, but this is the real deal lead by endorsed docents.
If you don’t have a lot of time or money, just walk around on your own and take in the sights. That’s what we did since we didn’t have time for a Chicago History Museum walking tour. We wandered Old Town and the Gold Coast on our own. There are informational plaques if you keep your eyes peeled where you can get quick history lessons.
The 3-day (actually 72-hour) CTA pass is an excellent value at $20. When you arrive at the airport, there is always a CTA employee at the line of ticket machines. Ask them to point out which machine will dispense passes without having to purchase a Ventra card for $5. It doesn’t make a lot of sense why some machines do this and others don’t, but whatever. The El trains get you where you need to go, but I suggest trying out the buses. They are clean, the routes are super convenient and you don’t have to walk down into the hothouse dungeons below to catch the subway. Lyft and Uber vehicles are plentiful. Don’t rent a car as the scant parking available in most downtown neighborhoods costs a small fortune.
Where to Stay
I’m definitely a hostel person, although I’ve grown up enough to want a private room and bathroom. I usually stay in the Printer’s Row area of town, but this time I stayed in Wicker Park to be close to the wedding ceremony. The Holiday Jones on Division was clean, orderly and in a great location. It is not a party hostel, and would have been the absolute quietest hostel I’ve ever stayed in save the slamming doors. I believe the quick-shutting and snapping doors are a safety measure, but it’s impossible to sleep through a door slamming every minute, even with earplugs. I did hear from others staying in hotels twice as expensive as our hostel that it was loud, too. I think Chicago is just loud. The people talk loud, the accommodations are loud, the music was blaring in every single place we ate – okay, that’s the thing I don’t like about Chicago.
Update on The Vegan Scene
Like my cat, Elmo, I am obsessed with food. We just get each other, the kitty and me. I already knew where I’d want to eat upon landing – Chicago Diner at Logan Square. Not only was it on the Blue Line on the way to our hostel (California stop), I’d read the accounts of the vegan milkshakes and decided we had to try them. Before we even ate, we split a large chocolate chip cookie dough shake and WOW. Justly famous! The veganized pierogi quesadilla ($12) was interesting and my mushroom lentil loaf ($14) was a nice dose of protein, but both were so-so. The country fried seitan steak looked delicious and huge, and that’s definitely something I’d recommend you try. I would’ve gone back and had it, but we didn’t have a chance this time around.
A shocker! Apparently Karyn’s Raw and Cooked is closed! I was so excited to take my husband there, but all that greeted us at the familiar haunt on North Halstead was a dusty, empty building. However, we quickly took a cab over to Vegan Plate (1550 W Fullerton Ave – near the Ashland bus line) and had an excellent Thai meal. Chris had Drunken Noodles with soy fish and I had the Praram plate with soy chicken (both dinner combos with miso soup, salad and fried spring rolls, $12.95). We normally always go with tempeh and tofu, so we wanted to try something new. Everything was fresh, bursting with flavor and not the least bit greasy. There’s a large Regal movie theater just a few blocks away if you want to do dinner and movie.
Equally good as Vegan Plate but a different kind of Mexican-inspired menu is Handlebar (2311 W North Ave – on the North Ave bus line, kind of near Damen on the Blue Line). The pepita scramble ($9.75) is the most popular vegetarian/vegan dish and is worth the hype. The French toast stix ($8.75) were also flavorful and perfectly portioned. Very friendly and helpful staff. Bonus: they open at 9am for brunch on Saturday and Sunday. When we got there around 9:30 on Saturday, the place was pretty empty inside. Next time, I’m definitely going to try the cocktails, fried pickles and the chimichanga, which can be veganized!
Scone City (1632 W Division- near the Blue Line Division stop) was near our hostel, so we went there for coffee and a snack on Sunday morning. They had two vegan scones, a strawberry-pineapple one and a lemon-blueberry one. They were amazing and the coffee was delicious to boot.
Verdict: Chicago of course has plenty of vegan options – and an average of 25% cheaper than Portland.