Tuesday 2 February 2016

USA Travel Review: Chicago Part 2

If you missed Part 1, you can find it here.

The one sight in Chicago that I think is unmissable is the Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower. The viewing platform at the top is called Skydeck Chicago and it really is amazing. Once the tallest building in the world, it has now dropped back to 8th place but is still the tallest building in the western hemisphere. The viewing level is 1,353 feet up in the air, and has been open to the public since the 1970s - but more recently, I guess the owners decided they needed to do something else to attract tourists, now there are so many other tall buildings you can go up. So they added a viewing platform on the 103rd floor that juts out from the tower itself, so you are standing over... nothing.

It has a glass floor and glass walls so you are effectively standing in a glass box that extends about 4 feet from the side of the tower. We went there at 10.30am on a weekday - I'd read advice not to go first thing in case there was still early morning fog - and there weren't that many people there at all. What I liked though was that everyone queued for one of the two glass viewing platforms, so each person could have their photo taken standing over nothingness, without strangers being in the shot. So we got some amazing pictures!

It cost $20 each to get in but was well worth it - there is lots of information to read, a full 360 degree of Chicago and maps showing what you are looking at - even for someone who doesn't know the city at all it was really interesting. Chicago is quite a flat city so you can see for miles.

After this we went to Millennium Park - a huge park where various events take place (while we were there we saw a triathlon, and there is an ice rink in winter) and home to some amazing landmarks which also shouldn't be missed. The Field Museum, which I've already written about, is at the far end of the park along with the Shedd aquarium and Adler Planetarium. About half way down the park is the Buckingham Fountain, which we passed in a taxi on our way to the Field museum. You could walk the length of the park but I wouldn't recommend it on a very hot day - it's over a mile from the top of the park to the Field Museum.

At the very top of the park, literally just on the main road (E Randolph St) is the Cloud Gate. This is also known as the 'Bean', a sculpture produced ten years ago by the British Indian artist Anish Kapoor. It's made up of 168 stainless steel plates welded together with no visible seam; it's a smooth, curved bean shape fixed at each end with a gap underneath. It has a distortion effect - a bit like a fairground mirror - and if you stand in front you get some fantastic photos. Try it on all sides - on one side you have a reflection of the park and on another, of skyscrapers. And don't forget to walk underneath and look up for a totally different experience!

The Crown Fountain is also here - a reflecting pool between two towers that have video screens showing the faces of Chicago residents, and every so often water starts spouting out of their mouths. It's a popular meeting spot and great for kids to play in the water!

We managed to completely miss Wrigley Square which is also close by and from the pictures I've seen is worth stopping at.

After seeing so much in one morning we wanted a rest and some lunch, so ate at the nearest place - the Park Grill. It's quite expensive for what it is, but it's clearly a prime tourist spot and you can sit outside, which was lovely on a hot September day. The only slight drawback was the service - we entered, couldn't see an staff so sat down at a table, only to be told by a waiter that we had come in a side entrance (which wasn't clear), and had to go round to the front entrance and wait to be seated. So we did, only to be met by a different waiter who took us to the exact table we had just been sitting at!

The menu was a bit odd, in that I had pulled pork which came on its own without a bun, but with some pieces of toast - which I used to make a sandwich - a giant slice of watermelon and a packet of crisps. The pulled pork was delicious though and the watermelon just the thing for a hot day. My fiancé had a chicken burger which also came with a packet of crisps rather than fries.

I'd done some internet research in advance of our trip and discovered something very interesting - the chocolate brownie was actually invented in Chicago! Some ladies who lunched asked the chef at the Palmer House Hotel to make them something like a cake that could be taken in a packed lunch and eaten without mess. The hotel is quite rightly proud of that little piece of history and sells chocolate brownies that you can eat in or take away - we were directed to the lobby bar, where I purchased three beautifully packaged brownies to go. They even give you a little card with the original recipe - which is absolutely delicious!

After returning to our hotel and a brief rest - when we ate the brownies - my mother-in-law and I decided we wanted to go shopping, while my fiancé decided to stay behind with his book. We took a taxi to the Water Tower Shopping Centre which had a big Macy's - every time she goes to the US, my MIL stocks up on good value children's clothes for her grandchildren. As Macy's had a sale on I bought a few things for friends' children myself, but didn't find any clothes I liked.

I bought some Garretts Popcorn, which Chicago is known for, from a stand in the shopping centre - it was really good - and was glad I asked for a small bag as it was huge! I then browsed around the American Girl shop as I'd heard of it and we have nothing like this in the UK - you can take your doll to the hospital to have a broken arm fixed, to the salon to get its hair cut and even get your doll's ear pierced!

Across the street there is a Hersheys store which is fun to browse and buy gifts though they are quite expensive and if you just want regular Hersheys bars I would get them from a supermarket. They do have the world's largest Hersheys bar, which costs $50 (and wasn't actually as big as I was expecting) and an awesome milk shake and cupcake bar. I bought a Reese's Pieces chocolate brownie (to die for), a Cookies and Cream cupcake and a chocolate cupcake, which the three of us shared between us later - very rich but very good!

 After all that shopping we were too exhausted to go far for dinner. When my mother-in-law stayed at this hotel before, she was on her own so didn’t venture far away for meals, and ate more than once at Bijan’s Bistro across the road. She liked it so suggested we went there together.
The restaurant looked quite high end, with thick table cloths and napkins and a large menu the size of a book; I was expecting it to perhaps be a French restaurant but I would say the food is American with perhaps a French twist. There are dishes like meatloaf, bison burger and macaroni cheese with bacon, but also chicken provencale, herb-roasted trout, and duck a l’orange.

I had trout with roasted potatoes, a sort of hollandaise-like sauce, and mixed peppers and onions which was really nice, and lovely to have something a bit different from the heavier food I'd had. My fiancé had a burger while his mum had a baked brie with a watermelon salad which looked very good. I wasn't going to have dessert after the chocolate brownie and cake I'd already had today but my fiancé and his mum wanted to share a plate of profiteroles so I had a pecan caramel cheesecake which thankfully was quite a small slice!



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