So. Chicago. I have some good impressions and some bad impressions from my trip. I also went into it not knowing much about the city or the area so it was definitely a fresh experience. I hit up mostly touristy spots for the gram to make for some nice photos. I also tried to do as many free things as possible since I'm on a budget to save for Disney. Luckily, Chicago was pretty budget friendly, in my opinion.
The CTA is their public transportation system of buses and trains. Their system is actually built pretty well layout-wise and all trains connect at the heart of the city called the Chicago Loop. I found this to be superior to the MTA in NYC. Having a central hub allowing you to transfer to any line is really helpful. Paris and DC was like this too when I used their transportation system. Unfortunately, for being such a great city, NYC is really archaic in the way our train system is built. For example, Brooklyn and Queens are right next to each other, but to get from one point to another, sometimes you have to take the train all the way through Manhattan to get there. This is really a waste of time to have to travel through another borough when it's literally next door. But for Chicago, I found pretty much any place I needed to get to, relatively easy to navigate.
Google Maps was pretty accurate too in giving me times of the next buses and trains. Everything was pretty closeby too after getting off my bus or train. Chicago is actually a relatively walkable city compared to NYC. They did have delays and re-routing of trains so it's not entirely superior to NYC, but rather comparable.
The prices were actually not too bad, only slightly cheaper than NYC base fares and a 3 day unlimited pass only ran me $20, while in NYC, they did away with the funpass, with the minimum being a 7 day unlimited for $32, which isn't terrible but isn't great when you don't plan to be there for an entire week but just a few days. The CTA offered 1, 3, and 7 day passes which are great for travelers. Their 7 day, is actually also cheaper than NYC, at $28.
Another thing I appreciate is, unlike NYC, Chicago's CTA is connected to their airports, making it easy for travelers to get to and from the airport. NYC sucks at this. We don't have a direct line to JFK or Laguardia.
I tried their famous deep dish at Giordano's, the hot dogs at Portillo's, bbq at Chicago Q, and had brunch at Maison Marcel's. Also tried Chinatown's noodle soup, Fuh, and their Halal guys location in Chicago.
The deep dish was good, but I don't consider it deep dish. It was basically eating a casserole. We ordered pasta, salad, mozzarella sticks, cheesy bread and a deep dish pie at Giordano's. It was a long day of traveling and we were pretty hungry. The pasta looked good in pictures but when it came out, it became another IG vs reality moment. It wasn't as good as it looked nor tasted as good. I found it rather bland and had to add extra parm and pepper to spice it up. The salad was good though and I couldn't stop munching on it. The mozzarella sticks and cheesy bread was carb heaven. The deep dish took longer than expected to come out, which is funny since we had ordered it way before even being seated. When it got out, we were already loaded on everything else so it was hard to finish.
The hot dogs at Portillo's were pretty good. I never thought to eat them with anything but ketchup but now I think my perspective on that has changed, hahaha. It tasted so much better with mustard, relish, celery salt, onions, tomatoes, and pickles. Now I only want to eat it this way. I only bought one but I should've bought another. I was afraid of not finishing it and then I didn't want to make another order and get judged by the girl working the pick up counter.
Chicago Q was good too, albeit the service was particularly slow. The waiter recommended the buttermilk chicken but warned us against it because of the longer wait time because the restaurant was changing over from brunch to dinner and starting a fresh new batch. We were under a bit of a time crunch since one of my friends had to leave for her flight right after so we ordered other items on the menu instead, hoping that it wouldn't take that long but I think we ended up waiting 30-40 minutes anyway for our food to come out. At that rate, I should've ordered their signature buttermilk chicken anyway. I felt bad because the waiter was upset too. I watched him walk back to the kitchen several times and yell at them because our food took so long and then on top of that, they had forgotten some of our sides so he had to further berate them. Their kitchen is slightly open with a window for us to view part of it so I could see the interactions between the wait staff and chefs. There were so many people back there so it didn't really make any sense for our food to take so long when the restaurant wasn't even that busy. I also wanted to sit outside too in their cafe style seating because it was so pretty but they didn't have enough seats available for our party. We ended up inside the restaurant right next to the kitchen so I could see everything coming in and out. Despite the service, I would recommend this as a stop, so long as you're not in a rush, because the restaurant itself is really nice, with all its rooms as well as outdoor seating. The food is good and the place is very clean; even the bathroom is nicely maintained.
Maison Marcel was probably my favorite place to dine. It was actually our first stop in Chicago after checking into our hotel. We stopped for brunch and it didn't disappoint. It was next to a different brunch spot called Mortar and Pestle, which the nerd in me would've loved to try simply because of the name, but Maison Marcel was much prettier and instagrammable. I ordered a little bit of everything because I love a nice spread for the gram. Everything was delicious, from the drinks to the pastries to the entrees. The decor was absolutely darling and our waiter was great. I wanted a particular table and they easily accommodated our request. We chose this restaurant because of the rosé wine sampling from the Rosé Mansion came from here. My friend enjoyed it so she wanted to stop by the restaurant since it was based in Chicago. It was really lovely for our first stop. I would definitely recommend this spot if you're ever in Chicago.
Fuh was an interesting restaurant as well. It was a create-your-own bowl of pho style restaurant. Kind of like Chipotle meets pho. We were there late as it was our last meal of the day and the owner was really nice and still served us even though it was near closing time. I really appreciate shops that do this instead of refuse to serve you or rush you out. It's the little things that help create good business.
And of course, I can't visit a city without making one ice cream stop! We stumbled upon Cone, an Irish ice cream shop, as my bus drove by it on our way to one of our locations, so we backtracked it afterwards and it didn't disappoint. They have a lot of unique flavors! I had the Netflix and Chill and it was so good.
Our itinerary was nonexistent since it was such a spontaneous trip. I ended up looking up on the internet the best places to photograph in Chicago and picking those as our stops. It was basically another gram tour like I do here at home in NYC. Except since it wasn't as strategically planned route-wise. I was all over the place but the CTA helped in this case in getting us everywhere we needed to go pretty easily:
- John Hancock Observatory (360 Chicago)
- Cloud Gate (the bean at Millenium Park)
- The Chicago Theater
- Skydeck at the Willis/Sears Tower
- Happy Place
- Big Monster Toys
- Navy Pier
- Lincoln Park Zoo
- Chicago Cultural Center
- Buckingham Fountain
- Wells Kinzie garage
Some places were recommended by friends, and others I found looking up on Pinterest and IG. I also found really great tips on the best places on Google reviews as well! For example, my friend recommended me to visit the John Hancock building but to go to the bar instead of buying tickets to bypass the line. When we got there, the line to get into the elevator wasn't too bad (compared to Skydeck later on) and we were up there pretty quick. The line to get a table for drinks, however, was daunting so we didn't bother waiting. Another tip on Google recommended to go straight to the ladies room and it didn't disappoint! One of the best views of Chicago is actually seen from a bathroom! The bathroom has huge ceiling to floor window view of the south side of Chicago, which was beautiful.
Another great tip I found on Google was the Wells Kinzie garage. It's literally just a big parking garage but if you go to the 7th floor and look out, you get a beautiful view of their trains in an S curve in between the buildings. It looks like something out of a movie. It's a popular spot, according to the really nice security guard that works there and helped show us the best spots to view the trains at as they came and went.
One of my favorite spots was actually just a door. A fake door, actually. I saw it on Pinterest and looked into it and wanted to stop by and see it for myself. It's absolutely adorable and makes for such a fun and cute shot for the gram. It's a cute door at Big Monster Toys that's free to view by the public because it's literally just there as you walk by the street. I almost missed it because I thought it would be secretly hidden for some reason in an alleyway but it's just right there in the open. I don't know how people take such crazy pictures hanging off of it or sitting on it though since it was hard enough hanging on. It makes me want to put something similar in my house one day when I have a kid. My funhouse of a house, hahaha.
Another really beautiful spot was the Lincoln Park Zoo. It was a different experience from other zoos I've been to, in the regards that not only was it free, but that it was very open and you could come and go as you pleased. There were multiple entrances and you simply just walked in and out, there was no gate or security checkpoint or anything. You could bring in your own food, or even a cooler full of food for a picnic. It was very family friendly and easy to wander around with no issues. This felt really liberating because I'm so used to so many restrictions and security checkpoints back in NY, but it also is a bit of a concern that they are so lax in security. But I guess there hasn't been any incidents for them to have to reconsider much.
We also visited Happy Place, because surprise surprise, my life is full of pop ups and instagrammable experiences. It was an interesting pop up and I did enjoy it, but similar to the LA MOIC, it's located in a big warehouse, however, unlike MOIC, it was not well ventilated. The space, although big, did not have proper air conditioning so you could feel yourself start to overheat minutes into the experience. The rooms were nicely done and the staff were really nice and helpful. They even had instagram husbands on staff to take your photos for you in front of the pot of gold ball pit. If they didn't think your photos came out nice enough, they would even offer to let you redo the jump, which was nice. I wanted more time in the mirror "XO" room but a lot of people kept getting in the way since they didn't know how to properly walk around the space and stay out of other's photos so sadly what should've been my favorite room, was a fail. There were definitely a decent amount of rooms and different spaces for photos but I'm not exactly sure how they all connect. I know it's supposed to be a "happy place" but the rooms felt very random at times, with not much connecting each other. The label "Happy Place" is just too vague. It seemed like they just used that name to title someone's vision of randomness to make some quick money off of Instagrammers. Not a bad idea, obviously because I definitely fell for this IG trap, hahaha. I think Rose Mansion still tops the list, though. The best bang for your buck and the quality and time put into it surpasses them all.
One of the most beautiful places I visited was actually the Chicago Cultural Center. It's a free building to enter and explore and the architecture and everything inside it is just beautiful. It's definitely something to look at. There was even an art exhibit going on at the time, featuring Keith Haring, whose work I recognize all over NYC. They had an art table set up for you to draw your own art and stick it on the wall. I wanted to draw a dick but my sister made me be civil so I drew ice cream instead. See if you can find my drawing if you stop by.
One of my most underwhelming spots was actually the Skydeck, sadly. I had high hopes for this, after seeing so many great photos of the spot, but alas, my own experience was dampered by the super rude and unfair treatment by security. I was there at 10am, which should've been okay but for some reason, the wait that day was particularly bad. I don't think we got up to the top there till noon and when we finally got there, we were rudely treated by security. I don't know what it is with people against DSLRs but the minute they saw ours, they started kicking us out. There are 4 boxes at the top in which you can sit in and view Chicago from. 3 of them are not monitored so you can take as long as you'd like but you also have to share the box with other visitors. So of course, the line for these will naturally be a bit of a wait. One of the boxes, however, was timed and monitored by the staff. They take a picture of you with their equipment and then, supposedly give you a few good seconds to take your own selfie before moving on to the next guest. I watched and monitored all the guests in front of me and saw each person was able to take a good 5-8 photos each. I saw a family of 8 take several single shots of each person and then a big group one. I saw a group of 5 friends take selfies by themselves and then a group photo. So I anticipated I should have been given the same time and treatment. When I got to the box however, I instead opted to take our own pictures, not burdening the staff monitoring the box so all he had to do was stand there. A big black woman came up to our booth as I stepped into the box and before I could even pose, she yelled at us to get out and that our time was up. I still stayed for a quick 5 seconds until my friends could take photos and then told them to do the same since we had JUST GOT THERE, which I also said out loud. She continued to bother us further till we left quickly but I found her treatment of us really rude and unfair. Everyone else before us was not ushered off so rudely and aggressively. Unfortunately I don't think my photos came out very well from this part of my trip, which was a total letdown since everyone highly recommends this attraction. I was really turned off from Chicago after this experience. It left a bad taste in my mouth after being treated so poorly.
The other remarkably bad experience is the amount of drunk and high homeless people I encountered. On one occasion, we weren't even on the train that late, it was only about 8-9pm and unfortunately we got on a bad train that ended up stuck in between stations for a good 10 minutes due to track delays, and the car we were in, had an extremely intoxicated and drugged up drunk man. He kept circling the car and then sat down next to my friend and got up in her face while singing. This was a horrible situation to be stuck in. I didn't know what to do since the trains were stuck in between stations and I didn't know how to open the doors to enter a different car. I eventually got my group up and moved to the other side of the train to sit near other non-intoxicated people. But then he followed us and continued to bother us further. Another passenger tried to step in and diffuse the situation and get him to leave us alone but then the drunk guy started antagonizing him and it looked like he wanted to swing at him and fight him. I started getting worried. I didn't want this guy who was originally helping us to get hurt for helping us. Eventually the train pulled into the next station and we changed cars but it was truly an uncomfortable situation to be in, in a foreign city. This was just one occasion. Throughout the course of the next 3 days, we encountered more and it wasn't even just the time of day or the neighborhood we were in. We were in busy, well populated areas in daylight and they were still present and obnoxious. I've never had this problem in NYC in all my years of being there, and then in 3 days in Chicago, it was rampant.
Overall, I didn't let the bad experiences damper too much on my trip. Despite what happened, my opinion of Chicago remains the same. It was a nice city to visit, but I wouldn't want to live here. I also feel it's a one and done city for me. Like I don't feel the need to go back like I do with Japan, and LA. I'm not saying I won't ever revisit, but it's not very high on my list to do so. It offered beautiful skyline views but other than that, there's not much that's memorable enough for me to want to come back. Alas, Chicago, you are beautiful but I didn't fall in love. Other cities have made me want to cheat on NY and move away to them but Chicago is not one of them, unfortunately.