Our Five Favorite Chicago Experiences
For Tourists, By Tourists
There's nothing wrong with being a tourist! Yes, every city, town and country in this world have a slew of "hidden gems" untouched by tourists - and yes, finding those gems is one of the most edifying parts of travel. But sometimes, you just have to be a tourist! After all, tourist spots are popular for a reason - they give you a taste of your destination's culture, while also capturing what makes your destination truly iconic. Even at home in New York City, we can be found riding the Staten Island Ferry or getting a caricature in Times Square every now and then - because it's just fun and 'New York'! That's why we'll admit to - and are proud of - having ‘tourist moments’ in each destination we visit.
Our recent visit to the midwest had us pulling out all the tourist stops! In this post, we’ve highlighted our five favorite Chicago experiences "for tourists, from tourists."
1. Millennium Park
Millennium Park is absolutely beautiful - it's full of stunning architecture and landscaping, eye-catching art installations, and an endless amount of movement and energy. Whether you're interested in just taking a stroll, swinging by for a concert at Jay Pritzker Pavilion, or taking the 'typical tourist photo' with The Bean, there's always something to see and do in Millennium Park.
One of the most iconic parts of Millennium Park - and one of our favorite places to visit - is the Crown Fountains. The Crown Fountains - two large towers bookending a two-inch deep pool of water that you’re free to wade through - have digital faces that ‘converse’ with each other. The giant faces of strangers will blink, smile, light up with different LED colors, and even occasionally open their mouths and spit a stream of water into the shallow pool in front of them. The Crown Fountains evoke a certain sense of ‘the meta’ (humans looking at humans looking at humans, etc) - when you want to take a moment to disconnect and simply rest and think, visit the Crown Fountains on a summer Chicago night.
Another beautiful location we stumbled across in Millennium Park was the ‘Maggie Daley Park’ - its clever architecture and buzzing energy instantly drew us in. In this part of the park, there are a series of playgrounds constructed for specified age groups - Daniel and I made sure we took full use of the "all ages" playgrounds - we climbed the pirate ship and slid down the adult-sized slide, and played 'don't touch the lava' in the ‘enchanted forest.’ And take a look at this picture and its futuristic architecture, then imagine the sunny skies, fresh breeze and children laughing. Does it not seem like the perfect Utopia?
2. Second City
After an evening spent at Second City, I had a headache from laughing so much. Second City is Chicago’s - or more likely, America’s - premiere improv comedy theater and school. They host a large variety of shows a year, and boast alumni like Tina Fey, Joan Rivers, Bill Murray--and so many more. Daniel and I scored free tickets to Second City’s most popular show of the season, Panic on Cloud 9, thanks to a friend of ours - but had we paid the big bucks to see the show, it would have been worth every penny. We started the night off right with a frozen spiked pink lemonade in a souvenir glass (free tickets means you splurge on the concessions, right?) and we got ready for a night of hysterical laughter. For the better part of three hours, I was doubled over - the actors on the stage in front of us went through rehearsed and improvised scenes that played with relatable themes such as American ‘first world problems’ and political correctness, the year’s current events like ebola and the disappearance of the Malaysian airplane, and then some kooky themes like Russian bachelorette parties and deaf bullies. The only thing that reminded me that the show was three hours long was my sore back after sitting in the same chair for that entire time! But let’s just say that a few lemonades and countless belly laughs can cure a sore back.
3. Lincoln Park Zoo
You can walk in and out of the Lincoln Park Zoo as you please--there are no gates or ticket-takers. That’s right, it’s completely free! And it’s not a disappointing, tiny zoo like the Central Park zoo (nor is it, of course, a cruel zoo that those awful roadside ones that are also usually free) - the Lincoln Park Zoo is full of wonderful animals and covers 35 acres. The zoo’s most popular exhibits include their “big cats” home (lions, tigers and leopards--oh my!), polar bears, giraffes, zebras, gorillas and sea lions. That’s not a bad amount of exotic animals to meet after paying not a cent! Whether you want to walk through and see as much as you can in an hour, or spend an entire day there, the Lincoln Park Zoo is worth a visit.
We caught this guy (we named him 'Archie') mid-yawn!
4. The Chicago Art Institute
Daniel and I are avid lovers of fine art and all that we can learn from this universal language. We always make it a point to visit--and drink in as much--art as we can during our trips; the Chicago Art Institute is a great destination if you have similar intent during your travels. Whether we were walking through the immaculate hall of Impressionist and Post-impressionist works, taking time to sit and sketch in the institute’s ‘sculpture hall’ or making our way up to its temporary exhibitions (which was, during that visit, the Charles Ray sculpture exhibition), we were loving the peaceful, thoughtful environment that the museum provided. You can go to see famous works like Van Gogh’s ‘Self Portrait,’ six of Claude Monet’s ‘Haystacks,’ Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks,’ Mary Cassatt’s ‘The Bath,’ George Seurat’s ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’ and Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic.’ (It was hard to limit that list to just six pieces, because the Art Institute of Chicago offers so many famous works.) And, if you’re like Daniel and I, then you have an undying love for modern, contemporary and postmodern art, and would love the Art Institute’s collection of slightly lesser-known (but no less beautiful or thought-provoking) pieces from artists like Georgia O’Keefe, Man Ray, Joan Mitchell and Robert Rauschenberg. If you enjoy fine art - or even if you don’t, and should - visit the Art Institute of Chicago.
5. Fireworks at Navy Pier
This one might be obvious, and may elicit some eye-rolls from Chicago locals. Navy Pier is basically Chicago’s over-priced, over-crowded equivalent of New York’s Times Square. However, Navy Pier has one thing that Times Square does not: fireworks! Pretty awesome, extravagant fireworks! I can’t really explain why, but fireworks are on my short list of ‘things I love most in this world.’ There’s just something about gathering in a crowd of people that ‘ooo’ and ‘ahh’ and clap at the colorful, beautiful explosions in the sky. Fireworks are sort of like art - though they are seemingly irrelevant (I mean, fire exploding in the sky? Really? Why?), but they make people pause, they gather people together, and most times they even make people smile. Though New York City has some of the best fireworks shows in the world, and we’ve stuck around for most of them (including New Year’s Eve and Fourth of July), the sheer mass amount of people gathering to watch the show make it impossible to truly enjoy. (I mean, c’mon - after 8 hours of waiting for fireworks, you’re going to really want to be wowed.) But since Navy Pier has stunning fireworks over Lake Michigan every Wednesday and Saturday night during the summer, the crowds are nothing like during New York’s special events. The show usually lasts 15 minutes; it is synced to music and the fireworks erupt from a barge on the lake and shower colorful sparks over the water. Navy Pier also has some fun things like (albeit overpriced) food and desserts, a 3-D theater, amusement park rides and the famous ferris wheel, and a fun house that Daniel and I may or may not have taken advantage of. When you’re in the mood to be a tourist, head to Navy Pier and catch their fireworks show!
We love being tourists, but keep an eye out for our series "For Tourists, by Locals" - we'll share the experiences we've gathered from recommendations given to us by locals, or by being locals ourselves.