Chicago: Favorite Things

Categories: Day Tripping, Diva-liscious, Do As The Locals Do, Featured, Miscellaneous, Mommy Diva, The 411 Diva, Top 10's Diva
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By Angela Rocco DeCarlo, ©2009

Chicago – like any great city – has to be enjoyed in small bites. I recently revisited my former hometown, where you can sample at one time only a small slice of the great confection that is this beautiful lakeside city. However, there are attractions that are unique or stunningly significant that should be on any traveler’s short list. This is a sort of “Best of”…Some favorite things include: tour of the magnificent Lake Michigan waterfront museum campus of parks; Art Institute’s Impressionist paintings and Thorne Miniature Rooms; Cultural Center’s magnificent Tiffany Dome ceiling, largest in world; Sue, the largest and most complete T-Rex, Field Museum of Natural History; Museum of Science and Industry, 1893 Colombian Exposition building; Lincoln memorabilia/death bed, Chicago History Museum; Chicago’s 38 bascule (meaning see-saw) bridges, including Michigan Avenue Bridge Museum; Sears Tower (tallest building in Western Hemisphere) and Hancock Center observatories; and Chicago Water Tower on Michigan Avenue, a remnant of the Great Chicago Fire, 1871.Yes, I know Sears Tower has been renamed, as has Marshall Field’s, but Chicagoan are loath to let go, hence the names Sears and Marshall Fields reverberate.

On my recent trip, my plan was to sample two Marriott properties, one in the suburbs, Residence Inn Chicago Oak Brook and one on Michigan Avenue, Marriott Chicago Downtown Magnificent Mile, do the Chicago museums, have tea in a fabulous location, such as the Peninsula Hotel, gorge on Chicago’s uniquely delicious deep dish pizza and see the Softball Hall of Fame, Forest Park and Italian Cultural Center, Stone Park. I’ll deal with the suburban attractions in a separate article.

With Chicago a lifetime wouldn’t be enough to see it all. A taste of Chicago could include many other attractions such as Wrigley Field and the Cubs; Lyric Opera House; El train ride; Buckingham Fountain; Navy Pier; Architectural boat and lake cruises; Tribune Tower visit; deep dish pizza at Pizzeria Uno or Due or Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria. The best way to peruse the vast panoply of Chicago delights is to access the tourism information at www.cityofchicago/tourism; phone 312-567-8500.Or www.explorechicago.org/tourism. For now we’ll go with llama-like leaps among some favorites everyone should know about.

First off, if you plan to pack up and leave soon, include plenty of warm clothing, boots and heavy coat. You can Ice skate downtown and enjoy waterscapes along Lake Michigan’s shoreline that are breathtaking, but you need proper clothing. So don’t let the weather keep you home; Chicago knows how to handle cold and snowy weather. Life goes on – excitingly.

It’s too bad Chicago wasn’t lucky enough to be founded by the Romans, as were London, Paris, Cologne and a long list of other European cities. Then it might have had instant world-class recognition instead of having to scramble to introduce itself. But then London (Londinium) is 2,000 years old and the city of Chicago not even 200 years – it was christened as a city in 1837, was destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire, 1871, and was almost instantly rebuilt with echoes of the urban Parisian parks and boulevards of that era. Astonishingly, it opened the Art Institute of Chicago in 1889, just eight years after cleaning up the ashes.

At that time, the city was fortunate in its wealthier citizens and architects, such as architect and city planner Daniel Burnham, who determined to make the city as beautiful, elegant, and cultural as any European city. Burnham ensured the lakefront remain open park space. However, when developers sought to foil Burnham’s grand design, retail tycoon Montgomery Ward sued and won the protection of Chicago’s Lakefront. People like this, who loved Chicago, kept it beautiful for future generations.

The tycoons of the era, such as Marshall Field, Potter Palmer and others, had enormous civic pride and gave generously to establish Chicago’s great cultural institutions. Bertha Honore Palmer, wife of millionaire businessman Potter Palmer, (Palmer House Hotel) was an intelligent and avid Impressionist painting collector, under the guidance of American painter Mary Cassatt, who was part of the artist Impressionist cohort of the era. Palmer amassed a large collection of the best of the time. A fascinating Palmer exhibit at the Chicago History Museum includes gorgeous gowns, jewels and other artifacts, along with biographical details of Palmer’s life. It is said she traveled with her favorite Impressionist painting, Renoir’s “Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando,” which keeps company with “On the Terrace” at the AI. Mrs. Palmer’s Impressionist bequest in 1922 and the 1926 donation by Helen Birch Bartlett ensured the Art Institute of Chicago as the preeminent Impressionist collection.

The Impressionist collection at the Paris Musee d’Orsey, situated in a former train station – love those ginormous clocks – has the reputation, perhaps because of its location, but most agree it is Chicago’s collection that shines.

Chicago’s Impressionists includes Renoir’s “On the Terrace”, Monet’s “Hay Stacks”, El Greco’s “Assumption of the Virgin”, Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte,” Gustave Caillebotte’s “ Paris Street, Rainy Day,” Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” as well as works by Mary Cassatt, Van Gogh, Degas, Monet, and so many more.

Imagine – 2,000 acres of the city’s core burned in 1871, and eight years later there’s an art museum amid the new buildings. The city’s energy enabled it to host the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition with its magical “White City.” The Fine Arts Building survives today as the Museum of Science and Industry, with its superb colonnade of caryatids (female support columns). It’s working coalmine and German submarine are major attractions.

Chicago spreads out in three directions – with Lake Michigan on the east. Therefore, to easily reach favorites, I selected the Marriott on Michigan Avenue for its convenience, luxury and excellent service. Settling into the newly transformed Marriott Chicago Downtown Magnificent Mile, 540 N. Michigan Ave., 312-245-4728, ChicagoMarriottDowntown.com, was easy. With this hotel you are near a huge array of restaurants, shopping, museums, attractions, summer boat rides and foot-cruising the Magnificent Mile Michigan Avenue with its world-class retail shops.

The hotel has recently been beautifully redone and features a lobby Great Room, which brings to mind the “Wizard of Oz.” Perhaps the designers took their cue from Chicagoan L. Frank Baum’s famous “Wizard of Oz” books, the first published in 1900. The classic movie came out in 1939, forging indelible images in Americans’ minds of tornados, Dorothy Gale and her three charming friends. The Marriott’s Great Room lobby features a gigantic architectural column, which for the entire world looks like a tornado funnel cloud. The horseshoe bar curves around it – visually riveting. The bank of TVs and beer taps equals after-hours relaxing.


I loved the bed in the comfortable guestroom. Wondering if I could buy one like it, I learned the beds are for sale on the hotel’s website. Though large – 1,173 rooms, including suites – the hotel’s service is boutique-style. The staff took pains to banish feathers from this allergy sufferer’s room: A health-saving service. There are all amenities one desires – location, fitness center, pool and steam room.

The auto entrance is at the back on Rush St., both valet and self-park are available for slightly under $50 per day. Room rates depend on season and dates, so best to contact the hotel directly for the best rates. Phone: 312-245-4728; ChicagoMarriottDowntown.com.

After settling into the Marriott we took a $5 short cab ride to see “my” Impressionist collection and Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute. Alas, Renoir’s “On the Terrace” has been moved; I liked it in the center of the left wall – it anchored that gallery perfectly. After searching I learned the Wedgwood Portland Vase, a copy of a magnificent 2,000year old Roman glass vase (Roman original, British Museum) was not currently on display. As this is a great favorite I missed seeing it. But the museum has more than a quarter million objects, not everything can be on display.

If time is limited it’s best to take a bus tour to get a taste of the city’s charm as you glide around the beautiful lakefront – unique for an American industrial city – and take a peek at its new Millennium Park and other major cultural attractions. Be sure to make note of the entrance to Grant Park, at Congress Plaza Gardens, for the two magnificent Ivan Mestrovic 1928 bronze equestrian statues of Native Americans – the Bowman and the Spearman. Though not specified, the warriors’ obvious superb horsemanship and imposing power suggest they may represent the great horsemen of the plains, the Cheyenne. The sculptor purposely did not include the weapons – leaving that to the viewers’ imagination.

After a tour of the Thorne Rooms, splendidly recreated miniature period rooms that feature setting from the 9th century to 1930s, exquisitely furnished with authentic materials of exotic woods, stained glass, silver, gold, stone, terrazzo, Wedgwood plaques, and sculptures, we headed to the Peninsula Hotel for afternoon tea. There’s something soul-satisfying in such a day. The Thorne Rooms, 68 finely tuned replica room settings commissioned by Mrs. James Ward Thorne between 1932 and 1940 are favorites of adults and children alike. My then-three year old granddaughter, Michelle, when viewing them for the first time, uttered an awed “They’re so cute.” Don’t miss them.

So much beauty over-awes and afternoon tea is just the thing to revive the soul. So after the art we cabbed it to the splendid Peninsula Hotel, off Michigan Avenue at Superior. Afternoon tea is something I enjoy in every city visited. All are distinctive, but share a predictability that is relaxing and soothing. Everything is bite-sized, no cutting required and everything is slightly sweet. In fact, this is my favorite meal – well, maybe Chicago pizza ties the score. In any case, afternoon tea usually has three courses: scones, pastries and sandwiches, along with the tea, of course.

The Peninsula boosts a gorgeous space called The Lobby, with Murano glass chandeliers, custom carpets and octagonal-backed padded armchairs. The impression is of sun-kissed splendor even on a rainy day. Murano glass has a long history, from the 9th century to the present. The manufacturing center is located near Venice, Italy, on a tiny island in the Adriatic Sea. The Peninsula’s ceiling fixtures are delicate cascading droplets of sparkling light that draws the eye in a room full of beautiful accouterments.

The table is set with Wedgwood china set on cream-colored linen placemats. Two string musicians on an upper balcony serenade the guests below. My anticipation was well rewarded when the small chocolate chip scones arrived with cream and strawberry preserves; the combination is scrumptious. Green tea was served in a small plain white pot, along with sealed envelopes of sweeteners– so long to the darling sugar cubes long associated with tea service.

All the food is brought to the table at once on a three-tired silver server. Among the delectable treats were the scones, chocolate mini-cupcakes; pink macaroon cookies and perfect chicken salad sandwiches. However, guests need not order the entire tea service.

“My wife and I always celebrate our birthdays at tea, “ says guest, Dr. Michael Mercer, an industrial psychologist and author of several books, including “Hire the Best – Avoid the Rest.” He and his wife, Mary, admitted to sampling tea service in all the fine Chicago hotels.

“We like the Peninsula best because we can order only what we like,” he continued. “Mary likes scones and finger sandwiches, but not pastries. I don’t care for the finger sandwiches. So we order a la carte and each is happy. And we love the charming, very airy and open feel of the room. And the music is wonderful.”

They were the kind of people one thinks might be on their way to the Lyric Opera to catch Puccini’s “Tosca.” The Lyric lists 77 performances for the 2009-2010 season, with “Tosca” playing again in January 2010. If it’s the Zefferelli production I’m tempted to fly back for a matinee, if only to erase the memory of the Metropolitan Opera’s recent screwy “Tosca” production. The 1927-’29 Civic Opera House is a beautiful auditorium that enhances the stage experience. Many modern facilities resemble padded shoeboxes with no place of beauty to rest the eye.

There were some shoppers at tea, not surprising, as the Peninsula is convenient to Water Tower Place and other premier Chicago retail centers. If weather permits, a stroll the length of Michigan Avenue from the river north to the Drake Hotel, is worth the shoe-leather: the Michigan Avenue bridge, Tribune Tower, Wrigley Building, new Trump building, American Girl Place, Marina Towers and upscale retailers line the boulevard. Anyone with a little girl will relish AG Place – a virtual harem of girlie-ness. As the mother of three sons, I found it rather exotic and somewhat bewildering, especially the beauty salon for dolls. Nonetheless, it was the realization of my heartfelt dream to surprise my granddaughter with an American Girl look-alike doll of green eyes and auburn hair. Adorable.

It is impossible to be in Chicago and not eat deep-dish pizza. My husband and I have been diners of the originals since our dating years as teens. Lou Malnati’s, a descendent of the original Pizzeria Uno and Due (Italian; one and two) is a favorite. We usually load up on a dozen frozen Malnati pizzas in a special bag, which was forgotten. Result: no Chicago pizza in California, truly a sorry state.

In any case, there are dozens of Malnati outlets all over Chicago and one on Wells St. However, the night we wanted pizza we were walking and it was raining so we landed in Pizzeria Due on Rush. It’s the place we went to as college-age kids. The pizza was nearly as we remember it.

It’s nice to be able to go back “home.” Especially when the city is Chicago.

Angela Rocco DeCarlo, copyright 2009

Angela Rocco DeCarlo, former Chicago journalist, covers travel, entertainment, and culture for www.travelingdiva.com, www.angelaroccodecarlo.blogspot.com, and www.heralddeparis.com. She lives in exile in Southern California.

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