I’ve previously written about my travels to the annual Experimental Biology conference in Boston and San Diego – trips that were a combination of science and exploring. In 2017, the conference was held in Chicago and, I must admit, I went into the trip with fairly low expectations. You see, my previous experiences in Chicago consisted of being stuck in just about every possible mode of transportation.
When I was 10, we flew to visit family over Christmas and ended up stuck in the O’Hare Airport until after midnight thanks to flight delays. The food vouchers and bright neon overhead lights in the underground walkway were exciting for a while but soon the novelty wore off and we were tired and cranky and ready to just get to where we were going.
Fast forward a few years and my dad had the (not so) brilliant idea to save some money by having us take the train all the way from Montana to Ohio for Christmas. Weather conditions and a train-car collision resulted in huge delays and we missed our connection in Chicago, leaving us with the option of waiting a full day for the next train or taking the bus to Ohio. After hours in the train station, we opted for the bus and then found ourselves in the Chicago bus station at 1am.
Not really where you want to be.
Finally, when I moved to Connecticut in 2012, my mom and I drove all the way across the country. When we arrived in Illinois, our options were to go through Chicago on the interstate or go around, adding 100 miles (160 km) to our drive. It was a Sunday afternoon, so it didn’t seem worth it to take such a huge detour. How bad could traffic be, we asked ourselves?
Pretty bad, as it turns out. It took us 3 hours to get through the city.
Long story short, I didn’t have a good impression of Chicago. Fortunately, this trip completely changed my mind about the Windy City.
I was staying with 7 other girls in an AirBnb that turned out to be in a prime location – two blocks from Millennium Park, ten minutes from the waterfront, and close to stops for both transit systems. It was also only two blocks away from Michigan Avenue, which is the place to be if you’re looking for good food, drinks, and nightlife.
Since we were there for a conference, we spent the majority of our time 2 miles south at the Convention Center. However, we ate at some delicious restaurants, and on our down time were able to do some exploring.
Thanks to our presentation schedules, we had to be at the Convention Center before 8:00 a.m. on the first morning; we left our AirBnb at 7:00 a.m., giving ourselves plenty of time to find the metro station and buy our tickets.
As we wandered through Millennium Park in search of the station, we happened upon the iconic “Bean.” The sculpture is actually called Cloud Gate but acquired its nickname as a result of its bean-like shape. This is one of the main tourist attractions in Chicago. In particular, it’s popular to take a slightly-distorted selfie in the shiny metal… usually with 500 other people in the background.
My advice: go at 7:00 a.m. We have photos with no one else in them!
One morning, a friend and I went for a long run along the shores of Lake Michigan and were treated to some sunshine, fresh air, and views of the city skyline from the waterfront.
We explored other areas of the city on foot in our quest for restaurants.
And on our final day, we headed across town to the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) for some amazing views of the city. This was the only super touristy thing that we had time for, so I didn’t mind paying the (surprisingly reasonable) $23 to go to the top. The elevator took us up the 103 floors remarkably quickly. At the top, there are some exhibits as well as a movie detailing some history of Chicago and the tower, which happens to be the second tallest in the Western Hemisphere.
And finally, there’s the 360° viewing platform and the SkyDeck – the glass floor that hangs out over the edge from 103 floors up.
The weather couldn’t have been better and we all came away with some amazing photos of Chicago, Lake Michigan, and ourselves standing on the glass floor!
Needless to say, my impression of Chicago has definitely improved after this trip. Everyone we met was very friendly, the food was delicious (Chicago-style deep dish pizza, anyone?), and the city itself – at least, the areas we were in – is beautiful! After the Chicago fire in 1871, the city was rebuilt with a plan; open spaces and park land was purposefully set aside, and these areas are well-maintained and full of colorful flowers.
I definitely enjoyed the few days I spent in Chicago, and I’d absolutely recommend it as a vacation destination!