Chicago redeemed – even with a 2-year-old
When I first visited Chicago I attended a funeral and landed in an emergency room with a painful sinus infection.So I wasn’t exactly enthused when my husband announced plans to attend a conference there this fall. But I shook off my hostility and gave the Windy City a second chance.Chicago, it turns out, is a dynamic urban wonderland – as long as you’re not tending to the bereaved or nursing a massive headache.We geared our short trip to our rambunctious 2-year-old’s nap schedule and attention span. And we stayed at the lakefront Embassy Suites, conveniently located downtown with two-room accommodations that ensured we wouldn’t have to go to bed when Nathaniel did.Touristy temptationsOn our first afternoon, we headed to Michigan Avenue’s “Miracle Mile” of upscale stores, where my husband, Doug, unleashed me like a puppy amid 13 blocks of expensive temptations. Between Kenneth Cole and Marshall Field’s, a department store fixture in Chicago since 1852, I can proudly boast that I didn’t drool once on any sales people or apparel, though I did spend a modest sum of money. For dinner we considered Giordano’s, which the concierge touted as the best deep-dish pizza in Chicago. One look at the garish sign out front, however, and I balked. Is there a more blatant way to broadcast “TOURIST TRAP” than a neon sign?With Nathaniel hungry and whiny, we crossed the street to Rosebud, an indoor/outdoor restaurant on Rush Street with heaping helpings of excellent Italian fare. Rosebud is pricey, and we mountain folk seemed to notice the car fumes more than other outdoor cafe customers. But Nathaniel was thrilled by the proximity to the local carriage route. Showing his zoological expertise, he blurted “horse!” every few minutes throughout the meal.After dinner, we strolled back along Michigan Avenue. At The Disney Store, our Winnie the Pooh fanatic manhandled several stuffed Tiggers with an affectionate headlock. We performed a stealthy bait-and-switch to get out with just one new toy.`Peacocks’ and butterfliesThe next morning we took a convenient public bus to Lincoln Park Zoo, an impressive and free attraction with more than 1,300 creatures, a petting farm, and enough large, agitated mammals to remind me why I don’t like zoos. Nathaniel, on the other hand, was captivated by the elephants and the “peacocks” (er, ostriches).Many of Chicago’s major attractions are grouped conveniently together, and a nature museum, an 1890s plant conservatory and the Chicago Historical Society are all near the lakefront within a few blocks of the zoo. So we crossed the street to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, which boasts a year-round butterfly haven of more than 250 species.Nathaniel’s first word was “butterfah,” so we thought he’d be thrilled. Sadly, the huge numbers of flying insects terrified him, and he spent his entire time in the two-story solarium clinging to his father’s leg as butterflies flitted around us.Even more interesting than the butterfly haven, however, was the display where visitors could watch butterflies hatch from their cocoons. We finished the day at Emilio’s Sol y Nieve, a tapas and wine bar near the hotel that served a variety of tasty Spanish-flavored dishes.Big fish, deep dishThe next day, we set out on another bus for the Shedd Aquarium, the world’s largest indoor aquarium. At first the $21-per-person admission fee seemed steep, considering half the tanks were located above Nathaniel’s head. He had more fun ramming his stroller into strangers than in studying the native fish of Illinois. But several spectacular exhibits, such as Wild Reef and a Pacific Northwest tank overlooking Lake Michigan, are eye candy for visitors of any height or age. The famous Field Museum and Adler Planetarium flank the aquarium, but Nathaniel’s droopy-eyed, “it’s just another fish” look necessitated a return to the hotel.After several days of polling locals for pizza recommendations (and receiving a suspicious unanimity of opinion), I relented and took my son to Giordano’s on Rush Street. With a crisp crust, lots of cheese, and a waitress who didn’t mind our weird order of pepperoni, mushroom and spinach, the pizza was great. But take note, parents: The world-famous deep dish pizza takes 35 minutes to cook. Nathaniel had been promised a pizza that wasn’t immediately forthcoming, so for 25 minutes he wailed “PIIIzzzah. Nat want PIIIzzzah.” My only consolation was that he’d stopped mispronouncing pizza as “pt.”We concluded our evening on Michigan Avenue at the historic Water Tower, the only building to escape the great fire of 1871. A rotating, free photography exhibit on Chicago now occupies the interior. Horse-drawn carriages pick up passengers on this corner, and a huge Borders Books abuts the plaza. Next to Borders is a Ghiradelli’s Chocolate Shop and Soda Fountain, where I purchased enough chocolate to calm my nerves after our deep-dish, high-stress dinner.On our last day in Chicago, we skipped the animals and headed to Chicago’s landmark Navy Pier on the edge of Lake Michigan. In the morning we took a one-hour architectural boat tour into the canal that winds through the heart of the city. The great fire of 1871 wiped out 17,000 buildings, and notable architects such as Louis Sullivan, Bertrand Goldberg and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe have spent the past century redesigning the skyline with pioneering structures.When the boat docked, we planned to visit the “hands-on” Children’s Museum at Navy Pier, but Nathaniel’s hands made it only as far as the fountain out front. If I’d had a hat, I would have collected change from the passers-by who laughed at his watery antics. When my drenched child eventually tired of his street performance, we steered him quickly back to the hotel, making a quick stop for takeout from Fox & Obel. This eatery and gourmet grocery is the perfect place to grab a picnic for one of Chicago’s 500 grassy parks.We returned to Navy Pier that afternoon for a ride on the 150-foot Ferris wheel, which was modeled after one built for the 1893 Chicago world’s fair. Nathaniel could have whiled away the evening on the children’s train ride (he’s still talking about it), but I dragged him off for a stroll down the lakefront. We stopped for seafood at Riva, which has great second-floor views of the shoreline.The following morning we headed back to Colorado.On my second trip to Chicago, the city proved itself an entertaining and hassle-free destination. Of course, after sucking on every railing in the city, Nathaniel followed in his mother’s footsteps by catching a cold. Perhaps the best part of our visit was learning about dozens of sites we didn’t have time to actually visit, such as the Pullman Historic District and the Children’s Museum (if we can get past the fountain). Those sites give us reason to return.Allison Johnson lives in Carbondale and, when her 2-year-old isn’t climbing in her office chair, works as a writer.
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