Despite its rough and ready reputation as “hog butcher to the world”, Chicago is a city of great cultural wealth. This day of exploration discovers a portion of that wealth, much of it lodged in the city’s exceptional museums. Along the way we will visit another source of cultural wealth – the city’s diverse and colorful neighborhoods.
Our day starts at the North Coast Café, on Broadway, a restaurant in the Wrigleyville neighborhood. Wrigleyville is named for its proximity to Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team. The area has a flourishing bar and restaurant scene, and is the primary port of entry for young professionals making their first move to the city.
The North Coast is a typical Chicago diner, known primarily for its breakfasts as well as its soup and sandwich lunch menu. The restaurant offers good quality, well-prepared food at reasonable prices. This is the place to come for a breakfast that will start your day off right.
Regulars from the wildly eclectic neighborhood predominate: old-time Chicago types, lake-front liberals, members of the nearby gay community, cops, yuppies, and the occasional Cubs fan who has strayed from Wrigley field, about five blocks away. Breakfast here is eggs, or one of the excellent omelette selections, although there are a myriad of items to choose from. Coffee is unlimited. As you look around, you will notice that there is a lot of interesting artwork on the walls. All is for sale – the restaurant also serves as an art gallery, with new artists periodically exhibiting their work.
Now that you have enjoyed breakfast, and opened your eyes a bit with some North Coast coffee, we are going to delve into a bit of Chicago’s history. We are going to venture into the Lincoln Park neighborhood. A once tough, gang infested area that has gentrified over the years into one of the city’s most desirable locations with well-kept brownstones and ample green space.
Here we are going to visit The Chicago History Museum on Clark Street. The museum is a repository of Chicago’s history from its humble beginnings as a trading post, to its present-day stature as a world-class metropolis. Along the way you will experience, through carefully constructed and detailed dioramas and displays, such seminal events as the Chicago Fire and the Haymarket Riot. You will also see the gangland era of Al Capone, the rise of Chicago as a merchant power through the growth of Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Wards, and finally the growth of Chicago into a financial and commodities trading center for the world. Chicago has had a long and interesting history, and you can experience it all in this well-designed and attractive space.
All of this history has probably made you hungry, so we are going to backtrack to the Lakeview neighborhood for lunch. Lakeview was once a German enclave, but now it is home to families of all nationalities, students, artists, and professional people. It is an area of attractive grey stone three flat buildings, enviably close to Chicago’s lakefront.
We are going to have lunch at a little-known (outside of Chicago) restaurant that serves up excellent soups, and wonderful sandwiches served on home-baked bread. Panes Bread Café on Sheffield, is a small restaurant that also makes its own delicious baked goods: breads, rolls and cookies. The sandwiches are huge, and the servers don’t mind if you share, so if you order two soups and split a sandwich you’ll have a nice lunch for two. Of course, if you are hungry, don’t hold back. The food is all of excellent quality, and the prices are quite reasonable for the neighborhood.
After lunch, we head downtown, to visit the venerable Art Institute of Chicago, the city’s premier fine arts museum. It is impossible to see the museum’s entire collection in one afternoon, so we are going to concentrate on the highlights. First, the world famous collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, located on the second floor, galleries 201 – 248. Part of this incredible collection is the painting that has become synonymous with the Art Institute – Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte – 1884”.
There are also an astounding number of Monet paintings, several Van Gogh’s, including a self-portrait, and works by Renoir, Manet, Degas and Pissarro, to name just a few. Next, we head to the wing: American paintings, 1900-1950. Here you will see Edward Hopper’s famous “Nighthawks”, Grant Wood’s even more famous “American Gothic”, and an astounding collection of paintings by Ivan Albright, the darkly realistic Chicago painter. Don’t miss Albright’s most famous painting, the eerie “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” based on the story by Oscar Wilde.
By this time, your feet may be a little tired. It’s time to unwind. We head up Michigan Avenue, Chicago’s destination for upscale shopping, to the landmark John Hancock Building, which at one time was the tallest building in the world. Here we take the elevator up to the 96th floor, to the Signature Lounge. Try a cocktail from their extensive list, while enjoying a magnificent view of the city, including the lake, skyscrapers, and vast expanse of Chicago beyond the downtown area. From this vantage point you can truly appreciate the physical size and expanse of the city.
For dinner, we head over to the Café Iberico, on LaSalle, and one of the best tapas bars in the city. You can share the many tasty cold and hot tapas plates that this friendly restaurant offers, or sample the paella. The wine list is extensive, the food is excellent, and the wait staff friendly and helpful. A word of warning, this restaurant is usually packed, so get here as early as you can. Reservations are only taken for parties of six or more. If there is a long line, you can always wait at the well-stocked bar. In any case, you can take this opportunity to discuss your cultural experiences in the great city of Chicago.
It’s been a full day. If your hotel is downtown, you might consider walking home, especially if the weather is nice. The Café Iberico is not far from downtown. There is nothing more pleasant that a stroll down one of Chicago’s main streets, as the sun sets and the street lights come on. You could stop at one of the many bars for a nightcap, or head straight back to the hotel to get ready for another day.
What and Where:
North Coast Café (3613 N. Broadway St.; 773-549-7606)
Chicago History Museum (1601 N. Clark St.; 312-642-4600)
Panes Bread Café (3002 N. Sheffield Ave,; 773-665-0972)
Art Institute of Chicago (111 S. Michigan Ave.; 312-443-3600)
Signature Lounge (875 N. Michigan Ave, 312-787-9596)
Café Iberico (739 N. LaSalle Dr. ; 312-573-1510)
Michael Norris is a freelance writer who is just back from four years in Paris, and is now living in Evanston, IL. He has had articles published in The Paris Times, Literary Kicks, Live Life Travel, as well as other on-line travel sites. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org