Carousels, Courtyards and Chicago’s Skyline

Amusement Park at Navy Pier, Chicago.
Amusement Park at Navy Pier.

When I’m traveling it always amazes me how much you can fit into one day. Our first day in Chicago, after exploring all the pathways and sculptures of Millennium Park, my friend and I made our way out to the shoreline of Michigan Lake. Chicago is not a city that sits idle and there are people of all ages taking advantage of the scenic splendor on the lakefront. There are numerous bike paths weaving through the streets, along the water’s edge and even under the many bridges that crisscross the Chicago River.

Although Chicago’s downtown core is dense like any metropolis, there is a surprising range of recreational activities right in the heart of the city. Where the Chicago River comes out into Michigan Lake you can find the kayaking company “Urban Kayaks”. They provide architecture tours and rent out kayaks so that anyone can enjoy a day out on the water. My friend and I didn’t get around to trying this unfortunately, as we got distracted by the sight of an amusement park across the water. With the entire journey still ahead of us, choices branched out in front of our eyes in a million different directions, we could barely decide what to do first.

Located on the North side of the river is the Navy Pier, a loud and colourful place that can really bring out your inner child. The entire pier is a playground – there is a Children’s Museum, Chicago’s Shakespeare Company, shops, restaurants, and most importantly a miniature amusement park. My friend and I spent a couple hours just trying out the rides. After a bad experience on a Ferris wheel in Paris I usually tend to avoid them, but the view of the Chicago skyline was just too good to miss. So up we went, with one hand I was clutching at the railing and with the other my camera.

Afterwards, we walked along the waterfront until we arrived at a small beach nestled between two parks. Ohio Beach isn’t very big, but even on a hot day there is enough room to sunbathe or splash around without feeling overcrowded. The tall trees in Milton Olive park make you feel as though you are very close to nature even if the city is only a block behind you. A little further north we encountered Oak Street Beach, bigger and busier than the quaint little strip of sand near Navy Pier. This beach lies at the start of the Magnificent Mile and sees a lot more traffic from tourists and locals alike – there are even fast food stalls set-up around it. We took the underground walkways from the beach to Michigan Avenue and were wonderfully surprised to discover the amazing murals covering their walls.

The Magnificent Mile is a little like Chicago’s version of Fifth Avenue in New York – luxurious shopping and restaurants. The main part of the Magnificent Mile runs down Michigan Avenue, stretching from Oak Street Beach all the way south to the Chicago River. My friend and I, being unemployed graduates, decided to stick to window shopping. We had lunch at the Cheesecake Factory, a spur of the moment decision when we recognized the name from “The Big Bang Theory”. They didn’t disappoint – the cheesecake selection is mind boggling and sinfully good!

After our questionably healthy lunch choice we decided to take a break from walking around. Across the street from the Cheesecake Factory, which is located at the base of the John Hancock Centre, stands an old Presbyterian Church. This Gothic-style church looks out of place standing across from the hulking frame of the Hancock skyscraper, and stepping inside its courtyard was like taking a step out of time. You can barely hear the noise from the street and it’s a nice place to sit and read or just watch sparrows playing in the fountain. My friend and I came back here more than once, making it our little oasis in the heart of the city.

Chicago is full of hidden treasures as we discovered. On our way back to the Loop we passed the old Chicago Water Tower. Built in the late 1800s the tower had been used for firefighting and was one of the few buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Today it serves as a small art gallery for local artist, and since admission is free, this is a good way to get a taste of the city. When we were there they had an exhibition of illustrations for book covers and posters.

We ended our day by visiting a Chicago landmark – The Sears Tower. I call it the Sears Tower because that is the name most people would recognize it by even though this skyscraper was renamed Willis Tower in 2009. Completed in 1974, it holds the record for being the 9th tallest building in the world and the view from the 103rd floor is definitely worth the hype. You can even step out into a glass room that sticks out of the building over the city. Seeing the downtown grid at night, pulsing with street lights and traffic, gives you the sense that the city is alive. After spending all day walking around down below it was a perfect ending to our day just to gaze out over the city from above.

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