When a close friend of mine, Tobi (@tobishinobi) moved to Chicago from London last year, I knew I’d be paying the city a visit. I would get the best of both; I’d get to spend quality time with Tobi, as well as explore a new city. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Chicago. I knew it was referred to as ‘The Windy City’; the weather was changeable and unpredictable – a bit like London right? and I also knew it was the home of ‘House’ music…
My one experience of the U.S was my trip to New York last year, so I was excited and also apprehensive as to whether I would like Chicago. I’m a real city girl - the sound of police sirens is the norm to me - however, I found New York big, loud and somewhat daunting, even for me. I absolutely admit though, I totally underestimated Chicago, and I’d go as far to say, it’s been one of my favourite places that I’ve visited this year. Maybe that’s because I had no expectations and the city totally surprised me 100%...
Despite its skyscraper buildings, the city has space for you to move around freely without feeling closed-in and claustrophobic. It’s clean and green, has a cool atmosphere, and has a genuinely chilled vibe compared to New York (that's my personal opinion, so I'm sorry to any New Yorkers reading this).
I was lucky to be staying with my Tobi at his apartment – which was in a great location. It took me about 35 minutes to walk to Millennium Park, and whilst Tobi was at work, I was free to do what I love best…get lost with my camera. I’m usually ok with this as Google maps is my best friend when I’m away. But in Chicago, Google maps had me going around in circles on more than one occasion. The GPS isn’t the best, due to the sheer amount of tall buildings. I’m pretty sure I walked a block - at least twice - before discovering the metro stop that I was looking for was a few steps from where I was first stood.
I was excited, I had a whole week to explore! But, my first stop had to be the famous ‘Cloud Gate’ otherwise known as ‘The Bean’. Designed by Sir Anish Kapoor – who also designed London’s Orbit in the Olympic Park. This mirrored sculpture is quintessentially Chicago. It’s not only beautiful to look at, it’s fun to watch yourself from every angle, as well as views of the city. And, it’s interesting to watch all the kids who visit; they’re totally fascinated by it.
I walked past The Bean every day on my walkabouts of the city, and couldn't resist snapping a photo. If you want take a photo free from tourists, you really do have to get to arrive early. And, if you want to get this master-piece at its best and most peaceful, get up early and get it as the sun rises. I never made it for sunrise, but that gives me a reason to go back, right!
I’d heard about and also seen photos of Chicago’s Loop before I reached the city. I remember thinking ‘that is one area I am going to get lost in’. It confused me a little at first, but after being explained about the ‘blocks’ and the train system, I discovered it’s a great area to wander and lose yourself taking photos of locals and business workers scurrying about. Essentially the ‘Loop’ is the centre of the city. It’s where all neighbourhoods have expanded from; it claims the title of Chicago’s business district; it has the city’s best museums and theatres and has countless options for eating and nightlife. You won’t go hungry or be short of things to see and do if you spend a couple of days exploring the Loop. And, if you’re lucky to grab a sunny day, it’s one of the best areas to catch some of Chicago’s beautiful harsh sunlight.
I’m not going to lie, I was a little anxious about using the trains – my experience of New York's transport system confused the heck out of me so much. However, in Chicago after being shown how the system worked, I think I pretty much wowed and said ‘omg, sign me up for a metro card. This really is so easy!’
The system - known as the ‘L’ which stands for elevated - works on different coloured lines. You’ve pink, brown, blue, green, purple, orange, yellow and red. And, honestly, jumping on one of the L train lines is an easy way to navigate yourself around some of Chicago’s distinct neighbourhoods, even for me. Newly confident with my metro card, I decided to hop on and off a train at least once a day. My favourite line was the brown line as it offered up a great over view of what the city was like below.
Also, I love shooting on the underground and subways stations; they're always so full of life, atmosphere and cinematic lighting, and Chicago didn't disappoint. Some of my favourite photos were taken at one of the train stations.
Chicago is known for having a mid-west personality with big city vibes. On one hand, it’s a busy diverse metropolis, and on the other, it’s got a neighbourhood community vibe with several neighbourhoods coexisting.
One my favourite districts that I got to experience had to be Wicker Park. Hop on the blue line to get there. It has a chilled neighbourhood feel and it’s a youthful area. Some may say it’s hipster -attracting the young crowd, and it does have a London Shoreditch feel with boutique and vintage shops, trendy coffee joints, neon lit bars, and vegan brunch spots. It also has a fair share eating places whether you’re looking for donuts, ramen, empanadas or tacos…and if you’re on the hunt for ice cream, I definitely recommend giving Jeni’s Splendid ice cream a try. You’ll find a menu with the usual suspects, like chocolate chip and vanilla, but there’s those that come with a twist like wildberry lavender and sweet potato with marshmallow. It’s a pretty cool menu of changing flavours, and a friendly team of staff who'll happily let you try the flavours before you make the all-important choice.
I noticed almost immediately that Chicagoans love to eat. You will most definitely return home having popped on a few extra pounds from a few days stay in Chicago. There is literally something for everyone, on every corner; on every street. And, Pizza is no joke here. Chicago developed the ‘deep dish’ pizza. It’s more like a pie, than a pizza, but no trip would be complete not having tried at least one of these!
Not many places claim a beach and an incredible skyline. The east side of Chicago is home to Lake Michigan. This lake is huge. It’s never ending and it's one of America’s greatest. You can pretty much walk, and walk, and walk here…or if you’re feeling active take a run or go rollerblading. I started one of my days walking along the lakefront. I remember the weather being a little bit chilly, but it was one of those days that feels the perfect kind for a walk; the kind that warms you up. I stopped to take a rest and in doing so started chatting to an elderly man who wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing in the city. He was so friendly. Little unexpected moments like this really brighten up my day. I took his advice and carried on my walk to Navy Pier. He warned me that ‘it can get touristy and can get quite busy, but it’s worth a visit, whilst you’re here’.
Located by the beach, it has a ferries wheel - from where you can take in the entire city coastline. Navy Pier reminded me a bit like having a day at a seaside coastal town in the UK. The familiar sweet smell of candy floss and ice cream filling the air, occasional shrill screams and laughter coming from children and adults as they take to the amusement rides.
To really get a feel for the city - as well as walking the streets - you have to experience it from above, which could be a little problem if you’re afraid of heights. Here’s a teeny secret, if you go up to the Sky Lounge of the 96th floor of the Hancock Tower you can enjoy a cocktail with a view. And, if you are afraid of heights stay on ground level and take an amble along the Magnificent Mile… a mile-long street of shops. There’s everything from Chanel to Macy’s, Nike and so much more. I reckon you could spend an entire day on this street…if you’re a keen shopper.
I thought I’d have heaps of time in my week to visit The Skydeck in the Willis Tower, but no, I left it to my last morning. I set off bright and early, grabbed a cup of tea from my new friends at David’s Tea. If you love loose leaf tea, this place is a must. It’s very much like T2 in the UK and quickly became my favourite tea stop. I even got myself a loyalty card for the week. Armed with tea and Google maps, I set off only to twist my ankle on the pavement. Turned out I sprained my ankle pretty badly (that’s another story, but it hurt like hell). In my pain and hobbling along, I still visited the Skydeck, just with less enthusiasm! It’s similar to that of The View from The Shard in London. You have a bit of an introduction; an elevator ascent and once you get to the top, you have 360-degree views of the city below. The Skydeck’s difference is that it has a ‘ledge’ – that’s a few boxes completely made of glass that jut out from the side of the building. You’re able to stand – pretty much unobstructed – in the sky. At 1,353 feet in the air, it’s a pretty cool view.
I follow a fair few amazing photographers from Chicago on Instagram and I was super excited to meet some of them during my trip. I have to thank them for taking the time to show me their city and their warm hospitality. They made my trip all the more special. I took home with me a whole bunch of photos, memories, as well as a sprained ankle.
All in all, Chicago is a likeable city with a super infectious attitude. There were a few spots that I didn’t get to see including Crown Fountain as it was closed for winter, and I never got time to experience the city by boat, so I guess that means I’ll be returning :-)