I’ve travelled extensively across the USA and only ever passed through Chicago O’Hare Airport on my way to other states. So I came up with a good excuse to visit this summer when my son decided to spend his summer working in the Windy City for his Student J1 Visa. First I had to give him the good news!
“You’re arriving when?” My son asks with a mixture of surprise and trepidation. I am doing the unthinkable and crashing my son’s J1 visa experience in Chicago and even worse I’m bringing along his friend’s mother, Paula. Next question – how long are we staying? With so many flights and such easy access direct from Dublin and Shannon, Chicago is the perfect destination for a four night break to the USA. “I’ll be over on Thursday so try and get the day off,” I said.
J1 Visa with Usit
The student J1 visa work scheme has long been an ongoing rite of passage for Irish students since my own college days four decades ago. My son, Mark, took the leap across the Atlantic at the beginning of June with his friends Jack and Alan. As this is a busman’s holiday for his travel writing mum I’m hoping to see the best that Bean Town has to offer while checking he’s eating vegetables and washing his clothes.
Chicago is home to a cornucopia of artful delights and the ideal accommodation to appreciate them all can be found at the 21C Museum Hotel, nestled beside the Magnificent Mile that runs through the heart of Downtown. The décor is wrapped around a series of exhibitions which make the lobby as interesting as an art gallery. Paula and I check into our room on the top floor boasting great views of the skyscrapers that hold up the skyline as our sons walk into the lobby.
The boys have an excellent idea where to take us. They’ve been staying in the West Loop area in student accommodation and passing by trendy eateries each day on their way to work. Being J1’ers their budget doesn’t match their appetites but with the mums in town it’s the perfect time to explore some restaurants. As it happens they are just the sort of places we’d like to dine too. Bar Siena is a mix of Italian and European flavours served with a distinct American twist and great place to go for brunch. The spicy shrimp and Focaccia with arugula and prosciutto rivalled the flavours of Alabama and Rome.
The Science Bit
Surprisingly the lads have been so busy working they haven’t done much sightseeing so our tour starts with our city passes offering a variety of iconic sights listed with free entry. It’s a balmy day and perfect time to visit the Adler Planetarium perched next to the Field Museum and Soldier Field in a distinctive dome.
Chicago is a base for science and industry with leaders of the past leaving a permanent presence. The World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893 to commemorate the landing of Columbus left an indelible mark on the city. It was responsible for several culinary creations too and claims the humble brownie and hot dog.
Paula and I got the full rundown on Chicago’s most famous food at the Chicago food tour while the boys were at work. Our guide Terry brought it to Lou Malnatis famous pizza bar on Wells Street amongst other stops and this is a really great way to walk the city and get a flavour for its most popular foods. We visited Portillos the home of the famous one nickel frankfurter which is now the Chicago Hot Dog served complete with seven toppings. The Chicago Food Tour offers a range of different styles of cuisine including a tour of the restaurants in Chinatown.
Time for dinner and we are joined by Alan’s mum Susan who flies for Aer Lingus and is on an overnight. As a treat our hardworking sons take us out to Land and Lake Kitchen on the Riverwalk thoroughfare with the view of Trump Tower over our shoulder. We don’t feel too bad for them picking up the tab as Jacks works at the franchise so they get 50% off the bill. We have notions of cocktails at sunset and Susan had a trick up her sleeve as we slipped into an Uber. She insisted that the best view of Chicago is to be had in the ladies bathroom of the Hancock tower where entry to the bar on the 65th floor is completely free. The cocktails and beer may have Dublin prices but the view incredible. As the sun dropped slowly behind the clouds the skyscrapers lit up and below we had views of the Ferris Wheel on Navy Pier, another invention from the famous fair of 1893, and the lakeshore. The towers around us sparkled like gems as we heard stories of how our sons managed the basics of washing and managing without mammy.
River Architecture Tour
Next morning we took a different view point and toured the city on the Chicago River. Mark most notably was missing from our early start as the draw of Duffys Bar the night before left him strangely a little sore in the head. Jack was ready to take in the First Lady Architecture tour with the mammies and it was a highlight of the trip. The great fire of 1871 is mentioned throughout and it was the levelling of the city that followed that brought about the rebirth of the city and the invention of the first skyscraper. The legacy continued with the Wrigley building followed by Chicago Tribune Building and many substantial skyscrapers making the Willis Tower the highest in the city. It was ‘trumped’ by another tower if you’ll excuse the pun but the tallest in actual floors is the Willis – or sears as real Chicago locals still call it. Fans of Frank Lloyd Wright can visit the Frederick C Robie house at Chicago University is well worth a trip. Stained glass patterns and geometric furniture echo the gorgeous horizontal lines of the building.
Chicago is a city with most highlights within walking distance – including two beaches that hug lake Michigan’s shoreline. In the summertime it’s a welcome retreat for everyone from the humidity and for us a bonus to sit on a lounger and get a bit of sunbathing. While the boys go to work it’s time for the mums to pay homage to Hemingway outside town at the house where he was born and spent his formative years. With tales of travelling uncles and an inspirational grandfather there was much to learn. Our time on the elevated train track was interesting and adult fare is only €3 return.
With Mark stuck in work Jack was the lucky one who got to join us at the Dearborn restaurant. Galway sisters Clodagh and Amy lawless have created a buzzing culinary emporium on the corner of North Dearborn Street. The menu is one that will thrill anyone looking for fine dining with a unique twist – the wellington burger will stay in my memory forever. Cocktails champagne and caviar are all on the menu and the duck and fresh fish from the lake were devoured with relish. We were greeted and brought to our table by a J1er from Loughrea, of course she just happened to know one of Paula’s good friends from the same town. www.thedearborntavern.com
It was a balmy night so we called around to see Mark who was closing up the bar up at the Island Party Hut on the river. The Riverwalk is a new development that shows the city at water level with places to stop and eat or just look at the city. Unfortunately it started to pour with a seasonal thunderstorm and us dressed in our glad rags from our posh dinner were stuck behind the bar. Mark improvised and offered us two plastic bags with a cut hole in the top so we could get home without being totally drenched. Let it be known the Chicago Mac was born that night but it may not be a lasting fashion statement.
Mark had Saturday night off so we slipped away to Avec Restaurant, another trendy and innovative dining delight on the West Loop. Here food is meant to be shared and with long tables ending with the artistic installation of a wall of wine bottles at the end of the room. We enjoyed whole fish baked with fresh vegetables and stunning twists on hummus and tomatoes. Avec is one of two eateries with the same name, that will cross the generations with inspirational modern dining and friendly staff that make you feel as if you are their regulars. www.avecrestaurant.com
Afterwards how better to wash down a gorgeous dinner than a stroll to Navy Pier, home to the Ferris Wheel which draws thousands on a Wednesday and Saturday night. I asked mark why Chicago has a free fireworks show twice a week. He shrugged and said, “They just do.” That’s not the only free light show that the city offers. The superb Art Deco Mart Exchange displays a fabulous illuminated art experience on Friday nights for all to enjoy.
As it was our last night we went to check out some hot spots and had night caps at O’Callaghan’s Irish Bar. Mark was teetering on whether to join us or catch up on his washing but decided to stay while Jack had an early shift next morning so went home.
Three nights is good time to sample the best that Chicago has to offer and enjoy a healthy balance between time spent with our sons and sightseeing. For the boys it was plenty of time to have their mums around but they were really glad that we came in the end. Chicago is as Irish as Boston and yet it is distinctly cosmopolitan with a softness that heralds the start of the mid-western states and a taste of the American heartland. Paula and I agreed that the boys were safe and happy and had chosen a good city to stay and enjoy the J1 experience. We just hope they are as concerned about doing their own washing when they arrive home in September!
Highlight : The Art Institute of Chicago has some of the finest Impressionist paintings of the 19th century. Currently an exhibition of Van Gogh and the Avant Gard is showing that includes prep sketches and paintings for some of the most iconic post impressionist paintings. Included are works by Seurat and Signac and the subjects and landscapes they painted along the River Seine in the 1880s.
Factbox Michelle was a guest of www.choosechicago.com
The Chicago City Pass can be purchased online at www.citypass.com