Blown Away by the Windy City: Science, Money, Food, and More

Between our daily visits to the Art Institute and the Chicago Architecture Center boat tour, you might think we didn’t have much time to take in other sights during our recent trip to Chicago. But thanks to the compactness of the downtown area, we were able to see quite a bit while relying exclusively on our own feet to get around.

Field Museum of Natural History

We are science buffs so the Field Museum of Natural History, widely considered a top-tier institution on par with the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, was a natural destination. Add in the fact that we are members of a different science center, so we had free access via the ASTC reciprocal admission program, and it was a no-brainer to spend a few hours at the Field. The museum has a vast collection, totaling over 40 million specimens, and only a tiny fraction is on display; most items are maintained for research purposes. The specimen collection includes 12 million insects, 1.75 million fishes, 300,000 reptiles and amphibians, and 230,000 mammals, among other things. The storage needs of this institution boggle the mind.

For non-researchers like us, the highlight of the museum is the displays. We thought the best section was the Evolving Planet, which occupies fully one quarter of a floor of this giant complex and documents the complete history of life of Earth. By this I mean it starts ~4 billion years ago and covers the major steps along the way, like the transition from single-celled to multi-celled organisms and the period when living things (plants) first moved out of the oceans and started living on land. It’s a tall order to communicate the timescales involved in the entire history of the Earth but the Field does an admirable job. There are also excellent video renderings and even life size models of what different environments looked like in the deep past.

 

The most popular sections of Evolving Planet are, naturally, those featuring the mounted fossil skeletons from the Mesozoic Era (250-66 millions years ago). Yes, we are talking about dinosaur bones, and the Field Museum offers a grand setting for Sue, their remarkably complete T. Rex skeleton. But beyond the photogenic mounted specimens of popular species, the museum does a great job of tracing the evolution of the earliest dinosaurs, the early history and development of mammals, and development of aquatic species like fish and turtles, all while highlighting their excellent collection of fossils that are still embedded in their substrate. Many of these fossils are the official holotypes, which is the physical specimen used to define the species at the time it was first described. One very important example of the embedded fossils is the Chicago Archaeopteryx, one of only 13 known specimens of the “missing link” between dinosaurs and birds.

 

 

The other very strong suit of the Field Museum is the collection of taxidermied animals. The halls full of glassy-eyed animals have a somewhat creepy quality, and they feel like a strange throwback to an earlier era when today we’ve seen so many of these animals on TV in nature specials. But we ended up enjoying the animal displays more than we first expected. The specimens are arranged in interesting ways with related species, they aren’t being held captive, and it’s easy to get a close look at them; it’s actually a better all-around experience than a zoo. The presentation of many species side by side with articulated skeletons really helps explain how the animals are related or differentiated. And really, where else can we go to see a passenger pigeon or a Carolina parakeet?

 

Chicago Fed Money Museum

We made a brief visit to the small and free Money Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. The museum does a nice job of conveying the history of central banking in the US, the role of payment systems in the economy, and the Fed’s role in fighting inflation, while also offering interesting displays like examples of historical US currency. There are several interactive exhibits (“Counterfeit or Real?” and “Interest Rate Setting Game”) and also the chance to take home some free shredded US currency. You just know a museum is going to be awesome when the displays feature headlines like “The Creation of the Federal Reserve” and “Banking Regulation.”

 

Though we spent less than an hour in the museum, it gave us an excuse to spend a little time in the financial district. It also gave us plenty of fodder for later discussion as we critiqued the Fed interest rate role-playing game. I’ll spare you the details.

Parks and Architecture Around Town

The 1893 World Columbian Expo that I mentioned in my last post helped inspire the the City Beautiful movement, and Chicago was both an originator and an exemplar of the idea that urban areas could have beautiful buildings, sweeping views, and gracious parks. Just strolling around downtown was a feast for the senses. Imposing neoclassical museums like the Art Institute and the Field Museum anchor large public spaces, while the shore of Lake Michigan is hugged by extensive parks that are actively used by the public. Millennium Park on the north side of the Art Institute features the iconic Cloud Gate sculpture (top photo) among other notable pieces, and contains the stunning Pritzker Pavilion. It really says something about a city’s commitment to public spaces when it not only builds a state-of-the-art performance space that can host an audience of 11,000 and frequently holds free public concerts, but the city also hires starchitect Frank Gehry to design said public venue.

A little further south in Grant Park is the monumental Buckingham Fountain, flanked by well-maintained rose gardens and lovely views of the city skyline and Lake Michigan. In fact, public parks extend south from the mouth of the Chicago River for over 7 miles along the shore of Lake Michigan, containing a number of museums, marinas, beaches, and other recreation spots.

 

 

In addition to appreciating the large swaths of green space we also took time to notice the exquisite details that adorned the buildings around town. There are no boring buildings here! One standout is the light-filled atrium of the Rookery Building, built by Burnham and Root in 1888. The lobby was redesigned by Frank Lloyd in 1905. Today the building has been remodeled to achieve LEED gold status for energy efficiency, and the elegant restored lobby looks better than ever. The original Chicago Stock Exchange trading floor was designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler with stenciled decoration, elaborate columns, and art glass, and when it was facing demolition the entire room was moved to the Art Institute, where it serves as a breathtaking venue for special functions.

 

Nom Nom Nom

Since our hotel was located in the heart of the Loop, it was easy for us to eat local while exploring the offerings at some of Chicago’s most historic establishments. Every place we ate was one-of-a-kind and had terrific service, in many cases with servers who had worked there for decades. One night we enjoyed excellent German food at The Berghoff, which has been owned and operated by four generations of the Berghoff family since 1898. Another night we delved into Chicago deep dish and tavern style pizza at The Exchequer, reportedly one of the favorite pizza places of film critic Roger Ebert. Its location, 226 Wabash, was previously occupied by a speakeasy frequented by Al Capone and the pub plays up the connection in its staff uniforms and menu. Although we agreed that we both prefer New York style pizza, with its slow-rising and well-developed crust structure, it’s hard to complain about an inch of delicious toppings smothered in gooey mozzarella.

 

 

Our favorite dinner spot was Miller’s Pub, in operation since 1935 and owned by a Greek family since 1950. My spanikopita and Ken’s Greek burger (beef, lamb, and peppers in the patty, topped with kalamata olives, feta, and tzatziki) were both out of this world. We liked it so much we went there twice. And one day we treated ourselves to fancy cocktails in the elegant lobby of the historic Palmer House Hotel. Sadly, we did not have time to eat at the world’s only nutella cafe, located on Michigan Ave.

 

 

Miscellaneous

To prepare for our trip I read The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which focuses on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. While a book combining architectural history and true crime might seem a little bizarre at first, this well-written account really conveys the drama, danger, and dynamism of late 19th century Chicago and the significance of the fair for the city.

One final quirky story about our trip. When we booked our hotel we noticed that the weekend we selected had higher rates and less availability than Memorial Day weekend, which we found surprising. We were paying for the hotel with points and rewards, so we were indifferent to the cost, but I was very curious about the cause. I thought only Taylor Swift could generate that much demand for hotel rooms, but there was no indication that she would be in the area that weekend. When we arrived at our hotel, it was packed, and the other guests did not particularly look like Swifties. Then I saw the sign for the shuttle buses to the ASCO convention. It turns out that approximately 40,000 people were in town for the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncologists. A cartoon light bulb went on over my head and I suddenly understood why I had seen about 25 ads for Keytruda that day in the airport, on the blue line train from the airport, and on city bus shelters.

After my first post about Chicago, a good friend and blog reader from South Florida got in touch to say she had recently been to Chicago, too; her husband was attending the ASCO meeting. We were so disappointed that we didn’t realize our paths were crossing. A Chicago meet-up would have been ever better than seeing Tay-Tay! But we won’t let that missed opportunity spoil our memories of an outstanding trip to a fascinating city.

 

8 thoughts on “Blown Away by the Windy City: Science, Money, Food, and More”

  1. I love Chicago and I’m thrilled that you had such a good time there. I used to work trade shows in Chicago and stay at the Palmer House. Such elegance! Everything in that city is a feast for the eyes.

    Glad you are enjoying a new chapter in your travels. We just got back from Montreal and Quebec City. If you haven’t been to Quebec, you should add it to your ever-growing list.

    Reply
    • We almost stayed at the Palmer House (it’s a Hilton property, also) but I have a hard time foregoing the free Hampton Inn breakfast. We were only a block west of Palmer House so had the chance to walk by it every day and admire the elegant doors and crisply uniformed bellhops. What a sight that must have been when it was first constructed in the 19th century!

      Thanks for the tips about Montreal and Quebec – I saw your photos on IG and was already smitten. It’s definitely a spot to add to our list of city destinations!

      Reply
  2. I think you should go back in January. You’d really, really appreciate all the indoor spaces then! The decorative opulence in some of those buildings is something I actually DO like about cities. There is no doubt about the energetic vibe cities give off. A gyro is one of my favorite treats, and that Greek burger Ken got looks like it would make me smile, as well.

    Reply
    • I was recently reading an article about “10 great places to visit in the summer” or similar, and Chicago was at the top of the list. The blurb was focused almost entirely on how happy and relieved the denizens of Chicago become when they can wear shorts outside. I knew we picked the right time to visit, obviously, and while we really liked our stay we put Chicago firmly in the category of “enjoyable place to visit, tough place to live.” We weren’t at risk of going hungry, for sure, and I felt we barely scratched the surface on the food front. We stuck with the more typical food offerings of the city, and there’s a reason they’ve been popular for so long! If we visited longer we’d probably branch out into some of the more recent arrivals like Peruvian, Israeli, and Poke bowls, to name a few that were within a few blocks of our hotel.

      Reply
  3. It’s interesting – your comment about Chicago being a good place to visit, but a tough place to live. I agree – but man… they do work REALLY hard to make it a nice place even in spite of the awful winter weather. There’s so much to see and do indoors, and the buildings you profiled, with their gorgeous decor, provide such a nice cozy feeling. Like, who wouldn’t want to sit at some dark prohibition era speakeasy on a cold night drinking craft cocktails?? And who wouldn’t want to warm up with a giant Chicago style pizza? And once the weather warms up, wow! The parks are pristine and, as you pointed out, go on for miles! Plus – they’ve got every professional sport imaginable, culture for dayyyyys, and Sue!!! Who seems positively delightful!

    So yeah, I couldn’t do it because I’m a cold weather wuss, but I can certainly see why people are willing to tough it out. What a great city!

    Reply
    • For us the cold weather would be one part of the challenge, but one that can be surmounted with the right gear. Our big challenge would be the lack of outdoor access in the winter — very few of the downtown residential buildings have balconies, probably because of the weather, but we loved having outdoor access when we had a place in Manhattan. There’s nothing wrong with putting on a hat and gloves to sit on your balcony and watch the city life! Also, our NYC experience taught us that having everything delivered (even groceries) gets to be a drag. American cities just don’t have the same assortment of grocery venues within walking distance that you enjoy in Europe.

      But you are 100% right that the city has so much to offer, from major sports to cultural offerings to excellent public spaces. The relatively small physical footprint of the city center made it simple to get around on foot. We also found O’Hare to be an appealing airport, with easy train access to the city center (unlike, say, La Guardia) and direct flights to just about everywhere. And as you know, Lake Michigan might as well be an ocean, with its endless water views and changeable conditions. I’m very glad we finally made a long-overdue visit.

      Reply
  4. I love your photos of Chicago! It really is a beautiful city, from the turn-of-the-century historic buildings to the cool skyscrapers and gorgeous Millennium Park. We really enjoyed the Field Museum, and I agree that it was interesting to see the vast array of taxidermied critters in such good shape (no moth eaten, wizened specimens there). Where else would we ever be able to see an Ivory-billed Woodpecker? By the way, did you guys spend any time in the botanical display with the incredible glass specimens?

    I actually would be interested in your thoughts on the Fed interest rate role-playing game. I’m trying to figure out my strategy for CD investments with the inevitable coming changes, LOL!!

    Reply
    • We did enjoy the plants of the world displays! By the time we got there I think we were already experiencing information overload, because the main thing we both remember is being surprised at the highly varied species that all belonged to the same family. We kept saying, “I didn’t realize X was closely related to Y!” Like with the taxidermied animals, we really saw the value of the collection for study and learning. Our brains were definitely full by the time we left, and we skipped most of the anthropology sections.

      Reply

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