A joint Stateside trip from my sister Lucy and our very good friend Anna was the perfect excuse to plan a girls’ weekend to bid goodbye to summer a couple of weeks ago. Leaving Chris holding the baby (thank you, thank you!!), we headed west to Chicago, ready for a weekend of sightseeing, al fresco drinking, and being able to leave the hotel without half my bodyweight in nappies and wipes. What a treat!
This was my third trip to Chicago, but the girls’ first, so a mixture of touristy things and neighbourhood wanderings was on the agenda. It was a packed weekend with so much to see and do (amazing how much you can jam in when you’re not governed by naps and bedtimes!) – here are my top five recommendations for a baby-free weekend in the Windy City:
- Perusing the neighbourhoods: On the recommendation of several friends, we ventured beyond downtown on this trip to explore some of the neighbourhoods Chicago has to offer. Logan Square, to the north-east of the city, was a perfect destination for a Friday night – packed with tempting bars and restaurants full of locals celebrating the start of the weekend. We had incredible cocktails and gourmet popcorn at the pavement tables of a lovely cocktail bar (http://billy-sunday.com), before taking up the recommendation of a lovely local couple sat next to us and heading to a bar across the square for wine and sharing plates (http://websterwinebar.com). So extensive was the menu, so lovely was our server, and so great was our people-watching position (perched in armchairs right in the window) that our bar crawl ended there; but we did return to sample the selection of beers made on site at Revolution Brewing (http://revbrew.com/home), a little further south in the neighbourhood, the following day.
The neighbourhoods of Logan Square and Wicker Park (another young neighbourhood a bit further in to town, and our chosen destination for Saturday brunch) are loosely linked by the 606 trail (http://www.the606.org) – Chicago’s answer to New York’s High Line. This elevated, disused railway has been developed in to a lovely three-mile stretch popular with runners and cyclists. Although the views aren’t as iconic as its Big Apple counterpart, the trail is much less busy and there’s some great rooftop / back yard snooping to be had from its height, as well as cute, colourful murals underneath its arches. The Bongo Room (http://thebongoroom.com) on N. Milwaukee Ave in Wicker Park was a perfect pit-stop to fuel up on brunch and hair-of-the-dog cocktails before we began the walk.
- Shopping local: Being stroller-free made navigating the many lovely shops on offer in Chicago all the easier. Wicker Park was full of vintage shops and quirky boutiques – if Luce could have furnished her new flat from here, she would have done! And it seemed everywhere we turned there was another lovely book store: from the cavernous Uncharted Books in Logan Square, a treasure trove of used books where we nearly got caught up in a poetry reading, to Volumes Book Café in Wicker Park where you can browse the shelves whilst waiting for your brunch to arrive. I’d read that children’s section at City Lit bookstore in Logan Square had a fantastic kids’ book section and stopped off here for a gift for Ella. It wasn’t a disappointment, and I particularly enjoyed the selection of in-house monthly book groups that were advertised – from the Weird and Wonderful group sharing science-fiction, to the Bitter Women Book Club (not for kids, I should say…). Is this a pseudonym for your U3A book group, Granny?!
- Laughs at the legendary Second City: On Sunday we headed for the early evening performance at Second City (http://www.secondcity.com), the iconic comedy club most famous for improvisation shows that have become a rite of passage for writers and performers destined for the bright lights of Saturday Night Live – America’s topical prime time weekly sketch show – and beyond (past alumni include Bill Murray, John Candy, Steve Carrell and Tina Fey). The theatre is small and wide, so regardless of whether you have a floor or a balcony seat (as we did) you feel pretty close to the action. We saw a performance by an ensemble of six comedians, which followed Second City’s typical formula: two acts of ‘polished’ sketches that have been previously workshopped and rehearsed, followed by a third of completely improvised scenarios, which might either flop or fly. The idea is that the show is constantly evolving, and anything good that comes from the third act will be worked up and incorporated in to the main show for future performances. It was brilliant fun: the first two acts full of smart satire of American culture and politics (lots of material there at the moment!), and the third laced with anticipation about whether the audience or the actors would have the last laugh. With tickets for under $25 and about 2.5 hours of entertainment, it was a brilliant value night out. I’m so pleased that (third time lucky!) I finally made it to this Chicago institution!
- Taking to the water: Chicago is famous for its architecture – almost all of the city centre’s buildings were burnt to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and, as such, the city had an almost blank canvas on which to re-build. As architects began to experiment with space by building up rather than out, the city gave rise to the world’s first skyscraper, and has been innovating in the design stakes ever since. The great thing about the fairly concentrated downtown area is that you can see almost all of the most iconic sights from the river that flows through the city centre and out to Lake Michigan. The city’s famous architectural boat tours run half-hourly during the summer season, and the beautifully sunny Sunday afternoon that we had was perfect for hopping on board. I’d taken the tour on my first trip to Chiacgo in November a couple of years ago, but the warmer weather made for a less bracing trip with as much people-watching on the riverbanks to be had as architectural ogling. I should say, this one’s a bit of a cheat on the ‘baby-free’ list as you could definitely do it with kids in tow, but not having to worry about where there’d be room for the stroller or restraining my little wriggler from leaning over the edge of the railing made for a much more relaxing experience and meant we could enjoy a cold beer or two on-deck!
- Al fresco dining and drinking: I’ve lost track of the number of times this summer I’ve looked longingly at child-free couples or friends enjoying a leisurely brunch at a pavement cafe, or whiling away the hours nursing a pint in a beer garden. Yes, obviously you can eat and drink with a little one in tow, but your options in terms or where to do so are limited by stroller access and high chair availability, and you count it a successful trip if you manage to get through half your food before the baby starts lobbing theirs on to the floor. With Ella otherwise occupied, it was such a treat to be able to dine at leisure on this break, and we made the most of the lovely weather by doing much of it outside. We had monster sandwiches in the shadow of ‘The Bean’ (Anish Kapoor’s stunning Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park – one of my favourite Chicago spots) and enjoyed the happy hour offerings on the 29th floor terrace of our hotel (http://www.milenorthhotel.com). We chanced our luck for cocktails at the amazing rooftop bar atop London House (on the recommendation of the waiter at dinner the previous night, who clearly fancied himself as a bit of a Chicago playboy as he described their tough door policy but said it ‘might be worth you giving it a go’) – and were rewarded for our gumption with stunning views and stuff drinks (https://londonhousechicago.com/rooftop/ – turns out the hardest thing is finding the unmarked door out to the terrace: if you can manage that, they’ll let anyone in – the place was crawling with Philadelphia Eagles fans there to watch the big football match against the Chicago Bears, and if they’ll let Eagles fans in the bar is pretty low!). Probably my favourite spot of the weekend, though, was River Roast in the River North area of the city, where we ventured for Sunday lunch (http://www.riverroastchicago.com). Our table on a sunny terrace overlooking the river was the perfect spot from which to enjoy mimosas and bellinis, listen to a Chicago Blues band, and whet our appetites with a scotch egg starter (oh yes!) before demolishing a delicious roast that was carved at our table. You can take the girls out of England, but…..!
All in all it was a fantastic weekend – and the girls agreed it made a great, more relaxed, alternative to a New York City break for anyone looking to venture beyond the Big Apple.