Chicago: A Perfect Day in the City

Stopping for a selfie on one of the city's Absolutely Chicago Segway Tours. Susan McKee photos.
Stopping for a selfie on one of the city’s Absolutely Chicago Segway Tours. Susan McKee photos.
"The bean" just east of Michigan Avenue, a staple of the Windy City.
“The bean” just east of Michigan Avenue, a staple of the Windy City.

Seeing Chicago’s staple destinations

By Susan McKee

Chicago is the city of the big shoulders, the hog butcher for the world, as Carl Sandburg famously described it in his 1914 poem. This is not the place for a minimalist breakfast. This is a city that calls for eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee in the morning.

Lou Mitchell’s is the perfect place to begin your one perfect day in Chicago. The iconic eatery has been serving up Good American Breakfasts all day since 1923–feeding everyone from travelers who want to drive Route 66 from its beginning on Jackson Street to politicians, businessmen, commuters and the merely hungry (portions are legendary).

The eatery is less than a block from Union Station and within sight of the tower formerly known as Sears. They open at 5:30 a.m., if you’d like an early start. Although famed for pastries and doughnuts, it’s the omelets that receive consistently rave reviews.

You can order yours plain, but there are (at last count) 21 other options, from apple and cheddar cheese to zucchini. If the line’s long, they’ll hand out doughnut holes to keep you from fainting with hunger while waiting for a table.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation's River Cruise, a 90-minute tour around the city.
The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s River Cruise, a 90-minute tour around the city.

Next stop? Millennium Park at the north end of Grant Park, which stretches almost 320 acres along Lake Michigan in front of the Loop. You’ll be distracted by the Frank Geary-designed Pritzker Pavilion (a bandshell which opened in 2004), but your destination is “the bean”–not its formal name (that would be “Cloud Gate”).

The Bean

The giant mirror-shiny sculpture, designed by the British-Indian artist Anish Kapoor, is just east of Michigan Avenue between Madison and Washington streets.

Contemplate its contours however and you’ll understand the nickname. Walk around and under the curved, polished stainless steel skin, observing how it reflects its surroundings, from the gardens to the skyline to, yes, the clouds.

Then, turning your back on the bean, head south to Monroe Street and down the steps just east of Columbus Drive to the offices of Absolutely Chicago Segway Tours. After a safety briefing, you’ll be skimming the sidewalks and walking paths of Chicago’s lakefront all the way to the Museum campus.

There’s plenty of time on the two-hour tour to stop and snap selfies while circling the Buckingham Fountain, skimming around the Shedd Aquarium, contemplating the Adler Planetarium and scoping out the Field Museum.

A view from the River Cruise where visitors can learn all about the people, buildings and history of Chicago.
A view from the River Cruise where visitors can learn all about the people, buildings and history of Chicago.

When your feet are back on the ground, head west to Michigan Avenue, turn right and make a brief stop at the Chicago Cultural Center. Constructed more than 100 years ago as the Chicago Public Library, it hosts myriad exhibits and events — but your destination is a quick peek at the world’s largest stained glass Tiffany dome (38 feet in diameter with some 30,000 pieces of glass).

Time for lunch

Now it’s lunchtime, and in Chicago, this means pizza–but not just any pizza. Chicago pizza is deep dish. None of that fancy flatbread here. No figs or goat cheese. We’re talking sausage and pepperoni and tomato sauce and cheese, lots of cheese. One of the best places to dig in is Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in River North. I always get one of the “personal size” Malnati Chicago Classic™ pizzas and either split it with a companion or take out the leftovers to enjoy later.

Refueled and refreshed, it’s time for The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s River Cruise. No matter how many times I’ve taken this 90-minute tour, I always learn something new about the people, buildings and history of the Windy City.

For example, Bertrand Goldberg, the architect who designed Marina City (better known as the Corn Cobs) also designed River City II, which offers boat parking for its residents, and the first known non-native settler at the mouth of the Chicago River was the fur trader Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, who lived there in the 1790s.

Plying the waters of the Chicago River, volunteer guides from the Chicago Architectural Center explain the hows and whys of the city, which was founded just about where the tour boat launches at a dock east of the Michigan Avenue bridge crossing the river.

Tea at the Langham

After some power shopping along Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile, it’s time to kick back for a bit with an elegant afternoon tea at the Langham. Retrofitted into a former office building designed by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the late 1960s, the luxury hotel serves up savory sandwiches, sweet treats and myriad proprietary blends of tea all on Wedgwood tableware in a restaurant overlooking the city.

Chicago is known for its varied nightlife, so be sure to reserve a spot for some great entertainment.

This fall and winter there’s everything from Joanna Newsome performing at the Chicago Theatre, “The Merry Widow” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the play “Domesticated” at the Steppenwolf Theater, “Rhapsody in Blue” at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and, as always, comedy improve at Second City.

After the show, it’s time for a late dinner. The Chicago Cut Steakhouse is open until 2 a.m., so there’s plenty of time to indulge in an aged porterhouse or my personal favorite on the menu, the six-ounce Center Barrel Cut Filet Mignon. All their steaks are certified USDA Prime beef the steakhouse has dry-aged for 35 days and butchered on-site.

The last stop for your perfect day? A nightcap in your hotel bar before falling into bed. Tomorrow it’s back to the real world.

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