Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Chicago Insider's look forward to BlogHer '09

In just a few short weeks, hundreds of women (and a dozen men, give or take) are going to descend upon the windy city for BlogHer 2009. Since I grew up near Chicago, and I've been there many times, I thought I'd offer some tips and a few "things to do" in case you get sick of BlogHer (haha) and need to strike out on your own.

Plus, I really wanted to use these pretty pictures from Wikimedia Commons. Anyway...

The hotel where the conference is going to be held, the Sheraton, is in a super location. It's right on the Chicago River, just two blocks from the famous Michigan Avenue (Magnificent Mile). Some of us should have amazing views of the lake. I have stayed at the Sheraton before, and it is very nice. It's also an easy walk to Navy Pier.

Navy Pier (pictured from the air, left) is a popular tourist attraction. If you're bringing the kids along, they'll love the Ferris Wheel and the Children's Museum. There are fireworks every Saturday night at 10:15 pm during the summer. Navy Pier is also the launching point for many of the boat tours of Chicago, including the architectural tour which I highly recommend. I took a class on the architecture of Chicago in college, and there are a lot of fascinating stories. If you need to take a kiddo a souvenir, there's a "Build a Bear" at Navy Pier. You can also pick up a Segway tour of the lakefront beginning at Navy Pier. BJ and I haven't done that specific tour, but we have gone on a Segway tour with the same company, and I can't recommend it enough. I'd always wanted to try one, and we had a blast, in spite of cold, wet weather the day we went, and blistered feet. Our tour started at Michigan and Jackson, at their other office, and was $75 for 2.5 hours.

I couldn't possibly list all the things there are to do at Navy Pier, so visit the website for a complete list.

Another excellent thing to do is Second City. Almost every comedian you can name from Saturday Night Live got their start at Second City. You won't be able to walk from the hotel to the theater, but it's only a $10 cab ride. The tickets are extremely reasonable. We saw "America, All Better!" when we were there for BJ's birthday and it was hysterical. If you like comedy, you really don't want to miss Second City. And who knows, you might see the next Tina Fey or John Candy.

Of course, the museums in Chicago are top notch. My favorite is the Museum of Science and Industry (right). The Museum of Science and Industry and the Art Institute are the only buildings from the World's Fair that survive in modern Chicago. Apparently the Museum's building was one of the few that was built to last, because it housed all the priceless works of art that other countries sent to Chicago for the World's Fair. I guess Chicago kept a lot of these works of art, and they're now housed at the Art Institute. (This was according to our Segway tour guide, and I have no idea whether or not it is literally true, but it's a good story).

You'll need a cab or a car, because it's about 8 miles from the hotel. Parking was $15 for the day last time we were there, and that's on top of the admission. They have a Harry Potter exhibit right now, if you're a fan. I also love the Art Institute (which is within walking distance of our hotel). The other major museums are the Field Museum (dinosaurs and stuff), the Adler Planetarium (astronomy), and the Shedd Aquarium (fish). The Field Museum, the planetarium and the aquarium are all in the same area, 2 - 3 miles from the hotel. There's lots to see on the way, so if you're accustomed to walking, it might be a nice stroll for you (past Grant Park and Buckingham Fountain).

This seems like as good a time as any to mention that Google Maps will guide you through Chicago by car, by foot, or by public transportation if you change the settings. It tells you exactly which bus to take where. Very handy if you want to get around inexpensively.

If you want to walk on the wild side, you can do what we did for Mimi's bachelorette party and hit the Baton Lounge. It's a drag show, about a mile west of our hotel. I wasn't quite sure what to expect before we went, but it was hilarious and we had a lot of fun. It's definitely a different sort of a girls' night out. Other more mainstream shows in town include Mary Poppins, Jersey Boys, and Cats. I saw Cats when I was a kid, and I remain unimpressed. It's been running for eons, though, so there must be a ton of people who love it (or just a few who see it over and over, maybe?). My dad really enjoyed Jersey Boys when he saw it this year. You can find info about the Broadway-caliber shows here. I can say that the Broadway shows I've seen in Chicago have been extremely professionally done. I have seen Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Cats (as I mentioned), Wicked, and many more. They're every bit as good as the Broadway shows you'll see on Broadway in New York, so if theater is your thing, you may want to plan to see one.

I'll admit ahead of time that I'm not a big shopper, but since our hotel is just off of the Magnificent Mile, I should mention some of the shops that are in the area. There's an Apple Store on the Mag Mile/Michigan Avenue (both the Magnificent Mile and Michigan Avenue refer to the same geographic location and are used interchangably, although technically Michigan Avenue extends beyond the Mag Mile). Didn't the new iPhone just come out? If you leave the hotel and walk west to Michigan Avenue, then go north (away from the river), you'll pass it on the way to the Hancock Tower. The Hancock Tower is where they hide the Cheesecake Factory, which is a very important landmark, as far as I'm concerned. From the street, you want to go down the front stairs, and it's the crazy looking Alice-In-Wonderland place. Water Tower Place mall is also right there by the Hancock Tower. There's an American Girl store at Water Tower Place, if you've got little girls who are into that and you brought somebody else's credit card. (If you panned the picture at right to the right a little further, you'd see the Sheraton).

The landmark Chicago department store used to be Marshall Field's, but it was purchased by Macy's and I do not love it anymore. You can still get Frango mints there, which make a good gift to take home to someone. Just be sure to get two boxes, because you'll want to keep some for yourself. If you want to fancy things up a bit, having tea in the Walnut Room is a good start. We used to stop there to see the Christmas tree and have cocoa with my Grandma when we were kids. What used to be Marshall Field's flagship store (now a crummy generic Macy's) is located at the corner of State and Randolph. Look for the Chicago Theater sign (pictured above) because it sticks out from the buildings and is easy to spot. There's an FAO Schwartz inside Macy's, too, but it also sucks. At Christmas they were selling everything like they were closing the place, and I'm not even sure that it's there anymore. Stupid Macy's, destroying my childhood. The Walnut Room is still there as far as I know. *sigh*

If you want to get into the spirit of Chicago before you come, I've read a couple of books set in Chicago - one is called Loving Frank, about Frank Lloyd Wright's love affair with Mamah Cheney, the woman he built Talesin for (and it takes a BIG left hand turn right at the end, which was kind of fascinating). If you're into FLW, there are tours you can take of the houses he designed around Chicago. I haven't personally done these tours, so let me know what you think. Another iconic Chicago book is The Devil in the White City which takes place during the World's Fair, and it follows the build up to that as well as the career of a serial killer. The NFT Guide to Chicago is a great, handy resource that I picked up on our last trip. You won't get lost with the NFT Guide in your hand, and it's a nice size to fit in a backpack or laptop bag.

No guide to Chicago would be complete without a mention of food. BJ likes Giordano's, I like Uno's for Chicago Style Pizza. Try both and let me know who's right. No trip to Chicago is complete without a Chicago style hot dog. You want a Vienna Beef hot dog on a poppyseed bun, with everything. Do not ask for ketchup. It is not done. Wear a bib. I also love Italian Beef from Al's (there's one on Ontario, about a mile and a half west of our hotel... 169 West Ontario to be specific, if you happen to be in that neighborhood). If you remember this old SNL Skit:

you might enjoy eating at the Billy Goat Tavern. The original is at 430 N. Michigan Avenue, near the Wrigley Building, and another is at Navy Pier. The one on Michigan is actually at the lower level, so you'll need to go down the stairs to get there. It's below street level but outside. That makes no sense, but when you see it you'll understand. I have included a helpful picture that will not help at all. Find outdoor stairs, go down, go under where you think Michigan Avenue is, that's where you'll find it. Or just ask someone. Chicagoans are really helpful, friendly people. It's the Midwest, after all. We're known for being nice.

One more practical thing I want to mention is parking. Parking is extremely expensive in Chicago. Parking at the hotel is $34 - $48.00 for 24 hours. $34 is the self-park rate that does not include insies and outsies (meaning that you're going to have to pay again if you take your car, go somewhere, and return to the hotel) while the $48 rate is for valet parking, which includes ins and outs, but you have to tip the valet and allow 20 - 30 minutes for them to get your car for you. Be sure to budget that into your trip ahead of time, so you're not shocked to see it on your bill. Also, BlogHer has set up room sharing and carpooling resources. I'm actually part of the General Motors carpool group, which is AMAZING and I couldn't be more grateful to my roomies for setting it up. Find someone else in your area who is going to BlogHer and share the costs as much as possible.

While I've not attended BlogHer in the past, I have done enough homework to know that we're going to be inundated with swag. Be sure to pack an extra bag to get it all home in. You might even consider shipping some things home from the hotel to yourself, so you don't have to deal with the extra stuff in the airport (if you fly) or the car (if you carpool). I guess there's a recycling room, too, where you can leave stuff that you're not interested in keeping, and you can pick up things that other people didn't want or need.

I am really looking forward to meeting all of you at BlogHer this year. I can't believe it's only three weeks away! I hope there's some information in my little guide that you can use.

I also hope my family and friends in the Chicago area will comment with their favorite Chicago things to see, do, and eat! I know you all have opinions, so let's hear 'em. Uno's vs. Giordano's? What do you like on your hot dog? Where would you recommend Chicago newbies go?

See you soon!


scanlon said...

We like Ginos (east or west) for pizza. Yum! They sell their pies frozen, too, so you can take one home.

Fran said...

If you like breakfast food, West Egg Cafe is yummy. They have really good omelets and pancakes. I've only been to the N. Fairbanks location (between Ontario and Ohio east of Michigan Ave).

Anonymous said...

Free art:

1) the Tiffany dome at the Chicago Cultural Center

2) the Picasso sculpture at Daley Center Plaza

3) the Calder sculpture at the Federal Center

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I don't get downtown much but I do have a couple of suggestions:

Garrett's Popcorn - get the cheese and caramel mix. I know it sounds gross, but people around here will stand outside in the snow for 30 min to get it around Christmas time. On my recent trip home for a wedding I took the bride some and her squeal of delight was, ahem, resounding. :)

The second suggestion is for 900 N Michigan. It's a great mall at the north end of Michigan Avenue. The best is the Intimacy store there. This is the bra-fit shop that has been profiled on the Today Show, Oprah, and What Not to Wear. You MUST make a reservation if you want to meet with a fit-specialist though. They book up quickly and pretty far in advance. I have NEVER loved a bra like I did those bras and they will actually do alterations to the bras in order to get the prefect fit. (I'm waiting until I'm done with the rest of my babies until I head back there - these are not cheap bras.)

Other than that, I think you probably hit all the high points, Amy. In fact, I think I may see if Alex will take me to Second City for my upcoming 30th b-day!

Enjoy BlogHer! I'm jealous of all the swag (and want details!) you're going to get!!!!

B.J. said...

If you are looking to entertain non-BlogHer people on the trip, Dave and Busters is a fun way to spend the afternoon. While not a Chicago-only attraction, it has a wide mix o video games and awesome food. Decidedly less fun than when they had the BattleTech pods (a video game that you actually climbed into) but still fun.

I like to top my visits to D&B off with a spoken word concert by Henry Rollins but I checked and he's not going to be in Chicago that weekend.

Have the T-shirt said...

I would die for a Rosatti's pizza...and we never visit Chicago without hitting Ed Debevic's...if you get a good waiter/waitress, the meal can be a hoot.

Another book set in Chicago: The Time Traveller's Wife

Amy said...

Oh! How could I have forgotten the Time Traveler's Wife - I LOVE that book!!

Great suggestions, everybody! Keep 'em coming!