24 September 2011

Two-hour tourist: Chicago

I won't pretend that you can get any sense of a place in two hours, but sometimes that's all you've got. You're taking a road trip and have to keep moving, or you have an extended layover with just enough time to dash from the airport to the city to see one or two things.

The question is, what do you see? What one or two things are readily accessible and can be experienced in a short period of time (that is, no huge historic sites or ten-course tasting menus or all-day tours) but still offer something unique to that particular place?

Last weekend, I was in the Chicago area for my girlfriend's brother's wedding (congrats, Peter and Katie!). The day after the wedding, my girlfriend, Maren, and I took the train into the Chicago Loop and had about two hours to be tourists. There wasn't time to explore the neighborhoods. There wasn't time for a Cubs game.

For me, one of the must-sees in any city is the landmark park. They make for great people-watching, and there's something about the dichotomy of nature and surrounding urbanity that I find impossibly alluring. Central Park in New York, Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh, Retiro in Madrid, and so on. (Come to think of it, one of my favorite things to do in any given city is to find a pastry shop and eat my gluteny goodness in that landmark park--and I've done so in each of the above parks.)

In Chicago, the lakefront area has two adjacent parks, Millenium Park and Grant Park, which are always crowded, even on a brisk, rainy fall afternoon. We opted for Millenium, because I wanted to see the famous Cloud Gate sculpture, popularly called the Bean because, indeed, it looks like an enormous, metallic bean, fit for consumption by some Brobdingnagian robot hiding behind the Hancock Building (Jerry Bruckheimer, you're welcome to that visual for your next movie--no charge). The last few times I've been to Chicago, the Bean or the park have been closed for various reasons, and I was starting to take it personally. But this time, there it was, open, uncovered, and just begging us to pose in front of it for roughly 2,531 photos.

If I can't think of any new topics for blog posts, I'm just gonna start
posting the other 2,530 photos one at a time.
Next stop: the Chicago Cultural Center, at the suggestion of my friend Charlie. Formerly a library, the building is now, well, a cultural center, with various exhibits and a cafe, not to mention a whole hell of a lot of really cool interior details--like, for example, the world's largest Tiffany art-glass dome. For starters. And glass mosaics like you'd expect in some sort of Nero-worthy Roman villa. Except it's all free and open to the public, and conveniently located just across Michigan Avenue from Millenium Park. As Maren and I wandered around, we could hear what sounded like some sort of Enya-esque calliope music reverberating throughout the building. Eventually, we tracked down the source: a public concert, in one of those mosaic-covered rooms, of a Javanese gamelan group. There were some twenty or thirty musicians in all, some playing xylophone-like instruments, some chanting, some hitting gongs. (And, it must be said, they were all conspicuously, emphatically white--it was as though some Chicago book club read Eat, Pray, Love, then all went to Bali to soak up some Eastern Spiritual Wisdom Stuff and, having achieved enlightenment, came back to Chicago to resume life as investment bankers who got together on weekends for gamelan jam sessions, just to relive those heady, magical days in Bali. Just guessing.)

As Javanese gamelan groups go, they were the best I've ever heard. Also the only ones. We headed out after one song. Back to the train station--by way of a bakery, of course.

And, honestly, I think that was a perfect two-hour tourist itinerary--two big, unique landmarks, some good people-watching, some cultural education. Plus a doughnut.

So now I'm trying to think of what I'd recommend for a two-hour tourist in other cities I know well. 

Minneapolis: Downtown riverfront. Walk along the Saint Anthony Falls History Trail, through Mill Ruins Park and across the Stone Arch Bridge. Read the various historic markers that explain how the city grew up right here, around Saint Anthony Falls. Get some coffee or a tea-infused cocktail on the patio at the Aster Cafe or some gelato at Wilde Roast. Go out on the endless bridge at the Guthrie Theatre. 

(UPDATE) Or ... Eat Street and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Eat Street is a roughly mile-long section of Nicollet Avenue lined with restaurants of every variety; the main stretch is centered at 26th Avenue and extends a couple of blocks up and down Nicollet. It's an eclectic mix of eats, a veritable United Nations: Caribbean, Vietnamese, Malaysian, German, Chinese, Mexican ... you name it. And there's a pretty wide price range in terms of price range and ambiance--if you want Vietnamese food, for example, you can choose between the hole-in-the-wall Jasmine Deli or the swankily modern, bistro-y Jasmine 26 (which has has bubble tea cocktails, and they're every bit as fantastic they sound). So grab a bite to eat. And then walk three blocks to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I know your time is waning, especially if you lingered over your food, but the MIA is free, so don't feel too bad about spending a limited amount of time there. The museum covers a full range of important art eras--not so different from any other big-city museum, to be honest, but it's still an impressive collection--but make a beeline for section dedicated to Prairie School design (I think it's on the fourth floor) for proof positive that the sense of place here in the Midwest is every bit as inspiring as mountains or the sea. 

Seattle: Pike Place Market. See the flying fish. Touristy as hell, it's true, but get over it. I, for one, will never get tired of watching those fishmongers toss massive salmons to each other like fish Frisbees, never dropping them, joking all the while. You'd probably have some extra time, though, and the surrounding areas of downtown Seattle aren't that interesting, although you could go walk around by the waterfront, even if it is rather covered up with piers and such in that part of town. 

Okay. Question for the masses. I have two hours in your hometown. Maaaybe three. Where should I go? 


  1. Congrats on your blog debut, Maren. Nice use of Brobdingnagian, Doug.

    Now: Baltimore in two hours. The Inner Harbor is a good choice, but if you're lucky enough to come in on the train, you have a better option. Walk south from the train station to the European-like neighborhood of Mt. Vernon, where you'll find the first ever Washington Monument, old money city mansions, the first Basilica in America, Baltimore's impressive Central library, the free Walter's Art Museum, and lots of bars and restaurants. A free bus runs north and south through the area. A beer at Brewer's Art would be a great idea before hopping back on the train (also, if you didn't take the train, parking is much better in Mt. Vernon than near the Harbor).

  2. Thanks, Lee!

    If one were to visit Castle Rock, CO for just two hours and didn't feel like spending it at the outlet mall -- definitely spend time in the downtown area. From there, you'll get a great view of the town's namesake, a huge rock on the top of a hill. There is a little, free museum in the old train depot just a few blocks off of Main Street full of relics of life in the old west. If the volunteer curator there doesn't take the whole two hours, you should then pop back over to Main Street and dine at the B&B Cafe, complete with original bullet holes in the ceiling from a shootout way back when. Main Street is very walkable and, just a few blocks from the B&B Cafe, you could hop on the walk and bike path that runs along Plum Creek and maybe catch a glimpse or two of the wild Columbines, our state flower. From anywhere in town you can enjoy some nice, dry Colorado air and spectacular views of the Rocky Mountains.

    Enjoy your two hours in Castle Rock!

  3. I recently visited New York and being the crazy researcher/planner that I am - spent quite a bit of time pondering this very topic. Things that I consider mandatory in a visit to New York City:

    - Eat lunch in the Chelsea Market. All kinds of culinary adventures await; everything from fancy sandwiches and pastries, gelato, lobster, soups, not to mention organic locally sourced popsicles in flavors such as Raspberry & Cream, Blackberry & Lemon Verbena, Rhubarb & Ginger, Rhubarb & Star Anise, and Blackberry & Sour Cherry. -

    - Walk the Highline, a new urban, modern, elevated park in Chelsea.

    - Take the subway to Times Square. Take in the sights and the lights. If time permits, see a show.

    - Walk to the Carnegie Deli. Have a pastrami sandwich (share with a friend if possible) and eat bowl after bowl of pickles.

  4. (Lee: A postcard I saw in Baltimore said that the city's Washington Monument was "the first to begin construction, and the first of any importance completed." Since reading that, I've often wondered which unimportant Washington Monument they're implicitly dismissing.)

    Washington, DC: Hopefully you've arrived by train. Pick up a Capital Bikeshare bike just outside Union Station, and ride five minutes south to the Capitol. Stop to marvel at the majestic dome from the west side, and then ride down the Mall, pausing somewhere in the middle to admire the clear line of sight to the Capitol in one direction and the Washington Monument in the other. Dock your bike near the Smithsonian museum of your choice. After you're done browsing, walk a few blocks north to Teaism Penn Quarter, where you should get a salty oat cookie and chai. (The bento boxes are great if you're hungry.) Then, grab Capital Bikeshare again, and ride back to the train station by way of the White House. A ride down the pedestrianized blocks of Pennsylvania Ave will give you a chance to see any idiosyncratic protests that might be going on that day.

  5. We play this game all the time with people next to us on the airplane; but it's always been: if you had two or three DAYS to see a place, what would you do. Two or three hours--what a concept!

    San Diego: Grab a bus (or take a taxi to save time) to Balboa Park, only a few minutes up the hill from the airport (which is breathtakingly in the middle of downtown). Fifteen museums and art galleries, unfortunately none of them free, await you. Pick one, if you don't mind paying, or just wander around the park people-watching, taking in the rose garden, the beautiful architecture, the fountains, and the canyon trails. We picked the Air and Space Museum and used up all of our time, but if you're just wandering and saved the entry fee, you might pause for a bite at the Japanese Garden, the lovely outdoor cafe at the art gallery, or at El Prado, where you might watch a wedding in progress. Balboa Park would be perfect for Segway tours. Someone ought to do something about that....

    Panama City: Take a taxi to Casco Viejo, the old part of town, and limit yourself to one hour at the Canal Museum, set in the old headquarters building from which the French made their failed attempt to build a canal. Then taxi to Miraflores Locks to see the canal itself, a marvel of engineering completed in 1914. (Go in 2014 and you'll get to be there for the completion of the Canal Expansion, due to be completed on the 100th anniversary.) If you have time, have lunch at the restaurant overlooking the locks, where enormous ships dwarf small sailboats assigned to transit the canal the same day.

  6. I would love to visit the Cultural Center in Chicago. I've heard a lot of great reviews and news about this place. I hope to visit this place soon.


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