Playing Tourist in My Own Backyard

Downtown Chicago

I hopped off the 151 bus across from the John Hancock Building and waited for the signal to change so I could cross the street. As I did, I pulled out my camera and tilted my neck back as far as it would go so I could snap a picture of one of the tallest buildings in Chicago. A couple minutes later, I was listening to a young man at the Chicago Trolley booth explain what was included in my three-day Hop-on Hop-off Tour ticket provided by Viator.

As I boarded the red double decker bus, I could have been mistaken for any other tourist. I didn’t dress quite warmly enough on a chilly Sunday morning, neglecting to bring a sweater or jacket to protect me from the swirling wind downtown.  Having lived in the aptly named Windy City for more than 10 years, I should have known better.  I also slyly avoided the enthusiastic tour guide who was roaming the aisles with a microphone, inquiring as to where everyone was from. I didn’t want to reveal that I was a local. I wanted to fully soak up being a tourist in a way that I hadn’t done since I was a summer intern here 13 (gulp!) years ago.

It wasn’t long before I learned something new.

Did you know Lake Michigan is the largest fresh water lake in the world that sits entirely within one country?

Did you know Marilyn Monroe’s and Joe Dimaggio’s initials are carved into the bar at the Drake Hotel? (I kind of want to verify this one personally)

Did you know that the Prada store on Oak Street is the largest in the world?

And did you know that products like Juicy Fruit gum, Cracker Jacks and Quaker Oats all debuted at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893?

Yeah, me neither.

Our route took us through River North, south to Wacker Drive and past the tower-formerly-known-as-Sears.  Our guide greeted us with another fun fact as we drove through the heart of Chicago’s financial district – more money changes hands every day in Chicago than in any other city in the world. I kind of doubt this one, but it’s fascinating if it is true.

Cloudgate, Millennium Park, Chicago

I got off as we stopped at Millennium Park. My ticket entitled me to hop on or off of the main route as much as I wanted over the course of three days, but also gave me access to four additional tours – North Neighborhoods, South Neighborhoods, West Neighborhoods and a night time City Lights tour. Each of these depart from Millennium Park, so after spending some time wandering around the park and taking pictures of the Bean (which somehow never gets old), I decided to check out whichever tour was scheduled to leave next.

West Neighborhoods it was.

We headed down State Street toward Chinatown, which I learned was initially located closer to downtown, near Van Buren and Clark Streets.  Today’s Chinatown neighborhood has been down around Cermak and Archer since 1912. Depending on the correct interpretation of my notes, Chicago has either the 4th or 9th largest Chinese community in the United States.

Dragon's Wall, Chinatown, Chicago

After a brief stop in Chinatown for pictures (we also could have stayed for lunch and hopped on the next bus an hour later), we drove through Pilsen – the one-time Czech neighborhood that is now about 90% Mexican. Without stopping, we headed north past what was once the Maxwell Market, once one of the largest street markets in the country. Our next stop was on Taylor Street in what remains of Little Italy. The neighborhood began to disperse in the 1960s and is now almost completely gone. We stopped in front of a statue of Joe DiMaggio standing across the street from the National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame – neither of which I ever knew existed.

Joe DiMaggio Statue, Chicago

Finally, we made our way to Greektown, a neighborhood first founded by Greek sailors in the 1840s. Much of the original neighborhood moved when the Dan Ryan Expressway was built, but it remains the largest Greek community in the United States.

Back at Millennium Park, I made my way over to State Street to pick up some of the goodies that were included with my bus pass – a sample size of Garrett’s famous Chicago Mix (a mix of caramel and cheese popcorn) and a Chicago t-shirt. Then I waited for the next bus to take me south to the Museum Campus. That took longer than expected, as buses were actually full as they pulled up!  Granted, it was Memorial Day weekend, but having to wait for two buses to go by before I could board one was a surprise.

Willis Tower skyline, Chicago

I wound up my day wandering around Museum Campus and Grant Park, simply enjoying the gorgeous, 75-degree day and snapping pictures of the Chicago skyline that I have come to love so much.
 

Have you ever played tourist in your backyard?

 
Disclosure: Viator provided me with the Chicago Hop-on Hop-off tour free of charge. If I had purchased it myself, it would have cost $44.99, which is a pretty good value for unlimited, fully narrated rides on five tour routes over three days, plus the popcorn, t-shirt and a booklet full of discount coupons!

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9 thoughts on “Playing Tourist in My Own Backyard”

  1. I actually have played tourist. My boyfriend comes in to town and I find tourist things for him to do. It’s fun, because I get to see a side of Houston I rarely see.

    And I’m coming to Chicago next weekend. Best place to eat? Go..

    1. Oh gosh, so many choices! For pizza – Giordano’s or Chicago’s Pizza. If you’re a foodie, try some place like Girl & the Goat, Publican, Au Cheval (rumored to have the best burger ever) or see if you can get into Next. Have never been to any of those, though, so I can’t comment much more.

      One of my personal favorites is Uncommon Ground in Lakeview. You won’t find it on any “best of” lists but it’s just laidback with excellent, locally grown/produced food. I also like Opart Thai for Thai food (2 locations, one in south loop, the other in Lincoln Square), Lao Sze Chuan in Chinatown and if you head north to Devon Ave, there’s a string of good Indian restaurants.

      Natalie of nearafar.com recently came to town and wrote a ton about all the different places she tried – you might check that out.

      I’m heading to Memphis next weekend – otherwise I’d suggest we meet up for a drink while you’re in town!

      1. Thanks for the tips. I am a foodie for sure, but not sure I will be with a foodie (my brother). So, we will work through some food items. Going to watch the Astros vs the Cubs at Wrigley Field. And thanks for the blog recommendation. I will check that out, as well.

        Memphis, I loved Central BBQ (right next to Lorraine Hotel and Civil Rights Museum) the best for the atmosphere, but Blues City Cafe BBQ had excellent ribs and coleslaw. There was a really great restaurant called Automatic Slims right across from the Peabody Hotel Memphis. Didn’t understand why it was empty, because it had some good food. Be forewarned that you have to go through security to get on Beale’s Street.

  2. Chicago is a great city for that! It takes a little more to find things here in the Detroit area, but I’m always on the lookout. Since I can’t travel full-time, it’s important to find those ‘backyard’ attractions to fill in the gaps!

  3. I love playing tourist! I live in Chicago and love to do touristy things when friends come to visit. Great call on Uncommon Ground. I live in Lakeview which is such an amazing place to live. Sounds like you had a great trip!

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