“Eventually, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful great city left in the world.”
– Frank Lloyd Wright
It’s no secret that my wanderlust is strong… I’ve long been fascinated by the US and while many people seem to list New York as their top destination, I’ve always been drawn to Chicago. Perhaps because Chicago and Milan are twin cities? In Spring of 2018, I got to check that epic journey off my list. Some friends had recently traveled over to join the team at Aurifil USA, stir up some adventure, and shout their love of thread from the rooftops. They asked me to join them for a few days in May– a bit of business, a bit of fun– and I couldn’t help but tack on a few extra days to take in the city for myself.
My flight was scheduled to land at Chicago O’Hare at around 9pm. I was exhausted, but energized, having slept a few hours at the beginning of the flight and simply giddy with excitement over what the next few days might hold. The pilot’s voice came over the loudspeaker, announcing our initial descent and I raised the shade on the window to admire the view. Darkness gave way to the distant twinkling lights below and I was treated to a full panorama of the city while the plane shifted and turned to prepare for landing. The arrival was effortless and after a quick taxi, I was ushered toward the exit, eager to collect my bags and head into the city.
After a ride on the Blue Line Train followed by a short walk I arrived at The Palmer House Hilton, an historic hotel in downtown Chicago. The romantic and lively history nearly seeps from the hotel’s walls… It was developed by Potter Palmer & Bertha Honoré (a Chicago Business Magnate and an ambitious socialite) in the late 1800s. The two were married and the Palmer house was likely one of the most extravagant wedding gifts of all time. It fell victim to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but while many would have cut losses and run, Potter and Bertha recognized the potential, taking out significant loans to rebuild and restore. The hotel welcomed its first guests in November of 1873… a date that now makes it the nation’s longest continually operating hotel!
From the moment I stepped inside, I was awe-struck. My eyes drifted up to the ceiling fresco, a remarkable masterpiece done by French Painter Louis Pierre Rigal. As I made my way to the front desk, the cool air of the lobby felt refreshing and the distant sounds of Ella Fitzgerald made me feel instantly at home. I remembered hearing that the hotel’s Empire Dining Room was once a bustling supper club, hosting entertainers like Ella herself as well as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Harry Belafonte, Louis Armstrong, Liberace, and many more. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like to sit in that room, taking in the pure magnificence of any one of those performers… Did show-goers know that they were part of a key movement in music history?
I snagged my room key, rode the elevator up to the 7th floor, and walked down the long corridor to find my home for the weekend. The room was perfect. I dropped my bags, splashed a bit of cold water on my spool, and, completely smitten with my surroundings, sunk into the king-sized bed, closed my eyes, and fell fast asleep.
I woke early… a little too early for a Saturday morning, but it allowed me some peace before the noises of the morning bustle could drift up toward my window. I drew the curtains and took in the calm of the still dark city. A friend had recommended heading to Oak Street Beach for sunrise yoga, so I grabbed my gear and set off for a brisk morning walk. Yoga was the perfect choice… a chance to stretch my tired spool, invigorate, and prepare for the day of adventure. Clear blue skies and billowing white clouds that nearly sparkled in the sunshine were my reward… a gorgeous Spring day. The waves of Lake Michigan lapped against the shoreline and I could hardly believe that I was looking out over a lake, not an ocean. The vastness of the grand body of water was breathtaking. On the way back to the hotel, I grabbed a quick smoothie and a power shot of ginger & cayenne. Jet lag can be a beast and I needed an energy boost!
Before making this journey, I got a slew of recommendations from friends. I was so grateful to have the insider’s view — a perfect combination of touristy must-sees, and off-the-beaten path local secrets. I grabbed my notes, my camera, my favorite travel hat, and kicked things off by heading south down Michigan Avenue.
My first destination was the Chicago Cultural Center, home to what I’d heard was the most spectacular ceiling in the city, the famed Tiffany Glass Dome in Preston Bradley Hall.
A sprawling 38 feet in diameter, the massive work of art was designed and built as a part of Chicago’s first public library in 1897 by Jacob A. Holzer. He used roughly 30,000 individual pieces of fish-scale-shaped glass. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced light in such a magnificent way. It appeared that the sunlight traveled through each tiny little pane, shooting rainbows from one end of the room to the other. Sitting in the center of that room, eyes trained upward, I felt completely and totally at peace.
After leaving the Cultural Center, I made my way over to the Cloud Gate… an iconic and unmissable Chicago landmark by Sir Anish Kapoor. The sculpture is nicknamed The Bean because of its shape and is made up of 168 stainless steel plates welded together with no visible seams. I’d read that the design was inspired by liquid mercury and that the sculpture reflects and distorts the city’s skyline. Honestly… it was amazing. I could see my reflection staring back at me, threads slightly elongated. A swift breeze caught the end of my thread and in the reflection it looked as though I might be carried away, off through the clouds and over the lake. I walked around the front and positioned myself underneath, staring up into a never-ending abyss of people and light, a literal life-sized kaleidoscope. In that moment, I felt strangely fierce, like I could take on the world.
I took a few more selfies, made my way through the sea of tourists, and continued along through the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, over the BP Bridge, and on to Maggie Daley Park. A friend had told me how much she loves the Cancer Survivors’ Garden there… that it’s a hidden treasure at the heart of the city, so I had to see it for myself.
I passed in between two hulking granite columns and made my way into the center of the garden. It truly is awe-inspiring… powerful. It was designed to be a celebration of life and to pay homage to the struggle that so many have endured. It is quiet… a true sanctuary, with inspirational placards artfully placed to offer advice for those who are still working through their own healing or those who have just won the battle. I sat on a bench, within the calm, to take it all in and allowed a huge wave of gratitude to sweep over me. This life we are given is grand and sacred and I made a silent vow to live each day with joy.
Exiting the garden, I walked toward Buckingham Fountain. The timing of my visit ended up being perfect– I’d heard that the re-opening of the fountains signifies the changing of the seasons in Chicago and I was grateful to get to witness this one in its full misty glory. It was described to me as a grand landmark, ornate and timeless. Walking to the fountain’s edge, I felt like I’d just been transported back to Europe. It was commissioned by avid art collector and philanthropist Kate Sturges Buckingham as a memorial for her brother Clarence back in 1927. The design itself was inspired by the Latona Fountain at the Palace of Versailles, though it is twice the size of the original. Both the size and the positioning of four art-deco style seahorses are meant to represent the enormity of Lake Michigan with its four bordering states. I closed my eyes for a moment, breathing in the fresh air, a soft mist settling over my spool. When I opened them again, the sun hit the water just right, spraying tiny rainbows across my field of vision. I turned to go and decided to pop in my headphones for a bit, to slip into my own musical world on the 10 minute walk to the river. My accommodations had inspired me and I found myself bopping along to Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Blue Skies’, a fitting tune for such a gorgeous day.
Crossing over the Chicago River, I was struck by how the teal water glistened in the sunlight. A warm breeze brushed past my spool, carrying the scent of freshly budding trees, adding vigor to the waving flags above. Spring is the time when all of the sailboats come back to the lake for the season. I could hear the light ringing of bells, signifying the rising of the bridges to let them through. Would you believe that Chicago has the second highest number of ‘moveable’ bridges in the world? One of my favorite things within all of my travels is the opportunity to learn these unique little tidbits about each new location. It’s details like these that are burned into my memory, along with how I felt on a walk or what sounds and smells I encountered along the way.
I made it to the river walk and spotted Tiny Tapp, an adorable little cafe bordering the river. It was the perfect place to sit, rest my spool, grab a fresh squeezed lemonade, and perhaps the best nachos I’ve ever had– seriously… topped with seasoned sweet corn, cotija cheese, cayenne pepper, cilantro, pickled jalapeños, and lime wedges… heavenly. It was cool along the river, with the perfect light breeze.
I looked out over the water as a voice boomed over the loudspeaker of a passing architectural boat tour. I was fascinated by the story being told… it seems that back in the mid-1800s, Chicago hit an all-time high for pollution in Lake Michigan. All of the city’s sewer systems filtered into the River which naturally emptied into the lake, the primary source for drinking water in the urban center. There were huge health issues with this fact, which led to what is now considered one of the greatest American feats of civil engineering… the construction of a 28-mile sanitary and ship canal that forced the reversal of the flow of the Chicago River… a river that flows backwards!
Exhausted after an adventurous day of walking and exploration, I started my journey back to the hotel. Stepping through those grand doors was once again exhilarating. Though eager to get upstairs, I was entranced and grabbed a seat in the corner, losing myself in my thoughts while I watched travelers walk in and out. Within all of my travels, there is something so sweet about taking time to observe… to imagine the stories held within the eyes of passersby. From where are they all traveling? Are they as fascinated as I am by the history held within these walls?
I reveled for a bit and then slowly made my way upstairs. I was too tired to head back out for dinner, so I opted for delivery. A friend had raved about Forno Rosso. I felt a little guilty about not giving the Chicago deep dish a try, but as much as I loved this city, I missed my home and had to go for a simple Napoletana marinara. Piping hot upon arrival, the aroma was a perfect mix of basil, oregano, and garlic. I ate as much as my little spool could handle and retired to the cozy chair in the corner to work on my latest stitching project, the Chicago Skyline of course! After I made a bit of progress, I splashed some cold water on my spool and contentedly sunk into bed.
I woke at a more reasonable time on Sunday, well-rested and eager for the adventures of the day. I set my sites on Sunny Side Up, another favorite spot of a friend from Aurifil USA, and, quite perfectly, about a half an hour walk from the hotel. I grabbed my headphones, set a Louis Armstong playlist in motion and was on my way. Upon arrival, I found a table for 1 and ordered up a coffee + breakfast tostadas (tortillas, salsa, black beans, avocado, cheese, and eggs) — just the kick of energy I needed. The staff were friendly and helpful and directed me to the nearest bike share location.
I snagged a bike and set off in the direction of Bloomingdale Trail, a 2.7 mile elevated rail trail turned greenway. It was converted in 2015 and forms the backbone of a larger trail network called The 606. I was thrilled to experience Chicago through a different lens, passing through a slew of neighborhoods including Logan Square, Humboldt Park, and West Town. I got a birds eye view of tree-lined streets and kids playing in yards, the soft sound of delighted giggles trickling through the air. It was truly peaceful. I rode on toward the lake, taking it all in. I caught a glimpse of the Hancock Tower in the distance and in that moment, I felt almost like a character in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels — I felt so small in comparison to the tower’s hulking magnificence.
I rode all the way to the Lincoln Park Conservatory, a Victorian Era glass house, built in the late nineteenth century. It contains four rooms displaying exotic plants from around the world, including a series of rare orchids. I slowly walked from room to room, admiring the exquisite natural beauty, breathing in all of the magnificent smells. I found my way to a bench in the center of the fern room and took a moment to reflect. Eyes closed, breathing deep… The air was thick, cut only by a light breeze from the overhead fans, and smelled of earth. It was incredibly calm and I was surprised by how relaxed I felt. I could have stayed in there for hours, but worried that the humidity might frizz my threads.
I took a stroll through the nature preserve, admiring the distant view of the city, entranced by the parade of butterflies and bumblebees that stretched out before me. It was almost like an intricate ballet, expertly choreographed and breathtaking to watch. Would you believe me if I told you a butterfly landed on the top of my spool? It might have been a trip highlight. Suddenly starving, I pulled out a bag of Caramel Crisp popcorn that I bought at Garretts on my walk in the loop the day before. It was delicious and addicting and I’m not ashamed to say I finished the whole bag! I vowed to pick up some more before heading back home — my spools in Italy were going to love it!
Having left the bike at a Divvy station near the conservancy, I walked down through the Gold Coast Historic District, feasting my eyes on a lineup of perfectly manicured brownstones arranged on tree-lined streets. It was quiet and strangely historic. I knew that the Charnley-Persky-House (by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright) was nearby, so I took a quick detour. The house has been turned into a museum, an homage to two great men in the architectural world and a pivotal work of modern architecture. The exterior was a virtually unadorned brick and limestone facade — a stark contrast to the interior which can only be described as dramatic. Boasting an atrium that soars from the first floor hall to a skylight two floors above and an overall decor that reflects Sullivan’s love for both underlying plant and geometric forms in addition to Wright’s variations on the theme. I noted the signature archways and intricately carved wooden accents so typical within Wright’s work.
After my tour, I continued on my walk, passing the spot where Ernest Hemmingway’s house once stood, imagining how he might have described his surroundings. It struck me that walking these streets was like a living history lesson. What better way to learn and experience than to breathe the air, see the spaces, and admire the details.
I’d heard of a burger joint called Small Cheval that was simply not to be missed. What used to be an unassuming brick exterior had been adorned with twinkling lights and life-sized murals… of burgers, of course. I ordered a cheeseburger & fries and found a table in the courtyard. The overhead string lights cast a soft glow over the darkness adding a feeling of romance to my meal. I finished up and sat for a moment, sipping my Small Cheval Punch (vodka, aperol, st. germain & lemon juice.) The evening bustle had started to pick up and I could see groups of friends filling tables throughout the courtyard. Sounds of excited conversation and laughter brought a smile to my face. I soaked in the joy.
On my walk back to the hotel, I heard the distant sounds of jazz and felt pulled toward the source. I found myself on E. Hubbard Street, admiring the neon ‘Jazz & Blues’ sign in the window of Andy’s Jazz Club. I’d heard about this place and marveled at the good fortune of happening upon it for my final solo evening in Chicago. The iconic jazz club had opened in 1950 as an oasis for employees of the newspaper industry. At that point, it was just a favorite local pub. It wasn’t until 1977 that it shifted focus and became the jazz club that we see today.
I was greeted by a kind man at the door who took my cover fee and ushered me inside. It was packed and the show was already in progress, so I found a spot at the bar, ordered an Old Fashioned, and trained my eyes toward the stage, taking in the sea of cabaret style tables in front of me. Tonight’s entertainment was a classic quartet — drums, bass, piano, and guitar. The melody washed over my spool and I felt simultaneously calm and invigorated. The music continued late into the night and I soaked up every last note, like a series of precious gifts.
Walking the few blocks back to the hotel, I had to reflect on the weekend. I absolutely love traveling with friends, but there is something particularly magical about traveling solo. It presents a unique opportunity to really soak up every single location, every new experience. I felt excited and renewed. Chicago was an amazing city… historical, friendly, and inspirational. The people were warm and welcoming and I knew I’d be back.
My solo journey complete, I allowed myself a moment to anxiously anticipate the next few days. Visits to Aurifil USA, drinks at the London House, and a Chicago Bulls game on my last night!
I was scheduled to fly back to Italy on Wednesday, which felt too soon, but I knew that the next few days would be a whirlwind of excitement. I drifted off to sleep, happy, exhilarated, and content.
For more detail, make sure to take a peek at the map!
- The Palmer House Hilton
- Chicago Cultural Center
- Cloud Gate
- Jay Pritzker Pavilion
- Cancer Surivor’s Garden at Maggie Daley Park
- Buckingham Fountain
- Tiny Tapp
- Chicago River History
- Forno Rosso
- Sunny Side Up
- Bloomingdale Trail and The 606
- Lincoln Park Conservatory
- Gold Coast Historic District
- Charnley-Persky-House (images by David Schalliol & Leslie Schwartz)
- Small Cheval
- Andy’s Jazz Club