This is part two of the “Across America By Bus” series. Click here to read part one, “Greyhound Perks and Pitfalls”.
I have wanted to visit Chicago since I was eight years old. Granted, I wanted to go to Chicago back then because that’s where the Veggie Tales headquarters were. Veggie Tales moved out-of-state several years ago, and most of the attractions I went to didn’t even exist when I was eight, but finally getting the chance to visit Chicago felt like a childhood dream come true. I made sure to make it the first stop of my trip across America.
The first place I visited in Chicago was, of course, the Chicago Greyhound Station. It was probably the nicest bus station I went through on my entire trip, but it still wasn’t anything too special. The next place I visited was the inside of a taxi cab. I was only staying a mile away, and normally I would walk that distance, but because I had several pieces of luggage, it was worth paying the seven dollars for a cab. Besides, riding a taxi through a big city is part of the experience! I wasn’t allowed to call a cab or ride the subway when I went to NYC in high school, and it always felt like I was missing an aspect of the city because of it. The third place in Chicago I visited was the hostel.
Hostelling International Chicago is conveniently located downtown, within walking distance of everything I wanted to visit. It was the only HI-brand hostel I’ve ever stayed at, and by far the largest! This hostel was quite a bit more expensive than any other hostel I’ve visited, plus I had to pay a few more dollars because I wasn’t a Hostelling International member, but it was still a great deal when you consider that any other accommodation within several miles would be at least three times the price. I checked in and went up to my dorm for a tiny bit of shut-eye before I woke up with the excitement of wanting to seize the day. Since I usually travel slowly, cramming Chicago into just one full day was a challenge, but I think I made the best of it.
As I was heading down to the first floor of the hostel, I noticed a sign that said the hostel sold discount tickets for the Willis Tower Skydeck. That was on my agenda, and I’m always up for saving money, so I picked up a ticket from the front desk before heading out.
Just a few blocks away was the Willis Tower, although many people still know it as the Sears Tower. It was the tallest building in America up until this year when the new World Trade Center was built. Unfortunately, when I got to the Skydeck entrance, employees were announcing to the crowd that there was a broken elevator and to come back later. I mentally rearranged my itinerary and headed towards what I thought was Lake Michigan.
After walking for many, many blocks, I thought I should have been at the lake, but I wasn’t. I finally pulled out my GPS and discovered that I had been walking parallel to the lake the entire time! I turned and began heading the right way. It actually turned out for the better, because I hadn’t planned to go to the Magic Mile, but because I took this route I ended up at the very end of it. A race was going on that day, so I walked by the finish line and visited several of the vendors before continuing on by Lake Michigan.
I had flown over Lake Michigan before, but this was my first time seeing it up-close. For awhile, I enjoyed walking on the path by the harbor, with a few stops at interesting points like the Buckingham Fountain. Eventually, I made it to my intended destination: the Navy Pier.
Before leaving on this trip, I had asked for travel tips from people who had been to Chicago. The Navy Pier was a common recommendation. I enjoyed walking out above the lake, and going through the shops and art features, but I’m still not really sure why so many people told me to go here. I found a pizza shop on the pier where I ate lunch, and on the way out, I saw a Crave Bar truck where I grabbed my dessert. I then headed on to Millennium Park.
Millennium Park is interesting in that is was created to celebrate y2k, but it wasn’t opened until several years later. I first found myself in a beautiful outdoor theater, but I was looking for the famous Cloudgate “Bean”. Something reflective across the theater caught the corner of my eye, and sure enough, it was The Bean! It was fun walking around and underneath The Bean for a fun house effect. My favorite part was trying to find myself in the reflection among the hundreds of other visitors!
After getting dizzy from the optical illusions of The Bean, I continued through the park’s art, including the Crown Fountain. I then turned back to downtown towards the tallest building I could find. I was going to see if the Willis Tower Skydeck had opened yet.
When I got there, the staff was still saying that it was closed. I went up to one employee and asked her if it would be open at any point in time that day.
“Nope, come back tomorrow.”
Knowing I wouldn’t have time since my bus left the next morning, I asked if there was any way I could get a refund. She scrunched her face up. “Refund?” I nodded. “Oh, you have a ticket? If you have a ticket, you can go inside!” I pulled out my ticket and went through the doors.
Because the staff hadn’t communicated very well that only ONE elevator wasn’t working, and that people could still come if they had bought a ticket elsewhere, there wasn’t much of a line at all. The trip started by going down to a basement floor, getting a security check, and then watching a video about the history of the tower. I then crammed with several other people on an elevator that went to the 99th floor. It felt really different on this floor. I don’t know if it was just in my head, but I’m convinced that I could feel the building sway! I then got onto another elevator to the 103rd floor, also known as the Skydeck. It’s the highest the public can get in any building in the United States.
I enjoyed going around the building and looking through the panoramic windows. I was able to locate almost everywhere I went earlier that day. But the highlight of Chicago was definitely “The Ledge”. These are four glass rooms that stick out of the Skydeck, so you can see everything straight below you! Waiting in line allowed me to get the guts to walk out, but as soon as I stepped out, I felt like I was going to fall! I posed for a few pictures, and then stepped back onto solid, opaque ground! It was such a rush, I decided to go out on all four ledges. It never got any easier!
After coming back down to Earth, I walked around the Willis Tower and was amazed at how far up I’d gone. Because I was operating all day on only a few hours of sleep, I went back to the hostel to relax for a bit. I realized that I needed to find a Chicago pizza restaurant to eat dinner at, because the pizza I got at the pier wasn’t very good at all. After I had recovered enough, I asked the front desk for pizza recommendations, and I was sent to Lou Malnati’s. I didn’t realize until I got there, but this the most popular place for Chicago pizza! I had to wait outside for 45 minutes with a buzzer, but trust me, it was worth the wait! I ordered a personal pizza of their best deep dish, “The Lou”. I had always heard that traditional Chicago pizza had sausage, but this was vegetarian and featured a divine combination of spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes and three cheeses.
After finishing off with a cookie pizza dessert, I spent the rest of the evening exploring all that the hostel had to offer. After a somewhat restful night’s sleep, I woke up, enjoyed a full breakfast, got ready, and took a taxi back to the Greyhound Station, where I boarded the bus to my next destination!
A big thank-you goes out to Hostelz.com! I found out about the HI-Chicago Hostel through this site, and there you can find thousands more!