Travel Report: Chicago Nostalgia.
It’s hard to say what my overriding emotion was as I rattled through the streets of downtown Chicago towards my hotel. I reckon I was fifty percent beside myself with unfiltered excitement. But also fifty percent dog tired following the long and exhausting flight from Amsterdam.
It didn’t take long to reach my lodgings from O’Hare International Airport. In fact, it was a brisk, uncomplicated twenty five minutes in the taxi. For my latest trip to the U.S., I’d decided it was high time to treat myself to a really nice place. And the Central Loop Hotel proved to be just that. A handsome four star joint located in the business district, it sits right in the heart of downtown Chicago. Just minutes away from the city’s star attractions.
After checking in, I realised just how ridiculously hungry I was. But I certainly didn’t want to travel far. As luck would have it, there was a decent restaurant right on the hotel’s ground floor. I had to laugh when I saw it was an English style pub called Elephant & Castle.
Bypassing the temptations of Pie and Mash, I went for a bunch of their Mexican dishes. And so arrived a tasty round of Quesadilla and some manner of beef sandwich with caramelised onions and fries. It was all excellent.
Despite the fact that I was ready to collapse into bed, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of a brief, post-dinner stroll. For reasons unknown, the police had sealed off car access into the surrounding streets. As a result, I found myself with the unique opportunity of exploring a few deserted roads, home to some of Chicago’s finest 1930s Art Deco architecture.
First, I stopped to admire the stunning Chicago Board of Trade Building on West Jackson Boulevard. Opened in 1930, this 184 meter Indiana limestone tower stood as Chicago’s tallest building, until The Daley Center dwarfed it in 1965.
Next, the lampposts buzzing into life, I took a shot of The Field Building (Bank of America Building) on South La Salle Street. Completed in 1934, historians say it was the last major office block built in Chicago prior to The Great Depression.
Unfortunately, at this point I was little more than a trudging zombie. Hence I decided to return to the hotel and claim the twelve hours of sleep I so badly needed. When I awoke the next day, I literally jumped out of bed and opened the curtains. It was a beautiful Chicago morning, which brought to mind a particular line from a certain movie.
“How can I possibly be expected to handle school on a day like this?”
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has been one of my favourite movies ever since I first watched it as an impressionable twenty year old. Consequently, one of the main reasons I’d come to Chicago was to tick off a bunch of sights featured in this classic 1986 teen comedy.
Directed by the influential filmmaker John Hughes, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off tells the story of a high school slacker who calls in sick in order to enjoy the perfect day’s sightseeing around Chicago.
Accompanied by his girlfriend Sloane and best buddy Cameron, they proceed to have a blast. However, what they don’t realise is that villainous Dean of Students Ed Rooney is also out in the city trying to hunt them down.
With its winning blend of goofy comedy, coming-of-age drama and infectious 80s pop rock, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is an endearing movie about friendship. And how it feels to be young and lost at one of life’s major forks in the road.
Furthermore, it stands as a charming love letter to Chicago, its sights, sounds, smells and people. Keen to retrace the steps of Hughes and his cast, I headed for Willis Tower, where Ferris, Sloane and Cameron gaze out across the city.
Back in the mid 80s, the skyscraper was known as Sears Tower. Completed in 1974, this 108 story structure was, at the time, and in Ferris’ words, “the world’s tallest building”. In the movie Ferris asks Sloane and Cameron to stand up on the ledge, bump their heads against the window and breathe the city in.
Today Willis Tower is the 3rd tallest building in The United States, the 23rd highest in the world. They say about a million people visit its 103rd floor observation deck every year. Though you can no longer climb up onto the ledge like Ferris and friends did back in 1985.
Rather, I hit the Skydeck Ledge with its glass floor, a similarly if not superior experience that got the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. I’m sure Ferris would’ve approved.
For those who can’t deal with the ledge, there are more sweeping views from all four sides of the Skydeck. Although, I have to say, I was surprised and disappointed with how dirty the windows were. Really, they were so filthy I had trouble editing out all the grime.
Ferris and co also enjoy a baseball match at Chicago’s legendary stadium Wrigley Field. Home to the Chicago Cubs since 1916, this is America’s second oldest majors ballpark and home to some of the sport’s most historic moments.
This is where Babe Ruth’s legendary called shot took place in the 1932 World Series. And where Ernie Banks made his 500th career home run in 1970, in addition to Pete Rose’s 4191st career hit in 1985. Which tied him with Ty Cobb for the most hits in baseball history.
“Hey batter, batter, batter, batter, swing batter!”
In September 1985 John Hughes shot scenes for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off inside the stadium in the left field stand. They took place during an actual game between The Chicago Cubs and the Montreal Expos.
Naturally I was keen to see Wrigley Field for myself. Which is no problem, because there are guided tours available most non match days. Priced at a considerable $30 per person, a knowledgeable local expert talks tour groups through the stadium’s long and colourful history.
There were all kinds of stories that day about Wrigley Field’s best loved players and staff. I didn’t realise, for example, that the stadium’s name is connected to the world famous Wrigley chewing gum. The wealthy businessman William Wrigley Jr was part of a syndicate that bought The Cubs from baseball executive Charles Weeghman in late 1915.
Wrigley subsequently took a controlling interest in 1918. Later, in 1927, he finally got round to changing the name of the stadium from Weeghman Park to Wrigley Field.
That afternoon our guide took us right around the field and into the dugout. We could also sit on the bleachers and climb the upper deck. I’ve never been into baseball, but there was definitely a palpable sense of history to the place.
One of my favourite Ferris Bueller scenes plays out at Chicago Art Institute, one of America’s oldest and largest art museums. Founded in 1879, it is home to around 300.000 pieces of permanent artwork. And that’s before you even consider the thirty or so special exhibitions it puts on annually.
John Hughes admitted that the scenes he shot at Chicago Art Institute were a “self indulgent homage” to the place that had been his refuge as a young man. With a mission to cram more art into his movie than had ever been done before in a single film, Hughes has Ferris, Sloane and Cameron gleefully explore the place.
Soundtracked by The Dream Academy’s instrumental cover of The Smith’s Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want, they skip through the halls hand in hand with a school group. The trio check out countless paintings and perform mock heroic poses in the sculpture gallery.
Ferris and Sloane kiss passionately in front of Marc Chagall’s gorgeous, stained-glass America Windows. Cameron meanwhile, the movie’s heart and soul in many ways, finds himself completely consumed by Georges Seurat’s 1884 masterpiece Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
Lost in life, uncertain of the future and desperate to escape his unaffectionate parents, Cameron stares so hard at one of the girls, it’s as if he’s trying to find his own identity within her.
I had a great time that afternoon tracking down all the art from that scene. While I didn’t find them all, I managed to cross off plenty of big hitters. Such as Grant Wood’s American Gothic and of course the majestic Nighthawks by Edward Hopper.
The scene where Ferris jumps aboard a parade float to lip-synch to a pair of musical numbers, stands as the movie’s flamboyant centrepiece. He starts off with Wayne Newton’s romantic Danke Shoen, before morphing into The Beatles’ rasping Twist and Shout.
It’s an intoxicating scene. Locals of all ages dance and groove. Brass band players shimmy, babies bop and construction workers shake their hips from the scaffolding of nearby skyscrapers.
Amazingly, part of the footage relates to an actual city celebration, the annual Von Steuben Day Parade. This German-American holiday takes place in honour of Baron Friedrich Von Steuben, a Prussian general who helped George Washington train American troops to fight the British during The Revolutionary War.
Even more impressive is that Hughes and his crew managed to squeeze their own float into the parade, unbeknownst to even the organisers themselves!
Memorial Day Parade.
Imagine my delight when I also got to see a grand city parade during my visit to Chicago. As luck would have it I was on hand to witness that year’s Memorial Day Parade, which honours the men and women who’ve served in the U.S. Armed Forces.
I caught some of the festivities as they proceeded down State Street. The atmosphere was obviously a lot more solemn than in the movie and certainly nobody felt moved to sing Twist and Shout.
Nevertheless, it was cool to see all the various floats dedicated to those who served in World War II, The Vietnam War, The Korean War and The Gulf War, among others.
That Chicago trip wasn’t just about Ferris Bueller. It also served as a wonderful reunion with my old friend Steve from England, my buddy Jon, who travelled from Nashville, and the lovely Bill and Mary, who drove over from Iowa. It makes me smile to recall that many of our adventures revolved around food. And boy oh boy is Chicago a foodie’s haven!
I couldn’t leave without trying some of the city’s world famous pizza. Thus we made time for lunch at Giordano’s, one of the city’s most respected pizza joints. Home to the Stuffed Deep Dish Pizza, this place is special due to the fact that there’s an additional layer of dough separating the cheese from the rest of the deliciousness.
They also say that Giordano’s has the cheesiest Chicago Pizza, which immediately had me sold. Elsewhere, the tomato sauce is beautifully rich and the crust is flaky, like a soft Parisian bakery croissant. So, so good.
One evening we took a leisurely saunter down to Greektown for a fulsome feast at Santorini Restaurant. Sadly, I’ve read that much of Greektown has been decimated by the effects of the pandemic. Indeed I see that Santorini is one of many not to have made it through after 31 years in business.
There was another giant feed at House of Blues, where our all-you-can-eat buffet brunch came accompanied by a passionate, live gospel performance. The food was crazy, a vast array of southern style dishes including roasted chicken, spare ribs, pulled pork, omelettes, waffles, macaroni cheese and more.
They certainly know how to pack in the customers at House of Blues. So much so that it was hard work squeezing myself between the tables to get to the buffet station and back. Still, it made for a great atmosphere, with people singing along, standing up to dance and, at the request of the performers, swinging their table napkins in the air.
The sights came thick and fast over those memorable Chicago days and nights. I took in the exquisite architecture and public art at Brunswick Plaza and browsed through the vinyl at Reckless Records. One afternoon, feeling drained, we opted to crash out at Millennium Park with a picnic. It was lovely, especially with live orchestral music sailing elegantly from the stage of Frank Gehry’s stunning Jay Pritzker Pavilion.
Nearby, just a minute away on foot, stands the otherworldly Cloud Gate Sculpture by the acclaimed Indian born British artist Anish Kapoor. Affectionately known as The Bean, it was built between 2004 and 2006 from 168 welded stainless steel plates. Not that you can see those seams, they were all removed in order to create its perfect sheen.
According to Kapoor himself, The Bean’s design owes a lot to the form of liquid mercury. Right enough the sculpture’s mirror-like surface reflects and distorts the city around it. Like it or loathe it, it’s not your typical park sculpture. My friend Steve and I were quite impressed and made sure to pass under the large twelve foot arch for an interior selfie.
Towards the end of my stay, I spent an afternoon exploring Ohio Street Beach, a popular swimming, canoeing and boating spot on Lake Michigan. Located in the heart of downtown Chicago in the city’s Streeterville neighborhood, the beach dates back to the 1960s.
Weirdly, the beach formed naturally following the completion of the Jardine Water Purification Plant. Extending out into Lake Michigan, the plant created a bay that stops sand from moving along the lakefront. There are numerous Chicago Beaches on Lake Michigan, but this is the only one that faces north. Which makes it ideal for long distance shallow water swimming.
Last, but definitely not least, I took an Architectural Cruise along The Chicago River on my final day. This ninety minute tour expertly guides visitors past the city’s most impressive buildings, encompassing the most modern skyscrapers alongside some of the oldest Art Deco delights.
Among the fifty plus structures featured in the tour, I particularly liked the 53-story North Riverside Plaza, Merchandise Mart (the largest commercial store in the world) and the glossy smooth facade of West Wacker. The latter, incidentally, served as Mr. Tom Bueller’s office in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Chicago is a stupendous city. As much as I managed to cover in my five days, I know I could go back, do another five days and have a completely different article. With its world class architecture, food, green spaces, history and art, it truly is a metropolis that has everything.
What’s more, it’s a city that simply begs you to explore, learn and appreciate the finer things in life. Actually, it’s Ferris Bueller himself who sums up my feelings best.
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while you could miss it.”
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