By Trish Muyco-Tobin
If you know where to look, you’ll find there’s so much more to Chicago than just deep-dish pizza, the Cubs and the Magnificent Mile. And even if you’ve made your way beyond Michigan Avenue and the Loop, the winds of change in the Windy City are in perpetual motion—an intrinsic trait dating back to the city’s earliest years—that there’s always something new to discover.
From its beginnings as a small trading post, Chicago was ideally positioned to serve as a hub to facilitate the country’s westward expansion in the mid-19th century. In the years following its incorporation in 1837, city records show Chicago experienced phenomenal growth, quadrupling its population in just two decades, and becoming one of the world’s largest cities in less than a century.
It was also during this time that European immigrants began to settle in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown, bringing with them an Old-World gumption that would give each community a distinct feel and flavor that lasts to this day.
Just northwest of downtown is Wicker Park, and just like most of Chicago’s environs, it’s had its share of the good, the bad and the ugly over the years. These days, much of the area is a Chicago Landmark District, and is home to the most sought-after dining spots, the coolest cafés, the swankiest bars, and trendy boutiques, galleries and specialty stores too many to mention. It seems Wicker Park can do no wrong. It recently earned “hottest” and “hippest” neighborhood honors from the likes of Forbes and Condé Nast Traveler magazines.
Setting the tone for the neighborhood is its most dominant landmark: The Robey, a 12-story boutique hotel in the former Northwest Tower, one of the first skyscrapers built outside of downtown Chicago. The art deco showpiece soars 203 feet above Damen, Milwaukee and North avenues, basking in its superb central location, with the Blue Line L station, a Stan’s Donuts shop and the world’s fanciest Walgreens (housed in a palatial former bank building that retains plenty of its grandeur) within steps of the lobby.
Speaking of the lobby, behold the architectural eye candy it affords! Following its cue from the building’s original architects, Perkins, Chatten & Hammond, the common areas ooze an understated period magnificence on its own with green marble walls, brass elevator doors and even the original mail chute. In contrast, the hotel’s 69 guest rooms offer light-filled, Belgian-designed spaces, encouraging a surreal, zen-like existence atop the hustle and bustle below.
The Robey, located at 2018 W. North Ave. in Chicago, is an ideal base for those who desire proximity to downtown (via the L train), as well as central access to historic, hip Wicker Park.
Our luxurious Urban King suite was a study in minimalism, complete with a king-sized bed, mid-century modern furnishings, plush robes and slippers. Large windows gave the space an airy feel, as well as a bird’s-eye view of Wicker Park.
The Cabana Club, The Robey’s rooftop pool and lounge, grants guests exclusive access for a certain amount of time each day. And don’t miss the Up Room on the 13th floor. Here, an intimate bar serves up cocktails and snacks—and the outdoor terrace that surrounds it brings you the most spectacular view of the Chicago skyline. therobey.com
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to soar—in this case, tilt—over the cityscape, 360 Chicago’s perch 1,000 feet above the Magnificent Mile will take your breath away. The observation deck from Chicago’s iconic John Hancock building offers 360-degree views from the 94th floor. Plus, it now has TILT, an enclosed glass platform that literally tilts thrill-seekers out over Michigan Avenue. We recommend getting there just before sunset: The deck’s west corner is equipped with spectator seating—conveniently next to the cocktail bar—to welcome twilight time in style. 360chicago.com
Art Institute of Chicago
Chicago’s art museum houses one of the world’s greatest art collections, covering every major era in all kinds of media. Here, you’ll find one of the most impressive impressionist and post-impressionist collections around—Renoir’s “Chrysanthemums,” Monet’s “Poppy Field,” Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom” among others. Also, don’t miss iconic American works like Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” and Andy Warhol’s “Liz #3.” artic.edu
Shedd, one of the largest indoor aquariums in the world, was established in 1930 as a gift to the people of Chicago from then-Marshall Field & Company president John Graves Shedd. There is plenty to explore, including the Abbott Oceanarium, where you can observe beluga whales and dolphins at play within the coastal ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest. There’s also the award-winning Wild Reef display, where you can take on the exotic, like exploring a coral reef in the Philippines. But for maximum enjoyment, go for one of Shedd’s “Extraordinary Experiences” to try your hand at training a beluga in the water, petting a penguin, or joining sharks at dinnertime. Don’t miss “Underwater Beauty,” a new special exhibit featuring more than 1,000 species (think giant clams, mantis shrimp, ribbon eel) in all their shimmery, sparkly glory. sheddaquarium.org
Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise
One of the best ways to get the lay of the land is to cruise along the Chicago River, a 156-mile waterway that flows through the city. The tour aboard Chicago’s First Lady Cruises features some of the city’s most knowledgeable guides (highly trained volunteer docents from the foundation), who are ready to dish on the architectural significance, as well as the stories behind the dozens of buildings and skyscrapers along the way. The boats have both outdoor and indoor areas to accomodate any weather-related concerns. architecture.org
We love that Arami, a Japanese restaurant in West Chicago, is one of the “chillest” eateries in town—a good place to dine before the show or the game, or to kick back after hours. The ambience is casual-cool, with skylights, brick walls and touches of bamboo, but the star here is the menu: sushi made with fish flown fresh from Japan, 50 types of sake, and small plates that taste as good as they look. The Tako Sansai, an octopus salad that gives your taste buds a thrill, is a solid amuse-bouche. And if you can’t decide with the plethora of sushi choices, go with the Chef’s Choice—with the pedigree of the ingredients, you won’t be disappointed. aramichicago.com
Benny’s Chop House
It’s not hard to find a steakhouse in this town, but we found the one with the best selection of cuts—and one of only a dozen in the country to have true Japanese Kobe beef on the menu. Dining at Benny’s is an event, with its 1,800-plus-bottle wine cellar, “not-for-the-faint-hearted” cocktails, substantial appetizers like its signature Chop House Maple-Glazed Bacon and sides that hold their own (try the Homemade Gnocchi, Truffle Fries or Crisped Kale). And did we mention the steaks? The dry-aged Bone-In Rib Eye was heavenly, but the Japanese Black Grade A5 Kobe Filet left us in a state of bliss. bennyschophouse.com
This downtown dim sum/noodle house is the place to be for a quick lunch, happy hour, dinner—or just the most indulgent of desserts. If you’re going to name the place after a specific Chinese noodle (lamian), it better be good—and this eatery delivers! The hand-pulled noodles are made to order, and you can see them preparing yours while you wait. Trust us when we say you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, but we highly suggest the Combination Xiao Long Bao, for a sampling of their specialty soup dumplings. And this is no place to skip dessert: Just utter the words, “Lunar Blossom,” and get ready for a show. imperial-lamian.com
Forget the fact that Café Robey was just an elevator ride away from our 11th floor suite: This street-level bistro at The Robey is definitely a standout in the very competitive, chef-driven Wicker Park dining scene. We know that breakfast is usually an afterthought when you’re playing tourist, but Café Robey’s offerings are worthy of attention: Wake up to a Seasonal or Green juice, squeezed in-house and just delightful, and the Brioche French Toast is a show-stopper. For dinner, Café Robey is bustling, not just with hotel guests, but also locals who know that this is a good place to be. The Rillettes off the Small Plates menu is a party for your palate; for Mains, everybody raves about the Salmon. therobey.com