Editor's note: This is the first part of a two-part travel story on Chicago. Check back next week to read the final installment. After a long travel day of car-to-plane-to-train, I took a deep breath as I drank in the view below. From our posh room on the 18th floor of the Trump Tower in Chicago, the Chicago River stretched out languidly below. The river, dotted with boats and criss-crossed with busy bridges, wove its way through acres of concrete before meeting Lake Michigan's water.And so began a three-day trip to Chicago in early May with my best friend, who recently moved from Denver to corn and soybean country in central Illinois. Since she'd never visited the Windy City, I decided to meet her there for three days to celebrate her new job and new life. Over the course of three days, we experienced the luxe side of the city, as well as Chicago on the cheap. Even though I've been to Chicago a handful of times, each time I see a new facet of this city by the lake. After rolling our suitcases a few blocks from the subway station to the towering Trump, the front-desk staff greeted us with warm towels and big smiles. The hotel boasts the largest rooms in the city and are decked out in true Trump style, with fully equipped kitchens, waist-deep bathtubs, a television set in the bathroom mirror, 42-inch flat-screen televisions and wide-open, ultra-comfy beds.
After checking out our digs for the night, we changed our clothes and hoofed it a few blocks to Shaw's Crab House, a jazzy crab and seafood joint where the boisterous bar-area energy spills over into the white tablecloth dining room, making for a dining experience that feels both sophisticated and carefree, a combination not-often found in a single restaurant.Everywhere we looked, we spied platters of fresh-shucked oysters and lemon wedges on ice. At the big red-leather banquette next to us, a table full of suit-and-tie lawyers pulled their sleeves up and dug into plates of rosy red crab legs as they talked shop. We sipped on agave and cucumber margaritas and fell head-over-heels in love with a plate of butterflied (which means you don't have to do any crack-and-dig work) Alaskan red king crab legs, which I've spent way more time watching get plucked from icy waters on "Deadliest Catch" rather than spread on a plate before me. Even without a swim in the candle-warmed butter, the crab was sweet and decadent. The menu is chock full of every kind of fresh seafood you can think of - 3-inch-thick crab cakes, whole Maine lobsters, tender scallops, Georgia soft-shell crabs, Alaskan halibut and more. The menu is quite intimidating, really, but the wait staff is knowledgable, friendly and ready to walk you through it. Whatever you do, don't skip over the sushi menu. The crispy rice with tuna and lobster came in as the best bite of the night, barely edging out the tart and creamy key-lime pie that ended our feast. Later, tucked under the feather duvet at the Trump, we watched lightning reflect off the buildings surrounding the Trump as we drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, we took a quick swim in the large - and completely empty - indoor heated swimming pool before packing our bags, dropping them at the front desk and heading for nearby 400 Michigan Avenue, where a line of folks patiently waited in the warm sun to board the 12:30 p.m. Wendella riverboat for a 75-minute architecture tour of the towering buildings lining the Chicago River. Our witty, fast-talking tour guide took only two short breaks from the microphone over the course of the tour. He pointed out specific buildings and regaled the full tour boat with details about the buildings, who built them, when and the architecture styles. My favorite were the art-deco-style buildings such as the historic Civic Opera building, built in 1929, and the Chicago Merchandise Mart, which is so big it had its own zip code until 2008. When it opened in 1930, it was the world's largest building with more than 4 million square feet of floor space and eight miles of corridors winding through it. Our guide had a treasure trove of knowledge about the city and one minute talked about why Chicago is called the Windy City - it's not because the city tends to be windy, which it does, but because of the blustery politicians who lobbied for Chicago's World Fair - and the next about how the Chicago Tribune printing-press building was voted one of the ugliest buildings on the river in a poll that was, ironically enough, taken by the Tribune newspaper. Founded in 1935, Wendella is the city's original tour-boat company. Though ticket prices have risen from a quarter to $26 in the 77 years since its inception, the cost is more than worth it if you'd like a quick Chicago history primer.
After the tour, we caught the city bus outside the nearby Wrigley Building - nicknamed "the jewel of the mile" - to Millenium Park, where we joined the throngs of other tourists snapping pictures of themselves hamming it up on the plaza in front of "The Bean," a three-story shiny steel sculpture dubbed such by Chicagoans because of its legume-like shape. The sculpture by renowned Indian artist Anish Kapoor is really called "Cloud Gate" and cost a cool $23 million. Next up, we snapped a few shots of children frollicking in the water beneath the 50-foot-tall Crown Fountain, an interactive video sculpture that displays random faces. Alas, there was no time to dip our toes in the water - we had another block before the Art Institute, one of my favorite places in the city.I breathed a heavy sigh of contentment as we walked past the stately lion statues in front of the building, up the concrete stairs and into the million-square-foot museum. Given the chance, I could happily spend days roaming the galleries. And really, you'd probably need weeks to fully explore the museum, the second largest (the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is the largest) in the country. Instead, we spent an hour wandering through the galleries and made sure to visit a few of my favorite paintings - Van Gogh's "The Bedroom," Monet's "Haystacks" and "Water Lilies" and, of course, Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." It seems like every time I stare at that painting, I see something new within its confines. Kind of like Chicago itself. High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 970-748-2984 or email@example.com.