Carrie Lyell find’s food, history and women
Chicago has appeared in so many films and TV shows that I feel like I’ve already been here. The skyline, towering over us as we drive in from the airport, is as recognisable as that of New York, and I have the strangest sensation that I’m visiting an old friend. But this is a city – and a state – full of surprises, as I’m about to discover.
Our first stop is the Acme Hotel ( acmehotelcompany.com), located in the city’s River North district and the coolest place to lay your head in Chicago, or so I’m told. I only get as far as the elevator when I realise they’re right. The place is beautifully designed, and iconic albums cover the walls. A killer soundtrack accompanies me to the 15th floor where I find my room. I say room – it was more like an apartment – and tearing myself away from this, my new home, to explore was more than a little tough.
But tear myself away I must, because we’re only in town for a few days, and there’s so much to see. So I ask my very own Alexa where to go for a libation, and it points me in the direction of Rock Bottom ( rockbottom. com/ locations/chicago), a brewpub famed for its selection of craft beers. We follow the smell of hops up to the rooftop where we sink our teeth into giant Baja Chicken sandwiches and salads, washed down with a small batch beer brewed on-site. Jet lag briefly abated, I say goodbye to the group of journalists I’m with and go for a wander around downtown Chicago, following the loop of the “L”. I almost get lost, disorientated by the many branches of the river, but the complimentary Wifi hotspot provided by the lovely folk at Acme helps me find my way back home again.
For dinner, I rejoin the others and head to GT Fish and Oyster ( gtoyster. com), an award-winning modern seafood eatery who wowed us with delights including Oyster Po’boys, Korean-style Octopus and Fish Tacos. Then for one of my highlights: Hamilton ( broadwayinchicago.com). The smash-hit musical recently celebrated its 300th performance at The Privatebank and is just one of a handful of shows that make Chicago a top destination for theatre lovers. I’m singing all the way to Cindy’s Rooftop ( cindysrooftop. com) and enjoy a quick cocktail and stunning views of the city’s Millennium Park before heading back to the hotel where I’m asleep before my head hits the pillow.
Our second day in Chicago is just as packed. We take breakfast 1,353 feet in the air at The Sky Deck ( theskydeck. com) and enjoy the views before getting our culture on with the fantastic Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise aboard Chicago’s First Lady Cruises ( cruisechicago.com). Bloody Marys in hand, we learn about the history of the city, and it’s perfect for architecture buffs and novices alike. It’s no surprise this 90 minute tour ranks among the best in the US. After lunch (hello, deep dish pizza!), we’re given a tour of the brand-spanking-new American Writers Museum ( americanwritersmuseum.com) and then there’s time for selfies in front of “the bean”, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture, arguably the most famous landmark in the city.
My first 48 hours in Illinois have been a blast, but there’s been a distinct lack of lesbians and bi women. When I ask where they’re hiding and I’m told to head to Boystown, I’m confused. But they are here: it’s one of the city’s largest LGBT neighbourhoods and we learn about badass women including Audre Lorde, Frida Kahlo and Jane Addams on a moving tour by Victor Salvo, executive director of The Legacy Project, a brilliant celebration
CARRIE LYELL HEADS MIDWEST AND FALLS IN LOVE WITH ILLINOIS
of lesbian, gay, bi and trans history. We stay in Boystown for dinner at Drew’s on Halstead ( drewsonhalstead.com) and then we’re treated to an outrageous performance by the world famous Blue Man Group. Why aren’t there any blue women, I ask afterwards – all ready for a feminist rant – only to be told there are. That showed me!
The hunt for queer women continues at Sidetrack, a huge gay club and finalist in Logo TV’S “Best Gay Bar in the World” competition, but I only count three – and I’m one of them. So I’m delighted the next day when we head to Andersonville and actually meet some living, breathing lesbians at Women and Children First ( womenandchildrenfirst. com), an independent feminist bookstore which has been at the heart of the community since it opened in 1979. W&CF is one of the largest (and last surviving) feminist bookstores in the US, stocking more than 30,000 books and magazines, and is well worth a visit if you’re in town. Andersonville, our guide tells us, is also home to Back Lot Bash ( backlotbashchicago.com), a huge festival for queer women founded in 2004 by Amie Klujian and Christina Wiesmore, which I’m sad to have missed.
We wave goodbye to Andersonville to check out another Chicago suburb – Oak Park – and I devour the best burger of my life at Obsessed ( facebook.com/obsessedkitchenandbar), a hidden gem and top of my to-visit list the next time I’m in the midwest. Oak Park is home to more Frank Lloyd Wright buildings than anywhere in the world, so after lunch we take a fascinating tour of his home and studio before heading back downtown on the L for cocktails and more breathtaking views at 360 Chicago. There are more cocktails on the menu at STK ( ogrp.com/venue/stk- chicago), a nightclub- cum-steakhouse where we eat ourselves silly before heading to a nearby dive bar with two of the waiters – Ryan and Matt – who promise me lesbians. Again, I count three, but this time I think my reflection was one of them. Those cocktails were strong! So we bundle into an Uber back to Andersonville and I’m delighted to find at least 10 women in The Closet ( theclosetchicago.com), founded in 1978 by two women, Judi and Rose. The crowd are friendly, and a lovely gay man moves his male pals so the women can have the dance floor to ourselves. “Fucking patriarchy, right?” he smiles as we all shake our money makers until the wee small hours.
The next morning, heads pounding, we check out of the hotel and pile onto a coach to see what else this great state has to offer. Three hours west of Chicago is Galena, a small town that feels frozen in time. In fact, it’s known as “the city time forgot” and as I’m checking into the Desoto House Hotel, which dates back to 1855 and retains much of its Victorian style, I half- expect to bump into former guest Abraham Lincoln. But while you could feel like you’re time-travelling, scratch the surface and you’ll see Galena is thoroughly modern. One Eleven Main ( oneelevenmain.com), for example, is totally down with the hipster beer trend, and Blaum Bros (@ Blaumbros) is an achingly cool distillery on the edge of town. There are gays here too: during dinner at Fried Green Tomatoes we’re seated near a hen party of two brides, and during a trolley tour of historic Galena, we spot a Pride flag flying outside someone’s house, leaving me to declare this town Gay-lena.
Home time comes too soon – I feel like I’ve only seen a fraction of this fantastic state – but I make a note to self that I will be back. And next time, I’m bringing lesbians.
“Boystown is one of the city’s largest LGBT neighbourhoods”
Chicago and Galena: full of surprises