Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to one day in Chicago. I’m a native New Yorker, and people from New York City are supposed to look down their noses at Chicago. “It’s our country cousin!” we might say as we clutch a bagel in one hand and a slice of thin crust pizza in another. “Maybe it’s impressive if you’re in flyover country, but there’s no reason to go there on purpose!” Well, this New Yorker doesn’t agree with those lies! You can have tons of fun with one day in Chicago.
Chicago has amazing food, fabulous comedy, a fascinating and violent history, and outstanding architecture. Join me for One Day in Chicago, and I’ll show you Lincoln Park Zoo and one of Barack Obama’s favorite restaurants. I’ll even admit to liking deep dish! (I just won’t call it pizza. I have to have a little New York pride, after all.)
One Day in Chicago
Where to Stay?
Chicago is the third largest city in the United States, so there’s no shortage of places to stay here. But you want something that’s in a safe, convenient neighborhood. And if you’re anything like me, you want something within your price range for your one day in Chicago.
So I recommend the Hampton Inn Chicago West Loop. It’s near many trendy restaurants like The Girl and the Goat, the staff is friendly and helpful. Plus breakfast is included! What more could you want?
One Day in Chicago
What to Pack?
You’ll need comfy shoes for all the walking we’re going to do. If it’s summertime, I love my special pink Birkenstocks. These aren’t your grandpappy’s Birkenstocks anymore. They come in every shade, and I always get compliments on my electric magenta shoes.
If the weather is rainy or snowy, which can happen in Chicago I recommend the Asgard Rain Boots. They are comfy/cozy and keep my feet dry all day. Plus they’re cute enough that I can wear them out without feeling like some gauche tourist with gross feet.
Finally, since we’re going to be out all day, you’ll want a battery for your cell phone. I always use the Anker charger. It’s light enough to fit in even a small purse. Plus the Anker lasts for several full charges of a phone, so I’ll never run out of juice!
One Day in Chicago
Morning: Secret Food Tours Chicago
I always believe that going on a walking tour of a city is the best way to get acquainted with an unfamiliar environment. Getting off the beaten track is fun, but wandering around helplessly and doing nothing of interest all day when you’ve already sunk so much money into airfare and your hotel room is no fun at all. And walking tours are even better when they’re food tours. You get breakfast, lunch, fun facts, and exercise all rolled into one!
But Chicago is such a foodie town that it’s an actual crime to not go on a food tour when you’re spending one day in Chicago. I believe that there are currently a cool grillion food tours operating in the Windy City, but one of the best has to be Secret Food Tours. I’ve used this company all around the world, and I’ve always been satisfied with their combination of history and snacks, as well as their local knowledge. I promise if you take this tour, you’ll get more than…
approximately top 5: One day in Chicago food tour edition
1) Deep Dish
Of course the first thing most people think of when they hear Chicago food is the legendary Deep Dish. The Secret Food Tours Chicago begins at Gino’s Pizzeria so we can take a Deep Dive into Deep Dish. The first restaurant to serve Deep Dish was Pizzeria Uno. Of course, this is now a massive chain and not at all the best place to get Deep Dish in Chicago.
Our guide, whom I shall call Carrie, explained that Deep Dish is made with a rich butter crust. The cheese needs to be on the bottom near the crust when you are cooking Deep Dish, otherwise the crust won’t cook properly. I have to admit, though I do prefer New York style pizza, I like the butter crust on Deep Dish better. It’s so rich and satisfying! I would never throw it away like I sometimes do with my pizza crusts back home.
Here is one more Deep Dish fact I just made up. Eating Deep Dish pizza is actually the only crime in New York State that can get you the death penalty.
2) Italian Beef
Italian beef is the name for the sandwich in my photo above that looks like a pair of weird meat eyes is staring at you. Not surprisingly, it was the creation of Italian immigrants to Chicago. It’s traditionally meant to be served at weddings, but now it’s an every day food. In fact, I think most brides today would be shocked and annoyed if you demanded that they serve chopped meat sandwiches to their guests on their Special Day.
Carrie told us that there are three main ways to serve Italian beef. You can have it dry, which means without gravy. You can have it wet, which means that the bread is dipped in gravy. Or you can have it soaked, which I guess means that someone comes out and dumps a whole bucket of gravy on top of your head while you’re eating it. That’s the Chicago way!
3) Chicago Hot Dog
I’ve already admitted that I like New York style pizza better than Deep Dish. But here’s a shocking admission for you: I like Chicago hot dogs better than New York hot dogs. I like my hot dog with a lot of veggie toppings. At home, I always get mine with ketchup, sauerkraut, and relish, a combination literally no other person in the world approves of.
But in Chicago they do me one better by topping their hot dogs with 7 different things. You need mustard, onions, relish, a pickled chili pepper, dill pickled cucumber, a fresh tomato slice (NO KETCHUP!), and some celery salt. Is it a hot dog or a salad? No man can say.
Carrie said that the Chicago hot dog was just the result of many different ethnic communities living in close quarters. They each put different things on their hot dogs. Eventually, they started trying each other’s toppings and ended up creating the Chicago-style madness we see today.
4) root beer at berghoff
You may have heard that Chicago used to have a slight gangster problem back in the day. Of course this was during Prohibition, when bootleggers like Mr. Alphonse Capone made their money selling hooch. And if you’ve got some moonshine to sell, you’re going to need speakeasies at which to sell them. Most places in Chicago did a good business selling bathtub gin when the cops weren’t looking. But not The Berghoff!
This beauty was founded back in 1898 by a German immigrant. Of course, at the time they served beer. But when alcohol became illegal, The Berghoff decided to be “good” and follow the “rules”. So instead, they started making their own near beer and sodas. You can still taste some of their historic root beer there today!
I think this story is proof that crime doesn’t pay because The Berghoff is still alive and in business, whereas Al Capone is extremely dead. Or maybe the moral of this story is that restaurants live longer than people. I can’t decide!
5) Garrett Popcorn
I don’t want to be guilty of hyperbole, but Garrett Popcorn is the single greatest thing ever created by humans. I’ve been known to eat nothing but Garrett Popcorn for dinner and be entirely satisfied with my life choices. The pro move here is to get The Garrett Mix, which is cheese popcorn mixed with caramel popcorn.
It’s so good, I believe that if Al Capone had tasted Garrett Popcorn, he never would have turned to a life of crime. There’s even Garrett Popcorn stores in Japan, and if there’s one thing the Japanese know, it’s good popcorn, as my grandmother always used to say. But really nothing beats eating Garrett Popcorn in its hometown, Chicago.
No food tour can be complete without at least two desserts, right? For our last stop of the tour, we went to the restaurant Terzo Piano at the 3rd floor of the prestigious Art Institute. The dessert here was the sweet and salty brownie, with salted caramel ice cream and pieces of pretzel. Sweet and salty is just one of the most satisfying taste combinations there is in this world, isn’t it? Between this brownie and the Garrett Popcorn, I was in flavor contrast heaven.
Carrie told us that the brownie was actually invented in Chicago for the World’s Fair. It was created by the kitchen at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, which is still in operation today. My main association with the Chicago World’s Fair is from the novel The Devil in the White City.
It’s all about how America’s first famous serial killer, HH Holmes, went on a rampage in Chicago murdering a whole bunch of ladies, and no one noticed, probably because they were too busy getting ready for the World’s Fair. So it’s nice to know that something delicious came out of the World’s Fair, not just murder.
One Day in Chicago
Afternoon: Lincoln Park Zoo
Lincoln Park Zoo is the perfect place to spend an afternoon during your one day in Chicago when the weather is nice. (My understanding is that that this happens at least twice a year.) Chicago can be quite a pricey city, so my gentle readers will be happy to hear that the Lincoln Park Zoo is completely without charge. (We’re going to need all that money you saved for dinner tonight, so just keep it in your pocket, Internet Stranger!)
I spent many happy days as a kid at the Bronx Zoo back home learning about animals and their ways, so I always try to seek out high quality zoos when I travel. At each one, I always learn more than…
three fun facts: lincoln park zoo
The type of camels that they house at the Lincoln Park Zoo are Bactrian camels. These come from Asia. One of the ways you can recognize them is because they have two humps instead of one. (The camels I’m more familiar with from my time in Morocco have one humps.
The Bactrian camels at the Lincoln Park Zoo are named Nasan and Scooter, but the camel I really want to introduce you to is their baby. His name is Alexander Camelton, and he was born in 2016. He now lives in Boston, like the patriotic camel that he is. Part of a zoo’s job is to help breed endangered species like the Bactrian camel. And Alexander Camelton is not throwing away his shot! He wants to be in the room where it happens! (Those are all the Hamilton references I know. I still can’t afford tickets.)
2) Grevy’s Zebra
Another endangered species with a home at the Lincoln Park Zoo is the Grevy’s Zebra. They come from Eastern Africa. These creatures have become endangered because of human activity, like hunting and destruction of their habitat. The most recent Grevy’s Zebra at the Lincoln Park Zoo was born in 2016, just like Alexander Camelton. I don’t think it has as cute a name though. What would we call a zebra we were naming after a famous American. I got it! Zebraham Lincoln! You’re welcome, WORLD!
3) Western Lowland Gorillas
I found the Western Lowland Gorillas to be the most impressive creatures at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Like the other animals I’ve introduced you to today, the Western Lowland Gorilla is critically endangered. One of the reasons is that there’s a mineral called coltan that is widely used in the manufacture of cell phones. Unfortunately, the areas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where coltan is mined are also where the gorilla habitats are located. So one small thing you can do for gorilla conservation is to recycle your cell phone.
My favorite memory from visiting the gorillas here was watching a boy, about six years old, approach the glass and stare at the gorilla, with eyes as wide as UFOs. His father (or possibly kidnapper? I didn’t ask) stood close behind him. After about a minute, the boy ran away from the gorilla back to his father and screamed, “HE’S GOING TO KILL ME!” pointing at the gorilla. The father threw back his head and laughed. Smooth move, Dad! Now that kid’s going to be in therapy for years because you didn’t take his gorilla phobia seriously.
One Day in Chicago
Evening: Dinner at Topolobampo
Despite what my publicist would have you believe, I am not close personal friends with President Barack Obama. But I have it on good authority, and by good authority, I mean NPR’s website, that Topolobampo is one of Barack Obama’s favorite restaurants. And who am I to say him nay? After all, one day the Lincoln Park Zoo might name an animal after him. (Barack O-llama! Nailed it!)
But for those of you not here for my Politician-Zoo Animal puns, allow me to explain that Topolobampo is celebrity chef Rick Bayless’s flagship restaurant. It serves some of the finest Mexican food you can get in the United States. I’ve been there twice, and both times I’ve gotten the seven course tasting menu. Of course, I only do this so I can try as many dishes as possible for the blog. Everything I do is for you, Internet Strangers! I shall prove it with my…
approximately top 5: topolobampo edition
1) Amuse Bouche
Any tasting menu fancy enough for a Chicago-style President needs to begin with an amuse bouche. My mouth was amused indeed with this tamarind on a soup and a black bean on a cracker. The theme of this night’s tasting menu was Oaxacan food, so this opening got my tastebuds ready for the types of flavors I’d be experiencing later in the menu.
As soon as I saw this dish, I thought, “OK, Chicago! This is closer to what an actual pizza should look like.” But it’s actually a traditional Oaxacan flatbread dish called a tlayuda. You can serve it with a variety of toppings. Mine came with queso fresco and heirloom tomatoes. Never! Say! No! To! Heirloom! Tomatoes! Tlayuda is both more delicious and healthy than deep dish pizza, even if it doesn’t come with a butter crust.
3) Garbanzo Bean Soup
For the soup course, we have a garbanzo bean soup with an egg floating on top. It was light and refreshing after the tlayuda. The floating flowers on top obviously made the dish easy on the eyes. Oaxaca is apparently famous for its many soups and stews. Many of them go back to the days of the Aztecs.
It makes sense that soup would be one of the oldest foods in any culture. After all, the only thing you need to make soup is a heat source. Well, and a bowl of some sort, unless you want to make a huge mess. It’s nice to remember that good food has existed long before the invention of the Cuisenart and the science oven.
4) Bacon with mussels and green mole
Now we get into what Oaxaca is truly famous for: the mole! There are over 200 kinds of mole sauce in Oaxaca. This dish was served with green mole, which is made with green chiles and pumpkin seeds. It definitely has a kick, but I like my food with a kick to it. If you tear up a bit, that’s just letting you know you’re still alive.
Also, as a half-Jewish person, I need to point out that it doesn’t get any more treyf than bacon and shellfish in the same dish. I loved every bite, though I could hear my ancestors kvetching in their graves about it.
5) Oaxacan Rabbit
The first meat course of the evening was a spicy rabbit dish served with yellow mole and squash blossoms. You make it with dried guajillo chiles, tomatoes, spices like cumin, among other ingredients. (Rick Bayless has a Oaxacan yellow mole recipe on his website if you want to give it a shot. I warn you that it won’t be as good as the stuff at Topolobampo!)
This dish is a little reminiscent of a traditional Oaxacan rabbit stew called segueza, which can also be made with a yellow mole. I’m curious about why the green mole is really green, but the yellow mole isn’t exactly yellow. I suppose calling it brown mole doesn’t sound as appetizing or exciting?
6) Elk with Chichilo Mole
Here we come to our third mole of the night! But what could be more appropriate with a Oaxacan tasting menu? Chichilo mole is a rich sauce based on venison or beef broth. In fact, it is traditionally served with venison. One thing that excited me about this tasting menu is that I never realized before that meats like venison and rabbit were part of Mexican cuisine.
But of course, rabbit and venison have been in Mexico long before the arrival of chickens and cows. So remember that next time you think a dish sounds weird, and you long for a “normal” ingredient like chicken. Chickens are the weird ones! Eating rabbits and deer is Very Normal.
7) Apricot Sorbet
This next course was a little palette cleanser before the main dessert. It’s apricot sorbet topped with Pechuga Mezcal. Pechuga is a mezcal (agave spirit) made with…raw chicken! That’s very real and not a joke! Google it if you don’t believe me. I confess that I tasted zero raw chicken in this dish, just a pure apricot flavor of the sorbet and the smoky mezcal on top. But I feel this whole story serves to underline my earlier point–chickens are very weird.
Now we come to the main event! This is a pumpkin tamal topped with rosita de cacao ice cream. I always like it when restaurants take something like tamal, that’s not traditionally sweet, and use it as a dessert. It makes me feel like I’m doing something intellectual while I’m satisfying my sweet tooth.
Rosita de cacao is a flower that comes from Oaxaca. It’s not actually from the cacao plant, though it is sometimes used in chocolate drinks. The flavor is kind of like a light caramel. You will never hear me complain about finding new ingredients for ice cream. I could eat a different ice cream every day and be very satisfied. What moles are to Oaxaca, ice cream is to me.
That’s a Perfect One Day in Chicago!
What would you do with one day in Chicago? Are you ready to start booking your hotel in Chicago right now? What are some other Politician-Zoo Animal names we could come up with? (Ben-chimapanzee Franklin? John Elephant Adams?) And is Deep Dish a type of pizza or is it a concoction sent by extra-terrestrials to start a war between New York City and Chicago? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend One Day in Chicago. If you have another One Day in Chicago, add this itinerary with the Field Museum. If you want a One Day in Chicago itinerary with the Art Institute, click here. Finally if you want a one day in Chicago itinerary with the Chicago History Museum, click here!