I've been living in Chicago for 10 years now and hear some semblance of the following statement whenever someone comes to visit "Ooh! While I'm here I want to check out that bean thing."
Trust that this request for a day out and about in the city I love so dearly is just about the most touristy thing you can do. Second only to any amount of time spent at Navy Pier -- a place that's paradoxically both the world's shittiest and most expensive outdoor shopping area. Warm thirteen dollar Bud Lights at Chicago's most exclusive hotspot, the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.? Sign me (and most of Iowa) up!
The Bean, however, can be cool if you take it for the quick stop it should be in this amazing city. The gigantic mirrored sculpture, actually named Cloud Gate, has been one of the main attractions of Millennium Park since it was installed back in 2006 and has very much become one of the icons of Chicago. Like the Hollywood sign in L.A. or Times Square in NYC, it truly is an essential thing to see when you visit The Windy City - but it's just a stupid goddamn BEAN. It shouldn't be the top thing on your list - we're Chicago! We have so much more to offer! Like that old saying I just made up, "Chicago's got more to offer than reflective legumes!"
1. Museums and architecture galore
Should you find yourself roped into staring into the oblong germ magnet that is The Bean, fight the urge to touch it and just walk away. If you do, there's a good chance you'll walk by some of the more amazing buildings in the world and into a museum or two. A mere bean's throw away sit places like The Willis Tower (née Sears) where you can walk out into glass observation boxes 103 floors up, the Monadnock Building (the tallest load-bearing brick building ever constructed. Where my architecture nerds at!? Oh, probably living lucrative lives being architects, i guess.), The Chicago Cultural Center that rotates exhibits year-round, and The Field Museum where you can see some of the largest dinosaur skeletons ever discovered. There's even the Art Institute of Chicago where you can recreate Cameron's existential pointillism crisis from Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Hey, speaking of...
2. Iconic Movie and TV locations
Within 12 hours of my first visit to Chicago years before i moved here, I found the only place that really matters in this city. Family Matters, that is. I don't think I've ever looked happier in my entire life than when I took pictures in front of the Winslow's house while annoyingly singing the theme song and asking passersby if I "did that?" Not birthdays, not friend's weddings, nor the birth of my nephew (sorry, bubz) has made me smile so sincerely.
Thing is, Chicago is home to so many iconic movies and TV shows you probably couldn't hit them all in one day. The Blues Brothers, Ferris Bueller, The Dark Knight, Adventures in Babysitting, Uncle Buck, High Fidelity, Wanted, and many more were filmed here. Shows like Shameless and Chicago Fire film in lesser known areas and retracing the love-letter to Chicago that is Netflix's Easy will lead you to some awesome hidden gems in the city. But hey, even a walking tour of any Vince Vaughn movie is better than getting shoved in all directions standing under what one can only assume is The Bean's butthole.
3. Seek the unique and, in some cases, literally weird shit
I'll admit it - Chicago is not as committed to weirdness as cities like Portland (which is honestly just trying too hard at this point - also they stole their whole "Keep Portland weird" thing from Austin, so Portland can go eat shit). But still, Chicago is home to some truly offbeat things that'll result in way better stories than showing people the same picture in front of The Bean that's infinitely less cool than you think it is. You can navigate a good portion of downtown from miles of underground pedway tunnels, take tours devoted to American serial killer H.H. Holmes, or take architecture tours paddling a kayak in Chicago's waterways. What's a better story? "Hey! I saw a enormous mirrored dented testicle!" or "I saw where John Dillinger was shot, hung out at the Married With Children fountain, and visited the famed Shit Fountain!" No, really. That last one's real.
4. Eat more food than you'd ever think possible
Anyone who's been to Chicago knows it's a food town and will tell you the one thing you should pack is your appetite. There's so much food to try here we even pack it into the world's largest food festival, Taste of Chicago, and still have time for one called BaconFest! So on your visit to such a great food city would you stop at the only inedible bean we have? Ooh! Let's go touch it! Hey how about we lay on the ground and put our feet on it for no fucking reason!? I apologize, I'm cranky when I haven't eaten. Thankfully the city I call home boasts some of the best reasons to loosen your belt a few notches.
With Chicago food, there's nothing wrong with going touristy for a day. Eat deep dish pizza (screw you, Jon Stewart) from almost anywhere (though the Dorkly and CH crew will agree Pequod's is best), down an Italian Beef or Chicago dog while staring at an unopened bottle of ketchup, and force yourself to get a shot of Malort at some point.
But trust this unhealthy and overweight Chicagoan when I say you need to check a few more things off your list. The jowl bacon BLT and/or Bacon Bomb at Paddy Long's, any assortment of tacos at Big & Littles, a jibarito (a sandwich made with fried plantains instead of bread) from any Puerto Rican restaurant with a crowd, and--let's say--about half the menu or so from Honey Butter Fried Chicken.
With all that in your system you should be sufficiently ready to wait the usual--and totally worth it--3 or so hour wait at Au Cheval for the best burger and bologna sandwich you'll ever have in your life.
5. Get your ass entertained AS HELL
Let's say you want some homegrown entertainment when you visit Chicago - you've eaten your fill, you've been to enough museums, and you've checked out enough landmarks. WELL, DON'T WORRY - because Chicago has you covered:
We've got sports galore, no matter what time of the year it is. You like baseball? We've got not one, but TWO baseball teams! One is even pretty good (the Cubs) and not only is the main team featured in Rookie of the Year, but also won their first World Series in over a century pretty recently (our other baseball team, The White Sox, also won THEIR first World Series in nearly a century within the last 15 years - and their games are a LOT cheaper to get into). You like football? We've got The Bears - the team of Ditka, Jim McMahon, and the Super Bowl Shuffle. You prefer basketball? Oh, well we just have the Bulls, team of the most legendary player of all-time (we're in a "rebuilding" phase at the moment but games are still fun). Like hockey? We've got the Blackhawks, one of the best teams in the league over the last ten years. And we've also got a WNBA team, an MLS team, some college and minor league sports, and basically an endless amount of opportunities to tailgate, eat too much BBQ, and fall asleep before the game actually starts.
But maybe you're more of a theater-type? Well, not only are we one of the premier testing grounds for Broadway shows (The Book of Mormon, The Producers, and the Spongebob Squarepants musical all made their first runs in Chicago), but we're the home of the legendary Steppenwolf Theatre - where Laurie Metcalf, Gary Sinise, Gary Cole, John Malkovich, and more all cut their teeth as actors. Not only that, but we're home to The Second City (which pretty much was the biggest name in improv, pre-UCB) - the home of Stephen Colbert, Bill Murray, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, and Steve Carrell. And if you're a mix of theatre AND comedy nerd, check out the Improvised Shakespeare Company, which is exactly what it sounds like and genuinely pretty incredible (if you're into comedic iambic pentameter).
And that's it. No beans. None at all...
ALRIGHT, FINE! Just go see the damn bean!
Cloud Gate was created by artist Sir Anish Kapoor and installed in Millenium Park in 2006. It's mirrored stainless steel exterior allows for a reflection of the city that is truly unique. It certainly is something you have to see when you visit Chicago but, please, if you're with a Chicagoan... let them show you the rest of the city. And for chrissake, don't you even dare try and make them sit through more than a few minutes of the nearby spitting fountains. It's like making a New Yorker go to Times Square and get a picture with one of those creepy abusive knockoff Elmos.
And, honestly, even for us Chicagoans, the bean CAN be a pretty fun thing.