As a new citizen of Chicago, I’ve decided I want to get to know the city inside and out. As a broke 24-year-old, I want to do it as cheaply as possible. So, I’ve decided to find as many free adventures as I can in different parts of the city to help feed my travel bug without touching my bank account.
My goal is to explore everywhere I can, even the most expensive parts of the city, and spend as little money as possible.
This is my first of hopefully many installments of my penniless Chicago adventues and it ironically features the Gold Coast. Enjoy!
The last thing I bought in Saint Louis before moving to Chicago was a pocket-sized Chicago travel book by Lonely Planet. I really didn’t know anything about locations or neighborhoods in the city before moving here. I knew that the Loop was home of the Bean and where the Navy Pier was, but outside of that I was clueless.
For the first week of my new life in Chicago, I spent my free time piling over this tiny travel book; reading about the different regions of the city. I may be a person that loves spontaneity, but when I’m scared I like being overly prepared. And, during my first two weeks in Chicago, I was downright scared. Not of the city of Chicago per say, but of the major life altering move I had just made.
So, instead of going out and doing, I turned to a trusty book and read about my surroundings instead. The book in question broke the city into eight regions: The Loop; Near North & Navy Pier; Gold Coast; Lincoln Park & Old Town; Lake View & Wrigleyville; Wicker Park, Bucktown & Ukrainian Village; Near West Side & Pilsen; South Loop & Near South Side.
For some reason I was drawn to the concept of the Gold Coast over anywhere else. To me, the idea of seeing where the affluent lived as a lowly broke girl in her twenties had some weird romantic charm to it. I also really wanted to see the Chicago Water Tower.
For those of you who don’t know, the Chicago Water Tower is the sole building to withstand the Great Chicago Fire that struck the city in 1871, and according to my little travel book it was in the Gold Coast. Again, my fanciful imagination thought it kind of inspiring to see a building that could withstand a fire as I mentally felt like I, myself, had been thrown into a metaphorical fire.
I logged the Chicago Water Tower into Google Maps and then hopped onto the Red Line my first Thursday off from work– seeing as it was the only line of the L I felt comfortable with– and road it to the Chicago stop. Seemed fitting for my first solo adventure in the city. I walked through the Loop taking in all of the wonder of the place that was now my home. I remembered bits of it from my time here back in March, but everything still felt really new. I officially saw the Chicago Tribune building, adding to the list of iconic newspaper buildings I’ve seen (yes, I have a list). I also listened to a street performer belt out some songs from Rent.
The oddest, and probably most wonderful part of my walk from the Red Line to the Water Tower had to be the fact that the Ducky Derby was happening that day. I later discovered that the Ducky Derby is a charity event put on by the Special Olympics where they race 60,000 rubber ducks down the Chicago River. I only caught the set up for the event which involved a LOT of gigantic rubber ducks. I kind of wish I had stuck around to watch the race now that I know what it entails, but I was on a mission to find the Water Tower.
I know that the Water Tower probably seems like a very touristy and cliché thing to want to see, but it felt like a good step towards becoming a true Chicagoan. Sometimes, to become truly a part of somewhere, you need to start off as a tourist. Getting a little lost and finding a bit of wonder in the places locals see as second nature helps you appreciate your surroundings a little bit more.
My roommate, and friend from college, told me she didn’t feel that the Water Tower was really a part of the Gold Coast before I left. Now that I’ve been there, I can see why. The Chicago Water Tower is located on what I would consider the dividing line between the Loop and Gold Coast. It probably does lean more towards a Loop location in my eyes as well, seeing as you turn somewhere in the middle of the Magnificent Mile to get there.
The Magnificent Mile is a strip of North Michigan Ave. lined with every retail store that could ever come to mind. If you want physical proof that America is run by commercialism and materialism, I think the Magnificent Mile is it. If I remember correctly, you’ll hit the Water Tower before you hit the truly high-end stores on the Magnificent Mile. That’s when you know you’ve reached the Gold Coast.
Tiffany’s and Dior were literally feet from each other. Walking past both of those stores, I felt weirdly under-dressed and like I couldn’t actually go inside the stores wearing my palm-tree covered shorts and my slightly ratty tank top. It was a good think I wasn’t around to do any shopping.
When it comes to the actual Water Tower, it was a little lackluster, but I’m glad I went. I had a bit of a backup plan as well. My handy-dandy travel book had told me the Newberry Library was also located in the Gold Coast, and that the library gave free tours. When you tell me there’s a travel-worthy library near by I’m going to check it out.
The Newberry Library is most definitely a part of the Gold Coast. You could almost taste the millions of dollars in the air as you walked through that area of Chicago. When I reached the library, it quite literally took my breath way. The building in and of itself is beautiful, but I was really there for what was inside. Historically significant pieces of literature are held in the walls of this library and I was more than ready to check them out. Thoughts of Thomas Jefferson’s Federalist Papers and Mary Wroth’s Urania danced in my head until I realized I had the stern eyes of a male librarian on me.
He quickly asked, “May I help you?” and I proceeded to say I was simply here to explore the library. And here’s the kicker, “Only people doing research are allowed into the main exibit rooms of the library.”
With that being said, the Newberry Library DOES give free tours. I even showed up on the right day for one… I was just two hours too early. If you’re anything like me, and like ogling really old books, the tours are held Thursdays at 3 pm and Saturdays at 10:30 am. I plan to go back and drool over all the musty, old, historically significant pieces of literature some day. It just unfortunately wasn’t meant to be that day.
While that part of the adventure did end in a moment of disappointment, Washington Square Park was right next door and definitely didn’t disappoint. It was the perfect place to sit down and just take in the grandeur that is the Gold Coast. The best part? There’s a working piano located in the park for people to play. Luckily enough, I was there while a really skilled pianist was enjoying the park and piano as well.
That’s the story of how I spent an afternoon on the Gold Coast without spending a dime. A little touristy, a little unexpected, but definitely worth the trip.