Not everyone can make it to Washington for the inauguration, but can we find another way to pass a winter weekend and still feel some of that presidential pizazz?
Yes we can.
As President-elect Barack Obama prepares to move into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., visitors to Chicago can get up close and personal with some of the sites around town that now have presidential significance. And it's a good way for locals to learn more about their city, too.
You can take guided tours of Obama sites or visit them on your own. And some of the places will be happy to feed you: There's no shortage of restaurants pointing out that the soon-to-be president or his wife, Michelle, have eaten there (See Obama Eats Here).
Tour guides on a two-hour, $25 Gray Line (312-251-3100, www.grayline.com) South Shore Tour these days point out quite a few Obama sites as they drive through the Kenwood and Hyde Park neighborhoods: the block where Obama lives, the building at the University of Chicago where he taught constitutional law, the site of an ice cream store where he and Michelle first kissed, the school the Obama girls attended. It seems no minutiae is too small to mention, but the bus barely stops at most spots, and you can't get anywhere close to Obama's house because of the security detail.
The tour, which isn't specifically about Obama, is good for people who are happy to do drive-by touring. You'll get an overview of much of the South Side with commentary on the Chicago Fire, the city's music scene, its architecture and even a mention of Al Capone.
Tours of Obama sites also are being offered by Windy City Connection (847-534-6550, www.windy-city-connection.com) and My Kind of Town (847-295-8221, www.mykindoftown.net).
In the Chicago Greeters program (312-744-8000, www.chicagogreeter.com), trained volunteer guides take visitors on walking tours or use public transportation. These days, guides on the free tours are pointing out sites such as the Obamas' first condo, at 5450 S. East View Park. These Chicago Office of Tourism program tours are for groups of six or fewer and are offered in multiple languages. Tours must be booked 7-10 days in advance.
A good base for an Obama-themed Chicago tour is the Hilton Chicago, 720 S. Michigan Ave. (877-865-5320, www.hilton.com).
The day after the election, Obama held his first press conference as president-elect in the hotel's Continental Ballroom, and he has gone on to have seven more there during the transition. But that's not the only reason to stay there.
The Hilton is also a good bet because it is one of Chicago's most historic hotels, the prices aren't bad, and it has great views of the city, Lake Michigan and Grant Park, the site of Obama's election-night acceptance speech.
For $149, plus $22.95 in taxes, I had a room on the 22nd floor with windows facing south and east. I could see workers landscaping Grant Park's Hutchinson Field, where hundreds of thousands watched Obama deliver his victory speech less than a month earlier.
The room was a bit on the small side but certainly adequate and decorated in warm tones of browns and gold. The Hilton touts its Serenity Bed mattresses and, for my money, they're worthy of the praise--cushy and comfortable without being too soft. The marble bathroom was more than serviceable, stocked with toiletries and fluffy white towels. An extra-wide vanity was a plus, but the tub was small.
Because I had an executive-floor room, I had access to the 24th-floor lounge and its grand views of Lake Michigan. The lounge is where complimentary continental breakfast is served in the morning and hors d'oeuvres later in the day. It's also a delightful spot to savor a hot cup of coffee on a cold afternoon, listening to classical music and watching car headlights turn on in the dark of Lake Shore Drive as daylight fades over Lake Michigan.
When I was there, apples and oranges, soft drinks, water, coffee and tea were available much of the day. The hot appetizers in the early evening included vegetable egg rolls and chicken wontons. Fruit, cheese and crackers were also on the buffet.
"Daddy, is this our dinner?" one young girl asked her father.
"Just a snack, honey."
But it's a point worth noting. If you want to spend a weekend in the city with children, this kind of a set-up is a bonus. The appetizers, cheese and crackers and fruit would be enough of a dinner for many kids. And the continental breakfast is kid-friendly as well. Cereal and milk, juices, fruit, sweet rolls, croissants, bagels and muffins are all part of the spread.
For me, the biggest draw of the Hilton Chicago is its feel of history. Built in 1927, this is one of the grande dames of Chicago hotels. That legacy is evident in the marble counters, the intricately patterned carpets and its sweeping grand staircases. This is one of those hotels where fine jewelry is sold from cases on the lobby level.
Its list of famous visitors is long: John F. Kennedy, Babe Ruth, Emperor Hirohito and Queen Elizabeth II, among many others. And indeed, when new brochures are ordered for guest rooms, they'll no doubt include mentions of Obama's post-election use of the Hilton.
Note to hotel historians: Chicagoans for whom politics is entertainment will likely notice the mistake in the caption on a 1985 photo hanging on the 24th floor; the man is Cook County Board President George Dunne, not Richard Dunne. But in the land of Daley, perhaps there are never enough Richards.
It might be a bit more difficult to confuse the name of the new president, when his photos go up on the walls of the Hilton.