It’s official. I left my heart in Chicago.
It took me by surprise, and I fell hard and fast. The attitude, the architecture, the rough-and-tumble gangster history, the Cubs, the people, and, of course, that famous wind.
On my first visit to Chicago we took in all the sights we’re supposed to, including a tour of Wrigley Field, a visit to Millennium Park, and shopping on Magnificent Mile. But despite all the exciting stuff we experienced our first couple days in the city, nothing compares to what we got up to most of our third day.
I’d heard about the Chicago Greeter program some way or another, and figured we’d give it a shot. I’m intrigued by different tourist experiences available in different cities, and the various ways to learn about urban centres. The Chicago Greeter program is unique to only a few global cities, but really should be replicated in more places. It is easily one of the best tourist experiences I have ever encountered, for many reasons.
Through the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Chicago Office of Tourism, Chicagoans volunteer their time (usually about four hours per month) to show visitors the best of their city. Tours are private, free, and completely customised. Visitors can personalise where they want to go in their two or four hour tour by filling out an easy form online. You can also divulge when you arrive and depart Chicago, and other things that are on your itinerary, so as not to overlap what you already have planned. You can choose from about 25 different urban neighbourhoods, 40 points of interest, and tours are available in 15 languages. Your Greeter contacts you a few days before your tour to confirm time, general itinerary, and any other last minute things.
We easily hit the jackpot with our Greeter, Michelle. A native Chicagoan, this 40-something legal professional absolutely loves her city, and sincerely enjoys sharing it with visitors. Originally we thought we had requested a two-hour Sunday morning tour, but our confirmation email mentioned that we had a four-hour tour scheduled. A bit dubious, considering it was our last full day in the city, we went with it anyway. Michelle confirmed where we wanted to go and what types of things we wanted to see – fun, off the beaten path neighbourhoods, and cool shopping.
Michelle was fabulous.
She showed us things we wouldn’t have seen otherwise – like taking ten minutes to take us through the Chicago Cultural Center, where we met her, which has some of the most stunning mosaics I’ve ever seen. She took us walking through the downtown to check out the famous buildings, like the architectural eyesore City Hall, and famed Wrigley Building. Michelle enlightened us with city history and the all-important Cubs/White Sox rivalry. As a die-hard Sox fan (the first one I’ve ever met!) she demonstrated the bitter passion that entwines the city. We’re used to the city-to-city rivalries of hockey, but this cross-town battle is so much more intriguing.
Michelle told us about her and her life, what it’s like to live in Chicago, and why she loves the city so much. The cool thing about the city was that she could actually demonstrate that love and passion, because it’s so alive in Chicago. We journeyed into Bucktown/Wicker Park, which was then (in 2008), a burgeoning artsy area north of the downtown, where Mum and I found some great jewelry and shoes. Michelle even brought us back into the downtown area on the L (Chicago’s public transit system).
We had lunch at legendary Pizzeria Uno, home of the famous Chicago deep-dish pizza, and Michelle insisted that we didn’t treat her to lunch. She politely declined our offer, saying that she does the tour solely as a volunteer, not for gratuties or meals, etc. She enjoys the tour because she loves to meet new people and share her city. Cool.
In the end, we spent over four hours with Michelle, and enjoyed every minute of it. It was such a unique, personal experience, and wonderful to get to know a local and her perspective. By the end, we felt as though we had a real friend in Michelle! That’s the incredible thing about the Greeter program: not only do you have a free way to see the city, you make a friend in the process.
If not for anything else this wonderful city has to offer, of which there is a lot, I’ll return to Chicago for the people. I know I’ve got a friend in Chicago, and you will too.