We made it. We made it in the land of Trump right after the Muslim ban was approved by the Supreme Court. For our first trip together in the US we decided to go to Chicago to visit a good friend of Sourena who had been waiting for our visit for years and to New York to visit one of my best friends from high school who had temporarily moved there. To match everybody’s plans timing was crucial and we went in the deep winter time. I would not recommend it, it just gets nasty cold, but at the same time it gave us a unique experience of these two cities.
I am going very quickly through the itinerary and articulate more on the exceptional experiences. Diaries when visiting friends just don’t make sense as time and space don’t matter.
We flew to Chicago from Rome with a stop in Dublin and even if it made the whole trip longer, I would definitely recommend it for one specific reason: immigration. By the time we were flying to the US, passing through all the paper work (Iran is the key word) and the bad stories we heard we were very happy with the immigration procedure in Dublin. Sourena had still to pass extra security checks (SSSS appears on your boarding pass if that’s the case) but it went really smooth. In total it didn’t take longer than 50 minutes and once in Chicago we were free to go.
We stayed at our friends’ place in the Roscoe: a pretty, family vibe, white neighborhood in the north of downtown. Time at friends’ means a lot of couch and chitchats, life updates and general laziness. This was exaggerated by the fact that it was -22Celsius and I got the flu along the way and it wasn’t even because I was throwing water outside to see if it froze instantly.
In the 5 days we stayed we anyway managed to discover the city as we like, checking the highlights, discovering the underground scene and living the normal life of people.
I asked other friends with roots in Chicago what are the must-do things and I am happy to share them as they really made the trip worth it, plus I’ll a couple of my own:
- A walk along Magnificent Lane. It’s amazing (mostly in comparison with New York) how neat, clean and expensive this small downtown district is. We stopped at some of the beautiful skyscrapers that made Chicago an historical metropolis: the John Hancock Center, the Wrigley Building, Tribune Tower, Willis Tower and everything in between.
- Millenium Park and the Bean. We almost didn’t make, but I am so glad I pushed myself out of the house the very last day to see this. With the sun, the snow and the reflection it was simply very beautiful. The walk through around the Loop at those temperatures was instead challenging and we quickly gave up after reaching the Rookery Building.
- Chicago style pizza. Beside the fact that it is more of a cheese pie than a pizza and you can’t possibly eat more than two slices it was delicious and Giuliano’s chain is the perfect place where to experience that American diner atmosphere.
- Michigan lake and the skyline. As I have mentioned already an annoying amount of times, it was too cold to really take a walk along the lake but the way the city appears along this huge lake is quite impressive
- The Bulls. I was not sure it was worth the investment as tickets to an NBA match can be quite pricy for good seats but it was. We had a great view over the game, the show, the crowd and with a super-efficient and surprisingly cheap catering service.
- The Blues. I have to say that I am not the biggest fan of blues but the atmosphere at the Kingstone Mines was quite unique. Old style bands play, people dance, audience listens and it was all very enjoyable, even with a cold. I could close my eyes and be surrounded my passionate music.
On the side I need to mention two niche experiences for the perfect day tour, the first for tv-series addicts and the second for architecture lovers. On the last day of the year we decided to drive to the west of the city to explore the area where Shameless is filmed, I had read online that it was not the best area and to avoid going after dark, but when we got there we discovered that the only shocking element was the fact that we were the only white people in a very wide radius. It never felt unsafe, but at least challenging to experience such a division. To move around American cities highways are the most convenient way but once you exit you can find yourself in a completely different environment than the one you left when entering it.
We drove to the main location of the series, the Gallaghers’ house, and we happily discovered there that the owner had made a small business out of this lucky chance in life: 5dollars to enter the front yard and take pictures. It was all properly managed: bucket hanging from a tree where to drop the money and landlady checking her business from behind the curtain.
From there it was a nice drive towards Oak Park, one of the most beautiful residential neighborhoods of the city. There Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the most influential American architects of the 20th century, started what will be later called the Prairie School movement. We went for a guided tour of his house and studio and while being less perfect than other projects it was very fascinating to see the spaces he created for himself. Luckily we were too hungry to go back to the gift shop otherwise I would have spent a fortune. Side note on the side note, one of Giuliano’s pizza places is right around the corner.
At the end of our stay in Chicago we found ourselves very opinioned about the American system of living, somewhat fascinated by it, but also skeptical about the way opportunities are given to people. At the same time, and on a much more superficial note, we were amazed by remote starts to warm up your car from the house and we were ready to go to New York and discover its little secrets so we kissed goodbye our perfect hosts and headed to airport for a domestic flight to New York.
After our dose of disservice by American Airlines, we arrived at La Guardia airport late at night but as I experienced in the past I really like arriving in a new city late at night, it makes you feel teleported in a new reality when you wake the morning after.
We based ourselves in Brooklyn and even if the airbnb where we stayed was super nice and a perfect hub to commute anywhere in the city I would recommend a different area in Brooklyn. Bushwich is safe and friendly but just not that pretty and with few facilities. We had the chance to discover the rest of Brooklyn during our stay and you could really tell that it’s the right place where to experience New York but areas like Slope Park, Bedford and Williamsburg have something more to fall in love with.
The friends we were visiting had been living in the city for slightly less than a year and we met them for their last week in the city. They were eager to suck all New York has to offer for the very last time and they managed brilliantly to transfer their love for the city.
In 6 days we managed to explore a lot while keeping it very easy: the impressive 9/11 Memorial, One World Trade Center, colorful Chinatown, Mulberry street, Little Italy and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the perfect Flatiron, Union Square, the Guggenheim, Central Park, St Patrick Cathedral, Fifth Avenue, Bryant Park and Grand Central Station, the Brooklyn Bridge, Chelsea, the not-so-enjoyable-in-winter High Line and the Whitney Museum of American Art in the most windy spot of the city.
So, many many things and I kept a couple out of this generic list because they really worth extra attention:
- The amazing view from the Rockfeller Center. There is an observatory on top of the building, but we didn’t go there. It’s 30 dollars to enter and just one floor below is a fancy cocktail bar, the Rainbow Room, same outstanding view, almost two cocktails for the same price. It was an easy pick. From there you can see the Empire State Building in all its glory, but also the Chrysler Building, Central Park on the other side and in general the whole city around you. At dusk it was a very beautiful experience.
- In contrast, the amazing view from Williamsburg. There is a small pedestrian pier close to the Grand Ferry Park and from there all Manhattan is just on the other side of the river, from a similar view but from a rooftop the William Vale is by far the best spot. It’s the bar of a hotel but easily accessible for anybody and it has the most beautiful interiors with the perfect skyline in the background.
- The MOMA. In New York, if you spend some time to figure it out, there are many free activities, on a regular base or at specific times and dates. We entered the MOMA in one of those free nights and, besides being super packed, it was still a treat and Van Gogh was by far the most popular in the whole museum.
- Times Square in a snow storm. For my friend’s birthday, she had organized a brunch in the center, that a snow storm happened didn’t stop us and gave us the motivation to explore Manhattan. We were not that interested in Times Square but the snow storm left it almost empty and it was almost surreal.
- Prospect Park. It’s known to be the later, better thought through version of Central Park and honestly it shows. The hills, the trees and, for us, the snow made it a perfect retreat in the city. It is not as big as Central Park but still huge and at -15Celsius we couldn’t make to the lakes but I bet they are gorgeous.
- The beautiful Westvillage and St Marks place. One of the most popular areas of Manhattan for young rich people, laid back, but beautiful and trendy. It looked like the New York I had in mind.
- New York style pizza. For a fair judgment of American pizzas and in the long lasting battle with Chicago, we had to try the New York style one. For anybody who doesn’t know it, it’s the Ninja Turtle one.
- The metro and Uber pool. Without the combination of these two we would have been completely stock, they are both very efficient, not that expensive and a great way to do some people watching. For example, fun fact: we saw the first kid around Manhattan only on our 4 day there…
- The Moth open mic evening. We would have never thought about it, but it makes so much sense! New York is open mic evenings, we went to one in Brooklyn at The Bell House and it was simply great.
- The Food Coop. While walking around with our friends we started speaking about how expensive it is to do grocery shopping in the US and they explained that there is a way around it: Food Coop, a cooperative that works on the give and take. They don’t have employees but all the members have to volunteer 3 hours a month to be able to shop, just pick your shift. The biggest one in Park Slope is the biggest in the US and because our friends were members we could get a tour of the shop.
- The diner experience. We hadn’t had doughnuts yet and it was our last day so we went to this little diner in Park Slope, called appropriately Doughnut Shop, and we had our full diner experience. No tourists, coffee refills, doughnuts and a booth all of ourselves.
- Westville. There are so many places where to eat, drink and relax in New York that they say it would take you 10 years to try them all so it’s pointless to share our picks as I am sure there are many more in the city, but I have to mention Westville since they had the most delicious vegan menu, their tofu had a taste and if you know tofu you know that you can’t give it for granted.
We left New York and the US with a bitter taste of wanting to move there, but at the same time wanting to move away from it. I am quite sure we will be back soon.