Arlington Park’s International Festival of Racing, highlighted by the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Arlington Million and Beverly D. Stakes, is the track’s year-in, year-out signature event, and the staff at the suburban Chicago venue pull out all of the stops to welcome out-of-town visitors.
Arlington is one of the most beautiful racetracks in the world, and what is especially appealing is how clean and well-maintained the entire facility is. (I’ve also been there on a regular, non-Million day of racing and could not spot any letdown on the upkeep).
If you’re visiting Arlington for the first time to attend this year’s Million, you’re in for a treat – but if you’re spending more than a day the area, you’ll need to secure some transportation to fully get the flavor of, as native son Kanye West says, “summertime Chi.” Arlington is about 30 miles northwest of the city’s core, and it’s surrounded by the usual plethora of chain restaurants and retailers endemic to the middle American landscape. So, for a more unique experience, make your way from Arlington Heights down I-90 and into the city, and budget some extra time on the way for inevitable traffic backups encountered when driving through greater Chicago’s perpetually under-construction highway grid.
Before and/or after your day the track, here are some Chicago neighborhoods and areas to consider visiting, and some places to eat and drink:
Grant Park lies in the heart of downtown Chicago and is a great area to explore for a few hours. The 319-acre public park holds three museums devoted to the natural sciences – the Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum of Natural History, and the Shedd Aquarium – as well as the Art Institute of Chicago.
Start at the historic Buckingham Fountain in the park’s center and plan your sojourn from there – and be sure to check out the park’s northwest section, renamed Millennium Park, which is famous for its outdoor art and architecture. Millennium Park features the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a performance venue designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, and the Cloud Gate sculpture by Anish Kapoor, nicknamed “the Bean,” which is a magnet for crowds.
For political history buffs, Grant Park was also the site of the demonstrations and police riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention and where President Barack Obama gave his victory speech on Election Day, Nov. 4, 2008. The annual Lollapalooza music festival is held in Grant Park; this year, it’s held one weekend prior to the Arlington Million.
Wrigleyville and Lincoln Park
Even if Chicago Cubs fans have become completely insufferable in the nine months since their club got off the World Series schneid following a 108-year draught, Wrigleyville is still worth a visit. Sure, the neighborhood has more than its share of predictable sports bars, where one can practically hear and feel the ghosts of Bill Swerski’s “Super Fans” bouncing off of the walls, but it also has some music venues that have become cherished institutions through the years.
The Metro on North Clark Street, about a half-block north of Wrigley Field, is an iconic alternative rock music hall where an endless roll call of Chicago legends, including Liz Phair and the Smashing Pumpkins, cut their teeth. It’s still going strong in its 35th anniversary year, as is the Smart Bar in the Metro’s basement, a dance music mecca.
Formerly located a couple blocks south of the Metro on Clark Street, the reggae club Wild Hare moved about a mile south to Halsted Street in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in 2012. This club has been in operation for nearly 30 years and offers a relaxed, uplifting vibe in keeping with its musical source. Lincoln Park has plenty of outstanding restaurants and bars and offers a more sedate environment than Wrigleyville at night, to say the least.
If you’ve got time for a movie, the Music Box Theatre a few blocks west of Wrigley Field on North Southport Avenue is a must-visit. The Music Box opened in 1929 and retains its original architecture to this day. It’s one of the best art-house cinemas in the U.S.
North of downtown lies the Magnificent Mile, an upscale district that is a shopping-and-dining hub for hordes of Chicagoans and tourists. If the weather cooperates, park and spend several hours walking up and down Michigan Avenue and side streets. Along the way, make sure to spend a few moments at the Michigan Avenue Bridge looking over the Chicago River and also visit landmarks such as the Water Tower and John Hancock Plaza.
The Magnificent Mile is home to some of Chicago’s best restaurants (see below) and also the shopping malls Water Tower Place, The Shops at North Bridge, and 900 North Michigan Shops as well as a variety of sidewalk stores.
In the Magnificent Mile, Shanghai Terrace is a top-rated Chinese restaurant that offers al fresco dining from May to October. Primehouse inside the James Hotel on the corner of Rush Street and Ontario Street offers a variety of choice cuts as well as seafood.
ABR’s Mike Curry highly recommends The Bongo Room (three locations, one several blocks north of Wrigleyville) for an out-of-this world brunch. In Lincoln Park, Café Ba-Ba-Reeba has been serving some of Chicago’s best tapas since 1985. The trendy Butcher & the Burger, also located in Lincoln Park, combines an old-fashioned butcher shop with some of the Windy City’s best burgers as well as frozen custard and a breakfast menu.
They both require a drive, cab or train ride from downtown, but two prominent Chicago racetrackers tout the Mexican spots La Chaparrita and Los Comales Taqueria. And for a singular deep-dish experience, the Pizza Pot Pies at Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co. near the Lincoln Park Zoo come highly recommended.