From excellent architecture to fine arts, there are many ways to experience the accessible Windy City
By Barbara & Jim Twardowski, RN
A city of architecture, Chicago’s bold skyline dotted with iconic skyscrapers and historic landmarks sits beside Lake Michigan. This wheelchair-friendly Midwest metropolis offers a range of activities from architectural appreciation and live performances to sporting events and nature encounters. Every time we go, we experience something new. We’ve traveled to Chicago by plane, train and car. Barbara has used both a manual wheelchair and a power chair to traverse the city. Accessibility is quite good, especially in the downtown core, where most sidewalks are smooth and have curb cuts. The terrain can become hilly, particularly when going toward or from the lakefront. The quality of sidewalks varies when venturing out to neighboring communities.
Two airports serve Chicago — O’Hare International Airport (ORD) and Chicago Midway (MDW). Be sure to request wheelchair assistance from your airline at least 48 hours prior to traveling. SuperShuttle (supershuttle.com) provides wheelchair-accessible service from the airports to area hotels. Contact the company in advance and specify an accessible vehicle. Even if you have a vehicle in Chicago, using public transportation might be easier. Finding an accessible parking space can be time-consuming and expensive.
Luckily, Open Taxi (888-WAV-1010) is excellent. We used the WAV (wheelchair-accessible vehicle) taxi service more than 10 times during a five-day period. Most of our travel was prearranged. When we called for an immediate pickup, the wait time was usually less than 15 minutes. The service sends an automated phone call a few minutes before the vehicle’s arrival. All of the vehicles were vans, but the type of ramps used varied from one taxi to another. If needed, drivers will help roll a manual wheelchair in and out of the vehicle.
Another option is UberWAV. Download the smartphone application (app) and schedule a ride in the future or for an immediate pickup. Finding an Uber outside of the city center or the airport may be difficult. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) website (transitchicago.com) states 100% of the city buses and railcars are accessible, with 70% of the rail stations accessible (102 out of 145). Review the CTA’s website for details on accessible features, elevator outage alerts and tools for using the CTA.
To truly appreciate the enormity of Chicago, take in the views from the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower, formerly called the Sears Tower. Skydeck Chicago is the tallest observation deck in the U.S. On a clear day, you can see 40 to 50 miles away. For the fearless, glass boxes with transparent floors extend out 4.3 feet from the building. These unobstructed views are wheelchair-accessible. Admission is $25. Avoid the crowds by reserving an Early Bird ticket ($80, available only on Saturdays and Sundays), which provides a VIP experience before Skydeck opens to the public.
Ride The River
Learn how Chicago rose from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1871 to become the birthplace of the skyscraper and home of modern American architecture as you glide past the city’s soaring structures on a river tour. Shoreline Sightseeing’s only wheelchair-accessible architectural tour boats are located at the Navy Pier’s Polk Bros Park and can accommodate wheelchairs up to 30 inches wide. Wheelchair users must navigate a ramp with a 2-inch step at the end. Boats generally have no protection from rain, sun or wind. Restrooms on double-decker boats are located on the lower deck via stairs. Before purchasing a ticket, review the company’s accessibility information (shorelinesightseeing.com) or call 312-222-9328, ext. 1, for information.
Chicago Architecture Center
A launching pad for discovering the city’s rich architectural history and iconic designs, the Chicago Architecture Center (CAC), previously known as Chicago Architectural Foundation, moved into a new home last August. The CAC’s building, with a 40-foot tall wall of glass, gazes upon the Wrigley Building and the Tribune Tower. Visitors can see a film and an interactive model of more than 4,000 Chicago buildings, learn about the city’s diverse neighborhoods and home designs and see 23 skyscraper models in the “Building Tall” exhibit. Eighty-five architectural tours are led by CAC-trained volunteer docents. Bus tours are wheelchair-accessible, but a request must be made 48 hours in advance by calling 312-922-TOUR (8687), or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Admire The Architecture
The 11-story Rookery Building, designed by Daniel Burnham and John Root, sits in the heart of Chicago’s financial district and was the tallest building in the world when it was completed in 1888. In 1905, Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to update the interior design. The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust administrative offices and a gift shop are located on the first floor. Take a $10 guided tour at either 11 a.m. or 1 p.m. Monday through Friday. One of the Windy City’s most visited attractions is the Chicago Cultural Center with the world’s largest stained glass Tiffany dome. Completed in 1897 and originally a library, the building was designed to impress with the finest materials — mother-of-pearl and colored stone, polished brass and mosaics of Favrile glass. Today, this landmark building is home to free dance and theater performances, music, films, art exhibitions, lectures and family events. Free guided tours of the building are offered at 1:15 p.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and begin at the Randolph Street Lobby.
A dynamic theater town, Chicago offers a range of live performances. From Hamilton to Shakespeare and improv to holiday shows, there’s something for every taste. Wheelchair seats are limited, so purchase tickets early. The venues range from intimate spaces to historic theaters. One of our favorite experiences was sitting in the front row of the Chase Auditorium in downtown Chicago to watch the live taping of NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! The weekly radio quiz show tests your knowledge of current events and recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.
With a million feet of exhibit space, you can only see a fraction of the Art Institute of Chicago’s marvelous collection. In addition, the museum displays from 40 to 60 special exhibits each year. The completely wheelchair-accessible museum offers manual wheelchairs on a first-come, first-served basis. To enhance your visit, download the free Art Institute Tours app. If time is limited, be sure to pick up a Visitor Guide, which includes not-to-be-missed highlights such as Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884,” Marc Chagall’s “America Windows” and Archibald John Motley Jr.’s “Nightlife.”
The interactive Museum of Science and Industry’s ramps and elevators ensure access to tons of exhibits. Designated wheelchair seating is offered inside the Giant Dome Theater. Manual wheelchairs are available to borrow. The newly opened American Writers Museum (AWM), just off of Michigan Avenue, is compact and contained on the second floor. Most of the museum’s stations involve technology, a touch screen or some type of tactile device. Books are not the only medium represented at the AWM. The written word in the form of plays, speeches, journalistic articles, letters, recipes, monologues and poetry also receives recognition.
Millennium Park with its art, landscape design and architecture hosts a variety of concerts, tours, exhibits and special events. The wheelchair-accessible paths, restrooms, parking and seating make the park a joy to explore. Don’t forget to take a photo in front of the Cloud Gate sculpture, nicknamed “The Bean,” which measures 33 feet by 66 feet by 42 feet.
Bicyclists, runners and walkers share The 606, an elevated rails-to-trails path that dissects four Chicago neighborhoods. The green space with art installations and benches spans 2.7 miles. On a Sunday afternoon, we exited The 606 and explored a park with swan boats, stopped at a craft festival and ended the day at a delightful wine bar called Lush.
Where To Eat
Have lunch at Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse, River North, surrounded by memorabilia from the “voice of the Chicago Cubs.” You don’t have to be a baseball fan to appreciate the historic landmark building. Chicago Tribune readers rate it the best steakhouse in the city. After a late afternoon at Lincoln Park Zoo, unwind with a glass of wine and a small plate at Stella Barra Pizzeria. Make your mark — graffiti is encouraged — at Gino’s East, where deep-dish pizza has been served since 1966.
Where To Stay
With 2,019 guest rooms, the Hyatt Regency Chicago (hyatt.com/en-US/hotel/illinois/hyatt-regency-chicago/chirc) is the company’s largest hotel in the world. Our wheelchair-accessible guest room with two double beds included a coffee maker and an in-room safe. The large, well-designed bathroom with a roll-in shower had plenty of room for maneuvering.
This was our first time staying at this Marriott brand (achotels.marriott.com/hotels/ac-hotel-chicago-downtown), which offers fun happy hours, a delicious, European-inspired breakfast buffet and local musicians performing every other Thursday. Our wheelchair-accessible king superior guest room with a roll-in shower had 50 square feet more than the classic king and easily accommodated an open sleeper sofa. Faux wood floors are great for wheelchair users. The perks included free Wi-Fi, a coffee maker, an in-room safe and a mini fridge.
Our luxury Conrad Chicago (conradchicagohotel.com) king accessible superior guest room with a sitting area is ideal for those traveling with family or
a companion. An oversized bathroom with two sinks works nicely for a couple. Floor-to-ceiling storage, two bathrobes and a 65-inch, high-definition television were impressive amenities. The new seasonal rooftop restaurant provides great views of the city.