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.
And Chicago is just the place to do it.
As President-elect Barack Obama prepares this week 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.
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.
These days, guides on a two-hour, $25 Gray Line South Shore Tour 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 are 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.
In the Chicago Greeters program, 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 seven to 10 days in advance.
A good base for an Obama-themed Chicago tour is the Hilton Chicago. The day after the election, Obama held his first news 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 victory 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 that speech Nov. 4.
The room was a bit small, but certainly adequate, and decorated in warm tones of browns and gold. The Hilton promotes 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.
if you go
Tours: Tours of Obama sites are being offered by a number of providers, including Grayline (312-251-3100, grayline.com); Windy City Connection (847-534-6550, windy-city-connection.com); and My Kind of Town (847-295-8221, mykindoftown.net). The Chicago Greeters program (312-744-8000, chicagogreeter.com), provides volunteer guides for walking tours.
Hotel: Chicago Hilton, 720 S. Michigan Ave. (877-865-5320, hilton.com). One of Chicago's most historic hotels and where Obama held his first news conference after the winning the election.
Eating like Obama
Then there's the presidential food tour. From upscale to carryout, there's no shortage of Chicago restaurants that have fed the Obamas. Here are a few:
Sepia (123 N. Jefferson St., 312-441-1920), where Michelle Obama has dined, is conveniently next door to the boutique of designer Maria Pinto, who has created dresses for the first-lady-in-waiting. The restaurant combines vintage elements with sleek design. I sampled the skate wing with braised collard greens - the fish had a slightly crisped exterior and was flavored with pine nuts and grapes ($23) - and the rib-eye steak - an incredibly flavorful piece of beef served atop a bed of knob onions and new potatoes ($30). Both entrees are worthy of a return visit.
Spiaggia (980 N. Michigan Ave., 312-280-2750), an Italian restaurant where the Obamas dined the Saturday after the election.
Topolobampo (445 N. Clark St., 312-661-1434), Rick Bayless' Mexican spot.
If you don't want to invest quite as much money in a presidential dining experience, you can head to these establishments:
Medici on 57th, 1327 E. 57th St., 773-667-7394, a casual eatery selling T-shirts that say "Obama Eats Here" and cutting boards stamped with "I voted for Obama in 2008."
Valois, 1518 E. 53rd St., 773-667-0647, a cafeteria-style restaurant that gave out free breakfasts the day after the election.
MacArthur's Restaurant, 5412 W. Madison St., 773-261-2316, a soul-food place mentioned in Obama's book The Audacity of Hope.
Manny's Coffee Shop & Deli, 1141 S. Jefferson St., 312-939-2855, where Obama showed up Nov. 21 and ordered carryout corned-beef sandwiches and cherry pies.