Before I travel to a new city, I always scour the internet for activities to do while there. Which, I’m certain, most people do. But I also zoom in and out of the city’s online map trying to find parks and other open areas I can walk around.
And that’s how I found the Riverwalk in Chicago.
I love walking. And the idea of spending a day walking around a river was perfect. After all, the last time I visited the US, I spent a sunny Sunday morning circumnavigating Lake Meritt in Oakland.
Looking forward to a similar—or even better—experience, I added it in my to-do list. To make sure I had enough time for photographs, I also made a mental note to arrive well in advance.
When I came upon the Riverwalk, however, it was by complete chance. I was fumbling my way through the streets of Chicago—the best way explore a city, in my opinion—when on my left was an arch engraved with the word, Riverwalk.
“Hum,” I thought approaching the staircase that led down from the street. Going all the way down, I found myself at the base of the Chicago river. It teemed with people, and right on my face stood a banner listing out points of interest along on the riverwalk. It took me less than five seconds to realise that almost everything on the list was a restaurant or a snack bar.
As I turned my back to the board and faced the rest of the walkway, I felt a little dejected. Although it was majestic and charming as all natural waterways, buildings towered over the river on all sides. Instead of an open area, I felt as if I were, along with the thousands of people on the river, enclosed inside a massive balloon.
I didn’t want to let that bring me down, though. A nature lover at heart and soul, I thought the rest of the path would delight me. And delight me it did.
Not crying for attention, the river remained calm, bearing, in dignified silence, the many tourist cruise boats and kayaks that sailed on it. As I walked along, sunlight reflected off of the architecture along the river, while the water bed remained dark.
There was no lack for people, however. Much like the Lake Merritt, the Chicago Riverwalk also attracted thousands of onlookers, walkers, and camera enthusiasts. The jarring difference between the two, though, is that while the lake Merritt hosted most locals, the Chicago Riverwalk bore most tourists.
That’s when I understood that the Riverwalk, much like The Bean in The Millennium Park, is an iconic part of Chicago that always makes it to the brochures. That explained the restaurants, the elevated seating areas, and the endless stream of photographs. It was a much shorter walk than Lake Merritt, albeit it covered a handful of streets. I loved gaping up at the bridges that went across the lake, each a different street by itself. Everything seemed so colossal that it left me wandering as if I were inside the Coliseum, watching the metallic hum that echoed all around me
It took me a while to digest the idea of Chicago’s Riverwalk being a more visitor-focussed landmark as opposed to the Lake Merrit—more of a local monument. While I enjoyed every moment of my walk by the river, I also felt the unmistakable sense of not belonging there. I felt alien, as a visitor, as someone who will never return. With Lake Merritt, however, I felt more at home. The ducks, the ageing friends, young mothers, active runners, and that one angry teenager yelling at her mom on the phone all made Lake Merrit closer to reality.
The Riverwalk, on the other hand, was like a self-guided tour. I had my brochure, I had a list of stuff to do and see near by, and I had lots of sights expecting my camera. Fellow travellers and tourists joined in the walk, “ooh”ing and “ahh”ing, appreciating the city’s infrastructure, applauding the architects’ genius, and monumentalising memories for when they’re old and fragile.
I will say this, though: Despite being a honeycomb to buzzing tourists, the Riverwalk remains as one of the best 45 minutes of my time in Chicago. It’s an experience worth cherishing, and if I’m in the city again, I’ll pay the river a visit, not as a tourist walking along the river, but perhaps as someone more used to the city—perhaps as close to a local as a traveller can get.