Given a weekend in Chicago, a person is supposed to do certain things. Check out the Impressionists at The Art Institute. Visit Sue the T. Rex at the Field Museum. Explore the city's impressive architecture.
We didn't do any of those.
Four of us coming from four different directions Cleveland, Wisconsin, Atlanta and Michigan met at O'Hare International Airport at about noon on a Friday, rode the train into the city and launched a weekend of hedonistic tourism. Our mission was simple: to have a good time together, enjoy being in the City of the Big Shoulders and go home with a few things that can't be found in Cleveland.
What we discovered is that shopping in Chicago can be divided into two categories: upscale retailers appealing to those who want their labels to be recognized and independent boutiques appealing to those who want their look to be one of a kind.
The upscale shops, of course, can be found along Michigan Avenue and Oak Street, where we witnessed dozens of Burberry-clad women dashing around Cartier, Saks Fifth Avenue and Hermès. (For the uninitiated, Burberry is a London-based retailer of pricey clothing and accessories known for its distinctive plaid pattern.)
It follows, then, that our first stop was Burberry, 633 N. Michigan Ave., where we gawked at a small plush bear wearing a mini gray sweater and a $575 pricetag. "It's cashmere," the saleslady cooed, as if that explained everything.
We fared better at Tiffany and Co., 730 N. Michigan Ave., which, although also a purveyor of luxury goods, offers more reasonable options for those who simply must leave with a little blue box, such as the $80 ring purchased by the Tiffany-junkie in our group.
For fun, we popped into FAO Schwarz, 840 N. Michigan Ave., and left 45 minutes later with a large stuffed moose (bought by the pregnant member of our group for her nursery) and a pink pig puppet (purchased for the due-soon baby of another pregnant friend).
If the Magnificent Mile is for Burberry lovers, the neighborhoods of Wicker Park and Bucktown, northwest of downtown, are for those desiring not to look like anyone else. This is where we focused our energies on day two of our trip. To get there, hop on the blue line for the 15-minute ride to the Damen stop. You'll know you're there by the proliferation of young hipsters and the dearth of capital letters (almost every shop name we saw was spelled out all in lowercase). Before you go, arm yourself with a guide to the dozens of shops, galleries, bars and restaurants in the neighborhood by calling (773) 384-2672 or visiting www.wickerparkbucktown.com.
Our first stop was Amy Rigg Clothing Company, 2103 N. Damen Ave., where Amy herself designs the statement-making clothes. We liked a long, pale-blue, silk brocade skirt patterned with red and gold butterflies and with a slightly exposed petticoat, but not quite enough to justify the price ($196).
Next stop: vive la femme, 2115 N. Damen Ave., where owner Stephanie Frances Sack warmly greets every customer. Asked the philosophy behind her plus-size store, Sack doesn't skip a beat: "Fat chicks rule!" she enthuses. "I'm a fat chick. And I like to go shopping." What she doesn't like is frumpy clothing, which is why she sells items such as sleek denim sheath dresses ($275) and faux-fur-trimmed jackets ($65).
Just across the street, saffron, 2064 N. Damen Ave., offers what it calls "lovely and uncommon" gifts, clothing and accessories. From the Red Poppy Favorite Bath Soap ($8.50) to the wool trousers from Paris ($165), we agreed.
Two doors down is The Red Balloon Company, 2060. N. Damen Ave., and its collection of kids' and babies' clothing and accessories. We were charmed by the "le chien" and "le chat" onesies ($24), but walked away with only a stuffed monkey purchased for the aforementioned nursery.
After lunch at toast (see sidebar) we were recharged enough to hit a few more shops. At clothes minded, 1649 N. Damen Ave., which caters to "the urban everygirl," we found a more moderate selection of goods, including faux-bejeweled chokers and barrettes and lots of fun tops, belts and turtlenecks, including a nice Michael Stars selection.
Back downtown on Sunday, the last day of our trip, we headed to the Chicago Architecture Foundation, 875 N. Michigan Ave., in the John Hancock Center, which is a good stop if you're the sort who feels obligated to bring gifts back from your travels. We aren't, so we passed up the books about and posters of Chicago's architectural triumphs and bought brushed-steel keychains for ourselves.
Our last shopping excursion was by far our most mundane, but it was also where we landed our biggest haul: Urban Outfitters, 935 N. Rush St., a chain store with locations in seemingly every big city except Cleveland. Though its clothes don't have the cache of most Magnificent Mile shops and lack the uniqueness of boutique finds, they're fun, reasonably priced and, as we said, not available in Cleveland.