“I am sorry for asking you to repeat yourself so much,” she said apologetically.
After months of cave-dwelling, travelers have discovered that while they were hunkered down, the canon of tourism changed. Gone are the days of jumping on a tour minutes before its start time. No longer can you appear at the gates of an attraction without a ticket. If you are struggling to hear your guide’s muffled words, don’t even think about leaning in closer. On the plus side, traveling has become a more intimate and orderly experience.
Overtourism has been replaced by undertourism.
On a recent trip to Chicago, I had to jettison all of my old habits. For starters, instead of choosing a destination on a whim, I studied an infection-rate map and state quarantine requirements. Chicago had recently entered its fourth phase of reopening, which it referred to as “Gradually Resume.” “Gradual” was not a friend of spontaneity. Because limited capacity and shortened hours put the squeeze on availability, I had to plan nearly every aspect of my visit in advance. I also had to familiarize myself with the safety measures attached to each reservation. And yet all of my groundwork could not fully prepare me for traveling during a global health crisis. I would have to relearn being a tourist, starting with Chicago.
Chicago’s tourism office, Choose Chicago, maintains a running list of open attractions and activities on its website. The cruising category featured a number of companies with similar outings, so I let my mouse decide for me. The cursor drifted onto Wendella and, with a little help from my index finger, landed on the sunset cruise.
Phase 4 restrictions required the company to operate at 50 percent capacity or 100 passengers, whichever is less. (For Wendella, the latter is.) However, on a balmy Tuesday evening, the number was nowhere near the maximum allowed. To ensure proper spacing between guests, the staff had removed three rows of seats and placed orange cones on two benches. I chose a spot near the tour guide, Sarah, who had drawn an invisible line around her space and warned us to not cross it.
Before tossing off the lines, the captain shared a few heartfelt words: “We had no idea who was going to show up, but you keep on showing up night after night. Thank you for helping me pay my rent.” He then addressed “the elephant in the room” — face coverings. He said we could remove our masks to eat or snap photos but “encouraged” us to wear them at all other times. We respected his request and tried not to provoke the pachyderm.
Sarah narrated the first leg of the trip, from the Chicago River to the Chicago Harbor Lock. At the locks, we bobbed in place while waiting for the water levels to rise high enough to enter Lake Michigan. I used the calm spell to explore the ship, following the arrows directing traffic down, around and back up. Inside the empty lounge, I approached the shuttered bar, which looked haunted, like a set piece in a seafaring remake of “The Shining.” I dashed back to the bow in time to watch the locks creak open and Lake Michigan rush in.
During the lake portion of the cruise, Sarah laid down her microphone and pulled up her mask. The crew cranked up the tunes, which became the soundtrack for a selfie photo shoot. Passengers momentarily forgot their pandemic manners as they angled for an image of the downtown skyline silhouetted against the ombre sky. Sarah resumed the tour once we were back on the river. I listened but didn’t look, preferring to gaze at the glittery sky instead of the glitzy apartments.
Chicago Greeter returned to the streets on June 15, the same week Wendella resumed tours. Lining up a free walking tour was more involved than booking the sunset cruise. Only 70 of the 200 volunteers with Choose Chicago’s program had come back, and a director was on furlough. Per the instructions, I submitted a request for a tour 10 days before my arrival. Even with the advance notice, it took a few tries to make a match. The timing didn’t work for the first guide, and the second volunteer informed me that he had never signed up to lead my excursion. After a flurry of emails on the day of my departure, I finally landed a meeting place — and Marianne.
The organization sent me its rules to peruse. The measures included the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards plus ones specific to the program. For instance, we would avoid heavily trafficked areas and not use public transportation. In other changes, the tour-group size would drop from six people to four, with only members of the same family or social bubble allowed.
With just the two of us, Marianne and I could make executive decisions, such as stopping at Dunkin’ to give our faces a breather. Seated at an outdoor table, Marianne told me she was comfortable leading Greeter tours because they were primarily outdoors. We did pop into the Dearborn Station, but she said she planned to skip most interiors, for safety and logistical reasons. “I don’t know which buildings will welcome us inside,” she said.
At Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park, our final stop, I asked Marianne whether she was happy to be guiding visitors after so many months of no contact with outsiders. “I was glad to do this tour, just to try out normal life again,” she said. A few weeks later, I checked in to see whether she had any new reservations on her calendar. She said she had one scheduled for July 21, but the family canceled. Earlier this month, Chicago’s mayor announced that travelers from more than two dozen states must self-quarantine for two weeks. The mother and son are visiting from Georgia, one of the states on the list.
The last time I was in Chicago, I visited the Robie House and had to dodge crowds clogging nearly every pore of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterwork. Less than a year later, I was alone in the courtyard and one of three people who had signed up for a guided tour. Previously, the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust scheduled tours every 20 minutes for up to 16 people; now the organization ran one per half-hour, with no more than eight visitors in attendance.
After checking in with a staffer seated in a tent, our guide debriefed us. Joe warned us to not touch or lean on the UNESCO site, partially for health reasons but mainly for preservation purposes. We would socially distance and wear a face covering at all times, even during the outdoor portion of the tour. “If your mask slips,” he said warmly, “I will kindly remind you to pull it up.”
Inside the house, we took our positions on red rectangles that resembled Wright’s logo. “They’re mouse pads,” Joe said. “We use them for training, to show guides where to stand.” At the landing to the second floor, a bottle of hand sanitizer sat on a table, an aesthetic intrusion that would have probably upset the fastidious architect. Instead of stopping in the narrow passageway, Joe led us directly to the living room, one of several edits to the route. I hopped from pad to pad inspecting the light screens, inglenook and couch with trays as arm rests. He showed us the main bedroom but skipped the guest room, because of its tight quarters. Without the distraction of groups coming and going, I could concentrate on the guide and stop trying to solve the riddle of how many people can fit inside a 9,063-square-foot house.
“We’ve been closed for months,” Joe said at the end of the tour. “It’s nice to have life back inside the house.”
But not too much life.
“Hey, guys, please put your masks up,” a Millennium Park employee called out to a family. “You can put them down for a photo.”
The “social distancing ambassador” wore a lime-green polo shirt that read on the back, “I am here to help.” She was also here to enforce the rules at what Chicago officials say is the city’s most-visited attraction.
The 24.5-acre park has several entry points, but for security reasons we were funneled through one gate, at Michigan Avenue and Madison Street. If the park reaches capacity, officials close the gate and visitors must wait for the numbers to decrease, which could be a while: Picnicking and napping aren’t really speedy endeavors.
The Great Lawn, the centerpiece of the park, was lightly occupied by friends and family members who carved out small fiefdoms with their blankets and towels. I wandered over to the viewing platform for Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, affectionately known as “the Bean.” A sign said Cloud Gate Plaza was closed, which meant that I could not take the requisite photo of my reflection in the sculpture’s mirrored skin. But from behind the barricade, I noticed a little figure in a peach dress raise its arm. I waved with my free arm, and the little figure waved back with her free arm. And then, one, two, three, we snapped a photo of us in the Bean.
At Navy Pier, a mile from Millennium Park, I flitted between emotions. Hearing the music streaming from outdoor restaurants and the clicking of cocktail glasses, I felt carefree and untroubled. But then I would see a stretch of closed shops or the motionless Centennial Wheel and I would jolt back to reality. I followed the outdoor walkway to the tip, passing empty chaise longues with premium views of Lake Michigan. At the Offshore Rooftop and Bar, the nation’s largest rooftop venue, tall windows framed scenes of private revelry. At the end of the pier, I climbed the giant anchor and waited for the sun to call it a day.
Lincoln Park Zoo
I suffered only one bump on my trip. The Chicago Architecture Center canceled my art deco tour, and I had to scramble to fill the hole. The Lincoln Park Zoo had reopened earlier in the week, but with tight limits on admission. Though it’s free, visitors must reserve a ticket, a competitive sport these days: The zoo is permitting fewer than 1,000 people inside at one time, and many slots are sold out.
To plot my route, I asked a staff member for a map. She said they had eliminated the paper version and pointed to its replacement, an enlarged copy pasted on a sign propped on the sidewalk. Only the outdoor exhibits were open, so I followed the arrows to the zebras, giraffes and rhinos. I missed the turnoff for the penguins and, because I couldn’t U-turn, I had to complete the loop and start over. (After all that, I still didn’t see the birds, which were hiding from the humans.) To watch the sea lions darting around the pool, I climbed the stairs to the stadium seating, where the only other spectator was a sea gull. In the south end, I said hello to the camels, red kangaroos and takins before circling back to the main entrance. En route, I passed by the children’s zoo, which was closed for an unexpected reason: Black-crowned night herons, which are endangered in Illinois, had decided to nest here.
I considered looking for the penguins again, but after two hours I decided it was time to leave. On my way out, I realized that I was the only person besides the staff. I mentioned this to an employee standing by the exit. I asked him: Because of the pandemic? No, he replied, the zoo was closing. This kind of empty was normal.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Millennium Park is eight acres and the second-most-visited attraction in Chicago. It is 25 acres and the city’s most-visited attraction.
If you go
What to do
The program matches visitors with local guides who create personalized itineraries based on the guests’ interests. The organization limits groups to four people from the same family or social bubble. Visitors must apply online at least 10 days in advance. Free; tips not accepted.
400 N. Michigan Ave.
The boat tour company offers architecture tours on Lake Michigan and the Chicago River, as well as sunset cruises. Tickets cost $39 per adult and $18 for children. The bar is closed for safety reasons, but passengers can bring nonalcoholic beverages.
5757 S. Woodlawn Ave.
The Frank Lloyd Trust leads 45-minutes tours of the UNESCO site every half-hour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Thursday through Monday. Visitors can also tack on a self-guided audio tour of additional buildings in the Hyde Park neighborhood, home of the University of Chicago. The combined tour costs about $33, with service fee.
Lincoln Park Zoo
2001 N. Clark St.
The zoo is free but requires reservations. Some time slots are sold out, but the zoo releases additional tickets at 4 p.m. Central on Mondays and Thursdays for future dates.. Guests can explore the outdoor exhibits and enclosures, but the indoor facilities are closed and all animal programming has been temporarily suspended. Limited food and beverages are available; the gift shop is open and plans to sell animal-themed masks. The zoo is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Enter at Michigan Avenue and Madison Street
The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Group size is limited to 10 people. Most of the attractions are open, such as the Great Lawn, Lurie Garden and Chase Promenade, which overlook the Cloud Gate sculpture.
600 E. Grand Ave.
Many of the restaurants along the waterfront are open, and several provide outdoor seating. Guests can also hop on a sightseeing cruise, stretch out in a chaise longue or cool off with a Rainbow Cone, a Chicago creation featuring five flavors in a cake cone. The amusement-park rides at Pier Park, including the Centennial Wheel, are closed.
For the author’s full list of Chicago recommendations, visit wapo.st/travel