There are few things in life where you do not "get what you pay for" and Chicago Greeter is, happily, one of them! This is a TOTALLY free service, staffed by volunteers, who take visitors around on exceptional walking tours to explain what you or your guests are seeing and to showcase the city. The tour is tailored to your interests, as much as possible, and if a Greeter is available who speaks a foreign language, they will match you to that person. Our Greeter, spoke fluent Italian, and was genuinely welcoming and excited to show our relatives, first time visitors from Bari, Italy, the wonders of Chicago.
Our request was a general synopsis of the Chicago Loop, which did not require the use of public transportation, though I believe it is free when necessary for a Greeter tour where walking between neighborhoods is excessive. However, please do not expect the Greeter to get you into the Art Institute, The Imax Theatre, or on a boat cruise for free... Please be polite and gracious to your Greeter, who is volunteering his or her time for the enjoyment of your guests or party. Also, please remember, these are walking tours, and may not be suitable for the elderly or very young visitors who may bore easily, or are not old enough to be engaged in the information presented. If your tour includes several older children, point this out in your request, and the program may be able to tailor the information to be interesting, and yet, age appropriate, to include or inform younger visitors. Good walking shoes are a must, and if it is summer, bottled water, hats, and sunscreen may be advisable. The only restroom facilities are those in hotels and public buildings you may visit. Carry a bandaid in case of blisters. For convenience, skip the purses and use back packs or hip packs to tote personal items, and don't forget your camera!
We met our Greeter promptly at the Chicago Greeter desk in the Cultural Center, as mutually agreed. He initially provided a short history of Chicago from it's first settlers to modern times. We asked that he concentrate on our guests and presenting the material in Italian, but the hosts were never excluded, and were occasionally updated in English on the topic at hand.
We progressed through the lovely Cultural Center (the old Chicago Library) with it's beautiful mosaics and large windows framing spectacular views of Millenium Park and Michigan Ave. viewed from an expansive ballroom commemorating battles of the Civil War. Later, we moved out into the City, visiting numerous stores, public buildings and hotels such as Macy's (formerly Marshall Field's), The historic Burnham Hotel, Daley Center Plaza, Palmer House, The State of IL building, and Depression Era "speak-easies" turned modern day boutiques. All the while, Harry, our Greeter, pointed out the details of the art & architecture, the background of the building or attraction (including it's significance and who designed it) and any cultural links to Italy, or contributions from it's citizens and immigrants. Though I have lived in Chicago all my life, I was unaware of subtle nuances such as the visual reference to Venice's Bridge of Sighs, located in the ornamentation of the Cultural Center that our enthusiastic guide pointed out. Our greeter was animated, knowledgeable, professional and inclusive. We gave him a tall order: provide a synopsis of Chicago in 3 hours-- and he fulfilled the task with honors!
Having someone who spoke the language of my guests (as I did not) made all the difference in their appreciation of what they were experiencing. I think the greatest testament to our guide's talent was that after we left our Greeter, and took a boat tour of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River, my guests pointed out buildings and specific details they had learned about on our Greeter tour earlier in the day!
Chicago Greeters are volunteers, and do not accept tips. I offered to at least pay his gas, and his reply was a sincere, "Absolutely not. It was my pleasure." I can not speak highly enough of the Chicago Greeter program and our guide. Without it, the experience for my guests would have been like "black and white" vs. "color."
Whether you need an English speaking guide or a foreign speaker, plan at least 2 weeks ahead and schedule a Chicago Greeter for your visit or your guests'. You will be impressed and give them memories to last a lifetime!
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