Soldier Field – Chicago Bears
For as long as there has been a National Football League, there has been football in Chicago. There has been a running back who must perform great and heroic feats to drag the offense into field goal range, there has been a linebacker who plays like fans imagine they would handle themselves in a fight, and there have been grills, vast acres of grills, cooking meat on cold Sunday mornings.
Because the Bears and Soldier Field have been around for so long, it’s easy to forget they spent most of their respective histories apart. The Bears played for decades at Wrigley Field, where the south end zone was up against a dugout and the north end zone was the left field wall. (“That last guy really gave me a good lick,” said Bears legend Bronko Nagurski, after shaking off two defenders and running into the wall.)
Soldier Field was built as a multipurpose civic venue in 1924. It was dedicated in honor of World War I veterans two years later, with 110,000 fans in attendance for the Army-Navy football game; 123,000 watched Notre Dame against USC a year later, and 104,000 saw one of the most famous bouts in boxing history, the “long count” between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. Religious revivals, rock concerts, soccer games, stock car races, and other events occupied the stadium in the years that followed. Though college football was (and still is) played there, Soldier Field wasn’t designed for any specific purpose other than holding huge crowds of people.
By the time the Bears arrived in 1970, Soldier Field was 47 years old, and even by the standards of the era, it wasn’t a great venue for professional football. (In his history of the team, Richard Whittingham described the melancholy that set in among Bears fans after the move to Soldier Field, noting the low angle and distance of the seats from the field, and the winds that swallowed the roar of the crowd.) Battles commenced almost immediately between city, state, and team over renovations, and continued with increasing acrimony over the next 30 years.
Nobody imagined that the conflict would be settled by the arrival of a giant spaceship.
Opened in 2003, a controversial renovation placed a futuristic steel-and-glass saucer between Soldier Field’s iconic colonnades. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin called the renovation “a monumental eyesore” and “the monstrosity on the midway”, and the National Park Service stripped its landmark status, declaring that Soldier Field “no longer retains its historical integrity.” Over time, positive evaluations emerged; Peter Richmond, writing for ESPN’s Grantland website, compared the new Soldier Field favorably to faux-retro stadiums in New York, praising it as “…a complete success, an integral art of the second-city’s first-city architectural status.”
While the architectural debate won’t be settled here – or anywhere – the new interior of Soldier Field offers a terrific game day experience, led by intimate views of the action from anywhere in the stadium and the company of a diehard fanbase. Bears tickets are hard to come by, but a trip to Soldier Field is worth the effort for any football fan.
Food & Beverage 4
For the most part, Soldier Field subscribes to the theory that one should focus on doing a few things well. Hence, most of the food is classic Chicago fare: cheeseburgers ($8), hot dogs ($5 regular-size from vendors in the stands, $7 jumbo-size from concession stands), bratwurst ($8.75), and Polish sausages ($8.75) are good choices. The star attractions are Ditka Dogs (8-inch beef or chicken sausages, $9), which are from Vienna Beef, like the hot dogs; the Polish sausages and bratwurst are from Bobak’s, also a good local provider. The hot dogs served by vendors are hot, fresh, and juicy, no worse for the travel than the concession stands. Vegetarians will have to stick to snacks or seek out specialty stands like the DMK Burger Bar (below).
Other items include basics like pizza (mostly thin crust, but deep dish is available in a couple places), peanuts ($5.25), nachos ($6.25 lousy, better with chili for $7.75), and passable Bavarian pretzels ($6.50, add $2.50 for a cheese cup). Strangely, the favored snack of Packers fans – cheese curds – is available too ($9). Most stands only offer popcorn in junior size ($4.75) or a “bottomless souvenir bucket” ($11.25).
Lines on the 100 level are remarkably fast and efficient, though a bit slower upstairs.
The United Club has an entirely different world, food-wise, with a vast array of freshly prepared gourmet options, from slow-cooked barbecue to make-your-own burgers ($10 classic, $12 custom), along with plenty of tables to sit and eat at your leisure (away from the elements). Most of those are on the lower club level; only a few make it to the upper club level, but it’s easy to travel between the two areas. Lines are short.
Gradually, the gourmet options have begun to trickle out to the concourses. The DMK Burger Bar in the southwest corner is the most popular, and includes a veggie burger ($9). By nature, however, the lines are a lot slower than the ordinary concession stands. There are also some food carts scattered here and there, but the quality is a step down, particularly at the taco carts.
Bottled water is widely available ($5/$6.75) and soda products include 7up, RC, and Dr Pepper ($7 souvenir cups). On cold days, take note: hot chocolate isn’t listed on the overhead menus, but it’s available from several concession stands.
A vast infrastructure exists to funnel beer to Bears fans – mobile carts, crowd vendors, and every concession stand (many of which offer “combo deals” with food, which are actually just the prices of the two items added together, without a discount). Figure on $9.25 for domestic cans and $9.50 for a light lager, which are available almost everywhere, and $10 or so for “craft” beers and premium drafts, which require a bit more looking. Miller Lite, Blue Moon, and Leinenkugel’s are the most easily found. Glasses of wine ($10) and mixed drinks ($10.50/$11.50) are also available.
Game production is handled very well. There are brand new video screens at the north and south ends of the stadium, which integrate neatly into their surroundings – huge but unobtrusive, with gorgeous colors and video quality. The public address announcer is a tad mellow, but it’s refreshing that the team doesn’t treat fans as if they are constantly in need of distraction by rock ‘n jock medleys, demands for noise, etc. There are plenty of friendly, welcoming attendants throughout the stadium – easily the nicest in Chicago, which is all the more impressive when you consider how much work goes into hosting an NFL game. While waiting in line for food or beverages on the 100 level, check out the wall displays of Bears greats, team records, key moments, and other history tidbits. It’s a nice touch.
Either before the game or at halftime, it’s very much worth heading up to the concourse between the 300 and 400 levels, on the west side of the stadium, for a walk between the colonnades. This is the part of the stadium that retains the most of the stadium’s original historic character, and there are no refreshment stands, banners, or screens to distract you.
The bond between veterans and Soldier Field was established in the wake of World War I and continues to the present day; even amid the hubbub of a Bears game, the Memorial Water Wall (north entry into the stadium) and the Doughboy statue (near Gate O) stand apart, and a walk through some of the quieter areas of the upper concourse will reveal little-known tributes like lines from an anti-war poem by Gwendolyn Brooks.
A visit to the Doughboy also offers a nice refuge from the cold. There are performances in that area of the stadium before the game, but aside from a pro shop for team merchandise, there isn’t much else to attract crowds, so it’s not crowded.
At the beginning of the season, you are surrounded by lush, rolling acres of greenery and the opalescent blue of Lake Michigan, steps from the stately pleasures of the Museum Campus and a short walk from the center of Chicago. Bring a picnic or come to the stadium via the lakefront – it’s beautiful. At the end of the season, you are marooned in a vast, barren wasteland, battered by sub-arctic winds and far from shelter. Bring a huge thermos of hot coffee and wear layers – it’s brutal.
There are fast food and a few brunch spots around the Roosevelt CTA station. Eleven City Diner (1112 S Wabash) serves a good Jewish breakfast to go, and Bongo Room (1152 S Wabash) and Yolk (1120 S Michigan) are also popular brunch spots. Artists Café (1150 S Wabash) has decent lunches for dine-in or to-go.
If you need something even quicker, there’s a Dunkin Donuts at the Roosevelt-side gate of the CTA station, a Starbucks across the street, and a Potbelly’s sandwich shop near the corner of Roosevelt & Michigan.
Kitty O’Shea’s (720 S Michigan), inside the Chicago Hilton, is the default post-game bar. It’s better than the average hotel bar and a welcome sight in cold weather. A little further away is Buddy Guy’s Legends (700 S Wabash), a blues club with live music and a cover charge.
While the immediate area is more lovely than lively, the view of the Chicago skyline over the north end of the stadium, particularly during a night game, is something that few other stadiums in the world can touch.
Bears fans are focused on football. This isn’t a stadium where people go to see-and-be-seen, especially because nobody looks good in the amount of clothing required to spend 4-5 hours sitting or standing by Lake Michigan in December. There’s little difference between fans on the lower 100 level and the upper decks. Wherever you sit, you’re likely be surrounded by people who are engaged in the game and care about the team. The south end zone can be a bit rowdier than the rest of the stadium, but not in a bad way.
A huge portion of the crowd wears jerseys. As befits one of the NFL’s oldest teams, the jerseys on display cover several decades of Bears history, and an informal count didn’t favor any particular player or era (divided, roughly, between vintage heroes like Butkus and Ditka, the Super Bowl team led by Walter Payton, and players from the present day).
Bears fans have been conditioned by decades of defensive excellence (and offensive ineptitude) to consider sacks and takeaways the highest expression of the sport. As a result, there’s a sense that everyone in the stadium is paying rapt attention while the Bears are on defense. Fans make as much noise for good defensive plays as they do for touchdowns. And then they become visibly tense when the Bears have the ball. They know their team.
And any fan base that will fill an outdoor stadium by Lake Michigan in December and January has to rank at the top of the league.
Whether you are coming by public transportation, driving, or walking from a hotel in the Loop, it’s basically impossible to get lost on the way to Soldier Field. CTA Red, Orange, and Green Line trains stop at Roosevelt & State, and connections to the Brown and Blue Lines are only a couple stops away. It’s not a short walk from the station, but only in bad weather is it an unpleasant one. You’ll be joined by thousands of Bears fans, though the path is wide enough for all, creating a cheery atmosphere after a win.
Metra suburban trains stop even closer, at the Museum Campus/11th St. station on the Metra Electric Line; other Metra suburban trains arriving at Ogilvie or Union stations in the Loop are met by an express bus to Soldier Field, and several suburbs run direct PACE express buses on game days.
While the CTA #128 Soldier Field Express and #146 Museum Campus buses also run to the stadium, you may want to bail after a certain point and walk the rest of the way, due to traffic. Buses arrive and depart from the northeast corner of the stadium.
If you must drive, plan ahead. Tickets to most parking garages are sold exclusively in advance (and may sell out); expect to pay from $50 to $60 for a coupon for parking close to the stadium, and $35 at remote lots such as the Millennium Park Garage in the Loop or 2101 S. Michigan in the South Loop. Free shuttles are available from the remote lots. If you haven’t bought a parking coupon ahead of time, consider parking somewhere else and taking the train the rest of the way.
For tailgating, try to buy an advance ticket for the Waldron Deck (upper level), just south of Soldier Field, though it’s generally allowed in the surface lots. You may want to search the secondary ticket market for a parking pass for one of the tailgating lots.
Chicago’s DIVVY bike share might be the best way to reach Soldier Field from downtown or the Loop. You can rent a bike ($7 for unlimited rides over 24 hours) and take a leisurely ride along the lakefront to the stadium; dock at McFetridge Drive, across the street from the north entrance to Soldier Field (or by the Roosevelt CTA station), and then grab another bike from the same dock for the ride back.
The entry/exit ramps and concourses are very wide and keep crowds flowing nicely, even right before and after the game. Restrooms are kept clean, although they do appear to lag a couple decades behind the rest of the facility.
Access for fans with disabilities is generally good. The wide entry ramps and concourses make it easy to enter and move around, and there are enough elevators to get between levels without excessive delays.
Check out Parking Panda for some of the best parking options for the game. Use the promo code STADIUMJOURNEY10 for 10% off your first transaction.
Return on Investment 3
Chicago is the second biggest market in the NFL and its football stadium has the second smallest seating capacity. (And that’s only after Oakland artificially reduced the capacity at O.co Coliseum, which they’re trying to leave.) That is ridiculous. If there were 10,000 more seats in Soldier Field, those tickets would sell out, too. As a result of the scarcity, Bears games typically sell out as soon as sales open. If you manage to buy from the team, the prices aren’t bad – granted, the cheapest seats are about triple the price of the cheapest seats at any other stadium in town, but the lower level seats are nowhere near as expensive as the comparable seats at Wrigley Field or the United Center. There isn’t much difference in cost between the top of the 400 level ($106) and the 50 yard line on the 100 level ($200). You certainly won’t regret paying $4 more for the lower half of the 400 level.
Due to the limited supply, however, it’s all but impossible to avoid the secondary market, so the official prices aren’t totally relevant. Resellers regularly ask $250 or more for 400 level tickets, though you should aim for $150. Even the preferred Waldron Deck parking passes are resold for wildly inflated prices. Add that to the cost of the food, which is also the most expensive in Chicago sports, and the total price of attending a Bears game can become stratospheric.
Sightlines are excellent throughout the stadium. The only seats worth avoiding are the back rows of the 100 level sidelines, which are slightly obstructed by the overhang of the upper deck; the very back of the 300 level north end zone, where the energy lags a bit; and the upper 400 level for a cold weather game, which is exposed to winds from the lake and therefore the coldest place in the stadium. Even in pleasant weather, it’s a long, steep walk up to the top of the 400 level.
Sections 148/149 abridge the tunnel through which the Bears enter the field, and good views of the pre-game fireworks extend from there to Section 141.
Available to attendees in suites, the United Club is quite nice – freshly made food with smaller lines, additional drink options, and a pleasant, spacious area to hang out before and after the game. (Or during the game, if need be.) It may be the best value among Chicago teams in terms of suites.
The Bears own Chicago. In the third-largest city in the United States, with teams in every professional league and plenty of college loyalties, Chicago sports fans unite behind the Bears alone. (The Bears own Chicago so completely that they ran their only competition, the Cardinals, out of town, and all but one of the local universities stick to basketball.) That’s worth a bonus point. “Bear Down, Chicago Bears”, the team’s fight song, is also worth a bonus point. It’s played after every scoring drive. If you can’t get swept up in singing along with 60,000 fans about the invention of the ‘T’ formation, there is no helping you.
A bonus point goes to the connection to veterans in the stadium’s name, which – to the city and team’s enormous credit – has taken precedence over what would be among the most lucrative corporate naming rights in any sport. Soldier Field is imbued with the honor of more than a century of veterans, from World War I to the present day. It’s a cliché, but some things are more important than money.
The history of Soldier Field, independent of the Bears, is worth a bonus point. The first Special Olympics were held at Soldier Field, and it was a host site for the 1994 World Cup. Ski jumps were held from the roof (several times). Johnny Cash, Jay-Z, Madonna, Paul McCartney, Pearl Jam, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and U2 have played Soldier Field. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke there. Very few stadiums in the U.S. even approach that kind of legacy…
…even if Soldier Field doesn’t look much like it did during those historic events. Setting aside the debate over whether the 2003 renovation was an act of architectural desecration or a forward-thinking integration of old and new…for better or for worse, Soldier Field is utterly unique. No matter how many stadiums you visit, this is one that will stand out from the rest. That’s worth a bonus point (and a lively conversation with other fans).
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