Traveling through busy airports does not have to be a burden, especially when you need to spend time connecting flights. While every airport is unique, you just have to search out ways to make the most of your time. Chicago O’Hare Airport happens to be one of the busiest and, therefore, one of the airports people love to hate. But I spend a lot of time waiting for connecting flights at O’Hare and I have found three things to LOVE. Yes. I said love. About crazy busy O’Hare Airport.

Chicago O’Hare Airport

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The Urban Garden at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. Photo credit Dana Zucker, Triathlon Traveling Mom.

Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport gets a bad rap. It’s huge and crazy busy. But there also are some secret spaces that offer weary travelers a bit of respite, some good food and soothing drink.

O’Hare, in general, has taken steps to create fresh spaces. There are updated public seating areas with beautiful natural light. Be sure to take advantage. Any of these spaces are great to take the kids to help pass the time.

The Urban Garden

Right smack in the middle of the airport, overlooking the H/K gates in Terminal 3, you will find a bit of greenery. Not just a bit, but a whole Urban Garden.

Yes, it is inside and no, there is no actual dirt.  All of the vegetables are grown hydroponically. The space was much bigger than I expected and the variety was huge, growing everything from arugula to peppers. It is a well-kept secret and a wonderful place to sneak up to with your tea or coffee and a little snack.

The other wonderful space by the garden is the yoga room. It is small, but it’s peaceful. Drop your bag, calm your nerves, and spend some time stretching out.

With the amount of time we are spending now connecting through O’Hare, I will be ordering a small travel mat or towel for my backpack.

The Food

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My favorite salad from Smoothie & Salad at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. Photo credit Dana Zucker, Triathlon Traveling Mom.

I would have to give Chicago O’Hare Airport a gold star for healthy and locally-sourced eating. There are healthy options everywhere, with great variety. Granted, there are all the standard restaurants and fast food options, but you are not limited to them.  I actually brig less food from home when traveling through O’Hare.

Our preferred meal is from the Smoothie and Salad stand in the Food Court in Terminal 3 at the split between the H and K gates. For less than $8 (on my last visit in summer 2015), you can order a salad with whatever toppings you would like. There are so many choices! I like to pile on the veggies, including corn and beets, some hard boiled eggs, and sesame dressing. I also love the organic selections, which include a yummy quinoa salad and spinach and kale greens for an additional charge of less than $2.

For grab-and-jump-on-your-flight food, I recommend Bubbles or the Green Markets.

Bubbles has wonderful grab-and-go boxes and a variety of sandwiches. The boxes I enjoy most are the salmon and the charcuterie. The salmon has lox, a hard boiled egg, tomatoes, capers, and more. The charcuterie includes a wonderful mix of cured meats, mustard, a little bread and sometimes some cheese and/or pickled veggies. We love that charcuterie is making its way to quick-pick-up foods. These “meat plates” are filled with protein and an easy way to eat real food while traveling.

I have never been disappointed by the salmon or charcuterie. Once, when I was rally hungry, I bought both to bring on my flight. These are a bit more expensive than the salads, but the quality is wonderful and to me, worth the expense.

The Drinks

First, and most importantly, did you know if you order a drink at the airport and don’t finish it, the kind bartenders can put it in a cup and you can take it with you to your flight? I had no idea. Seriously, you do learn something new everyday!

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Bubbles at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. Photo credit Dana Zucker, Triathlon Traveling Mom.

Now that I’ve given you a great tip, I want to share my two favorite places for drinks at O’Hare, besides of course, the airline clubs. Sometimes, I just really like to get out of those clubs, you know. I find that unless you are flying internationally, some of the other hangouts are better for food, drink, and people watching.

My two favorites, whether traveling with others or solo, are Bubbles and Ice. Bubbles, the same one that I love for food, is located in the H/K terminal right at the split. It has very limited seating, but the bartenders are consistent, the wine and bubbly high quality, and there’s a piano. I also appreciate that I have seen the same staff there visit after visit.

Ice is located at the top of the L terminal. It has a lounge-like feel with tables and a nice long bar. The sound level is a bit quieter than Bubbles, since it is more enclosed. The bartenders mix specialty drinks as well as all the classics and have a nice wine list.

If I have time and am not flying out of an L gate, I will wander downstairs to the kitchen with a large menu. Ice serves everything from meat and cheese plates to beautiful salads and other more filling items.

Something Not to Like

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Ice at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. Photo credit Dana Zucker, Triathlon Traveling Mom.

A big miss on drinks, however, is Wolfgang Pucks.  I rarely write very negative reviews, but I tried to resolve my issues with no success.

Bubbles was full and I was way too tired to walk down to Ice, so I found myself a seat at the bar at Wolfgang Pucks, outside of the H/K gates. It was late and, yes, I was hungry and tired. The bar was pretty empty and closing time was not for another 2 hours or so. I ordered a white wine and some of their yummy meatballs and asked if the bartender would mind wiping down the space next to me as it was very sticky and I wanted to pull out my iPad to work a bit.

During the next 20 minutes, I watched him restock the bar by puling out a bottle of wine from the fridge and mixing it in with another bottle of the same type, but different brand. Out came my meatballs, but I had to ask again to wipe the space. He came back with a wet cloth and a wine bottle with a little wine in it, NOT what I was drinking, He apologized and poured the last bit of the bottle in my glass that still had wine in it. I told him that wasn’t what I was drinking and he said, “but, it’s on me.” Really! I waved the manager over and he only confirmed the practice, saying no one notices and they don’t waste wine. I emailed the company three times and never heard back, so that is why I’m sharing my story.

It makes me sad, because I went back a few months later and saw the same bartender, but thought hey, I’ll give it a try. Nothing had changed. I ended up walking out when the couple next to me said they asked for a different brand of liquor and they noticed he poured the well in and he replied “no, I didn’t.” Hey buddy, the customer is always right and seems to be watching you. I’m not sure how widespread this practice is, but worth watching the next time you’re at a bar.  I won’t be going back to Wolfgang Pucks anytime soon, but darn, I do like those meatballs.

Have you found something to like at an airport? Share with us in the comment section below!