After attending a couple Bears games at the original Soldier Field, I experienced my first game at the new Soldier Field last month, a Manchester United versus Bayern Munich soccer match.
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First, one clarification. The stadium wasn't so much renovated as completely rebuilt. If it weren't for the national landmark colonnades, the whole thing would probably have been razed and then raised as an entirely new facility. As it is, the new and modern stadium has been erected inside of the old colonnades. Thank goodness.
Accessibility & Parking
Soldier Field is located along Lake Michigan, on the east side of Chicago. Lake Shore Drive, which is easily accessible from any major highway (90/94, 55, 290), has an exit right at the stadium. You can park there if you like, but those limited spaces will run you $35 (at least at the soccer match). I recommend that you arrive early enough to find a nearby spot instead. If God is smiling on you, you may be fortunate enough to snag one of the ever-rare street slots. Otherwise, you can find lots as cheap as $5, but more likely in the $10-20 range. You'll have to walk a few blocks, which is fine most of the year. But toward the frigid end of football season, it just might be worth the extra cash to stow your car closer.
Seating & Sightlines
Soldier Field now seats 63,000, with three decks (including club level) on the east side, and an additional top level on the west side. My seats were on the center line in the front row of the fourth deck, which were quite good for a soccer game. I did have to lean forward to see the near sideline, a problem that remained as I moved up the steeply-sloped tier to examine other seats. For a football game, that issue might be minimized, because the field is narrower and action doesn't stretch sideline-to-sideline as frequently.
Because the new stadium was confined to the limits of the old one, the corners don't quite fit together cleanly. From some of those seats, various railing or walls clip off part of the field. So avoid the corners if at all possible. The seats themselves are a little flimsy. Fine for me, but a larger person might feel insecure. The presence of cupholders at all levels is greatly valued though.
The stadium doesn't look very good from the outside. It looks like aliens landed a a glass UFO inside the old colonnades. But there was really no way around that. The colonnades couldn't be torn down, because they're a national landmark. They also limited other exterior architecture. There isn't much else to speak of on the outside, and the inside is nondescript as well. Because football stadia don't lend themselves to possess the character of baseball parks, this isn't a big deal. Just know that the stadium itself won't be a thrill to attend.
Perhaps the single best addition is the two video boards, one at each end. The old stadium did not have a single one, so they are greatly appreciated. Not as large as some, but of good quality. The sound was likewise. Unlike many stadia that blast music at absurd decibels, the audio level was wonderfully pleasant, loud and clear enough to easily understand, but quiet enough not to be imposing.
One of the biggest knocks against the old stadium was its unsanitary nature. The concourses in particular were crowded, dark, and dirty. That problem has been gloriously remedied with open-air concourses at each level. The new walkways are clean and spacious, allowing the breeze to drift in and afford fans a good view of either Lake Michigan or downtown Chicago.
Of course, if you're male and have ever been to a football or soccer game at old Soldier Field, you barely had time at halftime to acknowledge the subpar concourses, due to the the mad rush to the restrooms at halftime. Fortunately, the new stadium has made vast improvements in this regard. There are no restrooms on top tier, but every other level contains spacious restrooms, complete with up to 50 urinals apiece. The lines will still exist, but blissfully should be eliminated much more quickly now.
One thing missing is a view of the Chicago skyline from the stadium seats. If you sit on the east side, you have a glimpse of it, but the north end zone is mostly closed off, blocking out the buildings. That's disappointing because a great vista could have given the stadium another classy signature, something the renovation needed.
The specialty culinary item is the Buona Beef Italian beef sandwich. Chicago is famous for this treat, and the sandwiches here live up to the billing, quite juicy and delicious. Other than that, there's the usual assortment of standard stadium fare: hot dogs, burgers, pizza, etc. The hot dog I had was good, nothing spectacular, but a solid ballpark frank. Concession stands are plentiful, placed everywhere along the concourses. Prices are of course a bit high, but along the lines of most stadium prices. A domestic beer, for example, runs $6. Speaking of beer, I didn't see much in the way of imports. Maybe they were tucked away somewhere, but I was surprised at that absence considering the multi-cultural nature of Chicago.
Like most football stadia, there is little in the way of side attractions here. Since it is Soldier Field (named to honor military personnel), the south end features flags and plaques that honor fallen men who have received the highest military honor, the Distinguished Medal of Honor. It's a good reminder of the venue's name, despite feeling a tad out of place at a recreation facility.
That's about it at the stadium itself, but the surrounding area is filled with grassy parks and of course the city itself. During warmer months, all of this provides a glorious backdrop for and lead up to a game. So if you're headed to the stadium, make it a day and wander your way there. Find a pizza place. Check out a museum. Stroll through a park. There's plenty to do, so make the most of it.
The New Soldier Field is functional, and that's about it. Any awe factor that was present at the old stadium is gone, but football stadia don't demand greatness, just practicality. This stadium has that, but little more.
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Parking Availability: Busy But Manageable