This installment in my series of insider guides to great places to visit in the United States takes us to Chicago, the dynamic metropolis dubbed “City of the Big Shoulders” by iconic American poet Carl Sandburg. Home of President Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and birthplace of the likes of Walt Disney, Ray Kroc (McDonald’s founder), Hillary Clinton, and Ernest Hemmingway, Chicago truly has something special to offer each of the more than 46 million folks who visit every year. It would take a month’s worth of posts to do the place justice, but my colleague (and Chi-town native) Andrew Hogenboom shares a few highlights below.
* * *
Welcome to Sweet Home Chicago
by Andrew Hogenboom
Arrving into Chicago through O’Hare International, visitors will see the huge city soaring into the sky along the shore of Lake Michigan. Chicago is filled with architectural wonders, a rich arts and culture scene, beautiful parks, vibrant music and nightlife, outstanding festivals, and action-packed year-round sports. It’s one of the great American cities and tops many global ”best” lists, but to me it will simply always be home.
Chicago, Illinois was incorporated in 1837 on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan in the Midwest of the United States. It was particularly well suited to take advantage of the trading and transportation needs of the country as it expanded westward. The city quickly became a railroad hub, and today half of the nation’s rail freight still passes through Chicago. It remains a dynamic international financial, commercial, and industrial hub, home to some of the top brands in the world including Boeing, Kraft Foods, United Continental, and the world famous McDonald’s corporation.
The buildings in the city center have a modern, self-renewing vibe, although historic architectural gems can still be found. This is largely due to one notorious event. According to local lore, a cow belonging to a woman named Mrs. O’Leary kicked over a lantern on the evening of October 8, 1871, setting a barn on fire. The blaze quickly grew out of control and burned until the morning of October 10. The Great Fire, as it is known, practically destroyed the city, killing at least 300 people and leaving 100,000 homeless.
After the fire, the city dumped much of the debris into the lake, creating the land on which Grant Park now sits. Twenty-two years later, Chicago celebrated its comeback by holding the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. By the turn of the century its population was over one million, making it the fifth largest city in the world at the time.
One of the few buildings that survived the Great Fire and remains standing today is the Water Tower, a small building of intricately carved white stone on North Michigan Avenue. It sits at the northern end of the Magnificent Mile, a stretch of Michigan Avenue leading north from the Loop where you will find the best (or at least the most expensive) shopping in the city.
Rebuilt from near total destruction, Chicago resurged to be the architectural capital of the United States. It was the home of the world’s first “skyscraper,” a 10-story building built in 1884 at the corner of LaSalle and Adams Streets, made possible by the invention of the elevator. (That trailblazing building was unfortunately demolished in 1931). Today, the dominating feature of the Chicago skyline is the broad, muscular Willis Tower, known for most of its history as the Sears Tower. It is the second tallest building in the U.S. at 527 meters (after One World Trade Center).
Other historic buildings include the Chicago Building at Madison and State Streets, the Chicago Board of Trade Building, and the 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments designed by Mies van der Rohe in the fifties. Oak Park, a historic suburb is home to many famous buildings design by Frank Lloyd Wright, including his home and studio.
Beyond the iconic buildings, Chicago is best defined by its unique character. Today, the population of almost 3 million people (in an immediate metro area of 10 million people) makes it one of the most densely populated cities in America. Waves of mostly European Slav, Irish, German, and Italian immigrants poured into the city during the Industrial Revolution. At one point Chicago had the largest Polish population of any city in the world, surpassing even Warsaw.
Another great wave of migration occurred in the years leading up to 1930. African-Americans from the American South arrived in large numbers, known as the Great Migration, and concentrated on Chicago’s South Side. Following New York’s Harlem, Chicago has the second largest urban black population in America. To explore the city’s unique place in African-American history, a visit to the DuSable Museum of African American History is not to be missed. In recent years, the city has seen a new migration with the Hispanic and Latino population rising to almost 30%.
This blend of cultures gave Chicago one of the best culinary scenes in the world. From high end restaurants like Table Fifty-two (run by Oprah’s former personal chef Art Smith) to the world-famous deep-dish pizza and the Chicago style hot-dog, the city has something to delight everyone. Chicago has 77 distinct ethnically diverse neighborhoods, each filled with flavorful joints. Some of the largest of those neighborhoods are Greektown, Little Italy, Chinatown, and Pilsen (the center of Chicago’s Mexican American community).
The number one restaurant in the United States is said to be in Chicago – Grant Achatz’s Alinea. Combining food, science, and art, Alinea won the prized top 3 stars in the Michelin list again this year, and has been hailed as the one of the top ten best restaurants on Earth. If you can manage to get a reservation, its artistic presentations and fine dining ambience will bless you with a once-in-a lifetime experience.
The place to start a visit to Chicago is the Loop, in the heart of downtown. The Loop gets its name because of the elevated “subway” tracks, or “El,” that form a circle in the center of the city after coming in from all directions. It is one of the distinctive and attractive aspects of Chicago’s extensive public transportation network that many of the train lines that would be underground in other cities here run two stories above ground, giving visitors a chance to sightsee while in transit.
As I alluded earlier, Chicago is known as a grand city of cohesive neighborhoods, and using the El you can easily get to interesting neighborhoods on the North, West, and the South Sides (the East is of course the lake). Some unique experiences include touring the Puerto Rican murals in Humboldt Park, visiting one of the largest LGBT communities in the United States in Boystown, or walking the streets in the artsy and affluent Old Town.
Much of Chicago and the areas surrounding it are dedicated to park space, making it a great town for residents and tourist alike to enjoy outdoor reaction and open views. I always loved Navy Pier, which juts out into the water and sports a huge Ferris wheel, gardens, restaurants, rides, and other attractions. It’s a great place for families as it is also home to the Chicago Children’s Museum.
Lincoln Park, just north of downtown, is the city’s largest park, bigger than Central Park in NYC. Nature lovers will enjoy the endless trails, bike paths, and beaches. Also in Lincoln Park is the Nature Museum, Lincoln Park Zoo, and North Pond Nature Sanctuary, home to thousands of migratory birds. For flower lovers, spring abounds year-round at the Lincoln Park Conservatory and Garfield Park Conservatory because both have massive greenhouses with extensive collections that bloom 12 months a year.
The Great Lakes have a tremendous impact on the weather surrounding them, and Chicago is the perfect example. In the summer the breeze off Lake Michigan and the water’s moderating effect on the air temperature make the lakeshore comfortable or even pleasantly cool and refreshing when a few miles inland you’re feeling the heat and humidity.
In the depth of winter the lake usually freezes over, and that’s when the wind really gets nasty. Chicago is accurately known as the Windy City, so I was well prepared for my time in Wellington. But what really stands out, the lake also produces what is known as “lake effect snow” on the southern tip of the lake, 25 or 30 miles southeast of the city. That area can get 3 to 4 feet of snow in a storm when the northern parts of the city get just six or twelve inches.
Within the Loop itself sits Grant Park. Named after the 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. “Chicago’s front yard,” as it is known, offers urban Chicagoans the same open-air experience that Central Park brings to New York City. Its 319 acres of land house numerous sports fields, gardens, works of art, as well as no fewer than three world class museums.
The Art Institute of Chicago, is a significant must-see in Grant Park. Within its huge and impressive collections, the Art Institute’s greatest strengths are in French 19th century painting and modern and contemporary art. It houses the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art in the United States.
The famous Museum Campus sits along the lakefront and consists of the Shedd Aquarium (the world’s largest), the Museum of Science and Industry (the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere), and the world class Field Museum (with which we have worked on projects here at the Embassy).
The Field Museum was opened for the Columbian Exposition in 1893 and is among the top natural history museums in the world. Its best-known attraction is an 80 percent complete original skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, known as Sue. Sue is just one of more than 20 million artifacts and specimens in the museum’s collection.
Chicago is known for being the home of the blues, with some strong roots in jazz as well. The first blues bars anywhere were on Chicago’s South Side and evolved during the Great Migration. Notable South Side musicians included Muddy Waters, Freddie King, and Otis Rush. Today some of best places to catch a great blues show are Buddy Guy’s Legends, Kingston Mines, B.L.U.E.S., and the House of Blues.
With such deep historic musical roots, it should be no surprise that Chicago’s music festival scene is vibrant and extensive. Each year the town hosts the Chicago Jazz Festival, Chicago Blues Festival, Chicago Gospel Music Festival, Grant Park Music Festival, and the famous rock festival Lollapalooza.
Another cultural treasure of of the city is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which has long been considered one of the best orchestras in the United States. Its chief conductors have included Fritz Reiner, Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim, and currently Riccardo Muti.
The orchestra performs at Orchestra Hall on South Michigan Avenue facing Grant Park, one of the great cathedrals of sound built in the late 19th century (along with Carnegie Hall in New York City and Symphony Hall in Boston). The famed Lyric Opera of Chicago performs at the nearby Civic Opera House and is also not to be missed.
Also, some of the best performance art in America can be found in Chicago, with dozens of companies offering everything from traditional to avant-garde. Steppenwolf Theatre is a premiere venue for new works. The Tony Award winning Chicago Shakespeare Theater company performs at Navy Pier. The Goodman Theatre is Chicago’s oldest and largest non-profit theater company. Off-beat shows premiere at the Red Orchid Theatre. And no trip is complete without experiencing the originality of the multi-sensory mashup artists The Blue Man Group.
Second City is a celebrated comedy club and improv school. Founded in 1959, it has produced some of the most famous comedians in American entertainment, many of whom (ironically enough) became stars on the New York-based “Saturday Night Live” television show. John Belushi, Mike Myers, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, John Candy, Steven Colbert, Tina Fey, Catharine O’Hara, and Steve Carell count among the troupe’s many alumni. The club has shows nightly on North Wells Street in Old Town, just north of downtown.
Finally, for fans of American sports, Chicago is one of the best cities in the country. Unfortunately, Chicagoans are all too infrequently rewarded for their loyalty and passion. There are two major league baseball teams, the Cubs and White Sox. The Cubs play at Wrigley Field on the North Side of the city, built in 1914, which makes it the second-oldest functioning stadium in the country after Fenway Park in Boston.
The charm and atmosphere of attending a game at Wrigley Field largely make up for the generally disappointing record of the team – the Cubs have not won the World Series since 1908 and have not played in the World Series since 1945. The White Sox represent the South Side of Chicago and play at U.S. Cellular Field. The White Sox have had marginally more success than the Cubs – after winning the World Series in 1917, they didn’t do so again until 2005.
The Chicago Bears are one of the founding members of the National Football League and are somewhat more reliably good, although their last Super Bowl win was back in 1985. The Chicago Bulls are known for having one of the NBA’s greatest basketball dynasties, winning six championships between 1991 and 1998 under the leadership of Michael Jordan. The most recent success for a major Chicago team comes in ice hockey, with the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup this year.
I hope that this taste of the city whets your appetite to visit Chicago, and that you have a great time while you’re there! For more information about what Chicago has to offer, please look at the city’s official tourism guide ChooseChicago.com which has two dozen different specialized recommended itineraries plus comprehensive events and resource guides. You can also visit the official city website CityofChicago.org. Between those two sites, so I’m sure you’ll find things that grab your particular fancy.
* * *
I’ve enjoyed several visits to Chicago, including for the wedding of a law school classmate, and I certainly endorse Andrew’s views. Chicago is a great place to visit year-round, and it’s very easy to reach. Few places on Earth have more frequent or convenient flights than O’Hare International Airport. I’m tempted to talk briefly about all the other places you can visit from a Chicago base, but you probably won’t want to leave the city until it’s time to go home. And even then …