The High Life in Chicago
Chicago has been labelled the ‘Windy City’, but in beautiful October weather it was for me more the ” Wind Up” city. If you want a cornucopia of modern commercial and public art galleries, top-class restaurants, diverse ethnic eateries, the best steakhouses in the USA, shopping strolls along the ritzy ‘magic mile’ of North Michigan avenue, or a ride in an express elevator 443 metres (110 stories) to the top of the Sears Skydeck; the world’s tallest building, then Chicago is your type of town. Around every corner there is something different and exciting.
Chicago’s commercial wealth is built on manufacturing of grains and meat. Consequently half of America’s key transport links pass through Chicago. Every year Chicago’s O’Hare airport handles more flights than any other airport in the United States. It has become the Mecca for cheap excursion flights throughout USA and into Mexico, the Caribbean and South America. Surprisingly, Chicago seems somewhat neglected by international tourists. It deserves to be better known.
What is most striking about Chicago is that it rivals – even surpasses, Manhattan/New York – for interesting skyscrapers. Chicago has for a century bolted down into its streetscapes the best examples of skyscraper architecture in the world. To cater for the aficionados of “vertical vision” there are specialty architecture art tours of this vibrant, wealthy city, including some along the Chicago River aboard classy yachts. Within the square mile of Chicago’s Central Business District (CBD) “loop” there are 10 famous public sculptures by such artists as Chagall, Miro, Picasso and Henry Moore.
There are a dozen key locations within the Chicago city loop, which have been featured in 20 Hollywood films. The Blues Brothers (1980) made the city streets famous, as did the Untouchables (1990). My kid’s favourite, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) had scenes set at The Art Institute Building, Daley Plaza, Sears Tower, the Hancock Centre and car chases along Lake Shore Drive.
The main city area sits astride the Chicago River and spreads out along the shores of Lake Michigan, which looks like an inland sea it is so vast. From atop the Sears Tower, or from the 1000 feet-high observatory of the unique pyramid-like Hancock building (a must for night viewing), one can see the concrete and steel cluster of skyscrapers rubbing shoulders right up to the shore of Lake Michigan.
I stayed in the historic northwest suburb of Wicker Park, about 8 kilometres from the CBD. It has the feel of Carlton with its old Victorian Mansions. The area is classified as a “`Blackstone suburb” with many buildings made of the distinctive dark brown bricks unique to Chicago. Further West one can visit the historic district of the suburb of Oak Park, where the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright lived at the turn of the century. The Wright studio and house is a “must-see” attraction, open daily with fully guided tours and extra self-guided walking tours of his creations in the surrounding streets.
Chicago has a reputation for its nightlife, especially for a venerable appreciation of blues music. The Blues clubs are concentrated in the inner western suburbs. The House of Blues is an auditorium on the Chicago River where an upbeat Sunday performance of gospel singing follows a hearty breakfast. The night before it was off to one of the smaller “down and dingy” Blues clubs for a night of toe-tapping, hand clapping, non-stop action to a funky up-beat rhythm and blues band, the antics of Willy Slim in his vanilla-coloured suit and the tuneful wailings of big Martha.
Serious shopping, to rival the famous streets in New York, happens on State Street and North Michigan Avenue where stores like Bloomingdale’s,Tiffany’s and 50 other top brand-name stores congregate. I got lost in the Viacom store, buying up last season’s Star Trek clothing specials. On the lake side of the ‘Magnificent Mile’ of North Michigan Avenue, stands the popular foreshore complex know as ‘Navy Pier’ with its Ferris wheels, IMAX theatre, cruise ships, restaurants and modern penny arcades.
I was fortunate to see an event that happens only twice a year. Before Lake Michigan starts to freeze over the yachts are brought up the Chicago River to be put into dry dock. All the main connecting roads in the city over the river are then split and raised. It was quite a sight to look along the river as several huge road bridges were raised simultaneously to the heavens, as if in concert with the music escaping from the House of Blues on the Riverfront.
Chicago is truly the place to soak up the Blues and the atmosphere of a wide variety of clubs, knock down a rib steak the size of a medium pizza and scrape the sky for a day or two. Like me, you won’t be disappointed – and you will want to keep coming back.
There is some good excursion fares to Chicago via Los Angeles. Chicago is the homeport of United Airlines, America’s largest domestic and international carrier.
Chicago hotels can be booked on the Internet and offer many specials.
The Chicago Architecture foundation conducts river tours, May through October, on a 1920s-style yacht.