Hacktreks in Chicago
Barry Dunstall wanders among the towering skyscrapers
of Chicago, the city of the big shoulders.
the often inclement weather, Chicago is not actually known as the
Windy City because of the gusts driving in from Lake
Michigan. In 1893, when the city was hosting the Worlds Columbian
Exposition, visiting New York Sun editor Charles Dana noticed how
much the Chicagoans were bragging about the wonders of their home
town, and the Windy City nickname came to be.
even sardonic New Yorkers would have to admit the people of Chicago
(of which there are over three million in the metropolitan area) have
a point. And the fact nearly two million people a year visit Americas
third largest city from abroad makes a convincing case in itself. International
tourism has really picked up in Chicago since 1998, when the city hosted
the opening ceremony and first game of the World Cup, attracting football-mad
visitors from across the globe.
First stop in the city should be the Chicago Cultural Center, also known
as The Peoples Palace. As well as housing seven free
art galleries, the Cultural Center is Chicagos official Visitor
Information Center. Stock up on leaflets and away you go.
In awe of the towering architecture, poet Carl Sandburg described Chicago
as the city of the big shoulders. The skyscraper was invented
by necessity in the 1880s, when space was limited in downtown Chicago
and land prices were high. In low mist, the summits of these famous
buildings are hidden, rendering them somehow unreal, as if not so much
built up as put down by some unseen hand working above the clouds.
along is an entertainment in itself. The streets of the city showcase
sculptures by artists including Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall and
there are regular outdoor blues and jazz festivals. Chicago also
hosts over 200 parades a year, so you wont be walking alone.
Take the time to spend a morning among the plush shops of North
Michigan Avenues Magnificent Mile, before walking
along State Street and on to Sears Tower, the worlds tallest
office building at 110 stories and 1,454 feet. You can see 50 miles
and four states from the observation deck on the 103rd floor of
the tower, from Illinois to Michigan and from Wisconsin to Indiana.
Alternatively, the Hancock Observatory, with a viewing platform
at 1,000 feet, offers another wonderful view of the city.
Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum stands out at the end of a peninsula
reaching into Lake Michigan, the dome bulging like a blister on a fingertip.
Opened in 1930, the Adler is the oldest planetarium in the US. There
are three floors to explore, a digital cinema showing films about the
Big Bang and plenty of interactive exhibits that allow you to play with
planets like Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon.
Chicagolands Museum Campus area also contains the
prestigious Field Museum of Natural History, with over 20 million exhibits
including a Tyrannosaurus Rex called Sue. The John G. Shedd
Aquarium and Oceanarium is home to more than 8,000 animals representing
650 species from the Amazon to the Pacific, from beluga whales to the
Goliath bird-eating spider. A less academic neighbour is the Chicago
Bears Soldier Field stadium, a bizarre concoction, all mighty
columns and glorious statues, a neo-classical masterpiece with an American
football field in the middle.
Along the shore from the Museum Campus is Navy Pier, a pleasure
palace opened in 1995, stretching out over the lake. As well as a 150-foot-high
Ferris wheel, there are numerous undercover attractions including restaurants,
shops, the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows (!) and a 3D IMAX cinema.
Unfortunately, achieving the 3D effect involves strapping on goggles
that look like electronic egg cups, so for more dignified entertainment,
I recommend heading further along the pier to the Chicago Shakespeare
Theater. Opened in October 1999, the buildings 550-seat interior
is modelled on the Swan Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon. And there are
outdoor productions in the summer. All credit to Chicago for adding
a rare touch of class to the notion of end-of-the-pier entertainment.
If your offspring are too young for Shakespeare, though, try out the
acclaimed Navy Pier Childrens Museum, which greets over 500,000
visitors a year. The interactive highlights include hunting for bones
on the Dinosaur Expedition and designing aircraft in the
Inventing Lab (although frankly the Face To Face:
Dealing with Prejudice and Discrimination exhibition hardly sounds
like a riot of fun for toddlers). Alternatively, free entertainment
abounds wherever you go on the pier, as family entertainers roam around
with comedy acts and juggling shows. Adults and youngsters alike will
enjoy the touring art and photographic exhibitions that line the halls.
The simple concept of something for everyone is what makes
Navy Pier Chicagos most popular destination, annually visited
by about eight million people.
Finding somewhere to stay is no problem. There are currently nearly
30,000 hotel rooms in the city, ranging from the Four Seasons and the
Ritz Carlton to more economical options like the youth hostel opened
in 2000. New hotels are being added all the time, including a Sofitel
in 2002, and many properties are being renovated.
Having found yourself a hotel, exploring the city is straightforward
too. Express buses run to key destinations like Navy Pier and the
United Center, where the Chicago Bulls play basketball and the Blackhawks
play ice hockey. The elevated L train circles around
The Loop, the heart of the downtown business district.
Chicago Office of Tourism runs the Chicago Greeter service
whereby local volunteers show visitors around the city. The one-on-one
tours, which include familiarising tourists with the public transportation,
can be customised to personal interests, such as Chicagos Irish
heritage, or particular neighbourhoods like Chinatown.
Alternatively, escape from the crowds and traffic and go behind-the-scenes
on a boat tour of the Chicago River. The guides will point out all the
sights as well as describing the citys pioneering architectural
history, including work by Frank Lloyd Wright. There are even supernatural
cruises in the summer, looking at the myths (or are they?) surrounding
From the end of Navy Pier to the top of Sears Tower, Chicago stretches
itself in all directions to impress. There are over 40 museums (including
unmissable oddities such as the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture
and the International Museum of Surgical Science), more than 200 theatres,
the worlds largest public library and about 7,000 restaurants.
Take a look. The remarkable Windy City might just blow you
© Barry Dunstall November 2003
Chicago First Impressions
More Cities in Hacktreks
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