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Hacktreks in Chicago

The High Life
Barry Dunstall wanders among the towering skyscrapers of Chicago, the ‘city of the big shoulders’.

Despite 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 World’s 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.

But 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 America’s 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 People’s Palace’. As well as housing seven free art galleries, the Cultural Center is Chicago’s 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.

Walking 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 won’t be walking alone. Take the time to spend a morning among the plush shops of North Michigan Avenue’s ‘Magnificent Mile’, before walking along State Street and on to Sears Tower, the world’s 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.

The 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.

Chicagoland’s ‘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 building’s 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 Children’s 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 Chicago’s 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.

Navy Pier

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.

The 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 Chicago’s 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 city’s 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 Lake Michigan.

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 world’s largest public library and about 7,000 restaurants. Take a look. The remarkable ‘Windy City’ might just blow you away.
© Barry Dunstall November 2003

Chicago First Impressions
More Cities in Hacktreks


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