The US city to rival New York for things to do!
When considering a city break in America, many people think of New York but in my mind, Chicago definitely rivals it for atmosphere, World-class museums, tall buildings, history and sheer amount of things to do. And its setting on the shores of Lake Michigan, one of the Great Lakes, makes it one of the prettiest cities to visit too.
I first visited the city for 4 days at the end of a 2 week multi-city trip to the States which had also taken in New York and Washington DC. Of the 3 cities, Chicago was the one I knew least about and I was unsure what to expect but I fell in love with the city and have returned again and again since – I’m currently weighing in at 6 visits in total but expecting that to go up in the future.
So what is it about the city that keeps pulling me back and what is there to do?
Chicago lies on the west side of Lake Michigan, a lake so big that, looking out at it from the city, you could easily mistake it for the ocean! Lake Shore Drive runs north to south alongside the lake and is worth a stroll, jog, bike ride or even segway along.
Beaches sit on the lake’s edge and, whenever I’ve been in the summer months, are crowded with sunbathers and volleyball players and while I’ve never seen anyone taking a dip in the lake, people must do as lifeguard stands stood along the main beach!
From Navy Pier, you can choose from a variety of boat trips out onto the lake and once out there you can enjoy unparalleled views of the Chicago city skyline.
The Chicago River runs through the city from Lake Michigan at Navy Pier. A river walk has been created which runs alongside, lined with shops, bars and restaurants or you can take the Chicago Architectural Tour, a boat ride along the river with a commentary about the multitude of architectural styles of buildings that make up the city’s skyline.
This Chicago institution juts out over Lake Michigan and is an entertainment hub for the city. Entry onto the pier is free and once there you’ll find a huge food court and plenty of entertainment and shopping opportunities to keep everyone amused for hours.
Many of the boat trips onto Lake Michigan launch from here and you’ll also find a couple of museums – the Children’s Museum of Chicago and the Museum of Stained Glass.
One of the big draws of Navy Pier is it’s small amusement park. While it mainly offers rides aimed at young children, there’s also a carousel, flying chairs and, of course, the Chicago Ferris wheel offering views over the city and lake.
In the summer months, firework displays usually run twice weekly from the pier!
The Miracle Mile
Chicago is a great place to shop. Michigan Avenue, also known as the ‘Miracle Mile’, runs down the centre of the city and here you’ll find a mix of high street stores and top fashion houses all on one long road!
If museums are your thing then you’ll be spoilt for choice in Chicago. Down at Museum Campus, you’ll find the Field Museum – Chicago’s Natural History Museum – home to one of the largest collections of dinosaurs in the World including Sue the T-Rex who stands proudly in the museum entrance hall. Museum Campus is also home to the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium and even if you’re not planning on going to the museums, it’s worth a visit to the area for the views across Lake Michigan!
For art, head to the Art Institute of Chicago situated near Millennium Park. This museum houses some World renowned works of art including Grant Wood’s America Gothic and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks as well as impressive collections of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and artefacts.
For something a bit more unusual, head upstairs at the city’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonalds” where you’ll find a small McDonalds’ museum with old advertising, Happy Meal toys and other merchandise!
A bit more out of the way, in the North part of city at Lincoln Park, but definitely worth the trip, is the Chicago History Museum containing displays and exhibitions from the city’s past – and what an interesting past it is! From the Great Fire of Chicago to the city’s close links with President Abraham Lincoln, from its hosting of the World Fair in the late 1800s to it’s Prohibition era gangsta connections, there’s plenty here to learn about this great city.
Prohibition era Chicago
While on the subject of Chicago’s links to prohibition era mobsters, there are plenty of companies offering guided tours of the city talking about this. My favourite is the ‘Untouchable tour’ where you are driven around in a battered, bullet-hole covered mini-van as 2 actors dressed appropriately for the era recount the grisly stories of the city’s past and point out the scenes of the crimes in an informative but humorous way. Fascinating stuff!
The City Parks
The first place I like to head to on any visit to Chicago is Millennium Park to see my favourite outdoor works of art, Cloudgate and the Crown Fountain. Cloudgate, also known as the Silver Bean, is a huge silver bean-shaped sculpture which lies in a square in the centre of the park reflecting the city skyline and the many tourists who crowd around, and under, it! It’s great fun to stand facing the sculpture from different angles and see if you can spot yourself in it!
Not far from Cloudgate, also in Millennium Park, is the Crown Fountain which also has another more descriptive name – the spitting fountain! The fountain has a huge pillar at each end broadcasting the faces of actual Chicago city-dwellers who, once every 15 minutes or so, appear to spit water out of their mouths. I once made the mistake on a very hot day of thinking it would be a good idea to stand under the jet of water being spat out while wearing denim knee-length shorts. Despite the heat, it took forever to dry out again!!! Great fun for the kids though.
A short walk south from Millennium Park is Grant Park where you’ll find another famous Chicago Fountain, Buckingham Fountain. Try to visit on the hour as the water spouting from the fountain jumps impressively higher into the sky!!
The city’s largest park is Lincoln Park, named after President Abraham Lincoln.
This park is situated on the Northern edge of Lake Michigan and is also home to the city’s zoo!
Chicago is famous for its Deep Dish Pizza and there are a few restaurants in the city all claiming to have the best. My personal favourite is Gino’s East. Expect to queue for a while outside it’s flagship restaurant on Superior and then to wait at least an hour for your pizza to be cooked and served but it’s definitely worth the wait.
The restaurant allows customers to graffiti its interior – any surface, the tables, chairs, walls, ceilings etc, can be scribbled on – so while waiting for your food to arrive, keep yourself amused by reading through the messages left by previous customers and leaving your own mark on the place!
The Tall Buildings
Chicago is home to many skyscrapers and there are two offering visitors a viewing deck on the upper floors. The most famous of these is at the building formerly known as the Sears Tower (many native Chicago dwellers still refuse to call it anything different to this, so synonymous with the city is the name), now known as Willis Tower.
The building was once the tallest in the World and it’s Skydeck, offering visitors the opportunity to stand on a glass floor above the city, is situated on the 103rd floor. On a clear day, it is possible to see 4 states from here!
As it is situated closer to Lake Michigan, I personally prefer the views from the Chicago 360 observation deck in the city’s John Hancock Building from where you can look down at the beaches running alongside the lake. This observation deck also offers Tilt, a kind of Observation Deck thrill ride where you lie against windows that slowly tilt outwards over the Magnificent Mile!
All of my visits to Chicago so far have been in the summer months and I’d imagine it’s a very different city in the harsh winter months but it really is a wonderful city and if you get the chance, I definitely recommend a visit!