Anyone with a few free hours could hardly ask for a better playground than Chicago. Top museums, great restaurants, world-class shopping, hopping nightlife featuring the best in live music — the city has it all and offers it up with that no-nonsense Midwestern style that lets you feel like a native.
Chicago sprang up on the shores of Lake Michigan in the mid-1800s. Because of its location at the head of the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes waterway, it became the major hub of industry in the Midwest. It was a city of working people who came to make the most of the bustling trade and freedom in the new city. Immigrants arrived and set up their own version of home there. That legacy remains, allowing visitors to sample a wide variety of experiences.A Walking Tour of Michigan Avenue
McCormick Place, the city's mammoth convention site, sits at the south end of downtown Chicago. Unfortunately, this location is a good hike from most of the convention hotels, as well as the restaurants, stores and tourist attractions. It's only a minor inconvenience, however, since cab service abounds and WasteExpo will have shuttle buses to and from the hotels.
In any case, the city is easy to navigate because Michigan Avenue leads straight from McCormick to the hub of after-hours convention activity.
At the very north end of the city's best-known street begins the “Miracle Mile,” a stretch of pavement named for its miraculous wealth of shopping, landmarks and eateries. Here you'll find the famed Drake Hotel and, across the way on Oak Street, a decadent strip of upscale boutique and designer stores that include the likes of Gucci and Calvin Klein, among many others.
Just a few blocks south rises an unmistakable landmark, the John Hancock Center, the city's third-tallest building. For $12, you can ride to the top-floor observation deck and take in what's arguably the best view of Chicago. Or, for about the same price, you can take a separate elevator to the Images Lounge one floor below and enjoy the spectacle and a cocktail from a comfortable chair.
The next key landmarks on Michigan Avenue are the Water Tower, which looks like a small castle, and the larger pumping station across the street. These were the only buildings in downtown to survive the Great Chicago fire of 1871. Originally built to pump water in from the lake, the buildings now serve as a gallery showcasing the work of local artists and as a visitor's center. Both are free to the public.
Surrounding the Water Tower is some of the great shopping that makes Michigan Avenue famous. Marshall Field's, Lord and Taylor, Polo Ralph Lauren, American Girl Place and many other prime stores face Water Tower. Before you get lost in the sea of shopping on Michigan Avenue, though, take a one-block detour east to the Museum of Contemporary Art at 220 East Chicago Avenue. Recently installed in this building, the museum regularly features outstanding special exhibits along with its permanent collection.
Once you are back on Michigan Avenue, you'll pass one flagship store after another as you continue south: Crate and Barrel, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale's, Tiffany, Nike Town, Sony and the new Nordstrom. At 670 North Michigan Avenue, you'll probably see a line of people standing outside Garrett's Popcorn — a local institution. It's worth a wait in line to get a bag of their heavenly cheese, buttered or caramel popcorn. (Try the half cheese, half caramel mix.)
As you get closer to the river, you'll see the gothic tower of the Chicago Tribune, which was built in 1925 based on a design chosen in a nationwide contest. Embedded in the facade of the building are pieces of other world landmarks including the Taj Mahal, Great Wall of China and the Alamo — each labeled and installed to please one of the Tribune's more idiosyncratic publishers, Colonel McCormick. At the Tribune Tower you also can look in on WGN's studio and watch a live radio broadcast.
Across the street are two other famous Chicago landmarks. The larger is the Wrigley Building, constructed by the Wrigley family of chewing gum fame and fortune (and also the namesake for the Chicago Cubs' Wrigley Field). The Wrigley Building sits on the site of the homestead of Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, Chicago's first settler and founder. You won't be able to see this smaller landmark; it's actually beneath Michigan Avenue. (After the Great Fire, Chicago rebuilt on top of itself, and some business and streets appeared on this lower level.) Look for the sign pointing down to the Billy Goat Tavern. This greasy diner was made famous on “Saturday Night Live” as a place to get a “Cheezborger! Cheezborger!” and a “Pepsi! Pepsi!” It was also a favorite hangout for Chicago Tribune writers such as Mike Royko.
As you continue south you'll cross the Chicago River on the Michigan Avenue Bridge. Each year, the Chicago River is dyed green for St. Patrick's Day, but in truth, it's a murky green all the time. The Chicago River is perhaps the only river in the world to have had its flow reversed. Prior to modern solid waste management techniques, the river used to flow into Lake Michigan, bringing with it garbage from the city that spread disease into the lake. In 1848, the I&M Canal was constructed connecting the Chicago River to the Mississippi River. This meant that ships could sail from the Atlantic Ocean, through the Erie Canal and all the way to New Orleans. This not only increased Chicago's importance as a transportation hub, but it also carried waste away from Lake Michigan to downstream neighbors in St. Louis.
Crossing the river, you'll near the financial district and get a bit closer to the lake. Walking south, you'll get your first taste of Grant Park — one of the largest big-city parks in the world. Part of a park system that runs along the lake virtually uninterrupted, Grant Park allows everyone access to the beautiful lakefront. It was part of the ambitious Chicago Plan conceived by Daniel Burnham in 1909. Like the entire “Miracle Mile,” the park was built on land reclaimed from Lake Michigan. Gravel was quarried in Indiana and brought on barges to the lakefront during the last part of the 1800s, and many square miles of ground were created from what used to be lake.
Clustered along Grant Park you'll find four of the city's best museums: the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium. The Art Institute faces Michigan Avenue with its trademark lions guarding its columned doors. Inside you can see the legendary collection of impressionist paintings, including the famed Seurat, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” as well as Grant Wood's “American Gothic” and Edward Hopper's “Nighthawks.”
If you exit the Art Institute and start working your way east through the park, you'll catch a stunning view of Buckingham Fountain, also made famous by “Married with Children.” Donated in 1927 in honor of Clarence Buckingham, a trustee at the Art Institute, the enormous fountain sits in a pool containing four bronze sea horses. From the fountain you can catch a beautiful view of the skyline and the lakefront.
Also from this spot you can see the museum campus that houses the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium. Each museum can be visited separately, or a museum pass can be purchased for all three.Exploring the Loop
South of the Chicago River and west of Michigan Avenue is the Loop, so named because of the elevated train (the “el”) tracks that circle the city's financial district. The Loop is home to City Hall, the Mercantile Exchange and the place where the city's barons first staked their claim.
If you start at the Michigan Avenue Bridge, where Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive intersect, you will be standing at the site of old Ft. Dearborn. Bronze bricks embedded in the sidewalks just south of the Chicago River mark the outline of Ft. Dearborn, which was located there from 1803 to 1812, before settlers were driven off by American Indians.
Two blocks west of Michigan Avenue was Chicago's original “Miracle Mile.” Remembered in song as “State Street — that great street,” you'll walk down a street that has fallen on hard times and now is being renovated to its original glory. Walking south, you'll pass by the original Marshall Field & Co. store, which should sate most shoppers' hunger with floor after floor of fantastic shopping.
One block south, at the intersection of State and Washington streets, you'll see the classic example of the Chicago School of architecture, the Reliance Building. Constructed in 1895 by Daniel Burnham, the large expanses of glass and delicate ornament retain their beauty, despite years of neglect. Just down the street from the Reliance Building sits the Carson Pirie Scott building, which was built by another master of Chicago architecture, Louis Sullivan.
Turn left on Adams Street and you'll run right into the Berghoff Restaurant. The bustling German restaurant dates back to 1893, when it was founded as a beer garden beneath tents at the World's Columbian Exposition. It serves German courses along with Berghoff beer for a great mid-day lunch or dinner.
Continue west on Adams Street for five blocks and you'll run right into the Sears Tower, until recently the tallest structure in the world. At the time it was built, the 1,450-foot building was the tallest allowed by the Federal Aeronautics Administration. You can see the view from the top at the Skydeck Observatory, located on the 103rd floor, with recently renovated exhibits. The Skydeck is open every day, and tickets are sold between 9 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Cost for adults is $9.50, children $6.75.
One block north of the Sears Tower, it's worth a minute to drop into the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to watch traders on the floor. At 30 South Wacker, the “Merc” is only one of many exchanges that are open to the public. Futures and options on agricultural commodities (such as pork bellies) and foreign currencies are traded on separate floors using the “open outcry” system. Visitors galleries are free and open to the public Mondays-Fridays, 7:30 a.m.-3:15 p.m.Other Highlights
There's more to see in Chicago than you can reach on foot. A more ambitious traveler could rent a car and visit some of these other interesting neighborhoods.Hyde Park
Hyde Park is a Chicago neighborhood south of downtown, home to the University of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry. To get to Hyde Park, drive south on Lake Shore Drive and exit on 57th Drive. You'll drive through the Midway Plaisance, a remnant of the World's Columbian Exposition that was held on that site. Buildings of the University of Chicago stretch along the north side of the Midway. You can visit the site of Enrico Fermi's laboratory where the first controlled nuclear reaction took place. It's on South Ellis Avenue between 56th and 57th. A Henry Miller sculpture now marks the spot.
At 5757 South Woodlawn Avenue is one of the best examples of Chicago's famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School design. The Robie House was built in 1909 and is now open to the public for tours.Oak Park
If you'd like a bigger dose of Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture, a visit to Oak Park is a must. While living there between 1889 and 1909, Wright honed the aesthetic of the Prairie School of architecture while building dozens of private homes and buildings in his own neighborhood. Wright's own home and studio have been converted into a museum, with walking tours that explain his idiosyncratic personality and design. The home and studio also sells self-guided tour maps that take you by the more than 20 Wright homes in the area. Another gem of Wright's is the Unity Temple at 875 Lake Street, which has been designated a national historic landmark because of its architectural significance.
If you're looking for a lunch break, just one block away from the home and studio is Petersen's ice cream. It's moderately priced and famous for its sinfully rich ice cream treats.
If all of this weren't enough, Oak Park is the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway once described his hometown as a place of “broad lawns and narrow minds.” Locals have gotten over the offense and even have built an Ernest Hemingway Museum at the Oak Park Arts Center at 200 North Oak Park Avenue. There, you can buy a map that guides you to his birthplace and other local sites.
To get to Oak Park, take highway 290 west and exit at Oak Park. Highway signs will guide you to the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio.
Freelance writer Stacy Lynch is a long-time Chicago resident.Nightlife
The following sampling of nightspots offers you a wide selection of choices within a short cab ride from downtown. Cab rides should be approximately $10 each way.Blue Man Group
Somewhere between performance art and kindergarten finger painting, this show will completely entertain you with music, art and wit. Briar Street Theatre, 3133 North Halsted. (773) 348-4000. Call for showtimes and prices.Buddy Guy's Legends
This local favorite mixes the best Chicago acts with national blues artists, sometimes even its namesake legend. Music starts at 9 p.m. 754 South Wabash. (312) 427-0333. Cover: $20.The Green Mill
This century-old jazz hangout offers only A-list national and local performers. You'll enjoy the luxurious interior that once made it a favorite for gangster Al Capone. Get there by 9:30 p.m. to get a seat, otherwise it's standing room only. Music starts at Monday-Friday 9 p.m.; Saturday 8 p.m.; Sunday 7 p.m. (773) 878-5552. Cover: $3-$10.Kingston Mines
Don't go for the décor, which is dark, smoky and style-less. But do go for the authentic Chicago blues, which is always excellent. Music starts at 9:30 p.m. 2548 North Halsted. (773) 477-4646. Cover varies.Second City
John Belushi, Bill Murray, Ed Asner, Shelley Long and many “Saturday Night Live” members past and present cut their comedic teeth at this venue, which still is cranking out great sketch comedy every night. Their stage is a quick cab ride from downtown and runs shows nightly. If the main stage is sold out, don't overlook Second City E.T.C. This second stage features a more irreverent show that often enlists the troupe's first-stringers. Call for reservations as shows sell out quickly; seating is first-come, first served. 1616 North Wells St. Open Run: Tuesday-Thursday 8:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.; Sunday 8 p.m. (312) 337-3992. Admission $15.Velvet Lounge
A funky jazz spot near McCormick Place, it's also hot with the South Side's avant-garde music scene. Music Wednesday-Friday starting at 9:30 p.m. 2128 S. Indiana. (773) 791-9050.Museums
Except for the Museum of Science and Industry, which requires a $15 cab ride, all museums are within walking distance, or a brief cab ride, from downtown hotels.Adler Planetarium
From its perch on the shore of Lake Michigan, the planetarium offers astronomical exhibits and shows. 1300 S. Lake Shore Dr. Saturday-Sunday 9-6; Monday-Friday 9-5. (312) 922-7827. Adults $5, children $4.Art Institute of Chicago
Home to many of the world's great impressionist works and Cha-gall's “America Windows.” 111 S. Michigan Ave. Monday-Friday 10:30-4:30; Tuesdays till 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 10-5. (312) 443- 3600. Adults $8, children $5.Field Museum of Natural History
The most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in the world, “Sue,” was just added to the museum's already impressive collection of wildlife and dinosaur exhibits. 1400 S. Lake Shore Dr. Tuesday-Sunday 9-5. (312) 922-9410. Adults $8, children $5.Museum of Contemporary Art
Rotating exhibits add to the museum's modern art masterpieces. 220 E. Chicago Ave. Tuesdays 10-8; Wednesday-Sunday 10-5. (312) 397-4010. Adults $8, children $5, Tuesdays free.Museum of Science and Industry
Ongoing exhibits highlight technology and scientific information. 57th and Lake Shore Dr. Mondays-Fridays 9:30-4; Saturdays-Sundays 9:30-5:30. (773) 684-1414. Adults $7, children $3.50.John G. Shedd Aquarium
A great place to learn about the life underwater from the shores of Lake Michigan. 1200 S. Lake Shore Drive. Mondays-Fridays 9-5; Saturdays-Sundays 9-6. (312) 939-2438. Aquarium and oceanarium: Adults $15, children $11. Aquarium only: Adults $8, children $6.Dining
McCormick Place is bit of a hike to the city's wealth of excellent restaurants, shopping or pretty much anything else. Plan to return to your hotel before going out to dinner. All the restaurants listed are an easy walk or cab ride from downtown.American Bandera
Located right on Michigan Avenue, Bandera offers classy American food with a friendly staff at a reasonable price. Good grill and moderately priced wine selections. Average price per person $20-$30. 535 North Michigan Ave. (312) 644-3524.Blackhawk Lodge
Cozy wood-paneled walls make for a restaurant you can relax at for hours. Entrees include stylish versions of old favorites such as beef tenderloin, flatbread pizza and grilled fish. Average price per person $20-$30. 41 E. Superior. (312) 280-4080.Zinfandel
American food with an ambitious scope; a dizzying array of ingredients and flavors in a festive atmosphere. Average cost per person $30-$40. 59 W. Grand. (312) 527-1818.Asian Ben Pao
Pan-Asian cuisine with a variety of Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese selections. Service is always good; ambiance is very chic. Average price per person $20-$30. 52 W. Illinois. (312) 222-1888.Le Colonial
Vietnamese cuisine in a French colonial setting, offering well-prepared exciting food. Good wine list. Average per person cost: $20-$30. 937 North Rush St. (312) 255-0088.Phoenix
Venture down to Chinatown for authentic Chinese in this large, modern restaurant. Fantastic seafood dishes along with Peking Duck make it a top destination. You can stroll the streets of Chinatown after dinner for an added bonus. Average price per person $20-$30. 2131 S. Archer. (312) 328-0848.Mexican/Spanish
Tapas (Spanish appetizers) in a funky, lively setting. It's a bit further out of downtown but worth the trip for a great variety of delicious and original dishes along with great sangria. Average price per person $20-$30. 2024 North Halsted St. (773) 935-5000.Frontera Grill
Sister restaurant to more upscale Topolobampo offering exciting regional Mexican cuisine that shows there's more to Mexican food than ground beef and Velveeta. Average cost per person $20-$30. 445 North Clark St. (312) 661-1434.Salpicón
One of the city's best upscale Mexican restaurants. Food bursts with spiciness with excellent house margaritas. Price per person $25-35. 1252 North Wells. (312) 988-7811.Italian Coco Pazzo
Delicious Tuscan-style food in a chic loft setting. One of the most stylish Italian restaurants in the city with an equally stylish clientele. Average cost per person $40-$50. 300 W. Hubbard. (312) 836-0900.Maggiano's
A staple of Chicago Italian food, but be warned: The portions are enormous. Go with friends and share appetizers and salads so you can taste everything. Cost per person $20-$30. 516 N. Clark St. (312) 644-7700.Scoozi!
Look for the huge tomato suspended over the front door. Inside you'll find elegant dining with fresh, robust Italian food. A wood-fired oven adds to the cuisine's variety. Approximate cost per person $30-$40. 410 W. Huron. (312) 943-5900.Steak & Seafood Gibson's Steakhouse
Excellent prime beef cuts in generous portions make this one a local favorite. Deserts and wine list also excellent. Average per person cost $40-$50. 1028 N. Rush St. (312) 266-8999.McCormick and Schmick's
The two-floor mahogany and brass interior offers an extensive selection of seafood flown-in daily. Beautifully prepared with good sides and excellent deserts. Average price per person $30-$40. 41 East Chestnut. (312) 397-9500.Morton's — The Steakhouse
The first restaurant in the popular chain offers big portions and fine optional sides. Can be noisy. Average per person cost $50-plus. 1050 North State St. (312) 266-4820.Seafood Shaw's Crab House
Simple preparation lets the seafood's freshness shine through at this restaurant. Blue Crab Lounge adjoins with raw bar items. Average cost per person $30-$40. 21 E. Hubbard. (312) 527-2722.Tourist Eateries Cheesecake Factory
Under the John Hancock building, the Cheesecake Factory boasts enormous entrees in a whimsical atmosphere. The phone-book of a menu has something for everyone. Average per person tab $20. 875 North Michigan Avenue. (312) 337-1101.Ed Debevik's Short Orders Deluxe
This kitschy ’50s diner offers a standard menu of burgers, fries and meatloaf with a singing wait staff and over-the-top atmosphere. Average per person tab $15. 640 North Wells Street. (312) 664-1707.Hard Rock Café
The Chicago version of this worldwide chain offers the trademark rock memorabilia with bar and grill food. Average per person cost: $15. 63 W. Ontario St. (312) 943-2252.Harry Caray's
It may be a little touristy, but the namesake of the famous Cubs broadcaster delivers great steaks and Italian fare. 534 North Clark St. (312) 828-0770.Pizzeria Uno
The originator of Chicago-style deep-dish pizza is a local institution that offers great pizza — if you can handle the sometimes-long waits. Average per person cost $15. 29 East Ohio (at Wabash). (312) 321-1000.Rainforest Café
This rainforest-themed chain offers faux thunderstorms and electronic animals — and is great for kids. Food is standard American fare. Per person cost is $15-20. 605 North Clark Street. (312) 787-1501.Guided Tours Chicago Architecture Foundation
Offers tours by boat and bus, with food, highlighting Chicago's architectural history. (312) 922-3432.Chicago Historical Society
Offers walking tours of the downtown that are interesting and well-informed. (312) 642-4600.