Chicago, USA | Free City Guide

David Whitley August 31, 2012 Comments Off on Chicago, USA | Free City Guide

The Al Capone era gangster chic has long gone, replaced by arguably the most stunning architecture on earth and a roaring food scene. Chicago’s brilliant. Just go, OK?


Chicago Icons

The Chicago skyline is arguably the most incredible on earth, and while the gaggles of skyscrapers are arguably best explored from the ground, two of the most famous buildings have observation decks. The one at the John Hancock Center (875 N Michigan Avenue, + 1 312 751 3681, US$15) offers better perspectives than its higher rival at the Willis – formerly Sears – Tower (233 S Wacker Drive, +1 866 512 6326, US$15.95). Distorted views are also reflected in Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture, one of the big draw artworks in the superb Millennium Park. Less swanky and modern, but equally loved, is Chicago’s unique elevated train network – the El. Take a ride…

Culture in Chicago

Chicago has a number of legendary comedy clubs. The daddy – which has alumni including Tina Fey and Steve Carell – is Second City (1616 N Wells St, + 1 312 337 3992). Head there for improv showdowns and revues. It’s not all about the laughs, however – the city has a world class theatre scene too. The Steppenwolf Theatre Company (1650 N Halsted St, + 1 312 335 1650) has impeccable pedigree – this is where the likes of John Malkovich and Gary Sinise came through the ranks – plus a good mix of old favourites and challenging contemporary productions. For art, a number of good commercial galleries congregate around W Superior Street in the River North district.

Chicago walks

Many of Chicago’s top attractions – such as the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium – are at the south side of Grant Park. If coming from the city, there’s an obvious and hugely enjoyable walking route to them through Millennium and Grant Parks. Further north, try heading through upmarket Lincoln Park, then keep on going towards Canada along the Lake Shore Trail which hugs Lake Michigan. For a guided walk, the Chicago Architecture Foundation (+ 1 312 922 3432) organises a number of superb traipses through the skyscrapers, pointing out design flourishes and bits of history that you’d almost certainly not notice otherwise.

Chicago tours

The Chicago Architecture Foundation also offers US$32 cruises along the Chicago River that take in and explain the story behind a number of the city’s most impressive buildings. To get to grips with the city beyond the obvious highlights, Chicago Neighborhood Tours (+ 1 312 742 1190, US$30) offers guided ventures out into different areas of the city, sampling everything from churches and cemeteries to murals and Mexican bakeries. And to uncover the city that Chicago’s powers-that-be would like you to forget about, try the Untouchable Tour (+ 1 773 881 1195, US$28). It’s a comedy romp through the key spots of the Al Capone gangland era.


Budget accommodation in Chicago

The top bargain in town is the Essex Inn (800 S Michigan Avenue, + 1 312 939 2800, from US$79). Flat screen TVs and a rooftop pool with lake views make this an independent, well looked-after steal. Otherwise, you’re generally better off hunting for deals online with two to three star chain hotels rather than bed and breakfast accommodation. The likes of Red Roof Inn (162 E Ontario St, + 1 312 787 3580, from US$64.99) and Travelodge (65 E Harrison St, + 1 312 427 8000, from US$69) are centrally located and in good nick. B&B options generally work out slightly less convenient and more expensive, but is the place to start the hunt.

Mid-range hotels in Chicago

The rooms at the Central Loop Hotel (111 W Adams St, + 1 312 601 3525) have a bit of a PHD student feel, but for from US$139 a night in a prime location with additions such as iPod docks, it’s cracking value. If you’re prepared for a short train ride into the centre, the City Suites Hotel (933 W Belmont Av, +1 773 404-3400, suites from US$129) is superb. Wifi is free, the minibar is (for once) fairly priced and big flat screen TVs top off well-furnished rooms. The rooms at Allerton (701 N Michigan Av, + 1 312 440 1500, from US$129), meanwhile, are fairly small – but this historic Magnificent Mile building has been given a very cool makeover.

Luxury hotels in Chicago

The Talbott Hotel (20 E Delaware Place, + 1 312 944 4970) dates back to the 1920s, and has kept the period charm whilst adding all manner of high-tech gadgetry. Ultra-plush towels, spacious suites for from US$235 a night and a non-chainy focus on service make it a winner. The James (55 E Ontario St, + 1 312 337 1000, from US$200) pushes the funk button – the rooms are decked out with ultra-cool, colourful furnishings, and kudos goes to the sound system and full length mirror additions. The Intercontinental (505 N Michigan Avenue, + 1 312 944 4100, from US$161.10) has standardized-albeit-luxurious rooms but wins out by having perhaps the most incredible hotel pool you’re ever likely to see.

The new, independent Elysian (11 E Walton St, + 1 312 646 1300, from US$360) combines exceptional service that isn’t gratingly tip-orientated with seriously smart accommodation. In-suite fireplaces and ultra-controllable mood lighting are just hors d’ouevres.  The Trump International Hotel (401 N Wabash Avenue, + 1 312 588 8000, from US$445) screams “status” – the enormous rooms have TVs in the bathroom mirrors, proper kitchen facilities and ceiling to floor windows. Meanwhile the Peninsula (108 E Superior St, + 1 312 337 2888, from US$575) is a sprawling expanse of marble; the sort of place where everything is just so, Mikimoto pearls are on display and a man is employed to push the revolving door for you.

NOTE: Chicago hotels almost always quote prices without including hotel sales tax. Prepare to add 15.39% to any price listed above.


Chicago Cafés

The West Egg Café (620 N Fairbanks Court, + 1 312 280 8366) will do your eggs any way you can imagine – and plenty that you can’t. Gourmet pancakes, salads, sandwiches and juices are also for those who just can’t decide. The Wicker Park neighbourhood is the best bet for café-based mooching, however. Rodan (1530 N Milwaukee Avenue, + 1 312 276 7036) is a little too cool for school but the stylishly minimalist décor, small plate dishes and good coffee work. Across the road, the Earwax Café (1561 N Milwaukee Avenue, +1 773 772 4019) has a somewhat grungier vibe – expect circus murals on the walls and freak show paintings to go with your herbal tea or fruit smoothie.

Chicago snacks

The 7th floor food court in the Macy’s department store might not seem a particularly fruitful hunting ground, but that’s where to find Frontera Fresco (111 N State St, + 1 312 781 4884). It’s the ready-to-go offshoot of celebrity chef Rick Bayless’ Frontera restaurant and does mean quesadillas, huaraches and tortas. Meanwhile, the canteen-style cafeteria at gourmet food store Fox and Obel (401 E Illinois St, + 1 312 410 7301,) serves up soups and boxed meals of fittingly high standard. For the more sweet-toothed, Canady le Chocolatier (824 S Wabash Av, + 1 312 212 1270) glitters with diet-threateningly good chocolates, gelati, cakes and cookies.

Best restaurants in Chicago

Alinea (1723 North Halsted St, + 1 312 867 0110) is frequently rated as one of the best restaurants in the world. Its molecular gastronomy pioneer Grant Achatz is often compared to Spanish superchef Ferran Adria, and tables at his 64 seat home need reserving way in advance. If you can’t get in, try Charlie Trotter’s (816 West Armitage Av, +1 773 248 6228), where the US$165 ‘Grand’ tasting menu delves through the finest ingredients from across the world. Spiaggia (980 N Michigan Av, + 1 312 280 2750) meanwhile, does an unquestionably classy take on fine Italian cuisine. It’s a bit of an Obama favourite when the president is in town.


Chicago bars

The dark but wonderful Clark Street Ale House (742 N Clark St, + 1 312 642 9253) is the perfect place for sitting at the bar, ploughing through the enormous selection of beers on tap and chatting to your new friend on the stool next to you. If you prefer to experiment with wine rather than beer, the Bin Wine Café (1559 N Milwaukee Av, + 1 312 486 2233) in Wicker Park offers themed ‘flights’ of wine – four generous tastings of deliberately matched wines to sample in order. For cocktails, C-View on the 29th floor rooftop at the Affinia Hotel (166 E Superior Street, + 1 312 523 0923) conjures up a laid back vibe with great views.

Live music in Chicago

Chicago is the birthplace of the electric blues, and the spirit of Muddy Waters is still channelled at a number of clubs across the city. Buddy Guy’s Legends (700 S Wabash Av, + 1 312 427 1190) pulls in some of the biggest names, and Guy himself still takes to the stage every now and then. For jazz, the amazing wood-panelled Green Mill (4802 N Broadway, +1 773 878 5552) has the atmosphere as well as high quality musicians and a reverent audience. If indie/ rock is more your thing, then the Empty Bottle (1035 N Western Av, +1 773 276 3600,) is the top spot.

Chicago Nightclubs

Chicago also gave the world house music, and Spy Bar (636 N Franklin St, + 1 312 337 2191) does it beautifully. It has less attitude (particularly from the door staff) than many of its rivals, whilst consistently pulling in big name DJs. The Funky Buddha Lounge (728 W Grand Av, + 1 312 666 1695) concentrates on hip-hop and reggae, and you’ll be sharing the dancefloor with a pleasingly mixed crowd. Meanwhile, the music policy at the Debonair Social Club (1575 N Milwaukee Av, +1 773 227 7990) veers all over the place, but the party vibe, video art and cool lighting effects make it a fabulously fun hang-out.


Markets in Chicago

Chicago isn’t much of a market city, but the Randolph Street Market (1350 W Randolph St) hosts regular events on the last weekend of each month between May and September. The Antique Market will run alongside the Indie Designer Market, for example. Handy for those who like to pick up their old clocks and new threads at the same time… For food, the Green City Market runs between 7am and 1pm every Wednesday and Saturday. In summer, it takes place outdoors at the south end of Lincoln Park. In winter it moves inside the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (2430 N. Cannon Dr).

Shopping in Chicago

The stretch of N Michigan Avenue between the Chicago River and Water Tower Place isn’t known as ‘The Magnificent Mile’ for nothing. It’s home to just about every high temple of consumerism you can think of, including massive Disney, Apple, Cartier and Saks 5th Avenue stores. For something a little less corporate, the Wicker Park area has a number of cool indie clothing and accessories outlets, plus specialist bookstores and record stores. The junction of Damen, North and Milwaukee Avenues is the best area. For gifts, the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s shop (224 S Michigan Avenue) is fantastic – expect everything from The Scream ice cube makers to skyscraper Lego.


Hot tip

While The Loop – as downtown Chicago is invariably known – has most of the stunning architecture, the city’s personality comes from its very distinctive neighbourhoods. You can get a very different feel just by moving a few blocks along, and there are few intriguing ethnic enclaves. Ukrainian Village, Little Italy and Chinatown speak for themselves, but Pilsen has artsy Mexican vibe and Andersonville has maintained its Swedish heart.

Tourist information

Disclosure: David Whitley was a guest of the City of Chicago, and this guide was originally written for the Sun-Herald in Australia. All details are correct as of October 2010 when it was researched.


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