The Windy City

Chicago, USA – September 2017

I only spent a few days in Chicago, and most of those were largely stuck in a conference room, but even within the limited time afforded to escape and explore, I saw enough to take a real shine to the Windy City.

I had to do a bit of research to find out the origins of Chicago’s famous nickname, but it seems the internet is not entirely clear on this (yes, even the internet). The most common explanation is the weather: frigid breezes that blow off Lake Michigan and sweep through the skyscraper canyons of the city streets. Another popular theory posits that it was coined in reference to its bloviating politicians, “full of hot air”.

I’m sure we only skimmed off the very top of the tourist itinerary, and I’ll have to go back and see more of Chicago one day soon, but here are a few things I enjoyed about USA’s third most populous city.

The Riverwalk

The Chicago River has a fascinating history, and is the only river in the world that flows backwards. Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world during the mid-late 19th century, but its boom was jeopardised by the threat of outbreaks of typhoid, cholera, and other waterborne illnesses. Untreated sewage was flowing from the Chicago River into Lake Michigan, the source of Chicago’s clean drinking water. An engineer suggested reversing the direction of the river to flow away from the lake and toward the Mississippi River. Widely acknowledged now as a monumental engineering achievement, the reversal of the Chicago River was the largest public earth-moving project ever completed, costing millions of dollars over many years. But it was finally worth it when Chicagoans no longer had to drink and bathe in their own waste.

The Riverwalk is a pedestrian path that follows the curves of the Chicago River through the downtown Loop. It runs at the level of the river, passing under bridges and featuring different sections like an open amphitheatre seating area and an open-air dining area with a collection of food stalls. The views along the path include most of Chicago’s architectural attractions. However, for a guided introduction to Chicago’s renown buildings, you can’t go past…

The Architecture River Tour

There are a few architecture river tours that you can take down the Chicago River but they all pass by over 40 of Chicago’s most famous historic and modern buildings. These include the John Hancock Center, the Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower), the Wrigley Building, Tribune Tower, Merchandise Mart, Marina Towers (the two corncobs) and the Lyric Opera House. Another fun thing they point out on the tour is a secret topographical map of the Chicago River hidden in plain sight on one of the buildings.

Chicago was mostly destroyed in the Great Fire of 1871, which provided early modern architects with an open canvas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to make their mark. Thus the steel-frame skyscraper, though more often associated with NYC, was born here on the shore of Lake Michigan, and with it the modern American metropolis. Probably the most famous architect to live and work here was Frank Lloyd Wright.

A lot of these buildings are also found on a stretch of North Michigan Avenue called the Magnificent Mile, like the Tribune Tower. Home to the newspaper, the Tribune Tower is worth seeing up close. The Tribune’s publisher had asked his correspondents in the years before the tower was built to bring back fragments of famous monuments from around the world. The Tribune Tower’s facade has pieces from 150 historic sites embedded in the stonework, including the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Taj Mahal, Rouen Cathedral, the Alamo, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Parthenon in Athens, Westminster Abbey, and the Great Wall of China, to name a few. You can walk around the building and see these with chiselled inscriptions telling you where they come from.

Millennium Park

This space in Grant Park is the most popular visitor attraction in the Midwest and has won plenty of awards. Created to herald the new millennium, it contains quite a few pieces of bold art, as well as public areas and facilities that combine forward-thinking architecture and design.

The centrepiece of Millennium Park is the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a 11,000-capacity flowing structure designed by Frank Gehry that hosts Chicago’s biggest outdoor festivals and concerts from spring to autumn. The packed calendar includes the Chicago Blues Festival, the Chicago Jazz Festival and the Grant Park Music Festival, as well as frequent performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. When we were here there was a symphony orchestra rehearsing but also a world music concert happening.

In recent times, the most famous landmark to be found in Chicago is probably Cloud Gate. More commonly known as “The Bean” (for obvious reasons), this rounded arch shaped like a giant blob of liquid mercury was sculpted by Anish Kapoor and installed in 2006. A great example of interactive public art, you cannot visit without taking photos of your own distorted reflection against the surrounding Chicago cityscape, or looking up into the “omphalos”, a concave chamber underneath the arch. Iconic.

South of Cloud Gate is the Crown Fountain by Catalan artist Jaume Plensa, featuring a pair of 15 metre LED-covered glass blocks depicting a changing array of Chicago locals’ faces spitting out streams of water every five minutes. The glass towers face each other across a black granite reflecting pool. Like most of the public artworks in Millennium Park, it’s interactive, providing a space for kids to cool off under the waterfalls.

Like most of the works in the Millennium Park the Crown Fountain is interactive, and on hot summer days you’ll see children paddling in the reflecting pools and cooling off under the waterfalls that cascade down the sides of the towers.

Heading east from Millennium Park into the Loop, we embarked on a quest to try Chicago’s claim to culinary fame (well, one of): the deep-dish pizza.

More like a pie or a savoury cake than the classic Neapolitan pizza, the deep-dish pizza was invented in Chicago’s north side neighbourhood in the 1940s. Slicing into one, the layers are inverted – the sliced mozzarella is densely laid first then covered with vegetables and meat, typically Italian sausage, before being topped with a layer of sweet crushed tomatoes. The inversion of the ingredients prevents the cheese from burning.

You can find deep-dish everywhere in Chicago but the well-known restaurants include Lou Malnati’s, Pizano’s, Giordano’s, and Gino’s. There’s also Pizzeria Uno (the original… I think). Some of them sell little pies for one person, but after trying both, I think you really need the big pie for the real thing. I am certainly no expert, but Lou Malnati’s was pretty good. Pequod’s is supposed to be good too!

After dinner we went out for a show, which was good fun. (Yeah, pre-COVID-19 times were wild, weren’t they.)

We did a few other things in our off-time, including hitting a duelling piano bar which was insane fun, and we also went up the Willis Tower for some city views. We went for a walk around Navy Pier, checked in to a blues club, and had some drinks on a rooftop bar overlooking the DuSable Bridge over the Chicago River. But really, we didn’t stray too much from the Loop (downtown) and there is so much more to the city, like Lincoln Park to the north. It would have been great to catch an improv show at The Second City (training ground for so many incredible comedians: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert, Mike Myers, Steve Carell, Eugene Levy, Bill Murray, etc) or attend a baseball game (White Sox versus Cubs?).

There is a lot to do and see in Chicago and I do hope that I’ll be lucky enough to go back (even for a work-related trip) and tick some more off the list. It has world-class food (Alinea, anyone?) and nightlife in spades. As de facto capital of the Midwest aka “America’s Heartland”, Chicago really is the all-American city – perhaps more so than New York, which feels like its own little cosmos – and as such, it is certainly worth visiting, especially if you’ve only ever stuck to either coasts of the country.

It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago – she outgrows his prophecies faster than he can make them. She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.
— Mark Twain

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