One of the great cities of America, Chicago has plenty of things to do…too many, in fact, to see in a single visit. Here are the top 10 you should focus on…
By Jim Ferri
Chicago is one of the great cities of America, a sophisticated metropolis with great cuisine, excellent shopping, and a vibrant urban life. It also showcases itself through compelling architecture and scores of world-class museums that provide a cultural legacy second to none.
It’s a city that offers it all, and consistently delivers more than expected.
Part of the city’s charisma is beautiful Lake Michigan, at 22,394 square miles (58,000 square kilometers) much more ocean-like than lake. It extends almost into downtown and has quite an impact on the city, providing a shoreline developed into a broad ribbon of beautiful parkland that offers some of the best recreational space anywhere.
Modern Chicago is a city of class, style, and culture that offers a multitude of surprises for travelers, no matter what their interest. The following ten places are the most popular among visitors to the Windy City. If you’re planning a trip to Chicago, put them all at the top of your list.
Said to be the U.S. Midwest’s #1 attraction, the 3,300-foot-long Navy Pier is a colorful amusement wonderland on Lake Michigan. It is Chicago’s Coney Island and Luna Park, complete with a famous Ferris Wheel and other rides, as well as a popular beer garden, not a complete surprise in beer-loving Chicago. What is a surprise is that Navy Pier also has three theaters (including Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater), a Children’s Museum and a stained-glass window museum.
Along the east side of the pier you’ll find a flotilla of big and small boats, some the size of large yachts, which will take you on a tour up the Chicago River and along the shore or out on Lake Michigan. During the summer months, fireworks light up the pier every Wednesday and Saturday evening, plus, of course, a special July 4th show celebrating America’s Independence Day.
Despite it not being as large as many other zoos, the Lincoln Park Zoo it is the second-most-popular attraction in the city after Navy Pier. It’s the oldest public zoo in the U.S., is open every day of the year, and still remains free to everyone.
While you’ll see the typical lineup of animals here – lions, apes, polar bears, etc. – I suspect that it’s the zoo’s setting in Lincoln Park that adds to its allure. Walk about the park near the zoo and you’ll enjoy a beautiful view of the city skyline reflecting in the lake, almost as if you were on an oasis.
The Shedd is a great aquarium, one of the best in the country, and when I arrived, I saw just how popular it was since the admissions line stretched for about 200 yards. I was lucky enough to have a CityPASS, though, which allowed me to bypass the line and enter immediately. (At the risk of sounding like a shill for CityPASS, I use these passes whenever I can since they not only save you a lot of money on a group of top attractions but also allow you to skip long lines).
The aquarium’s 3-million-gallon Oceanarium, home to Beluga whales, dolphins, sea otters, and seals is the largest marine mammal habitat in the world. You can reach it via bus or taxi or by an $8 water taxi ride from Navy Pier.
Adjacent to the Shedd is the Field Museum, a natural history museum rated one of the best in the United States. Among its treasures is the largest and most complete T-rex ever unearthed, a behemoth named Sue.
Sue is joined by several top-notch exhibits, including one devoted to the cultures of Pacific islands. Another provides an “underground” view of the earth’s subterranean ecosystem, a fascinating bug’s-eye view of the world beneath our feet. Other interesting displays include exhibits devoted to Africa, the ancient Americas, ancient Egypt, gems and the evolution of our planet.
Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile,” a glitzy 13-block stretch of shopping Nirvana on North Michigan Avenue is as famous as New York’s Fifth Avenue and Beverley Hills’ Rodeo Drive. It begins at the Chicago River and continues north for about a mile (1.6 km) to Oak Street near the famous Drake Hotel. Along its length, you’ll find the crème de la crème of retail, including Bloomingdale’s, Cartier, David Yurman, Marshalls, Saks, Tiffany, et al.
I suggest that you leave the Mile, however, and at the Chicago River cross over the bridge and walk down to nearby Millennium Park. There you’ll find Cloud Gate, a magnificent sculpture nicknamed “The Bean” by Chicagoans for its kidney shape.
It’s a magnificent sculpture, unlike anything I’d seen before, and as I walked around, and under it, I could hear others describing it as “unbelievable” and “so uniquely beautiful.” Even those descriptions fall well short of sufficiently describing this beautiful but simplistic work of art.
One morning I went down to the river to take the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise, which had been highly recommended to me by friends. (By the way, the Chicago River is the only river in the world that flows backward, the result of a massive public works project undertaken to protect the city from water-borne diseases in the early 1900s.)
The 90-minute tour is an excellent and lively introduction to Chicago and is comfortable and fascinating way to see the city. What makes the tour fascinating, and so popular, is that Chicago is a living museum of 20th-century architectural history since the city was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1871. The fire is said to have started when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow supposedly kicked over a lantern, a spot also pointed out by the excellent guide. Don’t miss the tour.
Although Chicago and New York continually compete for the bragging rights for America’s tallest building, Chicago can lay claim to having built the world’s first skyscraper, the 10-story Home Insurance Building in 1885.
The tallest building in the city today continues to be the Willis Tower, aka the Sears Tower, once the tallest in the world. But it’s famous not so much for its height but for it’s Skydeck, glass boxes in which you walk out the side of the building and look straight down to the street, 103 floors below. It’s not for the acrophobic but is an exceptionally popular attraction. If you don’t need the adrenaline rush, you’ll find a much better view of the city from the Hancock Tower.
Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry is a bit far out of the center of the city by bus, but it’s well worth the trip. It’s the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the most fascinating.
The first museum in North America to introduce interactive exhibits, it’s a fascinating place that can easily take up most of the day, if not all of it. Learn about genetics and farms, trains and coal mines, and take a walk through a heart. Watch a 40’ (12 m) tornado form inside a two-floor exhibit and see the Apollo 8 Command Module. And don’t miss a tour through the U-505, the only German U-boat captured intact during World War II.
Set in an original 1893 Beaux-Arts building, and guarded by a pair of iconic lions on South Michigan Avenue, the Art Institute of Chicago Is home to one of the finest collections of French Impressionist art in the world.
For many Americans, however, it’s greatest treasures are Grant Wood’s American Gothic (which, for some reason, I expected to be much larger) and Nighthawks, Edward Hopper’s depiction of a New York diner near his home in New York’s Greenwich Village. Other treasures including Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte – 1884, Renoir’s Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Molin Rouge, to name just three.
Chicago has a great music tradition, which continues to this day (in fact, it’s purported that the term “jazz” was coined in the city in the early 1900s). I capped off my visit to the Windy City with something quintessentially Chicago: a visit to a Blues club.
My choice was Kingston Mines, considered one of the best blues clubs in Chicago. Right after arriving in the dimly lit place I grabbed a beer and some ribs (along with delicious fries and coleslaw) and stayed for several enjoyable hours before leaving at 11 PM since I had a flight to catch the next morning. The band, however, kept playing until 4 AM. It’s that popular.
If you go:
72 E. Randolph
Chicago, IL 60601