Chicago sits on the south-eastern corner of Lake Michigan, with a shoreline of 42kms and a swag of white sand beaches which provide a striking contrast to the blue, blue water of the lake. The city was redesigned after being destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 (caused by a cow apparently), and now boasts beautiful parklands, innovative architecture and many excellent museums and galleries. Here are a few of our highlights.
Head for the heights
Imagine stepping into a glass cage 412 metres above the ground, looking straight down beyond your shoes at the bustling city streets below. That’s what you can do on The Ledge at The Skydeck, located in the famous Willis Tower in Chicago. Willis Tower is 443 metres high – 520 if you include its twin antenna towers – and has 110 stories. The Skydeck is on the 103rd floor, and you can walk all around the building to take in the incredible views over Lake Michigan, its beaches and the suburbs of Chicago. The Ledge’s glass boxes extend out over a metre from the skyscraper’s side, with an overhead camera able to catch images of the 1.5 million visitors that have been flooding up the tower to experience it. The stomach does do a few somersaults when you step out on it, but the views are incredible and the photo well worth having. For something special, book in for breakfast on The Ledge or for the sparkling night lights, choose dinner on the Ledge, indulging in world-famous Chicago Pizza while you take a bite of the view.
River cruise with the First Lady
This is the most popular tour in town – a leisurely 90-minute cruise up the river on the Chicago Architecture Foundation cruise with Chicago’s First Lady Cruises. We hear a fascinating commentary on the city’s history, along with descriptions of the more interesting buildings as we go by – and there are plenty, including the Wrigley Building, Trump Tower, the Boeing building and the Chicago Tribune. We glide along all three branches of the Chicago River, under 13 of the river bridges, and get a good feel for the layout of the city centre while seeing all of its skyscraper stars. You can even see the glass boxes of The Ledge, hanging out of the Willis Tower. They look rather high from down here.
Shedd Aquarium is on the lake foreshore and is home to 32,000 aquatic animals from over 1,500 species of fish, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, birds and mammals. We sign up for something special, a Beluga Encounter, and watch trainers interact with these unusual looking small whales. The trainers only teach techniques that will allow health checks on the whales to make sure they are healthy everywhere from teeth to tail. These creatures really are beautiful. While there, check out the other incredible exhibitions and visit the cutest inhabitant at Shedd – a rescued sea otter pup called Luna.
No crying in baseball
Wrigley Field is home to the Chicago Cubs and is to Chicago what the SCG is to Sydney. We seep into the ground in a wash of people wearing blue and red and are lucky to be invited into a corporate box which has a perfect line of sight onto the pitch. We meet Fergie Jenkins, a famous Cub who is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, we have a proper Chicago hot dog and we go and sit in the stands in the shadows of the manual scoreboard (one of only two left in America) and cheer every run and every catch as the Cubs flog the Phillies. Apart from its history (it celebrated its centenary last year), the field is fascinating because it is smack bang in the middle of suburbia. In fact, so close that people have built mini grandstands above their houses and sell tickets to watch the game.
Museum of Science and Industry
One of the largest science museums in the world, the Museum of Science and Industry has over 35,000 artefacts in 37,161 square metres of hands-on exhibits designed to spark scientific inquiry and creativity. Highlights for us include a German U-505 submarine that was captured by the Americans in 1944, a 999 steam locomotive, an old United Airlines Boeing 727 and a Pioneer Zephyr Train that you swear is about to pull out from the station with a honk. We are mesmerised by Science Storms, a huge exhibit that reveals the extraordinary science behind some of nature’s most powerful and compelling phenomena, and YOU! The Experience, which explores the human mind, body and spirit.
Grant Park was designed to separate the downtown area of the town from Lake Michigan. The park’s highlights include the Art Institute of Chicago, Buckingham Fountain and in the southern corner, Millennium Park. Millennium Park features a magic blend of architecture, gardens and eye catching public art, with the most visited being what is officially known as Cloud Gate, which was British artist Anish Kapoor’s first installation in the USA. It was inspired by liquid mercury, but looks like a coffee bean; hence its nickname, ‘The Bean’. It is the place to take selfies, as the city is reflected in the silvery mirror-like surface of the intriguing sculpture. Also visit Lurie Garden, the Crown Fountain and the Frank Gehry-designed Deconstructivism-styled performance stage known as the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. In the southwest corner of the Park, we are struck by the poignant Agora art installation, which has over 100 three-metre tall headless cast iron torsos, walking in different directions.
While Grant Park is the playground of the city, the Magnificent Mile is the epicentre of shopping, dining, history and accommodation. Located along a 13-block stretch of North Michigan Avenue from the Chicago River to Oak Street, the Mile is indeed magnificent with over 460 shops, 275 restaurants, 60 hotels including the five-star Peninsula Chicago and attractions sewn like gems along a blustering cloak. Perhaps the most famous building is the historic Water Tower, which was built between 1867 and 1869 for Chicago’s municipal water system to house a huge iron standpipe used to regulate water pressure. It is one of few buildings to survive the Great Fire, as was the Pumping Station to the east – with both buildings designed by William W. Bovington. Admire the beauty of these buildings before shopping at luxury brands like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Gucci or Burberry, then pop into the Peninsula Hotel for afternoon tea.
Things to do
Architecture Foundation River Cruise; cruisechicago.com
Shedd Aquarium; sheddaquarium.org
Wrigley Field; chicagocubs.mlb.com
Magnificent Mile; themagnificentmile.com
Museum of Science and Industry; msichicago.org
Grant Park; chicagoparkdistrict.com
The Chicago CityPASS contains prepaid admission to Shedd Aquarium, Skydeck Chicago with a fastpass entry, The Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry and either the Art Institute of Chicago or the Adler Planetarium. It will save you 50 per cent compared to normal box office prices. www.citypass.com/chicago
Where to stay
The Peninsula Chicago is an elegant cocoon of style and tranquillity well positioned just off the Magnificent Mile. peninsula.com
The Chicago Hilton is smack bang on South Michigan Avenue opposite Grant Park and has excellent rooms and a colourful history. hilton.com
Choose Chicago; www.choosechicago.com