By Peter May
Chicago is often overlooked by Brits who tend to favour New York and the like but it has been unearthed to be the favourite city break of Americans on the founding’s of a survey undertaken by US magazine Conde Nast Traveler. So why is this, Chicago seems to have it all; the culture, food and history. What do they know that we don’t? In 2016, more than 52 million Americans visited Chicago.
Compare that to 156,832 Brits. With an extra couple of hour’s flight time compared to flying to the Big Apple, Chicago is doable for a weekender trip. Most Brits are more likely to have used the city’s O’Hare airport for changing planes than to exit the doors to explore the city. My plan was to experience the city as Americans do: a little sightseeing, neighbourhood food, perhaps some nightlife. On this side of the pond we know America’s third city for Al Capone, prohibition and gut busting deep pan pizza.
Chicago’s Americana is architectural. Chicago is to the skyscraper what Los Angeles is to film or Nashville to country music – you get them elsewhere, but nothing beats the original. Anyone who has seen a photo of the Chicago skyline can probably pick out the city’s most famous building — a 108-story asymmetrical black behemoth with two spiky antennas that are colourfully lit up at night. Add a blazing red eye between the antennas, and you’d have something right out of “Lord of the Rings.”
This, of course, is the Willis Tower. The Willis Tower’s “Skydeck Chicago” on the 103rd floor is easily Chicago’s most popular tourist attraction (https://m.theskydeck.com/), drawing more than 1.3 million visitors per year to its 360-degree views out over the city. You will need patience to reach the top with the long lines but it is worth it and you will be rewarded with a spectacular view. The Skydeck boasts “The Ledge,” which are a set of four glass boxes that extend roughly 4 feet out from the side of the Willis Tower that overlooks Wacker Avenue. The boxes — added in 2009 when the Skydeck underwent a renovation — have glass bottoms, so you can look down and see the street 1,353 feet below. Not one for the fainthearted.
Chicago has lots of interesting museums and my first was to stop by the most visited one – the Museum of Science and Industry. The sprawling space has 2,000 exhibits on three floors, with new exhibits added constantly. There is currently a very interesting one running, which will thrill fans of the beloved Pixar films (http://sciencebehindpixar.org/), which uncovers all the huge amount of work that goes into making each film. Other highlights include the opportunities to descent into a simulated coalmine, getting swallowed up by an opulent fairy castle or to just generally explore the enormous surroundings.
If you like the TV show Saturday Night Live, a trip to the Museum of Broadcast Communications is an absolute must (http://snltheexhibition.com/. There were a lot of items to view, plenty to read, videos, and enough interactive items to keep everyone interested. Each area walks you through the process of putting the show together on a weekly basis. It was far from exhaustive, but it brought back plenty of memories. Once finished with the SNL exhibit, you can stop at the 3rd floor for the actual museum, which includes mostly local history but has some notable gems scattered throughout.
Next up, a trip to the extensive natural history museum occupies half an acre of Grant Park’s Museum Campus and houses extensive exhibits that showcase artefacts from multiple eras and destinations, making it a must-see for kids. The Field Museum, (www.fieldmuseum.org), would not be complete without some quality time with SUE, the facility’s T. rex who just happens to be the largest, most complete T. rex ever discovered. Consider purchasing a Chicago CityPASS as this comes with added extras.
If you’re feeling hungry Chicago is not short on food options either. Italians, look away now… In Chicago, pizza is done deep dish, and there are several contenders for the best thick crusted, gooey, calorie-monster pie in town. It is no longer a simple meat and potatoes town. Restaurants in the nation’s third-largest city have grown to a level of sophistication that rivals any food scene in the country. Yes, soul-warming hearty comfort food is how many outsiders and locals define Chicago’s food scene.
In the meatpacking capital of the world, you can still get America’s best steaks and hot dogs, plus the destination-worthy local innovations: deep-dish pizza and Italian beef. There are in fact pizza tours that specialize in making sure you know which restaurants are worth your dollars when making a decision. The Chicago Pizza Tours, (https://www.chicagopizzatours.com), makes for a thoroughly entertaining three hour ride where you stop off at four different restaurants in various neighbourhoods on a guided bus driven tour bus. The most memorable was at Pizanos, (www.pizanoschicago.com), where the delicious deep pan pizza has become the pizza of choice of none other than Bill and Hilary Clinton. The owner even hand delivered one to Air Force one (pictured)!
Another great way of exploring the eye-catching skyline is to take a riverboat cruise (https://mercurycruises.com/). This 90-minute jolly was fun, and a beautiful way to see the Chicago skyline from the water. The river part of the cruise winds through the downtown, where some of the newer or iconic buildings are showcased. Then, the cruise goes north into Lake Michigan, before heading south toward the Adler Planetarium.
The Adler (www.adlerplanetarium.org) takes you on a journey through the stars to unlock the mysteries of our galaxy and beyond, it tells amazing stories of space exploration through high-tech exhibits and immersive theatre experiences. Artefacts and interactive elements bring these fascinating tales of space and its pioneers down to earth. There is a spectacular projection permanent exhibit, “The Universe: A Walk Through Space and Time that showcases the enormity of the universe, and touch screens let you investigate diverse and beautiful objects from deep space.
The South Loop of Chicago is a must because a lot of the attractions are situated alongside each other and this includes the Adler’s neighbouring Shedd Aquarium (www.sheddaquarium.org). It is here where you can explore exhibits about the Amazon River, Caribbean Sea, and the Great Lakes. The aquarium is one of the world’s largest housing around 32,000 creatures. While you’re here, you can feel stingrays float beneath your fingers, listen to sea lions bark and learn all about a variety of turtles.
Chicago also has all the pizzazz of Manhattan but none of the attitude, or litter. The iconic Chicago theatre with its ornate and glamorous setting is ideal for enjoying a show. For all of its good looks, shopping, culture and good Chicago deserves to be given the attention on these shores it deserves. No wonder Americans love it and the Brits should start to as well.