Chicago: Waltzing around ‘Windy City’
It’s Saturday night in the Windy City and it’s a street party and everyone is there. I am walking on a history-packed strip on downtown Michigan Avenue between the Michigan Avenue Bridge and Oak Street that is lined with department stores, megamalls, luxury boutiques and retail chains – all in a row. It’s today called the Magnificent Mile or the Mag Mile — the Mile as locals call it, is where history segues with haute couture and is Chicago’s answer to Paris’ Champs Elysees. It was Chicago real estate developer Arthur Rubloff who drafted an extensive plan to revitalise the district in the 1940s. He coined the moniker ‘The Magnificent Mile’ as the thoroughfare began to transform itself into a classy centre of retail, dining and culture.
I stroll on the Mile wrapped up in fleece, looking up at the sleek lines of luxurious hotels: from the Drake to the Allerton, some of Chicago’s swankiest hotels line the Magnificent Mile which has hosted so many celebs and statesmen. It’s hard to imagine that long ago this was just humble Pine Street, lined with gritty factories and ugly warehouses. Today, several of the tallest buildings in the United States, such as the John Hancock Center and the Trump International Hotel and Tower, lie in the district. Michigan Avenue is also punctuated by the neo-gothic Wrigley Building and Chicago Tribune Tower. I take a look at the base of the Tribune Tower which has stones from 120 iconic spots around the world embedded in its exterior walls from the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, Parthenon to the Notre Dame.
History whispers from every corner of the city. The pub which gangster Al Capone frequented in the 1920s, the brick buildings of Essanay Studios on Argyle Street (which is today St Augustine’s College) where famous comedian Charlie Chaplin started his career and the Palmer House Hilton, once a wedding gift from a business magnate to his socialite wife! This hotel has hosted legendary entertainers like Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. I discover that the city is built in layers, with double and triple decker streets that raise it from the level of the pale green Chicago River. For a change of perspective, I sit on an open-air boat and take an architectural tour of the city which brings the buildings alive. After all, this is the city where the skyscraper was born and where Frank Lloyd Wright apprenticed, worked and created brilliant projects. I glide past Trump Tower built by the same firm which built the Burj Khalifa, the Lego-like Willis Tower (used to be the tallest building in the world called Sears Tower then), Merchandise Mart — a mammoth building with four million square feet of space, which was the ‘largest building in the world’ when it was constructed in 1930. Whimsical Marina City catches my eye — a building that resembles corn cobs, circular towers of residential blocks with a small marina for boats attached to its base. It was one of the earliest buildings to create a ‘city within a city’ with gyms, shopping, restaurants, an ice rink and the bottom 19 floors devoted to spiral parking ramps. My favourite building is Aqua, built by a female architect — an 82-story tower with balconies designed to look like waves, a green roof and an award from PETA for being bird friendly!
Taking a break from architecture, I browse at classic department stores such as Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Macy’s. I follow my nose to the iconic Garret Popcorn Shops to pick up a cone of caramel and cheese temptation known as The Chicago Mix — Garrett uses a privately-grown blend of kernels along with a secret family recipe to create airy popcorn in four distinct flavours. I follow it up with a visit to one of the country’s oldest chocolate companies — the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company and Hershey’s Chicago for a quick sugar rush. This is not just another chocolate shop — you can pose for a photo and customise your own Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar wrapper, or pick up Hershey’s themed gifts and souvenirs.
Retail therapy makes one hungry and I head to Giordano’s on Rush Street to taste the city’s most famed invention — the deep dish pizza. With a thick, crunchy crust and cheese oozing out, and an almost ambrosial aroma, this is a meal packed with calories. I continue my walk along the Magnificent Mile my eyes drawn to the gleaming white Wrigley Building on this stretch, which served as the headquarters of the chewing gum magnate William Wrigley. Its tower was inspired by the design of the Spanish Seville Cathedral and was the first air-conditioned building in Chicago. Mother-daughter duos walk out of the American Girl Place — three floors of doll heaven with outfits, accessories and even a tea party with dolls. Girls can take their dolls to lunch, brunch, afternoon tea or dinner at the American Girl Café, watch a doll musical, and of course, there’s much to buy. Walking on the Magnificent Mile does leave my wallet magnificently lighter, so I take a break at the little park where the Chicago Water Tower stands. It all dates back to 1871 when the Great Chicago Fire sent the city up in smoke. Miraculously, the flames spared the Water Tower and Pumping Station, which still stand as reminders of the structures that once lined this now famous street. This limestone tower looks like a Gothic castle. Aged trees with twisty branches, beds of white tulips and horse-drawn carriages lined up waiting for passengers, all add to the charm.
For a bird’s eye view of the city I make it to the John Hancock Center, Chicago’s fourth tallest building with postcard-worthy views from its 94th floor observatory from where you can look at four states! I relax in Grant Park, a public park sprawling over 300 acres in the city’s Central Business District with ancient elm trees. Walking near the south end of the park, I come across 106 headless and armless cast iron figures. The figures called Agora were designed by a Polish lady, Magdalena Abakanowicz, who survived the Holocaust. Each figure different in details, was hand crafted in Poznan, Poland, over a period of two years and shipped to Chicago.
Chicago is a great city for public art with quirky installations in parks, lobbies of buildings and streets. I also discover that Walt Disney was born here and went to art school here, and the iconic gold plated Oscar statuettes are still produced here! I admire Marc Chagall’s brilliant Mosaic of Seasons in the courtyard of the Chase Bank building, made of inlaid mosaic pieces of more than 200 colours. It was created in France and then transferred onto panels and installed here. Alexander Calder’s vermilion Flamingo inspired by a woman’s legs in the Federal Plaza offers a dramatic counterpoint to the angular steel and glass buildings that surround it. At the leafy Millennium Park, I take hilariously distorted selfies from every angle — The Cloud Gate portrayed as a popular mascot of the city is a giant, silvery bean-like sculpture that represents a blob of mercury and reflects the city and its residents. A walk under its nine-foot-tall arch is a mind blowing experience. And my moment of pride? It was created by British born Indian artist Anish Kapoor from stainless steel plates!
I find an unexpected refuge at the Fourth Presbyterian Church at the end of the Mile. The stained-glass windows in the sanctuary are beautiful, and the church courtyard has a small fountain with a carved stone sculpture. Despite being right on Michigan Avenue it is blessedly quiet. And after the hurly-burly of this vibrant city, it feels great to have a few moments of simple solitude.
Far and Away
Get there: Etihad Airways through Abu Dhabi.
Visit: June to October.
Stay: The Conrad Hilton located in the downtown area has comfortable rooms with a great location.
Do: Take an architectural tour of the city, walk the ledge of the Willis Tower, visit the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum which owns the original of skeleton of Sue, the largest and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus Rex ever discovered and spend some time at Navy Pier. Catch a game at Wrigley Field, one of the most famous baseball stadiums in the US.
Eat: The city’s signature deep dish pizza and its own brand of hot dogs.
Buy: Shop on the Magnificent Mile for clothes and footwear.