Chicago's Top 10
to See & Things to Do
Chicago is one of the best tourist cities in the world. It is compact, easy to navigate on foot and by public transportation and it’s full of surprises. Here are the top ten things to see and do in Chicago.
Number 10: Universities
Chicago's institutions of higher learning are world famous. From Hyde Park on the south to suburban Evanston on the north, college campuses are great for wandering.
The University of Chicago, where more winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics have taught than anywhere else in the world, also claims renowned educator John Dewey and sociologist Robert Park. The first controlled nuclear reaction occurred there as part of World War II's Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb.
The Oriental Institute includes a newly renovated museum to display its vast collection of ancient art and artifacts from the Mesopotamia (today's Iraq). Nearby, of course, is President Barack Obama’s Chicago manse: 5046 South Greenwood Avenue.
Established by the Garden Club of Evanston in 1915, it also celebrates the historic ties between America and England. All of the garden's flowers, shrubs, trees, and herbs are mentioned in Shakespeare's plays.
Chicago is a city of neighborhoods – 77 neighborhoods to be precise.
Best known is Chinatown, just south of the Loop (Chicago's downtown). The ornate red and gold gate over Wentworth Avenue at Cermak Road marks the entrance to a dozen square blocks packed with 59 restaurants and twice as many shops. In fact, Chinatown is so tightly packed that it's exploded its borders – don't miss the new section north of Cermak.
Chicago's Mexican-American community has displaced the Czechs in Pilsen, a neighborhood around 18th Street and Ashland Avenue. Frequent celebrations bring crowds to the streets. Oh -- it was named for Plzeň, the fourth largest city in what is now the Czech Republic.
Heading west from Ridge Avenue on Devon Avenue you come to Chicago's Indo-Pakistani neighborhood. If you'd like to sample a curry, try on a sari or ogle gold jewelry, this is the place. Don’t miss the huge Patel Brothers market – a neighborhood landmark.
Andersonville, along Clark Street north of Foster, is a neighborhood in transition from Swedish to Middle Eastern. Where else can you pick up a jar of lingonberry jam to enjoy with your freshly baked pita bread! My favorite stop: the Swedish Bakery on Clark.
Number 8: Festivals, Parades and Other Special Events
If you’re in Chicago during one of its ethnic festivals, plan to drop by for good entertainment and great food. Celtic Fest kicks off the season in May in Millennium Park, but there are plenty more.
The city has thousands of restaurant choices (between 7,000 and 15,500 – depending on who's counting). Tops in my book is the award-winning Charlie Trotter's in Lincoln Park (this is the original of his now-four locations, of course)
There are only three dining options each evening – set menus of about eight courses each. Each selection, varying with the seasons, is exquisite. Order a flight of wines to go with your choices, and the prices hit the stratosphere (but worth every morsel and sip).
Music, theatre, opera and dance flourish in the Second City. It's claimed the term "jazz" was coined here in 1914, and of course the Blues Brothers themselves are Chicagoans!
Venerable icons are the Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but culture vultures also have discovered the new North Loop Theater District. In the Old Town area is Steppenwolf, home to such well-known actors as John Malkovich, Gary Sinise and Laurie Metcalf.
Number 5: Sports
The quintessential Chicago experience is an afternoon double-header of baseball at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.
If a Cubs game doesn't fit your schedule, check out their cross-town rivals, the White Sox, playing at U.S. Cellular Field (formerly Comiskey Park).
Number 4: Shopping
Downtown shopping began on began on State Street with the opening of the original Marshall Field's department store in 1852. Chicagoans mourned when it was purchased by Macy’s and renamed Macy’s on State Street (official address: 111 North State Street).
It’s still a major retail presence in the Loop at (named for its surrounding "loop" of elevated train tracks) as is Carson Pirie Scott, 1 South State Street, with its ornate ironwork entrance dating from 1899.
North Michigan Avenue – known as the Magnificent Mile – is a browser's delight. In addition to the myriad options street side, four vertical malls together offer some 250 department stores and specialty shops. Look for Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom's, Bloomingdale's, Crate & Barrel, Burberry's and more.
Just to the west of the Magnificent Mile, the River North neighborhood is the newest magnet for art galleries, auction houses, antique dealers and jewelers who love the spacious loft buildings. This newly gentrified area stretches a half-dozen blocks north from the Merchandise Mart. Once open to the trade only, that mammoth emporium now includes an 80-store retail complex and a special series of public showrooms for kitchen and bath products.
Number 3: Museums
There are more than four dozen museums in Chicago, from the obscure to the world famous.
The John G. Shedd Aquarium is the largest indoor aquarium in the world. The Art Institute of Chicago holds the largest collection of Impressionist paintings outside the Louvre in Paris. The largest Latino cultural institution in the United States is Chicago's National Museum of Mexican Art. The Adler Planetarium was the first in the Western Hemisphere.But, Chicago also is home to the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows. a seemingly endless list.
If you can see only one, make it the Museum of Science and Industry. Opened in 1933, this Southside landmark is chock full of opportunities for discovery. My favorite remains Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle, but there's a World War II German submarine, replica of an Illinois coal mine, and a DNA double-helix structure dedicated by its discoverer (and Chicago native) Dr. James D. Watson.
If you have more time, add a visit to the Museum Campus on the south side of downtown. Grouped together are the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum of Natural History (home of "Sue", the biggest T-rex fossil ever unearthed) and Adler Planetarium.
Number 2: Architecture
Chicago is a microcosm of modern urban building -- the first steel frame skyscraper was build here in 1885. Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, Helmut Jahn and hundreds of other designers have created a "living museum of architecture."
Highlights in the Loop include the Chicago Cultural Center (check out the Tiffany domed ceiling), Auditorium Building and the magnificently Art Deco style Chicago Board of Trade.
North of the Chicago River, Tribune Tower has exterior walls imbedded with actual bits of famous buildings – Westminster Abbey, Taj Mahal and Arc de Triomphe among them. Across the street is the Wrigley Building, designed to look like a "luscious birthday cake." The fanciful Water Tower is one of the few buildings to survive the disastrous 1871 Chicago fire.
One of the best ways to learn about Chicago's architecture is to take the Chicago River Architecture Tour hosted by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Knowledgeable docents will tall you all about the city's famous buildings.
Chicago would not have existed without Lake Michigan (the city marks the location of an ancient Native American portage site connecting the Atlantic with the Gulf via the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River).
Waterfronts in other cities are crowded with factories, highways or ports, but Chicago celebrates its lakefront with an unparalleled system of public parks.
Daniel H. Burnham, who was chief of construction for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, envisioned a comprehensive outline of development for Chicago that included parks connected by landscaped boulevards. The centerpiece of his 1909 plan is Grant Park.
No visit to Chicago is complete without a visit to this lakefront oasis, no matter the season. To the north, check out Navy Pier, an entertainment and shopping complex that began life as a dock for Lake Michigan freighters. Now it's home to a replica of the 150-foot Ferris wheel that made its debut at the World's Columbian Exposition and docks for sightseeing cruises.
Right in the middle of Grant Park is Buckingham Fountain, twice as large as its inspiration, the Latona Basin at Versailles, France. Don't miss the nighttime light shows (each evening between Memorial Day and Labor Day).
Chicago's best festivals take place right here along Lake Michigan. And remember, in the summer, the weather is "cooler by the lake."
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