The skyline from the 103rd floor of Willis Tower, Chicago’s tallest building, is spectacular. There is the 65-story Marina City complex with two iconic petal-like towers. Built at the start of the third - and ongoing - wave of Chicago’s architectural innovation, the award-winning Aqua on the lakefront captures the imagination with its slow-rippling white balconies seemingly floating across the otherwise perpendicular skyscraper. This dense urban landscape is a testament to Chicago’s unstoppable drive to build the greatest city in the world.
Founded in the late seventeenth century by a man named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the small trading post of Chicago quickly grew into one of the largest cities in the United States. Its favorable location on Lake Michigan served as a gateway to the West during the country’s westward expansion. Today, Chicago continues to be the nation’s trade, cultural, and financial center.
I start my urban exploration just north of the Chicago River, in the combined Streeterville - River North area famous for shopping, museums, and expansive city views. I hit Ohio Street Beach, a small sand strip near the iconic Navy Pier. Pressed against the city’s formidable skyline, it serves as the perfect playground to enjoy the city on hotter summer days. The Museum of Contemporary Art and 360 Chicago—the city’s second tallest building—are both within walking distance, but I choose to visit the Water Tower Place next. Named after the charming nineteenth-century Chicago Water Tower, this unique skyscraper shopping mall features a lineup of international brands and an in-house live theater for Broadway-caliber shows.
Time for lunch. A short walk from the Water Tower Place is RPM Steak, one of Chicago’s most prominent restaurants. The city has always been known for its food, but local chefs have been quietly reimagining modern American cuisine for the past several years. I figure that if former President Obama has dined at RPM Steak, it should be worth a stop. I order Steak Frites, the RPM specialty. Steak is a staple of the American kitchen that has become quite stale, struggling to compete with items like foraged mushrooms, baby beets and seared scallops taking over menus across the United States. The tender frites nearly melt in my mouth. Steak certainly thrives here.
Next morning, I book a river cruise to see the Loop - Chicago’s central downtown district - up close. The cruise starts at the source of the Chicago River near the mint green waters of Lake Michigan. As we pass one of many steel bridges crisscrossing the river, the Wrigley Building with Renaissance-inspired terra cotta tiles is looming overhead. I learn that the current flow of the river is manmade. Originally, it flowed into the lake, which supplied fresh drinking water for the entire city. To improve public health, civil engineers reversed the flow at the turn of the twentieth century using a series of intricate canal locks.
After the tour, I take the ‘L’ - Chicago’s beloved elevated train - out to the West Loop. Loved by the locals, the ‘L’ has a system of elevated track trains rumbling through the city at any given moment.
I meet Ashley, a Chicagoan friend of a friend, at Au Cheval, a hipster West Loop diner at the self-proclaimed passion for eggs. Part of the latest food resurgence, Au Cheval serves fresh takes on such American comfort food classics as burgers and hash potatoes. A line forms at the door and stretches around the corner. Inside the dimly lit narrow space that resembles a train coach, Elvis Costello tunes are playing from an open-reel tape recording.
I order a single cheeseburger with an egg on top and Ashley orders potato hash with a side of duck heart gravy. We have front-row seats to the open-faced kitchen—a small gas stove for meat and an electric range for everything else. Beef patties flop and eggs crack as three chefs serve up Au Cheval’s menu.
“What makes Chicago great?” I ask Ashley as she takes a bite. “The food,” she answers without hesitation. “Definitely the food. It’s hearty, yet simple.” By the time we polish our plates, I tend to agree.
The sun hangs high above the lake the next day when I head to the Magnificent Mile, a stretch of shops and restaurants alongside festive Michigan Ave. I stop by Garrett Popcorn before seeing Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate at the Millennium Park. The ‘bean,’ as locals call it, reflects Chicago skyline in its smooth steel plates, seamlessly curved together into a whimsical shape. Next I visit the Field Museum and its permanent resident Sue, the world’s largest and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil. Towering Sue isn’t the only marvel greeting me at the museum’s airy entrance hall. Just below, a multi-floor recreation of a 5,000-year-old pharaoh’s dwellings awaits at the on-going Inside Ancient Egypt exhibition.
But the Loop is not the only area worth exploring. There is a wide patchwork of thriving neighborhoods that make up greater Chicago: Lincoln Park, Bucktown, Logan Square, Wicker Park, Old Town, and more. I head to Lincoln Square, a vibrant community on the city’s northern edge. Passing a wall of colorful street art murals on Milwaukee Ave, I stop by Reckless Records, a vintage shop that carries an impressive vinyl list with genres ranging from Duke Ellington to Lady Gaga and everything in between. Later, I catch a tribute to Muddy Waters, a famous Chicago blues musician, at the legendary Kingston Mines, a cozy Lincoln Park blues club that’s been frequented by Bowie and Dylan. The house is packed tonight as it has been nearly every night since 1968.
The next morning I head to Shedd Aquarium, the largest indoor aquarium in the world with more than eight thousand marine animals calling it home. I spend time at the beluga dome and stand mesmerized near the Caribbean Reef display as wild marlins, clownfish, and sharks are swiftly swimming past. I especially enjoy the Waters of the World exhibit where fascinating creatures, such as tiny Amazonian frogs and a giant Pacific octopus, are collected under one roof.
On my last day in the city I visit the Rookery Building to see its renowned oriel staircase. As I look into the elegant spirals that seem to go on forever, I learn about the Great Chicago Fire that destroyed much of the city in 1871 and the unprecedented rebuilding effort that followed. This brand of relentless optimism may just be what makes Chicago a great American city.
Perhaps Chicago is the second city because it has risen above such tragedy and turned itself into the thriving place to live and visit that it is today filled with lovely energy of which I’m quite fond.