Who goes to Chicago anyway? When you travel halfway across the world, you pay your respects to Times Square, soak in the Californian sun, gamble in Vegas and monkey around in Disneyland.
But Chicago? You go there for the stunning skyline, the magnificent lakefront. You go there for pizza that melts in your mouth and to sway your hips to electric blues. But more importantly, you visit Chicago for the stories.
This is the land of Al Capone, the most notorious mobster during the 1920s Prohibition era. It's also the hometown of Hugh Hefner. It was here, in 1953, that Hefner produced the first issue of Playboy magazine. And right here in 1960, he opened the first Playboy Club - where Playboy Bunnies would serve food and alcohol to exclusive keyholders. When Hefner left for Los Angeles in the '70s, he closed it down. Now, the original Playboy Mansion just sits there quietly, in the posh Gold Coast neighbourhood.
A roarin' fire
The name 'Chicago' is derived from the Native American word Shikaakwa, which means wild onions (which grew along the Chicago River). The Americans incorporated it as a city only in 1837. Railroads were constructed, factories were built. By 1870, it was one of the largest cities in America. But the story of Chicago, really, begins with the Great Chicago Fire.
In 1871, Mrs Catherine O'Leary and her husband Patrick lived in a little cottage in Chicago. According to the most popular version of the story, Mrs O'Leary was milking a cow in her barn when it kicked over a lantern which started the fire. Mrs O'Leary swore she was in bed when it happened and many different versions surfaced. The real cause remains an unsolved mystery. What is known is that the fire did start in that little barn and that it spread through the city. It roared and flared for two days, destroying most of the city, while Chicagoans scurried to the shores of Lake Michigan.
Rebuilding started almost immediately. Laws were passed for buildings to be fireproof. The debris was dumped into Lake Michigan as landfill, it's what the spectacular Millennium Park is built on. Charming, right? All the photos on Flickr can't prepare you for the marvel that is this gigantic public park (it covers more than 24 acres) on Chicago's lakefront. It hosts some of the city's most interesting events and works of art. Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate, a massive steel structure shaped like a bean, is like a kaleidoscope made of mirrors. It can fascinate you for hours.
And because every park must have a water body, you have Crown Fountain. This is the coolest part. Inspired by gargoyles, it has two 50-feet-high towers facing each other, which display digital videos - clips of 1,000 different Chicagoans that play successively. Each face is up there for 15 minutes; you'll see a face, it will pucker up and, in the summer, will sprout out water.
Right next door is the Art Institute of Chicago, the oldest and largest art museum in America. It has the best Impressionist collection outside of Paris. One of the permanent installations on display is Fragments of Chicago's Past - a collection of architectural objects, most from old buildings of Chicago. The building, which houses the museum was built for the Columbian Exposition of 1893. It's where Swami Vivekananda gave his famous Chicago speech introducing Hinduism to the world (the videos on YouTube, as it turns out, are fake). More interestingly, the exposition was also where the first Ferris Wheel, designed and constructed by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr, was displayed.
By the end of the 19th century and well into the next, Chicago kept growing rapidly. With Lake Michigan on one side, and the Chicago River on the other, the city had to grow vertically. The first skyscraper was born right here. And many followed. There are two ways of fully appreciating the beauty of the city. And there's no reason why you shouldn't do both.
The first is simpler: the view from the John Hancock Observatory, 1,000 feet up (the John Hancock Building was once the tallest in the world). The second is the architecture river cruise. A tried and tested one is on Chicago's First Lady. This lovely yacht is warm and comfortable, complete with a bar. But the idea is to climb to the upper deck with the tour guide (who will know everything there is to know about the city). You'll hear interesting stories about the buildings you can see all around the river: The Trump Towers, the Wrigley Building, the Chicago Tribune tower, Village Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), Navy Pier… and you will smell chocolate! Turns out, it's wafting from the Blommer Chocolate Factory nearby.
A visit to Chicago isn't complete till you say hello to Sue, the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in the world. The 67-million-year-old dinosaur inhabits the Field Museum of Natural History.
The only part that's disconcerting is how there are no signs of Al Capone. Chicago is almost embarrassed about its gangland past. The city that loves its tales has downplayed its most thrilling one. The Lexington Hotel, which served as Al Capone's headquarters, is gone - it never really escaped its reputation. And unless somebody points it out, you will skip the site of the St Valentine's Day Massacre (in 1929, seven mobsters were gunned down in one of America's bloodiest power struggles between two rival criminal gangs, the Italian one led by Al Capone and the Irish one by George 'Bugs' Moran). There is a specific mob tour for those interested - The Untouchables, but it's one of the few.
Mark Twain once said of the Windy City - It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago - she outgrows his prophecies faster than he can make them. She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time. It's probably also because you cannot see the city all at once. There will be newer things to do on the next trip, and the one after that. And there will be stories, served with a drink, or more.
3 days in Chicago
I was in Chicago for three perfect days. And if you plan it right, you can actually see a lot! We flew on Qatar Airways' maiden flight to Chicago and on landing, were greeted with a water salute at O'Hare airport. It was like the plane was being baptised. On Day One, we visited Millennium Park and the Art Institute of Chicago (set aside at least an hour for its fabulous Museum Shop).
The Field Museum of Natural History is also a venue of some cultural events, and that's where the party was that night. The highlights: champagne right next to Sue, a T-Rex skeleton, and Jennifer Hudson, who performed at the party! On Day Two, we squeezed in a tour of the city in a lorry and an architecture boat cruise. In the evening, we had cocktails at Signature Room at the 95th, on the 95th floor of the John Hancock building and blues at Blue Chicago, a long, dark club with gorgeous music.
Day Three was saved for shopping on State Street and pizza at Lou Malnati's - Chicago's oldest pizza place. The Chicago deep-dish pizza is not a pan pizza. This one has a thick crust only at the edges, the rest of the pizza is thin crust filled with cheese, sauce and toppings. A slice is a meal.
Visa: Applying for an American visa is a piece of cake. And usually, they'll give you one that lasts a decade.
Currency: One American dollar is about R56.
Getting there: There are flights to Chicago from several Indian cities.
Getting around: You can utilise the fantastic train network. If you're in downtown Chicago, just walk it. If you can afford it, take a cab.
Tip: You can't not tip in the US.
In 1960, Hugh Hefner opened the first Playboy Club in Chicago
The writer's trip was sponsored by Qatar Airways
From HT Brunch, April 28
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