I have wanted to go to Chicago ever since I took a history of music class in university. The class focused on the origins and development of popular music in the twentieth century and how society affected and was affected by music. The Great Migration—the movement of African Americans from the rural south to cities in the North in the early 1900s—had a major impact on the music scene. In Chicago a new form of blues, known as Chicago Blues, was born. This course sparked my interest and since then, I’ve wanted to visit a Chicago Blues club and decided that it would be the perfect gift to myself for my 30th birthday.
It was to be a whirlwind three-night visit for my boyfriend and me. The first priority was ‘the blues’ and we went to the club of one its pioneers, Buddy Guy, and someone in the audience coaxed him to get up and sing. That was exciting although I would have preferred a more authentic setting for it was rather touristy. But we quickly learned that Chicago is about much more than music.
To truly appreciate Chicago you must first learn about the Great Fire that nearly destroyed it, the World’s Fair that gave it back its glory, and the architecture that set it apart and made its citizens proud.
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During the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, the city burned for three days leaving the downtown in ashes and 300 people dead. They still don’t know how it started although it was falsely rumoured that it was a cow that knocked over a candle.
The whole city had to be rebuilt and when Chicago was chosen to host the World’s Fair in 1893 it was just the opportunity to do that. The Fair was an enormous undertaking, lasting six months, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in America. Over 27 million people attended and Chicago was suddenly a contender as a world-class city.
What made Chicago’s name was its architecture. Because of the fire, nothing was old but what was built was often very original. I never knew so much about architecture as what I was told on this trip. Every building seems to have a story. There’s a building that has no corners; one that reflects the clouds; another that is divided in two with walkways between to let the light in. Chicago architects were the first to use steel-frame construction and large areas of plate glass. In the late 1890s, they built one of the first modern skyscrapers. That’s when a rivalry started with New York City to see which city could erect the tallest building.
We learned all this from guides on the architecture boat cruise and the hop-on, hop-off buses. Most of the guides were really enthusiastic. They’ve lived in the city their whole lives and know all the neighbourhoods. We heard all about the rivalry between the two baseball teams, the Chicago Cubs, that hasn’t won a World Series for more than 100 years, and the Chicago White Sox; fans of both clubs are said to be diehards.
We stopped at the sign where Route 66 begins, that infamous highway from Chicago to Los Angeles, and I got a photo to give to my dad who has travelled much of it. I took a ride on a huge Ferris wheel and views of the city are quite spectacular from the top. George Ferris built the world’s first Ferris wheel here for the 1893 World’s Fair, so it was named after him.
The tour guides told us about the street food. There’s the Chicago hot dog with so many toppings that they say it was “dragged through the garden”. Ketchup is a no-no. The other well known one is the deep-dish pizza with the crust going up the sides like a pie.
There was lots of talk about Oprah because Harpo Studios is here, although I must say it looked quite regular. We were told she lives in a penthouse looking out over the Chicago River. We went by President Obama’s house on the South Side but it was difficult to see anything because of shrubs blocking the view. You could still see all of his security people though. The guide said we would not even be able to drive down the street if the President was there.
We stopped at the Art Institute of Chicago, which is huge, and raced around trying to see the most famous works of art. The Thorne Miniature Rooms is a collection that is definitely worth checking out. There are 68 miniature rooms, almost like dollhouses, that were designed to look like homes from late 13th century Europe and United States from the 17th century to the 1930s. Every room is fascinating and you could spend hours looking at all the tiny details. They were created in the 1930s by Narcissa Niblack Thorne, an Indiana native who married into a wealthy Chicago family. Kids, of course, just loved the display.
Chicago is on Lake Michigan and the Chicago River runs through the centre of the city. Along the river there are places for people to dock their boats. Anyone can come to this city and have a good time. It’s particularly great for families. The city is called Urbs in Horto, City in a Garden in Latin, and there are many gardens and public spaces. The Navy Pier is a big tourist destination and has lots of stores and food vendors and where you can see great views of Chicago from the top of the ferris wheel. Many activities are free, even the zoo that’s on the waterfront. You can rent a bike and ride from museum to museum.
Millennium Park was one of my favourite places to visit. It is a public park right downtown with lots to see and do. One of the highlights is the enormous stage where we listened to the Grant Park Orchestra. They give free performances all summer long and the surrounding grass fills with people eager to soak up the music. Many bring elaborate picnics with them – you’re even allowed to bring your own wine. There is an immense structure called “The Bean”; its only purpose, as far as I know, is for people to go up close and look at distorted reflections of themselves – it makes for some pretty funny photos! There is a very unique fountain where water falls from the top of two tall towers. Water shoots out of the mouth of human faces that are shown on each tower. It sounds a little strange, but it’s a great public space where kids have fun running through all of the water.
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I had my birthday dinner at Frontera Grill. The chef there is Rick Bayless, famous for his authentic Mexican cuisine. He won the title of “Top Chef Master” and has a TV show on Mexican cooking. Reservations need to be made 12 weeks in advance, but luckily for us they keep a lot of tables available for walk-ins. We got a table after waiting for 45 minutes. I really enjoyed it; it was our fancy night out.
We wanted to go somewhere to see views of the city lights at night. We could have taken the elevator up the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and walked out on a glass floor but my boyfriend is not crazy about heights. So instead we had martinis in the Signature Lounge, a romantic place also high in the sky, and just before we left the clouds lifted and we could see the whole city in lights.
We stayed at the Palmer House Hilton. It is a luxurious hotel built in 1925 (the original burned down in the Chicago Fire of 1871 just 13 days after it was completed). As soon as I walked in the front door I felt like I had stepped back in time. In a way it reminded me of the hotel from the horror film The Shining. The long hallways seem to go on forever and you can get lost on your own floor. I didn’t mind getting lost though because the walls are covered with black and white photos of famous people who performed there in the 40s and 50s. While walking to our room a guest who was checking out warned us to “watch out for the ghosts” and later we heard a woman talking about strange noises she kept hearing. For me, the haunted feel of the place added to the fun.
So that’s how I spent my 30th—trying to see as much as possible in the city of Chicago. A return visit is in order!
By Jessica Sunter
Photo credits Jessica Sunter
© Riding the buses 2012