Medium 9781628871227

Frommer's EasyGuide to Chicago

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Answering an insistent demand for this guidebook from loyal readers of the Frommer's series, the Chicago residents among our writers have labored hard to capture the unique spirit of this dynamic city that every American must visit at some point of their lives. We cover establishments and attractions in all price ranges, but limit our actual selections to the best in each category. Thus, in the Easy Guide tradition,we don't drown the reader in superfluous detail, but reveal the preferences of our long-experienced authors.

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10 Chapters

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1 THE BEST OF CHICAGO

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The Best of Chicago

Chicago is, indeed, my kind of town, and after your visit to the country’s third largest city, I hope it will be yours, too. Chicago has it all: world-class culture, incredible food, vibrant green park spaces, a great lake, and miles and miles of sandy beaches. Plus, it’s all wrapped up in a bundle of Midwestern friendliness and served without a whiff of pretension.

The name “Chicago” actually comes from a Native American word referring to a stinky onion that flourished in the wild here, more than 200 years ago. Today, I like to think of that stinky onion more figuratively: when you pull the first layer of Chicago back, you begin to realize just how many layers still remain. The “Windy City,” nicknamed not for its gusty breezes, but for its hot-air-filled politicians, has a fascinating history, much of which is kept alive through its museums, architecture, and locals who love to spin a good yarn, often with a pint in hand. From Grant Park, the skyline is awe-inspiring, while the attractions of the nearby Museum Campus draw visitors and locals alike. Serious shoppers head for the high-fashion boutiques and multilevel malls along the Magnificent Mile, but the tree-lined streets of the Gold Coast and walking trails along the Lake Michigan shoreline offer a respite from the crowds. A rattling El ride through the heart of the Loop brings the city’s booming business district up close and personal, allowing for in-depth exploration of the area, car free.

 

2 CHICAGO IN CONTEXT

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Chicago in Context

Chicago has spent the last few years in the national media spotlight, for reasons both inspiring and embarrassing. On the one hand, it’s the adopted hometown of President Barack Obama, the place he got his start in politics and where he still maintains his Hyde Park home. His victory rally in downtown’s Grant Park signaled Chicago’s vitality and influence to the whole world (many of his top presidential advisors were local business and philanthropic leaders before they moved to Washington).

Unfortunately, Chicago must also lay claim to politicians such as former Illinois state governor Rod Blagojevich. “Blago,” a product of the city’s shady Democratic political machine, stunned even cynical Chicagoans with his blatant moneygrubbing and attempts to sell Obama’s former Senate seat to the highest bidder. Obama’s talk about a new era of hope in politics turned out to be short-lived, with his ties to Chicago wheeler-dealers a liability. Blagojevich proved that the old ways of doing business aren’t so easily erased.

 

3 SUGGESTED CHICAGO ITINERARIES

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Suggested Chicago Itineraries

Remember last chapter, how I compared Chicago to an onion? Don’t expect to discover all of the layers on your first visit. I’ve been here for years and am still discovering new-to-me museums, restaurants, theaters, and even whole neighborhoods. With that said, there’s a certain expectation that you’ll hit at least a few of the biggies on your visit here, from our towering skyscrapers to our belly-bombing deep-dish pizza. When you’ve made it through the “bucket list” items, you’ll notice that a number of these itineraries—namely, “El Strolls”—take you on the El into our neighborhoods. These are my favorite jaunts, because that’s where you’ll discover the true Chicago.

You’ll see from the map later in this chapter that Chicago is relatively compact, so it’s possible to get a general sense of the city in 1 day (although, of course, I hope you’re able to spend more than 24 hours here). How you spend your time depends in part on your interests and the weather. You could easily spend 3 days exploring Chicago’s museums, and if you’re here in the winter, that’s going to be a lot more appealing than a day-long walking tour. On a sunny summer day, I encourage you to join us locals, and walk along the lakefront or in a neighborhood, without any particular destination in mind.

 

4 WHERE TO STAY

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Where to Stay

Ready to spin through that revolving door, directly onto State Street—that great street—and the heart of downtown Chicago? The hotels here make that quite easy to do. Of course, you’ll pay for that convenient location. Chicago hotel rates rank among the most expensive in the country, at an average of just under $200 a night for leisure travelers. And with an occupancy rate surpassing 75%, don’t expect that number to go down any time soon.

Unlike other major cities, though (we’re looking at you, New York), most Chicago rooms don’t totally skimp on real estate. It’s entirely possible to find a spacious room in a central location at or even under that average rate. The thing you’ll really pay for here is the view. If you want to look out at Lake Michigan, expect to pony up. When deciding where to stay, keep in mind that your odds of landing good rates increase exponentially if you know where to look—especially if you’re open to staying in an area that’s a few miles from downtown, or in less traditional (non-hotel) accommodations, like a room in someone’s home or even a flat rented by a monastery. While some hotels are geared towards families and others have a distinct hipster vibe, the bulk of the properties here draw in a mixed crowd, packing in suits during the week and families and leisure travelers on the weekends.

 

5 WHERE TO EAT

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Where to Eat

Whatever your budget is for food, plan on eating extremely well in Chicago. Here, people get just as excited about the perfect Chicago-style hot dog or slice of pizza as they do about eating at one of the top restaurants in the world (hello, Alinea, p. 96). Whether you’re dropping a mortgage payment on a trendy tasting menu or spending just over $3 on an incredible banh mi sandwich at Nhu Lan (p. 105), you’ll discover that one of the great things about the dining scene in Chicago is a lack of pretension, even at those places covered in diamonds and stars.

Classic steakhouses still have the same leathery allure today as they did when Old Blue Eyes crooned about this toddling town, and comfort food has made a comeback across town (might have something to do with those harsh winters). While many of the restaurants downtown and in River North fall comfortably in to the “American” category, if you get out into the neighborhoods, you’ll find just about any kind of cuisine you could dream up, including entire neighborhoods dedicated to different regions and nationalities: the Asian population in Chinatown, the Indian and Middle Eastern influx on Devon Avenue, the German ties to Lincoln Square, the Latino concentration in Pilsen, and the list goes on.

 

6 EXPLORING CHICAGO

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Exploring Chicago

Pundits and poets alike often refer to Chicago as the quintessential American city. Standing proud in America’s heartland, the Windy City is packed with museums, art galleries, world-famous cultural institutions, historical homes, stunning architecture, parks, zoos, concerts, and theaters, but it’s also brimming with beautiful, tree-lined streets, a stunning, beach-lined lake, and neighborhoods loaded with character. In a single day, you can view one of the largest collections of Impressionist works in the world at the Art Institute; pay a visit to the Field Museum to wave at Sue, the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex ever found; stand on the highest viewing deck in the U.S. at Willis Tower; and then sleep it all off in an iconic skyscraper hotel and wake up to choose another adventure. It’s a city of contrasts, from the bustling Loop on a weekday morning to the serene Lake Michigan on summer afternoon.

One piece of advice: Take a deep breath and don’t try and fit it all into one visit. First off, it’s impossible. And besides that, to be a true Chicagoan is to appreciate the city’s playfulness. If the weather’s nice, that means packing a picnic and heading to the lake or Millennium Park. If it’s dreary or cold, head to an art house movie theater or even a neighborhood tavern for a spell. Our cultural institutions have been here, in some cases, for more than 100 years. They’ll still be here when you visit next.

 

7 SHOPPING

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Shopping

If you’re coming to Chicago to shop, you may want to pack an extra suitcase. Here, finding great stores is a given—they’re everywhere. The hard part is narrowing down what you’re looking for and where. In this chapter, I’ll introduce you to some of Chicago’s unique, stand-out shops that you won’t find back home, while also giving brief descriptions of the “shopping personality” of different districts.

The big names in fashion—from Prada to Louis Vuitton—are all represented here, but you don’t have to be a big spender to enjoy a Chicago shopping spree. The city’s commercial success comes from offering something for everyone, and it’s all about location, location, location. Here’s my round up of the city’s best shopping areas, followed by some favorite, must-see stores.

The Basics

Shopping Hours    As a general rule, store hours are 10 or 11am to 6 or 7pm Monday through Saturday, and noon to 6pm Sunday. Stores along Michigan Avenue tend to keep later hours, because they cater to after-work shoppers as well as tourists. Almost all stores have extended hours during the holiday season. Nearly all of the stores in the Loop are open for daytime shopping only, generally from 9 or 10am to no later than 6pm Monday through Saturday. (The few remaining big downtown department stores have some selected evening hours.) Many Loop stores not on State Street are closed Saturday; on Sunday, the Loop—except for a few restaurants, theaters, and cultural attractions—shuts down.

 

8 CHICAGO STROLLS

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Chicago Strolls

Pack your most comfortable shoes, because above just about anything, Chicago is a walking city. A number of reasons make it that way. First, it’s relatively compact and easy to get around. Second, walking is often faster than waiting for the train or bus, and less of a hassle than driving. Third, there is just so much to see. I’ve put together the following three tours to give a true taste of Chicago’s diversity, highlighting the architecture of the bustling downtown business center, grandiose homes of the Gold Coast, and the pleasantly weird style of Wicker Park. These are all very safe areas, so while you’re wandering, I encourage you to take a wrong turn or two and see what you discover. That’s all part of the charm of a walkable city.

Walking Tour 1: The Loop

Start:

Willis Tower.

Finish:

Harold Washington Library Center.

Time:

21⁄2 hours.

Best Time:

Daytime, particularly weekdays when downtown businesses are open.

 

9 CHICAGO AFTER DARK

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Chicago After Dark

For many Chicago visitors (and residents), the daytime touring/shopping/eating is just a way of making time pass until dark, when the city really comes to life. Theater, classical music, rock concerts, dance, improv, cocktail lounges, dive bars—you name it, Chicago has it. Although the city harbors its share of see-and-be-seen nightspots, Chicagoans in general are not obsessed with getting into the latest hot club. For the most part, chilling out with friends at a neighborhood bar is the evening activity of choice. To join the locals, you only have to pick a residential area and wander—it won’t be long before you’ll come across a tavern filled with neighborhood regulars and friendly bartenders.

Performing Arts

Theater

Over the years, as Broadway produced bloated, big-budget musicals with plenty of special effects but little soul, Chicago theater troupes gained respect for their risk-taking and no-holds-barred emotional style. With more than 200 theaters, Chicago might have dozens of productions playing on any given weekend.

 

10 PLANNING YOUR TRIP TO CHICAGO

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Planning Your Trip to Chicago

As with any trip, a little advance preparation will pay off once you arrive in Chicago. This chapter provides a variety of planning tools, including information on how to get here, local visitor resources, and tips on getting around. In the last section of this chapter, Fast Facts, we offer dozens of miscellaneous resources and organizations that you can turn to for help.

Getting There

By Plane

Two major airports serve Chicago: O’Hare International Airport (www.flychicago.com;  773/686-2200; online airport code ORD), about 15 miles northwest of downtown Chicago (driving time can take about 30 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic); and Midway International Airport (www.flychicago.com;  773/838-0600; about 11 miles from the Loop (it takes about 20 to 45 minutes driving, depending on traffic). Almost every domestic airline is represented at both airports, although Southwest only flies into Midway.

Getting into Town from the Airport

 

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