Two days in Chicago
A short visit to the birthplace of the skyscraper makes for a fun-filled holiday
The woman behind the counter in Walgreens drug store on Michigan Avenue remarks on my accent and tells me she has been to Ireland twice, both times on whirlwind bus tours from London to Cardiff, over to Dublin and up to Belfast “a lotta time on a bus, I can tell you,” – and then she says she’s going back again this September. She loved the whole thing, particularly Dublin. “Wonderful,” she says, although you have to think her visit must have been super-short.
Then two things strike me. This is the second random chat I’ve had with a local and I’d only been in Chicago less than two hours at that point – the other was with a man in the lift at the swanky 1920s Drake Hotel, where we talked about Gone Girl , Chicago resident Gillian Flynn’s mega bestseller. So already Chicago is living up to its reputation for friendliness and general midwest niceness.
The second thing is that – like the Walgreens woman – while you can’t do everything on a short visit, and I was in Chicago for just two days, it can work like a sort of travel speed dating, making you decide instantly whether you like a place or not.
Mindful that Chicago is regarded as the birthplace of the skyscraper – and it still is a city of immensely tall and beautiful buildings – the fastest and most spectacular way to get a handle on just where you are, is to go up. At the John Hancock Observatory on the 94th floor of the John Hancock Centre on North Michigan Avenue (jhochicago.com), the views from the skywalk balcony are astonishing, especially at night if the weather is clear. It was when I visited, and the view was right to the other side of Michigan Lake. If I hadn’t seen that string of lights on the far side of the lake, 80 miles away, I would hardly have believed it’s a lake at all. During daytime it looks like a vast sea, fringed by sandy beaches with the wind whipping up waves on its surface.
If you’re a little braver, with a stronger stomach, there’s Skydeck Chicago, on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower (it used to be called the Sears Building), where they’ve built three glass-walled and floored ledges up at 450 metres – like giant balconies that jut out from the building and give the slightly terrifying illusion that you’re standing on air. It’s an illusion reinforced when a cloud passed by, enveloping the breathtaking view in mist for a few seconds before floating on.
Chicago is a massive retail destination – in surveys it’s the number one reason people visit, followed by the restaurants, and then culture, which doesn’t really reflect the city’s cultural offerings, which are many, but says more about the sheer range of shops and food on offer. Chicago has the reputation as being the best shopping city in the US outside of New York and it has all the global brands lining Michigan Avenue, called with maybe a little bit of hyperbole, “the miracle mile”. Whole days could get swallowed up in just the Bloomingdales centre or the Watertower centre, but the shop I was most curious about was Burberry’s new flagship store which opened with a glitzy fanfare last November.
The luxury brand tore down its previous shop on the corner of North Michigan Avenue and East Ontario Street and the rebuild got Chicago talking. This is a city completely rebuilt after a fire in 1871 and steeped in architectural heritage, so any major build, especially on the city’s showiest thoroughfare, provokes debate.