Neighbourhood chic in Chicago
Where to shop, eat and hang out in the Windy City
The bright lights of Chicago, where shopping is the visitors’ favourite sport. Photograph: Getty Images
You say Chicago and I think Cubs (baseball), Bears (football) and Bulls (ice hockey). Add a legendary Irish rugby victory over the All Blacks (40-29, in case you have forgotten) played out in the glory of Soldier Field, and the Windy City has been elevated to my sporting cities hall of fame.
But it isn’t for sports that most tourists visit the US’s second city – it is for shopping (after that it is for restaurants and then culture). The city of towering skyscrapers is moving out of the shadow of New York as a shopping destination.
Top on the list for most shoppers is the “Magnificent Mile”, a mile-long stretch of North Michigan Avenue between Oak Street and the Chicago River.
In terms of density, the area’s first-rate shopping is, simply, unmatched. Even the most jaded shoppers will enjoy the ease and convenience of the shops (sorry, stores) concentrated here.
The couture houses of Oak Street are just around the corner, so it is easy to see why the area has been likened to New York’s Fifth Avenue and Beverly Hills’s Rodeo Drive rolled into one.
Not far from Magnificent Mile, shoppers can sample Chicago’s culinary scene at the newly opened Revival Food Hall (revivalfoodhall.com). The local dining concept on South Clark Street aims to showcase the best of Chicago’s culinary scene under one roof, with recognised chefs alongside newcomers.
The upscale marketplace, located on the ground floor of the National, a restoration of a 1907 Daniel Burnham-designed building, is open on Saturdays as well as mid-week.
For your art fix in this neighbourhood, don’t miss the Art Institute of Chicago (artic.edu) located further up Grant Park. Its Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection cannot fail to impress, with works by Monet, Renoir, van Gogh, Cézanne, de Toulouse-Lautrec and Matisse.
Despite the density of the shopping in this area of downtown, it is the independently-owned stores of Chicago’s neighbourhoods – and of course the discount outlets – that make the city a shopping hotspot.
One such neighbourhood is Wicker Park. Though you’ll hear plenty of Chicagoans grumbling that hipsters have taken over Wicker Park, the neighbourhood has transformed again in the 16 years since High Fidelity (remember the record store musings with John Cusack?) was filmed there in 2000.
Since then, much of the cool has migrated northwest to Lincoln Park, but the enclave of Wicker Park and Bucktown remains a vibrant hub, bustling with boutiques, restaurants, cocktail bars, music venues and a few condos. Get there on the CTA Blur Line from the Loop, jumping off at Damen. Some gems include:
Moon Voyage: Run by Chicago native Susie Lee, Moon Voyage (shopmoonvoyage.com) strikes a balance between California boho and urban edge. The bright shop stocks chic, and sometimes quirky, designs from labels as different as UK-based Lazy Oaf and For Love & Lemons from LA. Find it at 2010 W Pierce Ave.
Marine Layer: Perfectly soft T-shirts are hard to come by regardless of what side of the Atlantic you are shopping on. Marine Layer (marinelayer.com) offers exactly that, in custom-blended cotton, plus a full line of men’s and women’s clothing. It is the first outpost of the San Francisco-based brand outside of the West Coast. 1646 N Damen Ave (between Wabansia Ave and Concord Pl).
Myopic Bookstore: One of Chicago’s oldest and largest used bookstores, Myopic (myopicbookstore.com) has three floors of books from floor to ceiling. Poet talks and occasional readings happen on Saturdays. 1564 N Milwaukee Ave (at Damen Ave cross street).
Stick around Wicker Park for lunch and try the Furious Spoon (furiousramen.com), which raised funds for this initial restaurant through a “year of the ramen” kickstarter campaign. Sample the signature Furious Ramen ($12.85), spicy enough to energise you, but not too hot. 1571 N Milwaukee Ave.
For a cocktail, visit the Violet Hour (theviolethour.com). Named after a line of TS Elliot poetry, this speakeasy is pretentious but alluring, with its lack of signage (look for the yellow lightbulb) and relaxed, despite the no-phones policy. Enjoy a carefully constructed classic cocktail that a bartender will lovingly labour over. 1520 North Damen Ave.
As well as its independent boutiques, Chicago will soothe audiophiles with the number of independent record stores, which is no surprise considering its native sounds.
Spend an hour listening to records and that High Fidelity banter in Reckless Records, which serves the indie crowd both downtown and in Wicker Park. Gramaphone attracts the DJ crowd, while out in Lincoln Square, Laurie’s Planet of Sound offers an array of indie records and CDs as well as pop culture action figures.
Over in Logan Square, the area has been named one of the 15 “hottest urban retail markets across North America”. Its injection of cool came from artists moving from the higher rents in Wicker Park over the past 10 years. Head in this direction for new restaurants, bars and gigs – from blues to punk.
Back in the realm of mainstream shopping, for many Irish shoppers, an outlet mall experience is a must when visiting the US. Chicago Premium Outlets, part of the Simon shopping centre group that includes the Mills at Jersey Gardens in New Jersey, is the largest outdoor shopping centre in the Chicago area.
Its 688,000sq feet space in Aurora was upgraded last year to add Saks Fifth Avenue Off 5th, Abercrombie & Fitch Outlet, Tommy Hilfiger Kids, Ugg and Clarins to the brands that also include Adidas, Coach, Gap Factory Store, Levi’s Outlet Store, Michael Kors, Nike, Polo Ralph Lauren Factory Store and Under Armour. Victoria Secret and Pink are new arrivals this winter.
Located about an hour from downtown (only 38 miles, but remember the Chicago traffic) the cheapest way to get there is to rent a car for the day, or organize a group and split the cost of a car and driver.
Make sure to visit the Simon Guest Services office as you arrive, for a Discount Passport that adds further reductions on prices that are often 40 per cent lower than the high street prices.
Coach and Michael Kors offer particular value on classic handbags styles and accessories. Visit the make-your-own pizza joint to refuel over lunch and give yourself at least half a day to find the best deals at a relaxed pace. The best time to visit is mid-week when you can skip the weekend crowds. See premiumoutlets.com/chicago
Stay: Loews Chicago Hotel (Loewshotels.com/chicago) opened in 2015. Located between Michigan Avenue and the lake, behind the NBC Tower, it is in the heart of the city, but in a residential area, which provides quieter surroundings than the congested streets a few blocks away.
Rooms (from $199 per room per night) and bathrooms are spacious, well appointed and with numerous power outlets and USB charging points. The alarm clock has the most up to date iPhone connector and, most importantly, there is complimentary wifi, often an added extra in US hotels.
Downstairs, the lobby is home to the bar and a big screen, providing a buzzy combined work and social space.
In warmer months, a roof terrace gives views over Lake Michigan, which is about 10 minutes walk away. There is a restaurant and Starbucks on site, but venture around the corner to one of the best breakfast joints in the city – Yolk.
Eat: American breakfasts make mornings all the brighter as far as I am concerned and there is no better place to fuel up than at Yolk, one of the city’s best breakfast joints.
Not surprisingly, the busy eatery specialises in all things egg-based, from Benedicts (Pot Roast Benedict – English muffin, pot roast, poached eggs, $14, Benedict Caprese, $13.50) to Scramblers (kale, of course, $11.50), and battered “sweet specialities” (Very Berry French Toast – Challah French toast, housemade Greek yoghurt, almond granola, fresh berries, all drizzled with clover honey, $12.50; Red Velvet French Toast – red velvet cake with swirls of cream cheese, dipped and grilled in Yolk’s secret batter, served with strawberries and fresh cream, $11.50).
Get there early and still expect to wait, or order a takeaway to speed up the process. Eatyolk. com
Do: The best way to appreciate the neck-achingly impressive skyline and architecture of the city is a sunset architecture tour on the river. Chicago’s First Lady Cruises run tours in conjunction with the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Get aboard in the shadow of Trump Tower and learn all about the politics of the skyscrapers that dominate the banks of the river and the history of a city rebuilt, almost in its entirety, after the fire of 1871.
Getting to Chicago: Air Lingus flies direct from Dublin to Chicago O’Hare. Fares start from €540 return. United Airlines also fly direct. From the airport, the CTA Blue Line ‘L’ train will take you downtown in about 45 minutes for about $5. Alternatively, numerous companies offer airport shuttles, but book before arriving with an agreed rate and be aware of the unending Chicago traffic … especially on your way back to the airport.