Overview

Chicago-style: The adjective seems to attach itself to everything in Chicago—from vibrant downtown Chicago, architecture and political machines to deep-dish pizza, hot dogs, the arts and blues music. Chicago residents do things with their own distinctive flair, creating innovations that resound far beyond the city's borders.

The result is a world-class city with stunning architecture, an internationally acclaimed symphony, champion sports teams such as the Bears and Cubs, a host of renowned museums such as the Field Museum, great hotels in downtown Chicago and miles/kilometers of gorgeous beaches and lakefront paths that many use for bicycling, rollerblading and jogging. Most first-time visitors are surprised by the city's cleanliness and the profusion of plants and flowers.

It's no simple matter to make a precise definition of Chicago. The third-largest city in the U.S. is many things at once—a blue-collar town that's full of high culture and gracious living, and a town of historical importance that's in no way stuck in the past. It's a classic Midwestern city with international importance and a multitude of vibrant ethnic neighborhoods, including the largest Polish population anywhere in the world outside of Poland, and the only officially-recognized Puerto Rican neighborhood in the U.S. (Humboldt Park).

Ultimately, Chicago's refusal to conform to any single style, even one that bears its name, is what truly defines this city.

Geography

To know Chicago, you first must visualize its most imposing characteristic—Lake Michigan—which runs along the city's eastern edge for 29 mi/47 km, providing free beaches, gorgeous views, running and bike trails, and year-round outdoor enjoyment. The lake so dominates the city that it alone is thought of as "east": Although you'll hear references to the South Side, West Side and North Side, the residents of the East Side would be coho salmon, whitefish and smelt.

The city is laid out in a grid system, with relatively few diagonal streets. But with no alphabetical order to those streets, it's important to learn the numbering system if you want to find your way around. The intersection of Madison and State streets is the zero point for all addresses. (Madison divides the city into north and south, and State Street divides it east-west.) Many street signs include a locator relative to this intersection. For instance, Addison Street (home to the Cubs' Wrigley Field) is 3600 North, meaning it's about 36 blocks north of Madison. An address that reads 3650 N. Clark St. will be just north of Addison Street, on Clark.

State and Madison meet within the core of downtown, an area known as "the Loop" (named for the elevated commuter railroad encircling the area). The Loop is bordered by the Chicago River on the north, Wabash Avenue on the east, Van Buren Avenue on the south and Wells Street on the west. Just north of the Loop is the Magnificent Mile (Michigan Avenue between the Chicago River and Oak Street), home to stylish boutiques and some of the city's most exclusive hotels and restaurants.

History

In 1779, fur trader Jean Baptiste Point du Sable founded Chicago in a place Native Americans referred to as "stinky onion." Its location at the base of Lake Michigan made it a key transportation point. In 1803, the U.S. government built Fort Dearborn as a base for westward expansion. The 100-mi/160-km Illinois and Michigan Canal, which linked Chicago to the Mississippi River, was completed in 1848, and Chicago's first rail lines were laid just a few years later. The city subsequently became the nation's hub for both freight and passenger trains, as well as a major shipping port.

Even the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 could not stop the city's relentless economic expansion. Chicago converted the devastation into an opportunity to plan a better city. In 1893, the World's Columbian Exposition showed just how far the city had come in 20 years of rebuilding. The fair's 26 million visitors sparked the design and building of the elevated "L" trains that still shuttle millions of riders through Chicago's Loop, or financial district.

Fueled by a growing immigrant and African-American population, the city became an industrial and agricultural processing center in the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, as industrial and agricultural industries went into decline in the latter half of the 20th century, Chicago transformed itself into a global financial and communications hub.

Chicago's "vote early and vote often" era of machine politics reached its peak under the reign of Mayor Richard J. Daley, who ruled the city from 1955 to his death in 1976. Although his iron-fisted grip rankled some (including demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic National Convention), he also cemented Chicago's reputation as "the city that works." It was under his direction that the Sears Tower, O'Hare Airport and McCormick Center were all built.

The city continues to attract billions of dollars in private investments. The windfall has led to better schools, cleaner parks, safer streets and a condominium-building boom. Residents who retreated to the suburbs years ago have rediscovered the appeal of living in this stimulating city's heart.

Sightseeing

If there is one thing that defines Chicago, it is this city's world-class architecture. There are dozens of tours to guide you around the city's famous buildings, landmarks, public sculptures and lively ethnic neighborhoods. You can see the city by boat, kayak, bus, trolley, horse-drawn buggy, on foot or even by fire truck.

World-class museums are another top draw. Exhibits covering history, science, the natural world, the oceans, the heavens and some of the world's finest art are all available for curious minds and enthusiastic gallerygoers. Topping the list are the John G. Shedd Aquarium, the venerable Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Field Museum, the Adler Planetarium, and the Museum of Science and Industry.

The Chicago Children's Museum is at Navy Pier, but the pier is not just for kids. People of all ages ride the pier's giant 150-ft/47-m Ferris wheel. Navy Pier hosts a plethora of entertainment options, amusement rides, restaurants and theaters. It's also home to many tour boats.

Chicago Architecture Foundation offers the most informative river tour. Afterward, relax in one of Chicago's lovely urban parks. Grant Park is downtown along the lake; Millennium Park is the most architecturally impressive, located on the north end of Grant Park, with its well-known silver "bean," ice skating rink, and summertime outdoor concerts and expansive urban garden. Lincoln Park has a zoo, pond and conservatory. Milton Lee Olive Park, a tree-lined, quaint spot on the lakefront, is a secluded retreat in close proximity to Navy Pier.

Finally, try to get out of downtown for a day. There's a lot to see and do within a short drive or train ride, and Chicago's neighborhoods are what make it one of the world's great cities. Highlights include the homes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway in Oak Park, great amusement parks, Brookfield Zoo, the Chicago Botanic Garden and even a Baha'i temple (one of only seven such temples in the world).

Nightlife

At night, Chicago sizzles, from legendary blues and jazz venues to famous comedy clubs to hopping nightclubs. The Loop becomes fairly quiet after curtains fall on its many theaters. Then most barhoppers move north to clubs along Rush Street or to a cluster of busy taverns around the intersection of State and Division.

There's a more upscale scene in the West Loop warehouse district, and plenty of laid-back neighborhood joints in Andersonville, Bucktown, Lincoln Square, Southport, Ukrainian Village and Wicker Park. Lincoln Park and Old Town are popular with the yuppie set, and Lakeview draws hundreds of recent Big Ten grads, as well as a large following to the gay bars along Halsted Street.

Sports bars cluster around Wrigley Field, and they fill up quickly after a Cubs game (win or lose, Cubs fans always like to hoist a few). But no matter where you go in Chicago, you're certain to find a corner bar with plenty of locals talking about Chicago sports.

Last call is usually 2 am, though some bars have liquor licenses until 4 am, notably many on Division Street. Every bar gets an extra hour on Saturday night, pushing closing time to 3 or 5 am, respectively. The Smoke Free Illinois Act prohibits smoking in public places, including nightclubs and bars.

Dining

Chicago possesses all the necessary conditions for producing great restaurants: a variety of ethnic communities, a tradition of experimental cooking and an adventurous yet discriminating dining public. It's hard to imagine anyone being disappointed with the diversity and quality found at Chicago's tables.

Two of the city's most popular upscale dining areas are along the well-established restaurant row on West Randolph Street (just west of Wacker Drive) and along the streets that fan out from the Magnificent Mile. In addition, Wicker Park/Bucktown and East Ukrainian Village host a diverse sampling of newer options.

Comfort food to Chicagoans is a deadly serious business (we're talking potential heart attack). Test your arteries by sampling the Italian beef, deep-dish pizza, mammoth hot dogs and steaks that placate Chicagoans during the long winter months. However, some of the finest chefs in the nation run a myriad of restaurants that balance the scale.

The Smoke Free Illinois Act prohibits smoking in public places, including restaurants.

Chicagoans generally eat breakfast 7-10 am, lunch 11:30 am-2:30 pm and dinner 7-10 pm.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$13; $$ = US$13-$28; $$$ = US$29-$55; and $$$$ = more than US$55.

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