Chicago — Cosmopolitan, Classy, and Gritty

Walking along the shore of Lake Michigan, with its summertime cool breezes, while admiring Chicago’s fabulous architecture is one of our favorite travel memories. The lake is one of the five Great Lakes  and is so large it is like looking at an ocean; it is impossible to see the other side. Dozens of beaches line the city’s edge providing much access to this body of freshwater, which is the 5th largest lake in the world. Looking toward the land is Chicago, a vibrant city with a rich history comprised of:

  • Potawatomi Indians
  • Fur trading
  • Immigrants flocking to take jobs in the railroad, stockyard and shipping industries
  • Social reformers and the labor movement
  • The rise and fall of the mafia
  • Part of the Great Migration where Black Americans moved from the South to northern cities
  • Development of scientific and cultural institutions

This history infuses Chicago with exotic ethnic restaurants, world class architecture, fabulous jazz and blues clubs, and diverse art galleries and museums. It makes Chicago cosmopolitan, classy, and gritty, depending on where you go and what you do.

With approximately 2.7 million residents, Chicago is the third largest city in the United States. The best way to explore it is sampling places by neighborhood, actively engaging its history, culture, and people. The city is alive with music, art, science and civic engagement.

What to See

  • The Art Institute of Chicago
    Museum of Modern Art

    Museum of Modern Art

    (111 South Michigan Avenue) is a world-class art museum with over 300,000 works of art. My two favorite oils are Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte; and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge. And the views from the museum windows provide perfect photo opportunities. Set aside several hours to explore this gorgeous place. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

  • The Museum of Contemporary Art  (220 E Chicago Avenue) Contemporary art museums are important because they challenge the way we perceive the world; and women artists are better represented than in traditional museums. We toured the thought-provoking Anne Collier special exhibit while at the MCA. In addition to the cool exhibits, I love the building’s staircase. Be sure to attend one of the MCA’s dance performances, too.
  • The Jane Adams Hull-House Museum  (800 S. Halsted Street) is located on the University of Illinois, Chicago campus and is a memorial to the first woman Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Jane Addams, and her social reformer activists who helped establish the settlement house, Hull House. Jane Adams and her colleagues believed in immigrants and their potential and were among the first to provide them with the education and training to succeed in America.  These activists, according to the museum, changed the lives of their immigrant neighbors as well as national and international public policy. Sadly, I didn’t get to visit the museum on this trip, but I will the next time because Addams was one of those trailblazers who offered ideas in the 19th Century that remain useful.
  • Millennium Park is a 25.5 acre park located near downtown Chicago along Lake Michigan. It offers all things fun, such as, events, concerts, ice skating, and fabulous public art. Our favorites–which must not be missed–are the Cloud Gate sculpture (The Bean) and the Crown Fountain, which is comprised of two 50-foot towers with video displays that fade every 15 minutes. The coolest and creepiest are the displays of single faces. Oh, and did we mention that water flows below the towers during the summer?
  • Michigan Avenue Bridge

    Michigan Avenue Bridge

    Michigan Avenue, also known as The Magnificent Mile, is Chicago’s premier shopping district. It has small boutiques, department stores, well-known chains, and luxury-brand shops. We, however, recommend it to you for its public art. Start at the Chicago River Bridge and head north to enjoy the art. And if you visit during the holiday season, the lights and decorations are utterly gorgeous! Photo via Wikimedia Commons

  • Haymarket Square (175 N. Desplaines Street) is a crucial site in Labor history and the establishment of the eight-hour work day. On May 4, 1886, factory workers gathered in Haymarket Square to hear speakers. As the evening turned to night, someone threw a bomb and the rally turned into a riot, which sparked a revolution. Now at the square, you will find a sculpture by Mary Brogger marking the location of and representing the speaker’s platform. Frankly, it’s a bit sad that Chicago hasn’t seized the opportunity to do an interactive museum to highlight this revolutionary time–from this riot, to the formation of labor unions and what they accomplished, since it has meant a lot for America. (I mean, c’mon, the five-day work week, overtime, child labor laws, worker safety, it’s good stuff!)  Still, we encourage visitors to see this memorial sculpture.
  • Chicago Architecture Foundation (224 S. Michigan Avenue) sponsors walking and boat tours that are interesting and fun. You can sign up online for formal tours or go to their office and get a map for a do-it-yourself tour. The boat tours are provided during the summer only. Since Chicago’s architecture and architects are world famous, make sure you get to know a little about them before you head home.
  • The Mars Gallery (1139 W Fulton Market) is the long-time super cool place to find excellent pop art by Peter Mars and other modern artists. It sits in a transitional neighborhood of warehouses, meat packing companies, new cafes and ethic restaurants. It is an interesting neighborhood to wander around.
  • The Green Mill (4802 N Broadway St) is the oldest nightclub in Chicago; and it still is a jumpin’, sophisticated, bohemian, and funky place with awesome jazz and blues musicians and edgy slam poets. Don’t let the somewhat rough exterior dissuade you from entering. The club opened in 1907 as Pop Morse’s Roadhouse. Later a new owner, paying homage to the Paris Moulin Rouge, built a windmill and painted it green. There are many amazing jazz and blues venues in the city, but this is the one we go to whenever we find ourselves in Chicago. And if you are interested in Al Capone and his cronies from the 1920’s gangster era, this jazz club is the one for you to visit.

Tourist Safety

Chicago is a fabulous city and most tourists have safe and enjoyable visits. The city does, however, have its dodgy areas where gangs, drugs and crime thrive. Unless you have a specific reason to go into outlying neighborhoods, it is best to stay in the downtown or adjacent areas. Gangs typically are interested in other gang, not tourists. So don’t try to pass as a gang member. Don’t dress in gang-related clothes or hats; and don’t try to act like you are a gang member.

Standard advice: Pay attention to what is going on around you at all times. If you feel uncomfortable, leave the area you are in and go to a safe place, like a well-lit store where you can call a taxi to take you to your lodgings. Or cross the street to avoid a hazard.

Take normal precautions to prevent having your wallet or handbag stolen. Don’t tempt thieves by pulling out lots of cash, leaving your cell phone on a restaurant table or hanging your handbag in a place that is easy to steal. When seated put your foot through the strap of your purse or backpack. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Drunk women are easy marks. If you are walking, wear shoes you can run in. If you are going to a fancy place where you want to wear high heels, walk there in comfortable shoes and carry your fancy shoes in a bag. You can put them on when you arrive. Even if you are on a big tour or with others, it’s a good practice to act as if  you are solely responsible for your own safety since any shrewd criminal targeting a tourist would look for the most distracted or least aware in the group.

Last Words

There is so much more to Chicago than the paragraphs above can describe. For example, the city has a lot of civic involvement. You may see this in historical plaques, but it is alive and well now, too. During the last several visits, we have seen peaceful demonstrations in multiple downtown locations about current political and social issues. We have also seen informal groups of people in silly costumes parading on the sidewalk along Michigan Avenue, just for the sheer fun of it.

One last thing: Try exploring Chicago by bicycle. You can cover more territory than by walking and it is a whole lot more fun than sitting in a bus or taxi. Divvy is the city’s bicycle-sharing program. There are hundreds of stations around, so you are likely to easily find one. Or click on the Divvy link above to find the nearest station to you. Biking is a super fun way to explore the city.

Okay so there is one more last thing. Chicago is dynamic and seems to be enhancing itself all the time. New sculptures and flower boxes appear. Restaurants reinvent themselves and cafes spring up seemingly just when you need a hot cup of coffee or tea. So change is happening and it makes Chicago a vibrant place to visit and live. Viva Chicago!

Leave a Reply