Come on babe, why don’t we paint the town, and all that jazz! Catherine Zeta Jones purrs as she bumps and grinds her way through the opening number of the new hit movie Chicago. The box office business that Chicago is attracting is helping put the Midwestern US city back on the international tourist map.

For the Australian visitor who focuses a US visit on the coastal centres of LA, San Francisco and New York, Chicago the city comes as something of a major surprise and revelation. Having visited the US on many occasions, I had never bothered to stop in the middle of the country and see what the fuss about Chicago was really about. This trip I found out -“ its sheer beauty and absolute grandeur, not to mention its lake-side location and charm, made me wonder why I had never been here before. Chicago is truly one of the gems of North America and is simply not to be missed.

The first thing that has to be said about Chicago is that it has two nicknames, and both have been well earned. It soon becomes apparent why it is known as the Windy City as the gale force winds that whip off Lake Michigan and through the canyons of magnificent city buildings can almost wipe your feet away from underneath you. In winter, these winds can be so icy that they feel like they cut through you, adding to the already biting wind-chill factor.

The other nickname for Chicago is The Second City, as it used to be the second biggest city of the US behind New York until the emergence of Los Angeles in the early decades of last century. Now Chicago is actually third in the pecking order of population centres, though it maintains its Second City mantle. However, there is nothing second-rate about it -“ Chicago has the charm to set it well apart from any other city.

The first thing that strikes you about the city is its architecture. The scale, design and style of the city skyline is like an architectural masterpiece in constant evolution. Chicago is justifiably famous for its grand architecture and it soon becomes obvious this is a city that takes its architecture seriously. Chicago was the home to Frank Lloyd-Wright and many of his greatest efforts still stand proudly. The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers many tours of the architectural highlights of the city, but particularly popular is the Architectural River Cruise, which highlights over 50 significant sites as a boat glides along the river. Movie lovers will especially enjoy the ride as it featured so dramatically, and romantically, in the river scene between Julia Roberts and Dermot Mulroney in My Best Friend’s Wedding.

Another thing this city takes seriously is art and the Chicago Art Institute is acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest, with galleries of the works of such masters as Monet, Van Gogh and Renoir. Taking pride of place, however, is the famous Seurat dot painting, A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte, which became the basis for the musical hit, Sunday In The Park With George. It is the kind of painting you can become lost in while staring at its magnificence.

Just up the road from the Art Institute is the Sears Tower, until recently the world’s tallest building, now billing itself as the tallest building in the US as it stands at 110 stories and 1,730 feet. A visit to its top will further explain why this place is called the Windy City as the building sways when the winds hit against it. The view it offers clearly demonstrates the way this city unfolds its way around the shores of Lake Michigan.

In a city where it is easy to indulge in cultural overload, the simple human pleasures of shopping, food and men are also well catered for.

The Magnificent Mile stretches along North Michigan Avenue and is a shopper’s delight, with an international showcase of great designer stores and boutiques all in one long strip, ranging from Ralph Lauren and Gucci all the way to such popular chain stores as Banana Republic and Gap. Thankfully the shopping bags you emerge with from the stores along this strip are also useful in keeping you balanced against the winds.

Eating out is a treat at Maggianos Restaurant, offering a classic Italian banquet in the downtown area. It’s the kind of place, with its red-checker tablecloths and deep wooden booths complete with small lamps, you can imagine Al Capone and his Mob would have loved in years gone by. Aria restaurant at the Fairmont Hotel is also one of the new hot eating spots in the city, carrying the slogan culturally inspired, but comfortably American. Firefly in the North Halstead neighbourhood is also an understated treat, with the sensational cocktails only slightly better than its great food.

Gay Chicago is a 10-minute taxi ride north of the city centre and is centred on two major streets -“ North Halstead and North Clark. Sidetrack is a popular meeting spot with a friendly crowd who tell you where to go and where to avoid, so it’s a good place to start a night out. Buck’s Saloon and Voltaire both offer an intimate neighbourhood atmosphere, but it is Manhole which proved to be the best referral of all -“ an Australian accent earned free drinks all night from the barman who had a brilliant time at the Sydney Gay Games and considered this the best way to say thank you -“ and who was I to argue? Leather men will not be disappointed with Cellblock and the Eagle, both offering a very serious leather crowd and an even more serious dress code -“ certain sections of both bars are off-limits without the right clothing. An old police issue singlet worn under layers to keep out the cold proved to be a valuable entr?card to both clubs. Real leather aficionados will also be thrilled with the Leather Archives & Museum. As I said, this is a city that takes its culture very seriously.

A few days is not enough to do this city justice. Travellers planning a US adventure should take note and include Chicago as an essential in any North American travel itinerary. While seeing Zeta-Jones and Zellweger in action will explain what all the fuss is about with the movie, a trip to the actual city will do the same in explaining why Chicago is a place not easily forgotten.

 

The website for the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau is at www.chicago.il.org/.

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