Airport Rating ****
Reception of locals ****
Chicago is the third largest city in the United States and the centre of the American Midwest. The city has an incredible history considering its relatively short existence (especially compared to cities in Europe). The Great Fire of Chicago gave rise to the birth of the skyscraper, whilst prohibition brought along with it the rise of gangsters such as Al Capone.
It was another work related matter that allowed me to visit a different American city, this time to give a talk. I decided to take some extra time in the city afterward to explore a little of Chicago and see some of the main sights, and I'm glad I did because I thought it was a beautiful city.
I arrived in Chicago's O'Hare airport a couple of hours before my speech and was impressed by the look of the airport. O'Hare is consistently amongst the busiest airports in the world but had a fairly modern look. Don't get me wrong, it was nothing like Singapore's Changi airport or airports in the Gulf, but it was considerably better than the airports in New York. The airport had a blue colour scheme that ran throughout the city of Chicago and I thought it was a nice touch. It was also the blue line that I caught as I decided to take a $5 metro to 'The Loop', the city's financial district.
The metro was every bit as bad as the airport was good. Don't get me wrong, it was safe and ran almost on time, but as with New York it looked in desperate need of modernisation. It took about 45 minutes to get into the financial district and I arrived about 20 minutes before I was due to talk. As I walked out of the station and looked around I couldn't help but think that this city looked very similar to London, although a much smaller London. It had the glass buildings of Canary Wharf but also the character of the city. Having not eaten all day, I decided to stop for a quick sandwich before making my way to the beautiful Rookery Building where I was to deliver my talk. The building was completed in 1888 and is a recognised Chicago landmark and it was jaw droopingly beautiful, even more so on the inside. I was lucky enough to be given a tour following my speech and it was great to hear some of the history behind its design.
As I left the building, the heavens opened and it began to absolutely pour. The one thing I've had to get used to in the States is the humidity, and of all the rain you can get, rain on a hot day is by far the most uncomfortable. Chicago's weather is notoriously extreme. It's position on the banks of Lake Michigan mean that winters are particularly harsh and cold whilst summers are humid, uncomfortably hot and sticky. After checking out the Chicago Board of Trade building, I decided to visit Giordano's, a famous local pizzeria that sells Chicago Deep Dish Pizzas's. I'm not sure I get the fuss, I found the style of pizza to be a little too rich and sickly with a lot of sauce and a lot of crust.
I took a quick walk to the Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower, the tallest building in Chicago and for a quarter of a century, the tallest building in the world. Locals, including a tour guide, still refer to the Willis as the Sears Tower, and there seems to be great reluctance in accepting the name change for a building that Chicagoans hold in great affection.
I headed back to my hotel to have a quick shower and then once again headed out, this time to the shore of Lake Michigan to check out the Navy Pier. The Pier is the number one tourist attraction in the city and is sort of an entertainment complex most famous for its Ferris Wheel, which was an attraction first showcased in Chicago at the end of the 19th century. I managed to catch centennial fireworks before walking back towards the city to do a riverwalk. The Navy Pier is nice enough, although perhaps better suited to young locals as, other than its design, its not too dissimilar to entertainment complexes in most cities.
The Chicago Riverwalk is a relatively new development, constructed in the early 2000's to open up the neglected city centre. The goals of the construction were definitely achieved as the riverwalk is ridiculously beautiful. It's roughly over a mile in length (and is in the process of being expanded further) and goes through the heart of the city, going past famous landmarks on the way. Following the rainstorm, the air was thick and humid, noticeably more so than New York but the famous Chicago architecture meant I was kept suitably distracted. Perhaps was the gaudiest building was one emblazoned with TRUMP across the front (unsurprisingly) and when it was designed it was originally going to be the tallest building in the world. Realities after 9/11 however meant that it isn't even the biggest in the city. The Tribune tower, home of one of Chicago's most famous newspapers was arguably my favourite building, but in all honesty, the architecture in general is stunning.
The Riverwalk entrances and exits are well signposted throughout the route, so you can join at the start, or mid way through, leaving whenever your body or mind begins to tire. I walked until the river forked and then turned north into the River North area. Unlike DC, the core of the city extends far beyond the river, so the streets I was walking through were fairly lively, even close to midnight. I decided to stop at Portillo's Hot Dogs to try one of Chicago's other famous foods. I actually preferred the hot dogs here than to the ones in New York.
I had a choice of either visiting the observation deck of the John Hancock Centre or the Willis Tower. Even though the Willis Tower is taller, most reviews (and locals) told me the observation deck on the John Hancock centre is both quieter and affords better views so I decided to wake up a little early and take the short walk up to the tower.
At 1,128 feet, it is the fourth tallest tower in the city, however its location on the edge of Lake Michigan means it has fantastic views of both the lake and the city. At just over $20, tickets are cheaper than equivalents in New York and there was no wait to get to the top. The view from 360 Chicago as the observation deck is branded is spectacular. The deep blue/green of Lake Michigan on one side and the tall buildings of the financial district on the other gives a nice juxtaposition. Being able to see the Willis Tower is another added bonus of visiting this observation deck. For another $7, you can get admittance into The Tilt, a pretty cool gimmick where you lean against a window on the observation deck and the window begins to lean over the street. It's a very strange feeling. The whole things lasts only a matter of seconds, but I felt like it was $7 well spent, I can definitely see why others may not agree but I enjoyed it.
After spending some time on the deck and grabbing some food in the vicinity, I took a stroll down the Magnificent Mile, a stretch with high-end shops and restaurants, think Orchard Street in Singapore or Fifth Avenue in New York. In any case, it wasn't something I particularly enjoyed, but it did take me straight to Millennium Park. At 25 acres, its a fairly large park, and its also one of the most visited landmarks in the entire Midwest. When I arrived, a classical music concert was occurring, but without a doubt, the most famous attraction in the park is Cloud Gate, a metallic, bubble like art installation that has fast become of the cities most popular attractions. The shape of the artwork means you can see misshapen reflections of yourself in the art and I've got to say, its fairly fun, if not very crowded.
As the sun got hotter, I continued my work through the park, through the lobby of the Chicago Art Institute and into a residential area. The art institute is highly regarded, but tickets weren't cheap, and having visited a considerable number of art galleries in New York, I decided to give it a miss. Lack of water and food, as well as poor phone signal, meant I spent the next hour and a half lost in a residential area. It happens more regularly than I'd like to admit, and although its not fun during the time, it allows me to see parts of the city that are quieter.
Architecture boat tour
I finally found my way towards the Navy Pier and decided to take a 75 minute Chicago Architecture boat tour. Chicago is world famed for its architecture, and it's the celebrated home of the skyscraper. Following the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871, the city was given the opportunity to rebuild, and it did so rapidly. The invention of the elevator meant that building upwards was feasible, and pretty soon Chicago had the tallest skyline in the world, a title it held until the turn of the 20th century.
The boat tour was a fantastic way to see the city. Following the route of the Riverwalk, the boat winds its way through the city, with large skyscrapers protruding on either side. Its a great way to see the Chicago School of architecture and also the city as it is today. Particularly impressive was the Merchandise Mart, once the largest building in the world in terms of volume, the old Chicago Post Office and great views of the Willis Tower. The knowledgable guide gave a great overview of the city as a whole, but also details about different buildings. At this point, the sun was at its hottest, and I could feel my skin cooking, only getting respite when the boat navigated its way under bridges which provided welcome shade. However, it was a great, and unique, way of seeing the city and I would definitely recommend it.
After the boat tour I headed north again toward the Lincoln Park area, along Lake Michigan. The lake has a decent sized beach which was fairly busy when I went past. Now, its nowhere near as nice as other beach cities such as Rio De Janeiro, Valencia, Dubai or Barcelona, but its a nice touch nonetheless. The Lincoln Park area hosts landmarks famous for their connection to Al Capone, I visited the site of the St Valentine's Day massacre and the house that was used as a lookout point. Incredibly, the area today is the lawn of a nursing home hidden behind a gate, a great opportunity missed for tourism by the city.
A beautiful city with real problems
There is no doubt that Chicago city centre is stunning. The area around the river and the lake is particularly impressive and if you are a fan of skyscrapers, this is definitely a city to visit. However, the city does have its problems. The crime rate in Chicago is amongst the highest in America and has become a huge cause of concern for its citizens. Gun violence is at levels many times higher than comparable sized cities in Europe and the government even threatened to send the army in to sort the issue out.
Another problem is political corruption. I have noticed that the United States is a first world country with third world politicians and Illinois seems to be one of the centres of corruption. Budgets have failed to pass many times in the past few years, schools are struggling and money is funnelled into the hands of the few. Chicago is considered an alpha city and has all the capacity to become one of the worlds leading cities, however corruption and crime need to be addressed.
Finally as a Sikh, its a great place to visit, but I'm not sure its a city I would live and work in. Firstly, its a little smaller than the truly global cities such as London, New York and Tokyo but secondly, its cultural homogeneity means it isn't as ethnically diverse as other major cities in the west. I'm fortunate to be a decent sized individual - not a typical easy victim - but I could definitely feel the eyes staring. I know there is a small Panjabi population in the suburbs, but its one of those places I don't think you could ever truly relax.
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British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.