by Eric Andrews-Katz -
SGN A&E Writer
Chicago has many nicknames - the Windy City, the City of Broad Shoulders, the City that Works. But there is no doubt that the city is beautifully laid out with lots of green spaces, open parks, wonderful attractions, great cuisine, an attractive shoreline, and extremely friendly people. Described as 'New York on Valium,' Chicago is also extremely clean despite its size, being the third-largest city in the United States.
Getting to Chicago is easy, as there are many options. Two international airports - O'Hare and Midway - allow the traveler a plethora of choices as to how they want to arrive in this well-established metropolis. Getting into the city center is a snap using the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) rail system. Color-coded for easy understanding, the CTA is simple to navigate and especially useful when traveling from one neighborhood to another. The city is made up of a patchwork of individual neighborhoods that are woven together creating the quilt that makes up Chicago. If public transportation isn't your cup of tea, cabs are plentiful. The experienced traveler may want to download Uber or a similar app for easy taxiing across the city.
Here is a brief look at several of Chicago's more interesting neighborhoods.
When choosing a place to stay there are many options to choose from. Many first-time visitors prefer to stay downtown in the Loop, the central business and government district. Being in the Loop puts the traveler in the center of convenience. Along this strip consider the newest hotel among the lot, the Radisson Aqua Blu (www.radissonblu.com/aquahotel-chicago). Not even a year old, the hotel has received great acclaim not only for its personable staff, wonderful views, and business/personal comforts, but also for its notable architecture. Built in a 'flowing' design to represent water cascading down a building, the Radisson Aqua Blu is as attractive as it is comfortable. With every amenity imaginable and a comfortable, well-stocked bar in the lobby, this hotel makes several attractions (including Architecture River Tours, Millennium Park, and the Art Institute) easily accessible. Taxis are available with minimal waiting right outside the door.
A boutique property, the Talbott Hotel (www.talbotthotel.com) is another option for staying downtown, making shopping or sightseeing easily accessible. This four-diamond hotel earns each and every accolade awarded. The decor of an Old English manse welcomes the visitor with comfort and style. The team here are extremely friendly, from Perry, who greets you at the curb, to the three knowledgeable concierges (Tim, Gene, and Kathryn) who are happy to help you with plans for exploring the city, seeing the sights, or enjoying any of the fine cuisine offered. When traveling with a daughter, niece, cousin, or any special girl ask about the American Girl (doll) package to help make Chicago an unforgettable experience. Business centers and conference rooms are available on the premises, as is a delicious and relaxed restaurant for enjoying a meal.
Chicago cuisine is so much more than just hot dogs and deep-dish pizza. Ethnic restaurants have opened all over the city, making Chicago a foodie heaven with plentiful options in every section of the city. Breakfast eateries are varied but if staying in the Loop area, try Wildberry Café (www.wildberrycafe.com) for a large selection of fruit-topped waffles, pancakes, or crepes. Lunch in the Loop can be enjoyed at The Gage (www.thegagechicago.com), where you'll find delicious salads and upscale comfort foods. For dinner downtown, a great choice is Quartino Italian Restaurant (www.quartinochicago.com). Much like Italian tapas, this delicious restaurant specializes in small plates. Enjoy house-made pasta and house-cured meats that will appeal to any appetite. Sampling the delicious ravioli filled with braised pork, speck (an Italian cured meat), and fava beans, or the house fonduta (fondue) - there is no way to go wrong. Finish off the meal with a perfectly made Limoncello cocktail.
Complete the evening with a stop by the James Hotel downtown and have a cocktail at Jimmy (www.jameshotels.com/chicago/bar-lounge/jimmy-chicago). A modern, sleek feel gives this comfortable watering hole the perfect atmosphere to see and be seen while enjoying any one of their signature drinks.
Another choice close to the downtown area is Goose Island Brewery (www.gooseisland.com). Learn how the taste of beer depends on the amount of hops put into the brewing. Enjoy good food while taking a tour of one of the two brewery locations and sampling the variety of their craft beers. Ask for the tasting to enjoy a shot of six different types ranging from light to dark.
Entertainment downtown offers many varieties. Several of the most popular attractions can be found in this area. The Architecture Foundation River Cruise (www.architecture.org/tours/boat-tours) is an incredible way to see the city. Enjoy a 90-minute tour along the river as a knowledgeable docent gives information about the incredible architecture that contributes to Chicago's skyline. This is a very popular activity, so advance tickets are suggested. Just down the street is the world-famous Art Institute of Chicago (www.artic.edu). Housing the greatest impressionist collection outside of France, this incredible museum offers wonderful exhibits from ancient statuary to modern eclectic. From Seurat's famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grand Jatte and the works of Toulouse-Lautrec to Wood's modern classic American Gothic and Warhol's portrait of Mao, as well as many other recognizable masterpieces can be viewed.
Chicago is one of the top three theater cities in the United States (New York and Seattle being the other two) and the choices here are many. The Second City (www.secondcity.com) is celebrating its 50th year being part of the Windy City. This comedy troupe offers stand-up shows and improv comedy alike and has helped launch the careers of such notables as Andrea Martin and Bill Murray.
Located on the North Side, Andersonville is an 'artisan' community, contributing a funky feel to the city's diversity. For exploring this area (and several others) you may want to contact the Chicago Greeter Tours (http://chicagogreeter.com). This free service guides groups (no matter how small) through a personalized tour depending on your individual tastes. Learn about Chicago's history, the individual neighborhoods, the gangsters, and even the city's rich LGBT heritage.
Browse through any of the many galleries and artisan shops found in the area. The Andersonville Galleria (www.andersonvillegalleria.com). This collective gallery exhibits everything from wall decorations to fashion jewelry, from artisan foods and spices to hand-painted plaques and magnets, all made by local artisans. With its ever-changing merchandise, this galleria is not to be missed when exploring this part of Chicago.
For evening eateries and fun try the newly opened DryHop Brewers (www.dryhopchicago.com). Did you know that, like wine, some beers get better with aging, and that they should be swirled and sniffed before enjoying? Do you know the difference between India Pale Ale and English Pale Ale? Enjoy good food while tasting one (or several) of these homemade beers. These brewmasters create their own rotating stock that can only be found at this location, and it is well worth the trip!
To sample a wide range of food types while also getting local information and exorcise, try the Chicago Food Planet Tour (www.chicagofoodplanet.com) and choose one of several neighborhood options. Explore a variety of tastes from the local Chicago hot dog (there's a very particular set of rules when it comes to topping Vienna Beef) to instant ice creams made from liquid flavors and nitrogen. Explore the decorative neighborhood and learn how immigration has influenced the various housing styles.
For dinner in the area it would be hard to top The Storefront Company (http://thestorefrontcompany.com), which boasts a fusion of modern and farm cuisine. Choose either a separate entrée or from the prix fixe menu. Offering seafood, duck, pork, or beef the menu changes according to season. The team expertly prepares the food in a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere. While rabbit can be 'gamey' in taste, here it is done to perfection and comes out succulent and tasteful. House cocktails can compliment the perfect meal or food with wine pairing can be the most enjoyable option.
After dinner you may want to go down the street to The Violet Hour (http://theviolethour.com). This fashionable cocktail lounge taps into Chicago's Speakeasy past by having only a mural on the outside door with a light hanging above. When the light is on, the Violet Hour is open for business. The capacity is very limited, and the line outside starts early. Inside, high-back chairs instantly create a personal space - and cell phone usage is prohibited. The mixologists tending bar follow a strict recipe list insuring the perfect blend of liquor (count on at least a 2-oz. pour) and infused flavorings.
The very pulse of the LGBT community in Chicago gets its origins in Boystown in the Halstead area. At the very core is the Center on Halsted (www.centeronhalsted.org). Not only supporting local youth, the Center also assists the elderly and homeless and reaches out to unite all parts of the community. Keeping 'Green' at its base (and getting greener every day), this building hosts a gymnasium, conference centers, an ever-growing library, and spaces to hold entertainers and guest speakers ranging from Billie Jean King to Coco Peru. With a long list of information and activities going on in the LGBT community, the Center on Halsted is an excellent resource of information for any traveler and receives approximately 1,000 members of the community visiting on a daily basis.
Entertainment in Boystown holds something for everyone's taste. Trendy clubs or neighborhood pubs are readily found. Theme clubs such as Sidetrack (www.sidetrackchicago.com) hosts different themes (show tunes, retro video, divas, etc.) and videos each night - a schedule can be found on their website. Roscoe's (www.roscoes.com) is more of a performance bar offering Burlesque and Boylesque, depending on the night.
No matter what your interest, Chicago has something to offer. The city is full of rich history, rising (literally) from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire (1871) to the glory of two World's Fairs (1893 and 1933) and now extending into the 21st century. Sports teams and theaters are plentiful and the city has a vibrant feel with many sprawling neighborhoods and green parks, all just waiting for the curious explorer.
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