Since working for Chicago Youth Centres in the late 1990s I’d not returned to Chicago. Except for 24 hours in NYC I’d never explored an American city before my time there in 1997 and I was overwhelmed by the architecture and the huge spectrum of what Chicago had to offer. I spent evenings in run down blues bars in a crappy part of the city, played tourist in Navy Pier, went to to the top of Sears Tower (as it was then), and took some surprisingly good photos with my disposable camera. 21 years later I’m back in Chicago with a friend for a few days of sightseeing and some art and architectural tours and to see the city through very different eyes.
On the first day we booked on one of the Shoreline Architecture Tours to see some of Chicago’s finest buildings by boat on the Chicago River.
I got horribly sunburnt but it was so good to see the high rises of Chicago up close – even the infamous Marina City brutalist beauties which overlook the Chicago River.
The Willis Tower stands 100 storeys high and last time I was there it was Sears Tower. Rather than pay for a view from the observatory, we visited the John Hancock Building where they have a bar on the 95th floor, The Signature Room, where you can see equally amazing views across the city and Lake Michigan.
Back in 1997 I’d gone to the Chicago Institute of Art and the memory of visiting there was so strong – I’d stood in front of Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte and had ‘a moment’ – then to revisit in 2017 only to find out they’d got a new wing dedicated purely to modern art was like winning the lottery. Rooms filled with Giacometti. Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’. Kandinsky and Miro and other favourites of mine.
There was more design and architecture at our next stop: Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio tour. This was a real treat, got us out of the city centre and to the Oak Park area of Chicago, and offered an insightful and detailed tour, even if my friend was reprimanded for daring to wander a few feet away from the tour group…
I’ve done a couple of tours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings, another notable one being at Taliesin West, Scottsdale, Arizona. Geometry, light, colour and nature all come together – and it’s got the most gorgeous grand piano.
Visiting the Tribune Tower left me quite underwhelmed so I went in search of Art Deco and couldn’t get a much better example than the Carbide & Carbon Building on Michigan Avenue.
I couldn’t leave Chicago without a visit to Cloud Gate, also known as ‘The Bean’ – a giant sculpture by Anish Kapoor in Millennium Park. Took about a thousand photos and happily played tourist in the sunshine.
Nearby in Millennium Park I ticked some Gehry off my list! I love visiting his buildings (Bilbao’s Guggenheim is still on the list) and here in the park is the Jay Pritzker Pavilion – surrounded by tulips.
And so it came to my last night in the city. I took a gamble on the musical I’d heard everyone talking about. Hamilton was running at the CIBC Theatre so I enquired at the box office to see if they’d got any seats for that night’s performance. I had some money left in my budget since the few days I’d spent in Cartagena prior to Chicago hadn’t really dented the purse a great deal so I took the last seat in the house. Fully expected to be up in the nosebleeds at such short notice so forked out the dollar without looking at the seat number.
Quickly freshened up back at the hotel then arrived at the HUGE theatre, only to be directed to my seat – right in the middle, second row from the stage. Until that night I only knew two of the numbers really well, and I was hoping to see what the fuss was about.
It was absolutely fantastic – easily the most energetic musical I’d seen in a very long time. Worth every penny and it broke me a couple of times. World class theatre! Took a detour past the famous Chicago theatre to see that sign.
I’m going to give an honourable mention here to a great coffee shop I spent an hour or so in before leaving the city. The Goddess and the Baker may have one of the most Instagrammable walls I’ve seen but that’s not all it’s worth visiting for. The coffee is strong and tasty and although I’d just left coffee heaven (Columbia) they made a beautiful roast. And gorgeous cake.
I’m really hoping it’s not another 20 years until I visit again. On my first visit I was a novice traveller, never been abroad (except a few days in Paris in the mid-90s), overwhelmed by skyscrapers and wide pavements and huge portions of food and blues bars…I may have switched the beer for coffee and the blues bars for restuarants these days but Chicago remains one of my favourite cities. Ever.