24 hours in Chicago

The city is the Midwest’s cultural and commercial powerhouse and also has direct flights with Etihad and Emirates

Chicago Skyline - Lake Front Trail -Museum Campus. Courtesy Illinois Office of Tourism
Powered by automated translation

It’s a hard heart indeed that isn’t instantly wowed by Chicago. It is visually stunning, and plenty of that eye-popping architecture has a good story behind it, too. But the city has more than one string to its bow. Chicago is packed with cultural heavyweights, world-leading public art and top-quality dining neighbourhoods. But the real clincher is the city’s attitude – it knows it’s a big deal, it’s absolutely open to the world, but a Midwestern unpretentiousness courses through its veins. As a result, Chicago is always a pleasure, never a chore.

07.30 Selfie time

If you ever needed a testament to the power of public art to transform a city’s image, Millennium Park is it. Chicago going cool can roughly be traced to the opening of Millennium Park in 2004. Frank Gehry’s wild-looking Pritzker Pavilion hosts open-air concerts, but the stars are Cloud Gate and Crown Fountain.

Cloud Gate (The Bean). Courtesy Illinois Office of Tourism
The Cloud Gate ( aka The Bean). Dice Sales / Illinois Office of Tourism

The former, by Anish Kapoor, is known as The Bean, and is a curvy, all-mirrored installation. It reflects the city skyline and anyone viewing it to look different depending on where you’re standing. And Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain projects videos of Chicagoan faces onto two giant towers of glass bricks. Their facial expressions keep changing then, every now and then, a big spurting jet of water emerges from their mouths. It also helps, of course, that Millennium Park has tremendous views of Chicago’s dramatic skyline.

09.00 Dino delights

The humongous Field Museum (www.fieldmuseum.org) is best known for its collection of massive dinosaur skeletons, but it offers way more than halls of stegosaurus fossils. A key part of the appeal is in the presentation, which does a superb job of telling grand, overarching stories. This applies to the dinos – which are part of a much larger section telling the story of life on Earth over the epochs – as well as the excellent section on how the peoples and civilisations of the American continent have changed over centuries.

Field Museum. Adam Alexander / Illinois Office of Tourism
Field Museum. Adam Alexander / Illinois Office of Tourism

12.00 Fab food court

The Revival Food Hall (www.revivalfoodhall.com) is a tremendous idea, taking some of Chicago’s best food trucks, specialist cafes, sandwich bars and gelaterias, then persuading them to open a second branch in one spot. That makes for high quality, a fantastic array of choice, and wallet-friendly prices. Most options are good, but for a meaty feast, the Smoque BBQ’s beef brisket is a winner.

13.00 Glass masterclass

Right next to the Revival Food Hall is the Marquette Building (Marquette.macfound.org), where the lobby hosts some of the most extraordinary glass art you’ll ever see. The twinkling, detail mosaic murals tell the story of early French explorers in the region, and come courtesy of Tiffany Studios.

Chicago Architecture with Train. Courtesy of the Illinois Office of Tourism
Chicago architecture. Courtesy of the Illinois Office of Tourism

13.30 Skyscraper 101

Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper, and the Chicago Architecture Foundation (www.architecture.org) runs several tours exploring the city’s most impressive buildings. Of these, the 90 minute Evolution of the Skyscraper walking tour is the best introduction. It goes from early multi-storey masonry monsters such as the Monadnock Building, through the first buildings to be made with steel skeletons, and on to the modernist tinted glass office towers designed by Mies van der Rohe. The tour costs $20 (Dh74).

15.30 World of words

The American Writers Museum (www.americanwritersmuseum.org) opened in 2017, and it takes in an expansive view of what American literature is. This includes the diary of early Spanish explorers and Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, as well as literary classics from the likes of John Steinbeck, Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac. The first half takes a timeline approach, with lots of snippety information about the authors and their work.

The second half is perhaps more interesting, taking an interactive look at the craft of writing. This includes a lovely idea where each visitor can add a line to a communally-written novel on a laptop computer or a typewriter. 

18.30 Dazzling dinner

Oozing old school Hollywood glamour, BLVD (www.blvdchicago.com) in restaurant hotspot West Loop razzle-dazzles with three-quarter circle golden booths and a menu designed for sharing. The dishes are internationalist, with seafood leanings. The dayboat scallops with corn grits, pine nut vinaigrette and crispy leeks for $28 (Dh103) is a good bet from the more substantial, main course-ish dishes.

21.00 The blues are in town

Chicago is the birthplace of the electric blues, a musical genre that developed after the Second World War when African-Americans migrated north to the shores of Lake Michigan with the Delta blues then plugged their guitars in.

Chicago Blues Festival. Courtesy of the Illinois Office of Tourism
Chicago Blues Festival. Courtesy of the Illinois Office of Tourism

Rosa’s Lounge (rosaslounge.com) near the hip Logan Square neighbourhood is an excellent place to listen to both the old-timers and some of the more spritely modern blues performers. It’s a friendly, intimate space with great sound quality and a memorable atmosphere.

Rest your head

The Ace Hotel (www.acehotel.com/chicago) in West Loop takes an uncompromisingly urban feel, with public areas full of people on laptops (being opposite the Google offices may play a role in this).

Ace Hotel Chicago - Guest Room. Photo by Spencer Lowell
The guest room of the Ace Hotel Chicago. Photo by Spencer Lowell

The rooms have an industrial chic to them, with vinyl record players on the desks, handy motion sensor lights in the bathroom and boxer-style bathrobes. Doubles cost from $326 (Dh1,197) including taxes.

Getting there

Etihad (www.Etihad.com) and Emirates (www.emirates.com) fly direct to Chicago from Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively. Return economy fares cost from Dh4,035 including taxes.

More information: www.choosechicago.com

Read more:

My Kind of Place: South Side, Chicago, United States

Hotel Insider: The Langham, Chicago, United States

My Kind of Place: Chicago