“It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago -- she outgrows her prophecies faster than she can make them, ” wrote Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi. “She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.”
Funny how little has changed. Visit Chicago today and you’ll see a skyline bristling with cranes, as new hotels, office buildings, museum wings (at the famed Art Institute most notably) and apartment complexes shoot up on a seemingly monthly basis. Last year the new Millennium Park opened to much acclaim; and the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum, the first in the nation dedicated to the First Amendment, was launched just this April. Visit most of the museums in the city and you’ll encounter an ever-changing parade of world class exhibits, from blockbusters like the King Tut exhibit to fun shows like the komodo dragon offering currently at the Shedd Aquarium. And with over 120 theater troupes in town, not to mention dozens of bars, music venues and dance clubs, the nightlife scene shifts seismically week to week.
It all adds up to a city with a dynamism, a palpable energy, like no other. In 24 hours, on the itinerary below, you’ll definitely enjoy “the novelty” -- and unbridled verve -- of the Windy City.
8 a.m. - 9 a.m.: Breakfast first. When opened in 1945 it was one of many ligonberry-slinging, Swedish diners in Chicago, but a cultural evolution was underway and now it’s the last of its species (at least in this ‘hood). After trying its legendary cinnamon rolls, you may well conclude that the strongest did survive. Its ultra-popular breakfasts are a mix of Scandinavian and American classics from seven types of Eggs Benedict to hearty potato pancakes.
9 a.m. - noon: Make your way to , which occupies a place in the pantheon of the greatest art museums in the world alongside the Metropolitan in New York, the British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris, the Prada in Madrid and the Uffizi in Florence. Though most art lovers flocks here for its Impressionist masterpieces (“Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte” by Seurat most famously, along with the largest collection of Monets anywhere), it also has superb holdings in contemporary art (including “American Gothic”), ancient Greek works, European arms and armor, even Japanese prints. Plan your time wisely as it’s impossible to see it all in just a day … or even two.
Head out of Chicago proper to Oak Park or as many like to call it, Frank Lloyd Wright-ville. A National Historic District, with more Wright-designed homes than any other neighborhood in the world, it is arguably one of the loveliest suburban community anywhere. At its heart is the house himself lived in, and raised six children in (their light-filled playroom, which he of course designed, is extraordinary), from 1889 to 1909. The house was his workshop and he used it to work out many of the architectural ideas found in his later work. Both guided and audio tours are on offer for the neighborhood and the house.
Noon - 2 p.m.: Join the line—hey, it’s now indoors—at for pizza that really is a pie. This is Chicago deep-dish pizza at its best, heavy as a discus and layered with gooey cheese, sausage, peppers, onions, you name it. One is enough for two people, though you may want to call ahead for some frozen ones to take home with you on the plane.
2 p.m. - 5 p.m.: Arguably the greatest sightseeing in Chicago consists of simply looking up and looking around at all the thrusting, magnificent skyscrapers, so spend the afternoon with the on one of its in-depth tours of the city. Led by enthusiastic and highly-trained docents they take three forms -- boat, bus or walking -- which will vary depending on the season and topic. If you have time afterwards (tours generally run an hour and a half to two hours), make your way up to the top of the Hancock Observatory and take in the spectacular views. Granted it’s not as tall as the Sears Tower, being only the city’s third tallest tower and not its first, but it doesn’t have all the jostling crowds either. Its Skywalk—basically a screened-viewing area that allows you to feel the force of the winds at 1000 feet -- is an adrenaline rush.
Book passage on the , a 150-tall four-masted gaff topsail schooner that plies the waters of Lake Michigan the old-fashioned way: under the power of its sails. That means you never quite know where she’ll be going—the boat floats where the winds take it. Passengers have been known to help trim the sails and even steer the ship (with the captain at their elbow of course) though they’re just as likely to kick back and enjoy the breeze. Cruises last about an hour and a half and are offered several times throughout the day and evening (a lot depends on weather conditions).
6 p.m. - 8 p.m.: For dinner, cutting edge cuisine. The chemistry of food, the effect of smell on taste, new forms of cooking and presentation -- all of these issues are explored at which food critics have described as a Dada-esque eating experience, as much laboratory as eatery. The menu changes periodically, but past diners have experienced a “Caesar salad” of green pills (actually pureed romaine frozen with liquid nitrogen) or sea bass that’s cooked in a pressurized box at your table while you wait or sushi, that’s not sushi at all but photos of sushi printed on edible paper and infused with fishy taste. And you’ll dine on all of this with cutlery entwined with fresh herbs so that you get a blast of green aroma with each bite. Much of it is delicious and it’s always inventive (if not downright surreal)—a dinner that will fuel dinner party conversations for months to come.
8 p.m. - 10 p.m.: Laughter’s next on the agenda, at the , the most famous comedy club in the United States. An extraordinary percentage of America’s most famous comedians and comedic actors, from Alan Alda to Mike Nichols to Tina Fey to Gilda Radner, got started at the Second City. Catch one of their reviews or long-form improvisation sessions, and you just may see the next rising star.
10 p.m. until you keel over: Non-stop Chicago-blues is on tap at the , with bands raising the roof here seven days a week, from around 8pm to 4am in the morning. A raucous atmosphere and some hot, hot sounds (click here for a preview) makes this Chi-town’s best party.
Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer Guidebooks which debut in bookstores this summer.
Ann Sathers, 929 W. Belmont Avenue (take the red line El to Belmont); phone 773/348-2378; . Open Mon-Tues 7 a.m. - 3 p.m., Weds-Sun 7 a.m. - 9 p.m.
Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave at Adams St.; phone 312/443-3600; . Open Mon-Wed and Fri 10 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., Thurs 10 a.m. - 8 p.m. and Sat-Sun 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Suggested donations are $12 adults, $7 seniors but you may pay what you wish.
Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, 951 Chicago Ave in Oak Park; phone 708/848-1976; . Admission to just the house is $9 for adults, $7 for seniors, but if you wish to take a guided tour of it and the neighborhood, you'll pay $16 adults, $12 seniors. Guided tours of the house are available at 11, 1 and 3 p.m. weekends, and every 20 minutes on the weekends between 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.
Gino's East, 633 N. Wells at Ontario St.; phone 312/943-1124. Open Mon-Thurs 11 a.m. - 9 p.m., Fri-Sat 11 a.m. - midnight, Sun noon-9 p.m.
For detailed information about tours with the Chicago Architecture Foundation, call 312/942-3322 or go to www.architecture.org/. Most tours leave from the Chicago ArchiCenter at 224 South Michigan Avenue and cost between $10 and $25, depending on whether you’re taking a walking tour, bus tour, or boat tour. Take a look at the full line-up of options before making your pick as the tours do cover very different areas of the city, and architectural interests.
For a cruise aboard the Windy, you’ll need to call 312/595-5555 to find out its sailing times for the day. Reservations are not accepted, but tickets ($27/adult, $20 seniors) can be bought up to an hour before departure. The ship departs from Navy Pier.
Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer Guidebooks which will be debuting in bookstores this summer.