CHICAGO was nothing like I anticipated. I blame TV and movies for my misconception.
I was brought up watching The Untouchables and gangster movies and listening to Chicago blues, so I thought that Chicago would be a tough, gritty and somewhat grimy city where life was harsh and people didn’t live but merely existed.
How wrong I was, and what a delightfully joyous city I found Chicago to be.
Situated on the shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago has a very pleasant aspect.
It even has beaches, and the lake looked surprisingly inviting, but I never summoned the courage to take the plunge.
Americans refer to Chicago as the ‘Windy City’, but that appellation refers more to the verbosity of the city’s politicians than to the gusts blowing in from Lake Michigan.
Despite Chicago having warm days during my visit that wind was rather bracing.
Come to think of it, bitterly cold is a much more accurate description.
You do need to carry another layer with you just in case that wind decides to blow.
Michigan Avenue is the main north-south avenue in Chicago.
The section within the city limits is referred to as the Magnificent Mile.
It is a wonderful, wide, tree-lined boulevard that is a delight to walk, as it is flat, with so much to see and enjoy.
Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper, and whilst its skyline is very impressive, the variety of architectural styles on display makes the city a place of great beauty.
One of my favourite buildings is not a towering skyscraper.
The historic Water Tower was built in 1867 and was one of the few buildings to survive the Great Fire of 1871.
The Water Tower looks similar to a medieval castle and now houses a gallery dedicated to the works of local photographers and artists.
The Tribune Tower, headquarters of Chicago’s daily newspaper is a neogothic building that was built in 1922.
The tower would not be out of place in Batman’s Gotham City.
Rising to a height if 141 metres, Tribune Tower features carved images of Robin Hood and a howling dog.
Apart from the gargoyles, there is a carved Aesop’s Screen at the front entrance.
One interesting feature is that the tower incorporates bricks and stones from other famous constructions such as the Great Pyramid, Westminster Palace, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China and Angkor Wat.
I didn’t ask whether the stones were pilfered or generously donated, but I suspect the former.
Next to the Tribune Tower is that busy waterway, the Chicago River.
This sinewy series of waterways is actually a series of rivers and canals which flows out of Lake Michigan to eventually join up with the Mississippi River.
River vessels need to be squat as all of the bridges are quite low. Despite this, the river is indeed very busy.
With a soothing blue hue, there are pleasant walks along the river embankments, or you can take one of the many cruise boats which ply the river to enjoy some wonderful views of the city.
Simply finding a spot to stand and people watch will give you plenty to gawk at.
The Chicagoans seem far more relaxed than New Yorkers, who walk with acute determination.
If you are a photography enthusiast your shutter finger will be well and truly overworked as that great mass of humanity passes by.
Two particular buildings really stand out and, if you have a head for heights, both are worth visiting.
One is the John Hancock Centre at 875 N Michigan Avenue.
This is one of Chicago’s tallest skyscrapers, and its 360 degrees observation deck gives the best views over Chicago.
I went to the top right on dusk, and the views were extraordinary.
Fortunately, it was a clear day and you can see four states from the summit.
The city centre doesn’t actually look all that large from that towering eyrie, but its suburbs stretch for many kilometres south, west and north.
You can also enjoy the best views of Lake Michigan from here.
The other observation deck to visit is that in the Willis Tower.
This used to be the world’s tallest building, when known as the Sears Tower, before the Burj Khalifa opened in Dubai.
Whilst, in my opinion, the view from the Willis Tower is not as spectacular as that enjoyed from the John Hancock Centre, there is one attraction there that is utterly breathtaking for those who have a head for heights.
It is called The Ledge, and it’s a series of glass boxes which extend beyond the edge of the building for a little longer than a metre.
The experience feels like you are standing in mid-air, because when you look straight down you can see the street a mere 1,353 feet directly below you.
Many people can’t manage to walk out onto The Ledge, but I found it to be a great buzz and would willingly do it again.
The greatest surprise about Chicago was the amount of greenery there.
Sure, you have a few concrete canyons, but many of the streets are lined with flower boxes which add both vibrancy and space to the city.
Navy Pier is a popular place for people to gather.
The pier juts about a kilometre into Lake Michigan and is a brilliant cultural and entertainment area that attracts thousands of visitors at any one time.
I went there to visit The Rolling Stones touring exhibit called Exhibitionism, which magnificently presents the history of The Stones through the 55 years of the band’s existence.
I am a massive Stones fan, and this was the chief reason for me visiting Chicago.
Over two dozen restaurants inhabit the Pier as well as bars, shops, theatres, museums and many amusement attractions.
Docked at the pier are many cruise boats, and the place is abuzz with life.
There is an amazing variety of food on offer there, including hand-crafted popcorn in unusual flavours like cheese corn and macadamia caramel.
Even Jimmy Buffet has a Margaritaville Bar and Grill there for people seeking something more substantial than popcorn.
If you’ve ever visited the United States you’ll know that meals are certainly substantial there.
There are many attractions in Chicago, but a definite must is Millennium Park, which is free to visit and has so many great attractions it will keep you amused for hours.
Apart from the lovely gardens, one attraction is the Crown Fountain.
This is comprised of a very shallow rectangular pond, about one centimetre deep that is buttressed at both ends by large monoliths that are dotted with dozens of small water nozzles.
The pond-facing sides are actually giant screens onto which images are projected.
The monoliths are the fountains, and the close-up video faces actually spit at you from the mouths.
Visitors are encouraged to remove shoes and have fun walking, playing or dancing in the shallow pond.
It is perhaps the best interactive fountain that I have seen.
Another fantastic public artwork is called Cloud Gate, but locals refer to it as The Bean, because it does actually resemble a giant baked bean.
It is made of highly polished stainless steel and is so huge that you can easily walk beneath it.
The Bean is amazingly reflective, and that is its true charm.
Being entirely curved, the reflections resemble those contorted images you’ll see in a hall of mirrors at an amusement park, and you have great fun walking around and under The Bean enjoying the amazing reflections you see.
Whilst wandering around Chicago I looked up at a skyscraper to see an enormous mural of Chicago Bluesman Howling Wolf observing the city.
They celebrate their heritage in Chicago.
It is a marvellous place to visit.