Chicago: It's my kind of town...
When I was 21 my friends and I decided to cram ourselves and our belongings into a tiny car proclaiming to be an 'SUV' and drive the 13-hour journey from Maryland to Chicago.
With a broken GPS and a paper map that we found scrunched in the back seat of this tiny car to say our arrival to Chicago was a victorious moment doesn't quite do it justice. We tumbled out of that car with such relief we were close to kissing the ground.
It was a different me that landed at Chicago O'Hare airport six years on. Serene even.
Why? I flew business class with Aer Lingus which couldn't have been further from my experience the last time I travelled there if it tried. Luxury. Oh the luxury to be able to stretch out or lie down if I wanted to - scouring movies instead of maps. There is no denying it's pricey but it's such a delicious treat if you can stretch to it, especially for long-limbed humans like me.
We were staying in one of Chicago's newest hotels, The Kimpton Gray. Located in Chicago's financial district you truly feel right in the heart of this buzzing metropolis. The rooms are beautifully furnished, all over-sized bed, art deco lighting and don't even get me started on how amazing the shower is.
Think gold fixtures and a colourful backdrop that would cheer up even the most exhaustive of mornings. For the readers of my parent's age, I say skip reading the next line. As for the millennials let me say this, very 'instagramable'.
And you can have your dog stay with you should you wish! I'm not sure how many Irish people would bring their dog all the way to Chicago but just to be clear for all the animal lovers out there - it's dog friendly.
They also have an amazing scheme on offer, handy for anyone itching to get out and explore; bikes (with a basket I mean c'mon) that you are free to borrow for the day.
I too was shocked to see they're just handing out these bikes that come back in one piece, or even come back at all. I think that says a lot about the kind of place this is, from the people to the atmosphere, everything feels easy breezy.
It was with feet dragging that we forced ourselves out from within the walls of such luxuriant surroundings on our first evening. There was a whole city to explore so our beautiful hotel would have to wait. Our choice of restaurant, Proxi, was just a short taxi ride away on what has been dubbed 'Restaurant Row' on Randolph Street in the West Loop.
This vibrant restaurant offers an excellent and varied menu touching upon culinary corners from across the world. It was too much of a chore to decide on individual orders so if like us you find yourself plagued by indecision, order several dishes for sharing.
This way we each got to tuck into an array of dishes, all washed down with some beautiful cocktails. Inside tip? The 'El-Otay' cocktail was a particular winner for me.
With our number merry and full, it was time to wind our way back to our hotel and ensconce ourselves in our beautiful rooms. My head hit a gloriously plush pillow and with that I was out like a light. As mentioned, I have been to Chicago before, a number of times in fact. My aunt and cousins live there. My childhood was sprinkled with visits and so I would have liked to have thought I was quite familiar with the city.
Yet this time I was viewing it with fresh eyes and going beyond the shop and relax criteria that can sometimes take precedent on a family holiday.
This trip opened my eyes to the cultural and foodie hub that Chicago really is. First off was the Lyric Opera house which was within walking distance of our hotel. Lyric Opera Chicago, founded in 1954, is renowned as one of the world's greatest opera companies.
We were treated to a private tour where we got to go backstage to witness the graft that goes into pulling off one of its lavish productions. A particularly enjoyable moment was taking a sneak peak inside one of the many wardrobes the company keeps. Part clothing archive, part treasure trove; we spent time admiring the workmanship and in my case wishing we could try on a few items.
It was just a pity we weren't there for open season but it is somewhere I am hopeful to get back to some time and see a show. What with wandering the expansive opera house and the fact that we were in full throttle holiday mode, lunch was next on the agenda. I was sceptical when we pulled up outside what appeared to be a private medical centre and my confusion was only heightened when we proceeded to go through its doors.
Bundling into an elevator I was struggling with my best version of a breezy smile as we made our way to floor 18. It was only when I stepped out into an oasis of dark wood and glass windows that it dawned on me we were only scratching the surface on what Chicago has to offer. A surprise around every corner or in this case on every rooftop.
Awarded one Michelin star and with unparalleled views of Lake Michigan, GreenRiver restaurant is as understated as it is picturesque. You would have no clue from the ground that this was tucked away. Chowing down on a Michelin-star burger was about as good as it gets. I caused some serious food envy at the table so would highly recommend it; but perhaps take the stairs afterwards if you're keen to hold on to the holiday bod. Proving itself to be the foodies' dream destination was easy - no wonder they're calling it the food city. Yet there is so much to this city that you can jam pack into your time away.
A trip to Chicago wouldn't be complete with out a shimmy up the Skydeck to stand on glass and pretend you don't feel even a flicker of fear.
With its honey-hued streets, decent weather (I think that windy city cliche needs to sit tight) and friendly people you won't be lost for things to do but don't forget to mix it up a little. Chicago does not need to be experienced with two feet on the ground. We went for the ultimate of viewpoints with a helicopter ride (courtesy of Chicago Helicopter Experience) across the city. I know the turn of phrase of a bird's-eye view might be slightly over-used at this stage but honestly you have not truly immersed yourself in Chicago until you have seen it from the sky.
It was awe-inspiring flying so close to some of the city's iconic skyscrapers with a mesmerising Lake Michigan below the bluest of hues.
Maybe extreme heights are not for you. You could kick back with a glass of prosecco (yes they do prosecco packages) and wait for your party to return. It is then you could treat yourself to a feast for the eyes and the bellies with a lunch aboard Odyssey Cruises.
There is nothing quite like tucking into a sprawling seafood spread complete with white tablecloths while waves ripple and skyscrapers loom large outside the window. There is also space out on deck for those who find their sea legs to relax and take in the spectacular views, ideal for the snap happy.
Chicago offers a razzmatazz and sophistication that meshes with a relaxed ambiance that you don't often find in a city. It has heart; whether it's a mesmerising visit to the Museum Of Contemporary Art or sitting transfixed at the Grant Park Music Festival in Millennium Park as a live orchestra captivates from a stage that is brimming over with talented humans.
Strings serenade and cymbals crash as a choir in full voice sends chills down the audience's spine. Sunshine streamed from an endless cloud-free canvas of blue, and Chicago did its utmost in reminding us all to feel the thrill that it is to be alive, and in such an extraordinary location. It was wonderful to be there and feel utterly at peace with a park full of strangers.
You can choose to get dressed up and sit in the tiers or grab some picnic chairs, your loved ones, pick up a bottle of wine (vendors sell them at the venue although bring your ID) find a patch on the grass and soak it all in.
Nicknamed 'the second city' it has undoubtedly been rechristened 'the best city' in my eyes. We all travelled home feeling invigorated (seriously well fed) and excitedly planning when we would next return. If you are tempted to visit after reading this all I have to say is; well what are you waiting for!
Chicago, Chicago, Chicago.
Elle was a guest of Choose Chicago (choosechicago.com), Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and Kimpton Gray (grayhotelchicago.com).
Aer Lingus, Ireland’s only four-star airline, currently flies up to twice daily to Chicago, seamlessly connecting UK travellers via Dublin. Passengers also pre-clear US Immigration in Dublin Airport before they step on board their flight, which saves them from lengthy queues on arrival in the US.
Fares from London to Chicago start from £249 each way and £1,099 in business class, including taxes and charges.
Room rates at The Kimpton Gray in Chicago, located in the heart of the city, start from $350 per room per night. Book via grayhotelchicago.com
TAKE TWO: Top attractions
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High and mighty
You don’t need to have studied architecture to be blown away by Chicago’s magnificent structures. Whether it’s experienced via a boat tour or by ambling by Cloud Gate, aka The Bean, at Millennium Park.
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