On top of the world in my kind of town

The midwest town of Chicago may be windy, says Claire Grady, but it's also very cool

Claire Grady

Some say Chicago gets its nickname from the winds which sweep in from Lake Michigan, chilling the city in winter and bringing cool comfort during summer.

Others claim the Windy City was named for all the hot air and bragging from the city fathers when they were trying to win the prestigious World Fair for their home town back in the 1890s.

In fairness, they had quite a bit to boast about. Just two decades after a fire ripped through the heart of Chicago, a bigger, better, modern city had taken shape.

Instead of upping sticks when so much of the city was burned down in the inferno of 1871, the powers-that-be decided to stay put, learn from what had gone before, and rebuild.

It's hard to blame them as the location would have been difficult to beat.

Today, Chicago is a sparkling city of skyscrapers and public parks; low-rise neighbourhoods and elegant historic buildings; art collections and trendy restaurants; blues clubs and sports fields -- all stretched along the sandy banks of the mighty Lake Michigan.

It has a downtown skyline to rival that of Manhattan's. But its streets are wider, brighter and cleaner than the New York boroughs. It's a bustling city, whose population swells to nine million in the week -- but whose citizens are rarely far from a green space or beach front.

It prides itself on being the World Capital of Blues, but if soulful bars aren't your bag, then there are world-class orchestras and choirs to keep you amused.

So where to begin on a trip to this jewel of the American midwest?

I didn't quite start there, but a jaunt up what was the tallest building in the world for 23 years, is a must.

The Sears Tower eclipsed New York's Twin Towers and added to Chicago's reputation for ground-breaking architecture. It has since been overtaken by others and renamed the Willis Tower -- but the views from the glass ledges which stick out from its Skydeck remain breathtaking -- apparently.

Truth is, I couldn't go to Chicago without shooting up to one of the upper floors of the Tower, but as someone known to get dizzy on a high bar stool -- there was no way I could look down.


Judging from from what I could see, standing at a safe distance from the window, it offers a gorgeous vista, taking in a rooftop on which scenes from a recent Batman movie were shot; the yard in which inmates of a nearby prison can frequently be seen playing basketball (the home team always wins), the sparkle of the Chicago river and the expanse of the lake.

A segway tour was more my thing, closer to the ground and something you really only want to try when you won't bump into anyone you know. But it's great fun and a good way to get around.

Our tour covered the highlights of Millennium and Grant Parks and their many monuments and architectural gems, as well as all the attractions that could be seen from there.

One of them, the Art Institute of Chicago, is definitely worth further exploration. The second biggest art museum in the US, it boasts the country's greatest collection of impressionist paintings as well as an impressive collect of contemporary and modern paintings.

The two you'll really want to see: Nighthawks by Edward Hopper and American Gothic by Grant Wood.

Admission to these places adds up, it's $18 for adults and free for children under 14. But Chicago has a number of options for stretching your dollar. Try one of the discount passes which will save you both money and queuing time.

For children, another unmissable attraction is The Museum of Science and Industry. The emphasis here is on hands-on exhibits where visitors get to create their own tsunami, see an indoor lightning storm -- and see real chicks hatch. My favourite was a walk through a German U-boat captured in the Second World War.


The Shedd Aquarium is also a big hit with children and adults. Even if you don't get to go in the water with a beautiful Beluga whale, as I did, you will enjoy the huge Oceanarium, the largest indoor habitat for marine mammals in the world.

At night time, the entertainment gets a lot more grown up. As well as the blues bars (I tried Blue Chicago on Clark Avenue) and the cocktails bars, Chicago is home to one of the most vibrant comedy companies in the world. John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Mike Myers, Steve Carrell and Tina Fey are among those to have emerged from The Second City where you can catch regular shows.

Yep, there's no shortage of things to do in the Windy City. And however it got its name, it's one cool town.