Well known for its gangster history and its strong blues and jazz scene, Chicago has also made a name for itself as the architecture epicentre in the United States.
Since most of the city centre was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, the architecture of the city is famous for its originality and modernity rather than its antiquity.
The Water Tower, located on the Magnificent Mile, was the only public building to withstand the fire. It now houses local Chicago exhibits and is surrounded by a shopping strip.
We venture past several outdoor sculptures, including the sweeping red metal arches of Alexander Calder’s Flamingo and Chicago Picasso by Pablo Picasso, which are scattered between the skyscrapers.
The latest large-scale architectural development in Chicago is Millennium Park, located in the centre of the city.
In 1998, Chicago mayor Richard Daley decided to turn the area, which at the time was covered with parking lots and disused railroad tracks, into a public space for Chicago residents.
An ambitious project, it drew the interest of world-renowned architects, including Frank Gehry. Famous for designing the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Gehry was commissioned to design a pavilion for the park.
DeMatoff tells us about the Jay Pritzker Pavilion’s sound system. Built into the overhead trellis, it allows sound from the stage to be heard clearly from as far as the rear of the pavilion grounds, 120m away.
Architects weren’t the only ones clamouring to be involved in the Millennium Park project, according to DeMatoff. More
than half the funding for the park came from private contributors. Lucky really, considering it ended up costing $500 million instead of the initial estimation of $150 million.
Next to the pavilion, tourists take countless photos of themselves and the reflected skyline in the stainless steel of the Cloud Gate – nicknamed the Giant Bean by locals because of its similarity to the iconic Tiffany & Co bean.
The child pleaser, though, is the Crown Fountain, designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa.
Images of 1000 local Chicago residents are in turn projected onto two 50-foot glass block towers, and in summer there’s an occasional squirt of water from their mouths, which gives a new twist to running under the sprinkler in your backyard.
After a day of sightseeing through the snow-covered park, we are in need of a drink to warm us up and defrost our aching, frostbitten toes.
So after a pitstop at the hotel to frock up, we take the ear-popping lift to the 95th floor of the John Hancock Center, where views across Lake Michigan and the twinkling city skyline at night await us – along with a well-made signature Sidecar cocktail.
While you won’t pay to go up the Hancock Tower, be prepared to cough up in the Signature Room Lounge and Bar, where cocktails will set you back $13.
The best view, however, is from the ladies bathroom, which offers a 180-degree panorama of the city skyline to the Sears Tower. Sorry guys, you miss out – all you’ve got is a brick wall to look at in your bathroom.
Across town, the imposing Sears Tower dominates the horizon. The tallest building in the world when it was built in 1973, it stretches up 440 metres and 110 floors.
Still the tallest building in the US, it’s slightly eerie being so high above the ground at the Skydeck Observatory. But two other skyscrapers being built in Chicago are due to overtake it in height in the next few years.
As Twain predicted, the ever-changing landscape of Chicago will mean there’s always something new to explore on your next visit.
» Erin Miller flew to Chicago with United Airlines (0845-844 4777; www.unitedairlines.co.uk).
Take me to the ball park
For a classic American experience, make sure you get along to one of the many sporting matches held in Chicago, home to the historic, ivy-covered Wrigley Field and the Chicago Bulls. When the lights go down and the crowd sings the Star Spangled Banner national anthem, you’ll get goose pimples – guaranteed.
If you’re after a bit of rough and tumble, look no further than ice hockey. It’s vicious, and punch-ons are quite common. After a few crappy seasons, the Chicago Blackhawks have had some good wins this year. The season runs between November and May, and it’s a cheap way to see American sport in action, with tickets from $20.
Since the retirement of Chicago Bulls player Michael Jordan, the team hasn’t managed to keep up the strong results which saw them win six NBA titles in the ’90s. The season begins in November and runs until April. Unless you want to drop a packet you won’t be getting courtside tickets – they’re usually snapped up for about $200. Get in quick because games sell out in advance.
Not the kind of footy the rest of the world is familiar with so it might take you a while to figure out what on earth is going on. The season runs from early September to December. While the Chicago Bears might not be top of the table, they still pack out the stadiums, so expect to pay between $60 and $350.
Rivalry is fierce between the Chicago teams, and which team you support will usually depend on what end of town you come from. One of the worst playing teams in the competition, the Chicago Cubs continually under-perform but still draw in their loyal fans to fill Wrigley Field. The Chicago White Sox are the other team to barrack for, but don’t expect much better results from them. The baseball season runs from April to September and ticket prices are from $20.
Shop up a storm
Since the US dollar is weak against the pound (£1 will get you about $2), help the economy out and drop some dosh in the shops. Not as crowded as New York City, Chicago makes for a less stressful shopping jaunt. Just make sure you take into account the sales tax that is added to the advertised price at the till.
The Magnificent Mile
This is the main drag in Chicago, with plenty of department stores and high street brands. Designer labels, including Tiffany & Co and Gucci, are located at the north end. Make sure you visit Nordstrom for the ultimate shoe shopping experience.
Abercrombie & Fitch
You might have to queue to enter the flagship New York store, but in Chicago you won’t have the same problem. With dark lights and impossibly good-looking model assistants, who cares about the clothes – just soak up the atmosphere.
These are a lot cheaper to purchase in the US, so treat yourself to your favourite brands. Sephora is always good to get all the names in one hit, or visit any of the department stores along the Magnificent Mile.
Chicago – Premium Outlets
This is a bit of a drive as it’s way out west of the city, but it does offer discounts on the big American brands. A good place to stock up on basics such as Calvin Klein, Diesel and Nike, but give it a miss if you’re after the latest fashions.
Bucktown Wicker Park
Leave behind the throngs on the Magnificent Mile and check out boutique stores in the trendy north west of Chicago. A great spot to pick up local designer clothes and jewellery, and enjoy the café culture.