USA - Chicago
Written by Anna Blessing
With Qatar Airways launching flights to Chicago this month, resident and writer Anna Blessing shares her top spots for enjoying outdoor spaces, the city’s standout structures, and a few delicious eateries along the way.
Once the snow has melted and warm weather arrives, Chicagoans come outdoors in droves. After hibernating through winter’s glacial temperatures, this city embraces spring with wide-open arms.
Welcoming and accessible wide-open spaces – lakefront beaches, expansive green parks, and the banks of the Chicago River – define Chicago as much as its dense city skyline. Throw in the ever-expanding chef- focused food scene, and locals, quick to forget those frosty months, are convinced it’s the country’s most liveable city.
In warm weather, the Oak Street Beach in the posh Gold Coast neighbourhood draws Frisbee throwers, volleyball players, picnickers, lakefront joggers, and cyclists. It’s always a reliable spot for people-watching, as well as an impressive view of the iconic John Hancock Tower. Once you’ve admired the X-braced black building from below, you can catch a dizzying 360˚ view of Lake Michigan and the city from the 95th-floor observatory.
Chicago-based firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was responsible for the building, which was the tallest all-residential building when it was completed in 1970. SOM is known for its structural work on many of the world’s tallest buildings, including Chicago’s Willis Tower (527m), New York’s Freedom Tower, and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Burj Khalifa’s lead architect, Chicagoan Adrian Smith, began his career working on the Hancock with SOM in 1967.
Just to the west, at Delaware and Rush Streets, Little Market Brasserie welcomes diners morning, noon, and night, starting at an early 6:30am for early birds during the week. Renowned Chicago chef Ryan Poli’s new bistro focuses on fresh, classic American fare. Start your morning with a fresh juice from the Juice Bar, or fuel up for the day with a smoked salmon eggs Benedict.
To reach the river from the Gold Coast, press through the throngs that continually crowd Michigan Avenue and its luxe boutiques (including Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Tiffany & Co., and Burberry), or meander through the side streets just to the west in the River North neighbourhood. River North is dense with some of the best restaurant bets in town: longtime Mexican favourite Frontera Grill, the new Italian-focused RPM, and the upscale steakhouse David Burke Primehouse.
However you approach the river, it’s hard to miss the sparkly Trump Tower stretching high into the sky. Completed in 2009 by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) and Adrian Smith, it became the second tallest building in Chicago, and in the Western hemisphere, right after the Willis Tower.
Sixteen, the Michelin-starred spot on the 16th floor of Trump Tower, offers swank seats and a white-tablecloth meal served hand-in-hand with stunning river and city views. If the weather permits, you can enjoy your meal al fresco on the terrace.
In Trump’s shadow are two other architectural icons. The IBM Building was the last American work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The famed architect resided in Chicago from 1937 when he immigrated until his death in 1969 – before construction on the IBM Building began. In contrast with Mies’s black oxidised aluminium rectangle is Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City, commonly called ‘The Corncobs’: two circular residential towers built in 1964.
The best view of this trio, and other riverfront buildings, is from the water itself. Water taxis run daily and offer an informal glimpse; for a more informational tour, the Chicago Architectural Foundation’s river cruise gives detailed histories, and is a must-do for any first-time visitor.
Picnic in the park
Continuing south on Michigan Avenue across the river will take you to Millennium Park and Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion bandshell, a curvaceous and statement-making brushed stainless steel headdress. Pick up a sandwich from artisanal cheese and bread shop Pastoral, one block west on Lake Street, or order six hours in advance for a pre-packed picnic filled with fresh-baked baguettes, house- roasted spiced almonds, locally made cookies, local cheese, olives, and more.
A good part of the day could be spent picnicking and enjoying the highlights of Millennium Park: Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, or ‘The Bean’, a reflective stainless steel sculpture that mirrors the city’s buildings and is always surrounded by kids who love to run under and around it; the meandering Lurie Gardens; and the snaking Gehry-designed pedestrian bridge.
Another walkway from the park runs to Renzo Piano’s airy, skylit Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, finished in 2009. For a more refined, indoor lunch, head to top-floor restaurant Terzo Piano, where top chef Tony Mantuano creates farm-fresh menus to pair with the striking views of Millennium Park and the bandshell.
Hopping on the Green Line from the L train station just across Michigan Avenue from Millennium Park is the fastest way south to another nexus of architecture: the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Pulling into campus gives the first taste of IIT’s innovative architecture: theMcCormick Tribune Campus Center and the flamboyant tubular L station, both designed by Rem Koolhaas. Deeper into campus is the work of Mies van der Rohe, who began his Chicago career as head of the school. Most notable is his S. R. Crown Hall, regarded as one of the master’s most accomplished works, and a prime example of his Modernist approach.
Farther south in Hyde Park, Chicago-based Helmut Jahn is making his mark at the University of Chicago campus. In 2011 Jahn – known for his Sony Center in Berlin – created the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, an ovoid, glass-domed structure evocative of a futuristic spaceship. Only the light-filled reading room beneath the dome is above ground; the books are stored below ground, a better environment for controlling humidity and temperature.
The U of C campus invites you to stay for a while: not far from the library is Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Robie House; the beloved 57th Street Books is around the corner; just a few buildings down from the bookstore is Medici on 57th, a neighbourhood institution and Chicago’s oldest pizzeria.
Chicago is an urban centre of world-famous architecture, a green oasis, and a culinary hub that promises rich excursions at every turn, in every neighbourhood. And if you need directions along the way just ask any local, who will be eager to brag about their great city in the heart of the USA.
Frank Lloyd Wright Legacy
Known for Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, responsible for creating the Prairie School architectural movement and the concept of the Usonian home, and considered to be one of the greatest US architects of all time, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) spent much of his working life in Chicago. Tours are given daily of his studio and home in Oak Park (above), just west of the city, where you can also visit Unity Temple. Built between 1905 and 1908, Unity Temple has been called the first Modernist building in the world.
On foot, by boat, or by train, Chicago is easy to approach and explore. The city is built on precise north–south and east–west axes, and laid out in an easy-to-navigate grid system. The Chicago ‘L’ – short for elevated – is the second-longest rapid transit system, after New York City’s, and most routes run 24 hours a day. The Blue Line connects the downtown area to O’Hare Airport. A trip on the Green Line will take you south to the Illinois Institute of Technology campus, as well as west to Frank Lloyd Wright's Oak Park. Other train and bus lines connect the city’s distinctive districts. Boat taxis can be found most months of the year along the eastern branch of the Chicago River.
By the numbers
Completed in 2009 at a height of 262m, Jeanne Gang’s undulating Aqua – a residential skyscraper downtown – is the tallest building in the world to have a woman as lead architect.
Although it was only 10 storeys tall, the now-demolished Home Insurance Building was considered the world’s first skyscraper when it was built in 1884, due to its structurally innovative steel frame.
The four stars on the Chicago flag represent Fort Dearborn, the Chicago Fire, the World’s Columbian Exposition, and the Century of Progress Exposition.
To mark the launch of Qatar Airways’ Chicago route, check out our In-flight Entertainment Guide for a great selection of Windy City-themed music, television, and film, including an Oscar-winning turn from Sean Connery in gangster classic The Untouchables.