The great Midwestern city of Chicago owes its towering skyline to two things: the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 and the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893. The first razed much of the city, sparking a new vernacular of fire-retardant building (and giving rise to the first skyscraper in 1885), while the latter was an architectural laboratory which spurred the progressive planning of the city.
Frank Lloyd Wright once said: “Ultimately, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful big city in the world. Indeed, eight of its buildings have been collectively classified as World Heritage by UNESCO, including the Frederick C Robie House (1908-1910), located in the old Obama district in Hyde Park, and Unity Temple (1905- 1908), near the architect’s first home and studio on the outskirts of Oak Park. Areas that are well worth a to visit – on foot, by bike or even by Segway.
Where to stay
The Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, with interiors designed by Roman and Williams, is a design lover’s delight with its mix of Venetian and sporty Gothic details – an ode to its 1890s track club origins. Its Cindy’s rooftop bar offers a Stunning views of the city of Millennium Park opposite, while fine dining is offered in the Cherry Circle Room and cocktails in the Milk Room Underground Bar.
Or head to the trendy areas of Wicker Park or Lincoln Park, where you’ll find a sleek, modern mid-century hotel The Robey, with rooftop pool and stunning city views, and the contemporary vintage vibe of Lincoln Hotel, respectively. For value and style near the shops, museums and restaurants of The Loop, stay at the Chicago by show of hands.
Chicago is full of craft breweries, cafes, and specialties like deep pizza, Italian beef sandwiches, and fried chicken (try Parson’s Chicken & Fish). For brunch favorites, salads and lobster rolls, eat under the dazzling chandelier suspended in the sky-lit garden courtyard of the stylish but casual 3 Arts Club Café inside Catering equipmentIt’s six story furniture and housewares emporium.
The purple pig is ideal for sharing platters – next to the pork specialties there are delicious dishes of vegetables, poultry and seafood, great wines and hearty desserts. The West Loop is the place to be for some of the city’s hottest restaurants (all brimming with distinctive Chicago industrial and rustic chic): local chef Stephanie Izard’s Girl and goat, Duck Duck Goat, and Little Goat Diner, emphasizing family-style fare (yes, there’s goat in the mix) with a fresh Asian twist – it’s also behind the rooftop of the nearby Hoxton Chicago Cabra Cevicheria.
By horse for high-end dining classics; With, where the Mediterranean meets the Midwest; and the double concept Smyth + the loyalist, with a farm-to-table tasting menu restaurant on the first floor and a cool lounge bar below. And for after-parties, try a butterscotch or drizzled hot chocolate – served with a homemade marshmallow – with a donut at Mindy’s Chicago Hot Chocolate in the wicker park.
Art & Culture
The Chicago Architecture Center is a must-see for understanding how Chicago was born and built, while the Chicago Art Institute has one of the most impressive collections in the world.
In Millennium Park, find Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion and Anish Kapoor’s sparkling Cloud Gate sculpture, aka “The Bean” (above). The city itself is a virtual art gallery – don’t miss Alexander Calder’s Flamingo outside Mies van der Rohe’s Chicago Federal Center in the Loop, the untitled 50-foot Corten steel sculpture of Picasso at Daley Plaza in front of the Monument with the Standing Beast by Jean Dubuffet and Joan Miró Chicago Multimedia at Brunswick Plaza.
For vibrant street art, head to neighborhoods like Rogers Park, Logan Square, and Pilsen.
To find the best independent stores, you have to move around the city. Volume gallery showcases emerging American designers in the fields of sculpture, textiles, lighting, ceramics and furniture; there is affordable, natural skin care (including a popular mask bar) at Scratch Products; notebooks and chic notes at Rig and an ever-evolving range of fashion, art and interior pieces – presented in a quirky and art-studded warehouse space – at Rider for life.
For contemporary and vintage furniture, go to Home Jayson; try the stylish Space 519 concept store for global fashion, jewelry, books, beauty, and all-day coffee; find bohemian and cool housewares from local manufacturers at Humboldt House; all that is beauty and old fashioned bath Apothecary Merz and enter the RSVP Gallery for fashion and cool urban accessories.
Escape the city
From Chicago, head an hour west to Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe’s iconic 1951 cantilevered floating glass box on the banks of the Fox River in Plano, and eat at sustainable gastro pub nearby Equipment, which has its own brewery, farm, and over 450 whiskeys to choose from.
Otherwise, head northwest to Rockford for Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1950s Usonian Hemicycle Laurent House (one of the architect’s favorite and latest projects, or visit Evanston, half an hour by train north of town, for the Bahá’í House of Worship, an extraordinary sculpted concrete temple decorative finished in 1953, designed by Canadian architect Louis Bourgeois.
And if you have time, don’t forget to check out the impressive modern stained glass windows in the Alice Millar Chapel.
Meet the Insiders: Studio Gang
Founded by award-winning architect Jeanne Gang in 1997, Studio Gang is renowned for Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo; 82-story Aqua Tower, distinctive for its undulating facade; and the 101-story Vista Residences Tower, slated to be the tallest building in the world designed by a woman. Here, Gang and his team share their favorite Chicago hot spots. studiogang.com
■ Dark matter coffee: best coffee in town – grab a packet of Unicorn Blood Espresso Blend to take away.
■ Elisabeth: large restaurant for farm-to-table dishes.
■ Garfield Park Conservatory: a vast botanical conservatory located in an urban park of 184 acres.
■ Graham Foundation: see exhibitions exploring the role of architecture in society.
■ Chicago Cultural Center: free exhibitions, events and the world’s largest Tiffany stained glass dome.