48 Hours Chicago: The Best of a City in Two Days
Comfort in the Windy City
There are three good ways to tell the time of day in Chicago. On Michigan Avenue, the snaking lines start forming by mid-morning in front of Garrett Popcorn Shop, where the clerks scoop warm caramel corn into overflowing bags. By noon, Navy Pier, which juts into Lake Michigan, can start to feel as buoyant as a county fair. And by late afternoon the marzipan Easter bonnet cakes at the Swedish Bakery, in the North side Andersonville neighborhood, are all spoken for. “People love those,” says Kathy Stanton, who helps run the bakery with her mother, and who still remembers the days when shop owners in Andersonville (“it was named for some Anderson; we’re just not sure which one”) would come out on Saturday morning to scrub their front stoops, after an official bell-ringer called them to position. If all this sounds like a classic Midwestern town, that’s because Chicago is still one part main street at heart. Okay, maybe the main street comes lined with skyscrapers and art deco architecture, the caramel corn pops two blocks from Tiffany & Co., and the bakery now sits within easy driving distance of piercing parlors. But the more the city changes the more its down-home, heartland soul keeps peeking through its global high style. The payoff is a seamless blend of blues bars and trend-happy clubs, hot dog stands and haute kitchens, all circled by the elevated trains, which loop around the city like an old, rusty embrace.
Because it sits in northern Illinois, beside Lake Michigan, the Windy City’s waterfront gusts can turn polar in winter. By April, though, Chicago can feel like a merely breezy lakeside resort.
“This is a to-do town,” says Eileen Harakal, public affairs executive director at the Art Institute of Chicago, and if you're limited to 48 hours she suggests sticking to her Chicago: a prime strip of Gold Coast lakefront that’s two miles long, one quarter of a mile deep, and top-loaded with attractions. Start at the Art Institute itself, where admission is free on Tuesdays. Don’t even think of skipping the stellar French Impressionist paintings but take time out for the Zen-like gallery of Japanese screens, and the Thorne room of miniature period interiors. Then head south along the lake to the Field Museum, where Sue, the world’s most complete Tyrannosaurus rex greets you like a hungry doorman, and to the Shedd Aquarium, where a real feeding frenzy takes place five times a day, when divers hand-feed the bonnet sharks and hawksbill sea turtle. Back north, make a pit stop at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and then cap the day with Harakal’s best scoop: an architecture boat tour up the Chicago River, past the landmarks that make the city a primer of American building styles.
WHERE THE LOCALS EAT
The best clue to Chicago’s scrambled style can be found in its constellation of restaurants, which dish up everything from deep-dish pizza to foie gras. For breakfast that means Swedish pancakes at Ann Sather, served by motherly waitresses who lament every bite not taken. Lunch calls for a stop at newcomer Naha, where chef Carrie Nahabedian’s signature sandwich of black mission figs and prosciutto distills the essence of sweet and salty, or stalwart Café Spiaggia, where the homemade gnocchi is pillowy. Dinner reservations come down to a matter of moods. The trendiest spot of the moment is Springan old bathhouse in the Wicker Park neighborhood that has been cleaned up and converted into a minimalist showcase, for chef Shawn McClain’s seafood still lives. Ben Pao, downtown, manages to turn even sesame chicken into an elegant dish of translucent crunch, but it is the long-running Berghoff that rates as a Chicago institution. Forget shifting food fashions. The dining room here is cozy wood-paneling, and the veteran waiters still somehow manage to bench-press trays piled with Wiener schnitzel and the German classic combination plate of bratwurst and knockwurst.
The best Chicago shopping spree also allows for a tour of the city’s neighborhoods. Start downtown in the flagship Marshall Field’sa Midwestern casbah that offers everything from its signature Frango Mints to silver trays you can serve them on. If that’s too broad a range, head to the single-minded chic boutiques of Wicker Park (the surest sign of the North side neighborhood’s trendy ascension: MTV taped its winter season of “The Real World: Chicago” here). Among the local lures are Brooke James Ltd., which features hand-crafted pine whitewashed farmhouse dressers, and Orange Skin’s streamlined housewares. Take a classic Wicker Park coffee or smoothie break at Earwax Café, where the circus-theme paintings of tattooed men are easily topped by the full-body tattoos of its patrons, and then loop back south for your finest souvenir: a cityscape mug at the Chicago Architecture Foundation Shop, or a resin cast replica of one of Sue’s (T. rex) 58 scissor-sharp teeth at the overflowing Field Museum gift shop.
When guitarist Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater arrived in Chicago from Mississippi in 1950 on a Greyhound bus, he instantly knew he had come home. “It was like blues heaven here,” he says, “because the Chicago spirit is so open.” The proof is Clearwater himself, who remains inspired enough to have opened his own Reservation Blues club, for people who want to hear a version of blues that’s as soulful as a Portuguese fado. Night-crawlers looking for a less moody escape will appreciate the stylish Le Passage restaurant and club, though a Chicago evening out should include a world-class performance by a homegrown group. The likeliest candidates: the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; and Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which started out in a North Shore church basement with fledgling members like Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, and recently came of age when it moved into its own bona fide downtown theater.
LODGINGS OF NOTE
The Peninsula Chicago is the most opulent new splurge in town. Its glossiest signs of class: staff wearing white pillbox caps, like extras from 42nd Street, gold-toned rooms, and a bedside panel so efficiently wired it controls the lights, TV, and air-conditioning. The Allegro attempts a touch of theatrical whimsy in the middle, fittingly, of the revitalized theater district. But it’s the Talbott that rates as the best bargain, though it doesn't actually feel like one, especially if you retire to the walnut bar imported whole from Italy.
Sightseeing, Culture, & Shopping
Art Institute of Chicago: Michigan Ave. at Adams St.; +1 312 443 3600.
Restaurants, Cafés, & Bars
Ann Sather: 929 W. Belmont; +1 773 348 2378.
Hotel Allegro: 171 W. Randolph St.; +1 312 236 0123. ($119-155). www.allegrochicago.com.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.