Chicago travel review: Living the high life in the Windy City
Day 1: Touching down in the Windy City feels like a summer holiday in Aruba. The sun is beaming in a clear blue sky, and there is an unmistakable buzz of excitement in the air. Taxi drivers are yelling across the rank, their accents enough to make you feel like you're starring in a classic American film.
A stylish, leather-seater minibus is waiting for me (it even had tables inside) with tiny bottles of water that you could finish in one gulp. The heat leads me to drink several. Driving down the highway feels like it's taking forever, knowing that this incredible city is waiting at the other end.
After an hour, I reach the hotel; Canopy by Hilton, at 226 West Jackson Boulevard, sitting in the heart of the financial district. The cool street name is justified by the magnificent buildings all around, including the famous Willis Tower featured in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but we'll get to that later…
Canopy Hilton is soaked in style - the foyer is designed in an art-deco fashion and looks effortlessly luxurious; simple brown leather bar stools surround a marble table, with dark red curtains, velvet sofas and soft cream lighting, and gold detailing that gives it the proper Great Gatsby look. I notice a running theme with the pictures dotted around; they're of trains and railways, which offer a glimpse into the hotel's history as the Northwestern Railways HQ, hotel manager Sarah Becker tells me. A warm, friendly service is the cherry on top of this mouth-watering treat.
My room is on the 13th floor and simply breathtaking. A 'king deluxe landmark view' room, lit up naturally through huge windows; one could peer out at the skyscrapers and characterful architecture of the central loop for hours, just perched on the wide window ledge. You can also look right down the street for about a mile if you bring a pair of binoculars.
Onto the amenities - the 55-inch flatscreen TV and rainfall shower would be my favourite of the luxuries if there wasn't a Nespresso coffee machine in the room, the product of which tasted so good that I decided I would be having a mug of decaf before bed for the whole stay. Perusing the detailed itinerary of all the exciting activities I'd be getting up to, I felt relieved knowing that to top it all off, I would be returning to such a relaxing and stunning room.
Now, if you're peckish, you're not short of options. Opposite the hotel was the famous Chicago pizza pie place Giordano's. Their cheesy, baked goodness could fill you up 'til next Tuesday, but if it doesn't, there's a Dunkin' Donuts next door.
I wanted to venture a little further and start my culinary journey in a quirkier joint – and I found just the right place…
Revival Food Hall on South Clark Street couldn't be slicker. Photos of classic rock 'n' roll stars line the walls as you enter and tucked away in the corner is a music and chill-out spot, with sofas, shelves of vinyl and a record player. The décor is trendy 90s, which feels natural in this city.
Like in any food hall, there are vendors joined at the hip selling everything from curry to cakes, greens to gourmet hot dogs. I make sure I look at all the menus, and after 20 minutes decide to ease in with something light – a double patty bacon cheeseburger with garlic fries, made with love at Bianca's Burgers. When I was able to stand up, I thanked the chef as she made me very happy.
Day 1 - Evening: I get back to the room and enjoy a lie down, some coffee and the air-con, until my stomach begins to rumble. Next stop – Eataly.
Eataly is a spectacle – a large and vibrant Italian market selling delights like olive oil and pasta, whilst housing several restaurants where visitors can enjoy a glass of wine and calamari, just one dish I see while perusing the menu. The waiter treats us with a fancy bottle of prosecco and chooses our starters – a cold meat and cheese board and the calamari I had my eye on. The fish is fresh and crispy, and the meats and cheeses aromatic and juicy. An authentic experience that, for the time being, makes me forget I'm on East Ohio Street next door to a Target.
This year, Chicago was named the city of arts and culture – it wasn't unclear to see that it's a well-deserved title as a city heavy with vibrancy, diversity, and creativity. With the sun setting, we make our way to the Riverwalk to see one of the many art installations across the city, Art on theMART 2022, Spring Programme; the largest permanent digital projection in the world.
Back at the hotel, I don't let the jetlag set in until I sample a cocktail from the bar. It did not disappoint.
Day 2 - I head down to the lobby to find fresh smoothies, home-cooked pastries and fruit platters, and get the chance to meet head chef Tim Letsos and hotel manager Sarah Becker, who are understandably very proud of their successful hotel and restaurant. Chef Tim serves me a broccoli and cheese frittata and seasoned avocado on toast – both are utterly delicious.
Now it's time to go and admire some of the city's incredible buildings. I hop onto the Architecture River Cruise and meander down the waterway while a very knowledgeable local talks about the history behind the buildings. One of my favourite sights, the Jewelers' Building, used to have a lift inside which a car carrying gold and jewels could drive straight into off the street, for the safe transfer of diamonds and gold. The tour guide described the journey as a 'trip down the Grand Canyon of Chicago'. I must also mention the incredible Marina City, AKA the 'corn cobs' – these buildings are just mind blowing. Built in the early '60s (as you can tell) they're now apartments with a car park in the lower quarter of the tower.
Thinking about lunch, I take a short walk from the docking bay to Al's Beef. You're in for a treat here. It serves shredded beef sandwiches which are either 'dry' (no gravy), 'dipped' (a little bit'o'gravy), or 'wet'… you guessed it, the whole sandwich gets submerged in sauce. Stuffed with cheese and spicy peppers, these dripping delights attract a whole lot of VIPs to the famous Chi-town spot.
I hop into an Uber for quick trip to Millennium Park. It has beautiful gardens hosting more temporary art installations. It is also, of course, home to The Bean (Cloud Gate). This spectacle, reflecting the beautiful buildings of Michigan Avenue was surreal. I have only ever seen it in pictures, but it's no surprise that it's one of Chicago's most popular sites. I would highly recommend anyone to visit.
With some spare time in the afternoon, a friend and I visited some iconic filming locations from the Dark Knight (2008), which were just round the corner from our hotel - we felt extra special.
Making our way downtown to Fulton Market, we arrive at Lyra, an earthy and sand-toned Greek restaurant. The simple foods have incredible flavours – creamy beef ragu, chargrilled octopus with chilli and olive, and hummus with beetroot, which was delicious, light and comforting. It's a busy and high-end spot so make sure to book in advance.
Onto art. Heading back into the city - to the Harris Theatre on the famous Milwaukee Ave - we see Hubbard Street Dance Chicago RE/UNION by Ohad Naharin. This is like nothing I've ever seen before; interpretive dance to 'enrich and change lives' through movement, with some humour in there too. I'm taken aback by the synchronisation and sheer creativity of it all.
Back to the hotel for a deep sleep. Thankfully the beds are like clouds.
Day 3 - It's an early start at Skydeck, which sits right next door to the hotel. We start off on the lower level of the building, taking in some facts about the magical city – then take a 40-second lift to the top. Sitting atop the Willis Tower, 103 floors up (1,353 feet), the view is mind-blowing, especially over the beautiful Lake Michigan. I have a fangirl moment standing where the cast of Ferris Bueller's Day Off did.
On a clear day, Skydeck gives views of 50 miles and four states – you really do feel like you're on top of the world. Extending out of the building by just over four feet, a glass box lets you see the city right underneath your feet. It is not for the faint-hearted. I'm imagining what it would be like up here on New Year's Eve.
The city centre of Chicago is bustling and exciting, but I've heard about the cool neighbourhoods surrounding it and must see for myself. I soon discover that there is no better place to feel the edgy, downtown buzz than in Wicker Park, Bucktown, said to be the 'best places to live in Illinois'. The neighbourhood is artsy and hip, with indie bars, cosy coffee shops, parks and independent boutiques. Foodies love the place; it's a great spot to sift out trendy eateries. One of my favourite stores here is Reckless Records, a vinyl shop selling everything from Ella Fitzgerald to Metallica.
A good way to see the area is on the 606 train, a repurposed rail line that gives the commuter an elevated view of Chicago's four most distinctive neighbourhoods – Wicker Park, Bucktown, Humboldt Park and Logan Square.
After getting our steps in, it was time for some lunch at Bang Bang Pie and Biscuits, in North California Avenue. From cakes, pies and sweet or savoury biscuits (it's an American thing, I'd never heard of it either), there's more than enough options for meat eaters, and vegans.
Lunchtime at Bang Bang Pie and Biscuits did not disappoint. They have fresh pies – the roast chicken one is delicious – biscuits (almost like scones) topped with egg, ham and a mystery sauce, and more pie for dessert, with honey, matcha, and blueberry flavours. We enjoy sampling them all and deciding which is our favourite.
After a bit more walking, we hop on the blue line back to the hotel for a well-earned rest, before our fancy evening commences.
Dinner is at the metropolitan Tortoise Supper Club, located at the heart of River. The family-owned business serves speciality steaks and seafood, cocktails and live jazz music. The ambient lighting and delectable wine menu make you feel like a star dining in luxury. They ask for diners to come in smart casual attire.
Day 4 - The fourth day starts with a quick hotel breakfast (I choose the avocado on toast with extra smoked salmon... cheeky), and a trip to the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art.
The exhibition I see is Forothermore by Chicagoan Nick Cave, whose art is described as "an ode to those who, whether due to racism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry, live their lives as 'the other'''. It celebrated the idea of art, music, fashion and performance creating a fairer future. An incredible and eye-opening exhibition, which the museum hosts many of every year.
It was then time for deep dish pizza at the previously mentioned, mouth-watering Giordano's. No words describe the magic of Giordano's. You can choose a meaty, veggie, or a plain pizza – one of which can fill two people to the brim. Buttery, pastry like dough encasing cheese, tomato and your chosen toppings. Thank you, Chicago, for this blessing.
I've never been more upset to check out of a hotel – but alas, it was time to leave. What an incredible city, alive with creativity, spectacular sights, history, and culture. It's truly magical, and I would encourage anyone to visit.
If Chicago sounds like your kind of place, take a look into CityPASS, a ticket that'll give you access to the mesmerising planetarium, aquarium, Skydeck, and more, for a cheaper price.
Lucky visitors to the city should try and fit in a walk around Andersonville – the coolest neighbourhood in the US of A. Based in the north side, it is loved for its Swedish roots, historic architecture and bustling main street, and is full of great restaurants, one of which is Gadabout, serving up the fresh savours of Latin America.
If you prefer Middle Eastern flavours, try your tastebuds at Galit, where an award-winning chef will treat you with delectables, and waiting staff proudly provide a caring community and first-class hospitality.
If you're feeling a move and shake, visit Kingston Mines – and award-winning blues joint whose motto is: "Hear blues – drink booze – talk loud – you're among friends!"
A special shout out goes to Choose Chicago for making this trip possible. For more information on the above and more, visit their website at choosechicago.com