Chicago Travel Guide

Understand

Chicago was known as a fine place to find a wild onion if you were a member of the Potawatomi tribe, who lived in this area of Illinois before European settlers arrived. It was mostly swamps, prairie and mud long past the establishment of Fort Dearborn in 1803 and incorporation as a town in 1833. It could be argued that nature never intended for there to be a city here; brutal winters aside, it took civil engineering projects of unprecedented scale to establish working sewers, reverse the flow of the river to keep it out of the city's drinking supply, and stop buildings from sinking back into the swamps — and that was just the first few decades.

By 1871, the reckless growth of the city was a sight to behold, full of noise, Gothic lunacy, and bustling commerce. But on October 8, Mrs. O'Leary's cow reportedly knocked over a lantern in the crowded immigrant quarters in the West Side, and the Great Chicago Fire began. It quickly spread through the dry prairie, killing 300 and destroying virtually the entire city. The stone Water Tower in the Near North is the most famous surviving structure. But the city seized this destruction as an opportunity to rebuild bigger than before, giving canvas for several architects and urban planners who would go on to become legends of modern architecture.

At the pinnacle of its rebirth and the height of its newfound powers, Chicago was known as The White City. Cultures from around the world were summoned to the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition, to bear witness to the work of Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and the future itself. Cream of Wheat, soft drinks, street lights and safe electricity, the fax machine, and the Ferris Wheel bespoke the colossus now resident on the shores of Lake Michigan.

As every road had once led to Rome, every train led to Chicago. Carl Sandburg called Chicago the Hog Butcher for the World for its cattle stockyards and place on the nation's dinner plate. Sandburg also called it the City of the Big Shoulders, noting the tall buildings in the birthplace of the skyscraper — and the city's "lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning." But Chicago is a city in no short supply of nicknames. Fred Fisher's 1922 song (best known in Frank Sinatra's rendition) calls it That Toddlin' Town, where "on State Street, that great street, they do things they don't do on Broadway." It's also referenced by countless blues standards like Sweet Home Chicago.

Chicago is also known as The Second City, which refers to its rebuilding after the fire — the current city is literally the second Chicago, after the one that disappeared in 1871. The moniker has stuck, in no small part due to its popular association with the city's long-held former position as the United States' second largest city. And many know the nickname from Chicago's great comedy theater in Old Town.

Chicago's history with corruption is legendary. During the Prohibition era, Chicago's criminal world, emblemized by names like Al Capone, Baby Face Nelson, and later Sam Giancana, practically ran the city. The local political world had scarcely more legitimacy in a town where voter turnout was highest among the dead and their pets, and precinct captains spread the word to "vote early, vote often." Even Sandburg acknowledged the relentless current of vice that ran under the surface of the optimistic city.

Today, Chicago is known as The Windy City. Walking around town, you might suspect that Chicago got this nickname from the winds off Lake Michigan, which shove through the downtown corridors with intense force. But the true origin of the saying comes from politics. Some say it may have been coined by rivals like Cincinnati and New York as a derogatory reference to the Chicagoan habit of rabid boosterism and endless political conventions. Others say that the term originated from the fact that Chicago politicians change their minds "as often as the wind." Yet another saying is that the name came about because of Chicago's long-winded politicians.

Finally, the city is known as The City That Works, as promoted by longtime Mayor Richard M. Daley, which refers to Chicago's labor tradition, the long hours worked by its residents, and its willingness to tackle grand civic projects. Daley and his father, former Mayor Richard J. Daley, ruled the city for decades in what can only be described as a benevolent dictatorship; as other Midwestern manufacturing cities like Cleveland and Detroit went into decline, Chicago thrived, transforming from a city of stockyards and factories to a financial giant at the forefront of modern urban design. Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel became mayor of Chicago in 2011.

While the city has many great attractions downtown, most Chicagoans live and play outside of the central business district. To understand Chicago, travelers must venture away from the Loop and Michigan Avenue and out into the vibrant neighborhoods, to soak up the local nightlife, sample the wide range of fantastic dining, and see the sights Chicagoans alone know and love — thanks to the city's massive public transit system, every part of Chicago is only slightly off the most beaten path.

Climate

Weather is definitely not one of the attractions in Chicago. There's a good time to be had in any season, but it is a place where the climate has to be taken into consideration.

A little-known fact: despite Chicago's winters, there are more days with a maximum temperature of between 80-84°F (27-29°C) than any other five-degree range. Obscured by Chicago's ferocious winters are the heat waves of summer. The days in July and August that go above the "normal" are oftentimes disgustingly hot and humid, and dewpoints can be similar to those found closer to the Gulf of Mexico. The city's surprisingly attractive lakefront beaches can relieve some of the swelter. Summer nights are usually reasonable, though, and you'll get a few degrees' respite along the lakefront — in the local parlance, that's "cooler by the lake."

But then there are those winters. The months from December to March will see very cold temperatures, with even more bitter wind chill factors. Snow is usually limited to a handful of heavy storms per season, with a few light dustings in-between. (And a little more along the lakefront — again in the local parlance, that's "lake effect snow".) Ice storms are also a risk. It's a city that's well-accustomed to these winters, though, so city services and public transportation are highly unlikely to shut down.

That said, Chicago does have a few nice months of weather. May and September are pleasant and mild; April and June are mostly fine, although thunderstorms with heavy winds can also occur suddenly. Although there may be a slight chill in the air in October, it rarely calls for more than a light coat and some days that's not even necessary. In some years, the warmth stored by the lake may prolong a pleasant autumn into November.

Literature

Chicago literature found its roots in the city's tradition of lucid, direct journalism, lending to a strong tradition of social realism. Consequently, most notable Chicago fiction focuses on the city itself, with social criticism keeping exultation in check. Here is a selection of Chicago's most famous works about itself:

Karen Abbott's Sin in the Second City is a recent best-seller about Chicago's vice district, the Levee, and some of the personalities involved: gangsters, corrupt politicians, and two sisters who ran the most elite brothel in town.
Nelson Algren's Chicago: City on the Make is a prose poem about the alleys, the El tracks, the neon and the dive bars, the beauty and cruelty of Chicago. It's best saved for after a trip, when at least twenty lines will have you enraptured in recognition.
Saul Bellow's Adventures of Augie March charts the long drifting life of a Jewish Chicagoan and his myriad eccentric acquaintances throughout the early 20th century: growing up in the then Polish neighborhood of Humboldt Park, cavorting with heiresses on the Gold Coast, studying at the University of Chicago, fleeing union thugs in the Loop, and taking the odd detour to hang out with Trotsky in Mexico while eagle-hunting giant iguanas on horseback. This book has legitimate claim to be the Chicago epic (for practical purposes, that means you won't finish it on the plane).
Gwendolyn Brooks' A Street in Bronzeville was the collection of poems that launched the career of the famous Chicago poetess, focused on the aspirations, disappointments, and daily life of those who lived in 1940s Bronzeville. It is long out of print, so you'll likely need to read these poems in a broader collection, such as her Selected Poems.
Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street is a Mexican-American coming-of-age novel, dealing with a young Latina girl, Esperanza Cordero, growing up in the Chicago Chicano ghetto.
Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie is a cornerstone of the turn of the 20th century Chicago Literary Renaissance, a tale of a country girl in the big immoral city, rags-to-riches and back again.
Stuart Dybek's The Coast of Chicago is a collection of fourteen marvelous short stories about growing up in Chicago (largely in Pilsen and Little Village) in a style blending the gritty with the dreamlike.
John Guzlowski's Lightning and Ashes chronicles the author's experiences growing up in the immigrant and DP neighborhoods around Humboldt Park in Chicago, talking about Jewish hardware store clerks with Auschwitz tattoos on their wrists, Polish cavalry officers who still mourned for their dead horses, and women who walked from Siberia to Iran to escape the Russians.
Erik Larson's Devil in the White City is a best-selling pop history about the 1893 Colombian Exposition; it's also about the serial killer who was stalking the city at the same time. For a straight history of the Exposition and also the workers' paradise in Pullman, try James Gilbert's excellent Perfect Cities: Chicago's Utopias of 1893.
Audrey Niffenegger's The Time-Traveler's Wife is a recent love story set in Chicago nightclubs, museums, and libraries.
Mike Royko's Boss is the definitive biography of Mayor Richard J. Daley and politics in Chicago, written by the beloved late Tribune columnist. American Pharaoh (Cohen and Taylor) is a good scholarly treatment of the same subject.
Carl Sandburg's Chicago Poems is without a doubt the most famous collection of poems about Chicago by its own "bard of the working class."
Upton Sinclair's The Jungle sits among the canon of both Chicago literature and US labor history for its muckraking-style depiction of the desolation experienced by Lithuanian immigrants working in the Union Stockyards on Chicago's Southwest Side.
Richard Wright's Native Son is a classic Chicago neighborhood novel set in Bronzeville and Hyde Park about a young, doomed, black boy hopelessly warped by the racism and poverty that defined his surroundings.
Movies

Chicago is America's third most prolific movie industry and a host of very Chicago-centric movies have been produced here. These are just a few:

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (John Hughes, 1986). The dream of the northern suburbs: to be young, clever, and loose for a day in Chicago. Ferris and friends romp through the old Loop theater district, catch a game at Wrigley Field, and enjoy the sense of invincibility that Chicago shares with its favorite sons when all is well.
Adventures in Babysitting (Chris Columbus, 1987). The flip side of Ferris Bueller — the dangers that await the suburbanite in the Loop at night, including memorable trips to lower Michigan Avenue and up close with the Chicago skyline.
The Blues Brothers (John Landis, 1980). Probably Chicago's favorite movie about itself: blues music, white men in black suits, a mission from God, the conscience that every Chicago hustler carries without question, and almost certainly the biggest car chase ever filmed.
The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987). With a square-jawed screenplay by David Mamet, this is a retelling of Chicago's central fable of good vs. evil: Eliot Ness and the legendary takedown of Al Capone. No film (except perhaps The Blues Brothers) has made a better use of so many Chicago locations, especially Union Station (the baby carriage), the Chicago Cultural Center (the rooftop fight), and the LaSalle Street canyon.
High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000). John Cusack reviews failed relationships from high school at Lane Tech to college in Lincoln Park and muses over them in trips through Uptown, River North, all over the city on the CTA, his record store in the rock snob environs of Wicker Park, and returning at last to his record-swamped apartment in Rogers Park.
Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005) and its sequel The Dark Knight (2008). Making spectacular use of the 'L', the Chicago Board of Trade Building, Chicago skyscrapers, the Loop at night, and lower Wacker Drive, the revived action series finally sets the imposing power and intractable corruption of Gotham City where it belongs, in Chicago.

Others include Harrison Ford vs. the one-armed man in The Fugitive, the CTA vs. true love in While You Were Sleeping, Autobots vs. Decepticons in Transformers 3, the greatest Patrick Swayze hillbilly ninja vs. Italian mob film of all time, Next of Kin, and the humble John Candy film Only The Lonely which captures the south side Irish mentality and the comfort of neighborhood dive bars.

Smoking

Smoking is prohibited by state law at all restaurants, bars, nightclubs, workplaces, and public buildings. It's also banned within fifteen feet of any entrance, window, or exit to a public place, and at CTA train stations. The fine for violating the ban can range from $100 to $250.

Tourist Information

Chicago's visitor information centers offer maps, brochures and other information.

Chicago Water Works Visitor Information Center163 E Pearson AvePhone: +1 877 244-2246Hours: 1/2-3/15 Sa-Su 10AM-5PM; 3/16-5/26 Su 10AM-5PM, M-Sa 9:30AM-6PM; 5/27-9/2 Su 10AM-6PM, M-Th 9AM-7PM, F-Sa 9AM-6PM; 9/3-12/31 Su 10AM-5PM, M-Sa 9:30AM-6PM; closed Thanksgiving, 12/25, 1/1The city's main visitor information center is located on the Magnificent Mile in the historic Pumping Station, across the street from the Water Tower. In addition to extensive free visitor materials, there is a small cafe and a Hot Tix window for discount theater tickets.
Chicago Cultural Center Visitor Information Center77 E Randolph StPhone: +1 312 744-8000Hours: 1/2-3/15 Sa-Su 10AM-5PM; 3/16-5/26 Su 10AM-5PM, M-Sa 9:30AM-6PM; 5/27-9/2 Su 10AM-6PM, M-Th 9AM-7PM, F-Sa 9AM-6PM; 9/3-12/31 Su 10AM-5PM, M-Sa 9:30AM-6PM; closed Thanksgiving, 12/25, 1/1A centrally located place to pick up a host of useful, free materials. The Cultural Center itself makes a good first stop on your tour, with free, worthwhile art and historical exhibits throughout the year.

source: Wikivoyage

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