x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

My Kind of Place: Chicago

Chicago may be known as the 'Second City' but the thrills it offers are first class.

Millennium Park's Jay Pritzker Music Pavilion, an outdoor concert venue in Chicago's Loop area. Getty Images
Millennium Park's Jay Pritzker Music Pavilion, an outdoor concert venue in Chicago's Loop area. Getty Images

Why Chicago?

Hugging the south-west corner of Lake Michigan, Chicago developed rapidly in the late 19th century as the "crossroads of America". It is famous for being the birthplace of the skyscraper the Willis Tower, completed in 1973, was the tallest building in the world for 25 years and Chicagoan architects lie behind many of its successors, including the Burj Khalifa and the proposed kilometre-high Kingdom Tower in Jeddah.

Cleaner, quieter and friendlier than many major US cities, Chicago lies at the heart of American culture. This is the hometown of Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama, and the source of countless pleasures, from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to the beehive hairdo. Although commonly known as the "Second City", Chicago delivers first-class thrills.

A comfortable bed

All the big hotel names are here but the standout property - literally is the 339-room Trump International Hotel & Tower (www.trumpchicagohotel.com; double rooms from US$459 [ Dh1,685] per night). Set beside the Chicago River in a gleaming building that soars to 92 storeys, it offers knockout views, faultless service, a lavish spa and huge rooms you actually want to spend time in the in-room dining menu offers a choice of 11 different breakfasts.

For somewhere new and buzzy, check into the 334-room Radisson Blu Aqua hotel (www.radissonbluchicago.com; from $185 [Dh679] per night), which forms part of a sensational tower block that resembles a rippling wave. If on a tight budget, go for the three-star Holiday Inn Chicago Mart Plaza (www.martplaza.com; double rooms from $126 [Dh462] per night), which is also on the river and has 521 rooms (those on the south side have the best views).

Find your feet

Downtown is known as "The Loop" on account of the antiquated but much loved "L" (elevated) railway that circles the city centre. For an introduction to the many great buildings, join an expert-led tour run by the Chicago Architecture Foundation (www.architecture.org).

For an aerial perspective, whizz up to the Skydeck of the Willis Tower (www.theskydeck.com) where the daring can step on to a transparent ledge 412 metres above the street. The Signature Room on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Center (www.signatureroom.com) offers equally sensational views but from the safety of a bar and restaurant.

Meet the locals

Chicagoans are the sort of people who spontaneously strike up conservations with strangers and offer assistance when they see a traveller looking at a map. Join them at the theatre many productions start here before heading to Broadway (www.hottix.org) and at the sports ground, where baseball, basketball, hockey and American football teams are enthusiastically followed. Ask your concierge about tickets. The city also offers live music that ranges from the performances of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (www.cso.org) to earthy blues at Buddy Guy's Legends (www.buddyguy.com).

Book a table

Chicago's thriving food scene goes far beyond hot dogs and deep-dish pizza. In the West Loop, Sepia (www.sepiachicago.com) is housed in a cosy, 1890 printing house and serves dishes such as crispy skate wing with sweet potato and black garlic gnocchi ($32; Dh117).

Just around the corner, the Michelin-starred Blackbird (www.blackbirdrestaurant.com) offers a three-course, prix fixe lunch for $22 (Dh80), including wood-grilled sturgeon with shiitake mushrooms and persimmons. For a break while sightseeing, book a table at the all-white Terzo Piano (www.terzopianochicago.com), set on the top floor of the Modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, where the menu includes salads, flatbreads and lamb burger with goat's cheese ($19; Dh69).

If you want to be amazed, head for Sixteen (www.trumpchicagohotel.com), where the executive chef, Thomas Lents, creates theatrical tasting menus (an eight-course meal is priced at $150; Dh550) featuring turbot, venison and an extraordinary pink pearl apple with walnut and sorrel.

Shopper's paradise

North Michigan Avenue is a glistening parade of big-name stores that stretches for 13 blocks (www.themagnificentmile.com). If you prefer things quirky and independent, ride the Blue Line north-west to Damen, the gateway to the low-rise, bohemian neighbourhood of Wicker Park. Three shops worth a pilgrimage are Ikram (http://ikram.com), a red, upscale women's boutique and restaurant favoured by local celebrities including Michelle Obama; Flight 001 (www.flight001.com), which specialises in ingeniously designed bags and accessories for the traveller; and the Chicago Architecture Foundation Store (architecture.org), which stocks an above-average range of Chicago-themed gifts.

What to avoid

As the locals put it, "we suffer the winters to enjoy the summers". Chicago is worth a visit any time, but be prepared for subzero temperatures in January and February, when life moves indoors and commuters use a network of subterranean shops and walkways known as the Pedway.

Don't miss

Recently opened at the Chicago History Museum (www.chicagohistory.org), Vivian Maier is an engrossing exhibition of photographs taken in the 1950s and 1960s by a nanny who secretly documented city life.

The Art Institute of Chicago (www.artinstituteofchicago.org) is best known for its formidable collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist work (the largest outside Paris). It also has a fine stock of modern American art. For more information and a free city-guide app, visit www.choosechicago.com.

Go there

Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Chicago take 15 hours and cost Dh6,050, including taxes.