Walking around the historical center of Chicago, or what locals call "the Loop," you'll find your gaze drawn inexorably upward. All around you are some of the most striking and diverse architectural styles in America. Just as your eye catches an elaborate Art Deco detail in one direction, you'll spot an ultra-modern tower in the other. Old mingles with new in what amounts to a living museum of buildings from the second half of the 1800's to the present.
Chicago doesn't have mountains like Denver or beaches like Miami. It has buildings. Sure, as the nation's third largest city, Chicago serves up world-class attractions like museums, an active arts scene and championship sports teams -- as well as homegrown favorites like deep-dish pizza, Oprah and the Blues Brothers. But it's in architecture that the Windy City really shines.
This is in fact the birthplace of the modern building. The world's first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building, was built here in 1885, and while that building was taken down in the 1930's, Chicago is today home to three of the tallest buildings in the world: the Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower, it stands at 1,450 feet), AON Center (1,136 feet) and John Hancock building (1,127 feet). Head up to the Willis or Hancock observation decks and you'll look down over a city shaped by architectural innovators like Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Chicago did not start off on such a grand scale. The city was founded at the mouth of the Chicago River in 1779 by Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a fur trader believed to be from Haiti. But by 1848, with the completion of the 100-mile Illinois and Michigan Canal connecting the Chicago to the Mississippi, this little trading post was on its way to becoming a major transportation hub. The "Great Chicago Fire" in 1871 dealt a devastating blow, but the city rebuilt with the help of pioneering architects like Burnham, whose motto "Make no little plans" was well embraced.
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Chicago is at its most impressive along the "Magnificent Mile" portion of North Michigan Avenue, where visitors will delight not only in the upscale shops but also such striking attractions as the Gothic Tribune Tower, home of the Chicago Tribune newspaper, and the Beaux-Arts Wrigley Building. To see how the design innovation continues, check out the work of renowned contemporary architect Frank Gehry at Millennium Park. Opened in 2004, the park has become so much a part of the Chicago scene it's been dubbed "the people's park."
Downtown Chicago has the largest business district in the U.S. outside of Manhattan, and it's all hustle and bustle. The streets literally fill with people at lunch hour when all the office towers seem to spew forth their occupants. But beyond the mayhem are artsy and ethnic neighborhoods, beautiful parks and the expansive shores of Lake Michigan.
Civic and ethnic pride reigns supreme. The Windy City is home to the world's largest Polish population outside of Warsaw, and famously dyes the Chicago River green each year in celebration of St. Patrick's Day. Visitors are often surprised to find this big, brash city a very friendly place. You're almost guaranteed to discover, as in the song, that Chicago is your "kind of town."
--written by Fran Golden