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Fall Is a Great Time to Savor Chicago
By Robert Selwitz
Mild temperatures make early fall a great time to visit Chicago. Strolling the streets, parks, shorelines and neighborhoods of the third-largest U.S. city, sampling its fabulous cuisine, and taking in a baseball or football game are now particularly comfortable.
It's also an ideal time to appreciate Chicago's geography, particularly the waterways that launched the city onto the world stage. Its location on Lake Michigan and closeness to links between the Mississippi River system and Great Lakes sparked the city's rise. While the connection initially included overland portage, in 1848 the Illinois and Michigan Canal, the first to enable all-water transit between the two great inland water hubs, was opened.
Incorporated as a city in 1837, Chicago rapidly grew in importance as a rail hub and industrial center. These transportation and manufacturing assets drew huge numbers of European immigrants who came here for economic opportunities and jobs that were often denied them at home.
Of course there was plenty of history before Chicago officially became a city. Fur traders had been here since the 17th century, following in the footsteps of French explorers such as Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette.
Today, quite near the site where Fort Dearborn stood between 1804 and 1812, the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise starts its 90-minute floating explorations of many of the city's famous buildings. Intelligently narrated, these excursions are an ideal introduction to a century and a half of Chicago history and some of its most famous landmarks. Tours, which operate from April to November, start at the southeast corner and lower level of the Michigan Avenue Bridge at Wacker Drive.
The excursions float past such structures as the Wrigley Building, the Montgomery Ward Building, River City apartment complex, Aqua Tower and Aon Center, and the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, which offers one of Chicago's most stunning aerial views.
Visitors are also told about the extraordinary 1900 river reversal project.
Until the end of the 19th century the Chicago River — whose banks were lined with industry — flowed eastward. This meant that along the way growing quantities of industrial and other pollution were dumped directly into the lake, which was also Chicago's prime source of drinking water.
Needing to stem resulting epidemics, engineers reversed the river by digging the Sanitary and Ship Canal between the Chicago River's south branch and the Des Plaines River, a Mississippi River tributary. Since the new canal was deeper than the Chicago River, gravity pulled Lake Michigan water westward, ensuring that pollutants no longer fed into it. Today Lake Michigan is most swimmable, and on warm days it's packed with urban beach-goers and water-lovers.
Exploring Chicago on foot is another way to see this great city, particularly in the Loop, an area bounded by the Chicago River, Harrison Street and Michigan Avenue as well as elevated rail tracks. This is not only the heart of Chicago's business district, but it is also the home of an extraordinary collection of impressive buildings and public art.
The most famous sculpture is Pablo Picasso's untitled steel work in Daley Plaza. There is usually a steady stream of viewers, photographers and kids who love to (and are allowed to) slide down its 47-year-old appendages.
Other nearby highlights include Joan Miro's "Chicago" on Washington Street and "The Four Seasons" by Marc Chagall, a 70-foot-long, four-sided surreal mosaic in Chase Plaza and Dearborn Street. Farther down Dearborn is the red-orange "Flamingo" by Alexander Calder.
Major midtown architectural highlights include the Chicago Cultural Center at 78 Washington St. with its extraordinary interior and Tiffany glass dome and the Carbide and Carbon Building at 230 N. Michigan Ave., which features a stunning art deco tower. Also worth a look are the Jewelers Building, 15-17 S. Wabash, which featured drive-in parking so jewelers could safely transport their valued goods, and the Marquette Building, 140 S.
Architecture devotees will want to tour or explore solo the Oak Park neighborhood, site of many structures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, who lived here during his early years.
Chicago strolls should also include Grant Park and 10-year-old Millennium Park, both running along the east side of Michigan Avenue. Much of this stands on landfill created by debris from the disastrous 1871 Great Fire. The Millennium, which opened in 2004, features the gleaming Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, site of numerous outdoor public events.
Another walk goes along upper Michigan Avenue (above the Chicago River) past many upscale shops and stores to reach the Chicago Water Tower, a Great Fire survivor. And for truly spectacular views, it's worth ascending to the top of the John Hancock Building's 1,000-foot-high "360 Chicago" observatory.
Visitors must not miss one of the world's greatest museums, the Art Institute of Chicago. Best known as the home of George Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," the museum — at Michigan and Adams — also is home to a fabulous Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection. Also here are "America Windows" by Marc Chagall; the re-creation of the 1893-1894 Chicago Stock Exchange trading room; many paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh; and works by Jacques Lipchiltz, Henri Matisse, Chaim Soutine and Amedeo Modigliani.
Visiting the Art Institute often requires enduring extensive entry lines. However, holders of the Chicago City Pass avoid this since the pass not only covers admission but also lets holders bypass these lines. Similar benefits apply at the Museum of Science and Industry, the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium.
World-class classical music is another major Chicago plus. Under Ricardo Muti's direction the Chicago Symphony offers superb performances and programs at its elegant Michigan Avenue home almost directly opposite the Art Institute. Another top-notch company is the Chicago Lyric Opera, one of America's best troupes, performing at 20 N. Upper Wacker Drive.
Chicago is also the home of plenty of dynamic theater. Leading companies include the Goodman Theatre (170 N. Dearborn St.) and the Steppenwolf Theatre Company (1650 N. Halsted St.).
Another reason to visit in the fall is that temperate weather makes this a great time to take in outdoor Chicago sports. Though neither local baseball team is playoff-bound this year, the Cubs and White Sox offer terrific venues. Wrigley Field, now celebrating its 100th anniversary, has been the Cubs' home for 98 years. The heart of the North Side, this wooden, close-in park with its iconic moss-covered outfield wall makes Wrigley a virtual mecca for baseball fans.
For contrast, check out the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field on the city's south side. It's a comfortable, very modern park with excellent sightlines and concessions. Interestingly, both fields are reachable by the same Red subway line. From midtown head north to Addison for the Cubs or south to the Sox-35th Street to see the White Sox.
Before chilly days arrive, football fans might want to experience the NFL Chicago Bears at stately Soldier Field or train up to Evanston, Illinois, for a Big Ten Northwestern University home game.
That Chicago is a serious food town is hardly news. As an example of its dining diversity, on a recent visit my wife and I reveled in the trendy Peruvian specialties that nightly pack midtown Tanta. Bar Pastoral, a Lincoln Park neighborhood bistro, features extraordinary cheeses and a menu whose only constant is clever, taste-tempting cuisine.
WHEN YOU GO
Chicago tourism information: www.choosechicago.com
Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise: www.architecture.org/rivercruise
Chicago Symphony: www.cso.org
Chicago Lyric Opera: www.lyricpera.org
Chicago City Pass: www.citypass.com/chicago
Bar Pastoral: www.barpastoral.com
The James Hotel: www.jameshotels.com/chicago
Hyatt Regency: www.chicagoregency.hyatt.com
Robert Selwitz is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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