As relationships go, this one was fleeting. Just four short winter’s days — barely enough time to get to know each other. But what days they were, and what a time we had. Even now, I still think about it.
It’s not that Chicago got under my skin; more that it hit me over the head with a hammer. What a city it is, and what a first impression it makes. This twinkling lattice of pristine streets grafted onto the banks of Lake Michigan intoxicated me, first with its showmanship, then with its charm. It’s a wonderful combination of exuberance and taste — a truly dazzling city, but one with so much to say for itself.
The first things you notice are the buildings. This, after all, is the home of the skyscraper, and today there’s a forest of them. But while it can consider itself the mother of all modern cities, here there’s more to the story — for in Chicago, even the tallest buildings are steeped in history. From the looming art deco monoliths to Frank Lloyd Wright’s squat, yet stylish, Rookery Building, Chicago’s buildings are eye-catching, elegant and often old. And there are many ways to experience them, be it on foot, on an L-train tour, by Segway, or even from the deck of a riverboat — just be prepared to look up.
But this isn’t history partitioned off in a creaking Old Town. This is a city whose past is every bit as glamorous as its present, and the two are wonderfully intertwined. For example, everywhere you look there are reminders of Chicago’s weighty contribution to those two most seductive of industries: crime and music — from the stomping grounds of be-suited Prohibition-era gangsters to the stages that first brought us the sounds of Muddy Waters, Benny Goodman, Nat King Cole and Curtis Mayfield.
During that first crisp December day, I got my fill of both, starting with a tour of the mobster heartland in the care of some hilarious fake Al Capones, followed by a few drunken hours in Buddy Guy’s Legends blues club. Then, in the days that followed, I did all the other things a tourist ought to do: I inched my way through dense wedges of pizza pie; trawled up and down Magnificent Mile, in search of a transatlantic bargain; was sweet-talked into purchases I could ill afford by the store assistants in Wicker Park; and sampled the bars along the Chicago Riverwalk.
But for all its history, my highlight was something distinctly modern. Millennium Park is Chicago at its most confident and ambitious — a beautifully laid-out space that’s full of surprises. Forget swings and duck ponds, and picture instead a stunning outdoor concert venue designed by Frank Gehry; a high-tech, 50ft fountain that projects video images of 1,000 Chicagoans spitting water; and best of all, Cloud Gate, a stainless steel, bean-shaped sculpture, inspired by liquid mercury. There’s surely no other park like it on Earth.
And over a weekend of revelations, perhaps the biggest was the people, who seemed determined to confound every US stereotype going. Friendly and curious, yet never fake or fawning, the natives seemed to exude confidence and pride. But this wasn’t the in-your-face national pride that sits so ungraciously in the mouth of a super power; this was pure civic pride, fuelled not by a flag, but by the knowledge they inhabit one of the most beguiling cities in the world.
Well, I think they’ve got plenty to be proud about. But it was only four short winter’s days — barely enough time to get to know each other. And can you really ever trust a first impression?
Perhaps it’s time I went back.
The March issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) is on sale now.