Despite the Czech name, Pilsen is Chicago’s traditional Mexican stronghold. And the traditions from further south have made their way north. Walls are covered in huge murals — some political, some festive, some memorials to the great, good and sadly departed. Among the paintwork and traditional taquerias (taco restaurants), however, a few vintage clothes stores, galleries and cafe/shop/community centre hybrids are creeping in. It’s all artsy enough to be interesting, but old school enough to retain its character and identity.
Further south, Hyde Park is something completely different. Victorian Gothic university buildings, gorgeous stone mansions, a Henry Moore sculpture and a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece house stand in the academic centre. Weekend cricketers and baseball players dominate Washington Park, brunching museum-hoppers gather near Lake Michigan and gawkers sneak a peek at Barack Obama’s former house.
In the city’s north west, there’s the Logan Square neighbourhood. Turnout at a community arts festival in the eponymous main square is high despite the drizzle, while a wealth of bars and restaurants hum with customers. Although known as the hipster part of town, there’s a lack of pretentious scene-chasing, and a fair injection of Midwestern heart amid the kale and craft beer.
None of these areas scream ‘CHICAGO!’ They’re not the city I instantly fell for on my first visit. Back then, I was so wowed by the skyline, architecture and bold public art, I didn’t thirst for anything else. But repeat visits have changed all this. As a result, an already hugely likeable city has become even more appealing. It’s like an album initially loved for the big, stand-out singles that grows over time to be cherished for the less bombastic, more nuanced, slow-burning rhythms contained elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Blue Jay Way, in Logan Square, is a hive of rose-tinted geekery — partly a gallery for the owner’s endearingly naive paintings of Seinfeld characters, but also the spot to pick up that Jurassic Park or Ghostbusters lunch box you’ve always wanted. Just up the road, Wolfbait & B-girls is a showcase of over 170 local designers and artists, with an anything-goes attitude — a vintage Singer sewing machine is loaded up with jewellery, for instance, while baby clothes sport cartoonish monster faces.
Similar in feel is Modern Cooperative in Pilsen — ‘where vintage modern meets handmade’. It’s absurdly eclectic, featuring everything from pillows made of recycled materials to hip flasks emblazoned with three-letter airport codes.
A stroll down 18th Street reveals many more venerable options — bric-a-brac treasure trove Pilsen Vintage arguably the pick. Kodak Instamatic cameras, antique candlesticks, wooden tennis rackets and chess sets made of shot glasses are strewn about amid bargain-basement threads.
Where to eat
African-American neighbourhood Bronzeville has long been a prime spot for face-filling. Chicago’s Home of Chicken & Waffles is designed for soul food hoggery, with the fried catfish better than the chicken and waffles.
More interesting places delve into the niches: Fat Rice, in Logan Square, for instance, specialises in post-colonial Macanese fare. The paella-esque arroz gordo seems to have everything thrown in — steamed clams, prawns, curried chicken thighs, salted duck…
There’s a similar atmosphere at Table, Donkey and Stick, on the southern cusp of Logan Square. Focusing on rustic mountain cuisine (the Alpine burger with horseradish, pretzel bun and latke potatoes is phenomenal), it’s half restaurant, half bar — something Chicago does well. Trenchermen, in perma-hip Wicker Park, is a decadent case in point. Located in a former Turkish bathhouse and dripping in Victoriana, the bar side leans towards experimental gin cocktails while the restaurant menu goes all over the place — from toasted oats to salt & pepper squid, and Angus beef tartare.
Then there’s Piece, which eschews Chicago’s beloved deep-dish pizzas for New Haven-style, easy-on-the-mozzarella affairs, and the come-one, come-all outlook and the microbrews made on the premises make the place truly special.
Much more globe-spanning is the Map Room in Bucktown, which feels like it should be a backpacker bar, but isn’t. Maps line the walls, flags hang from the ceilings, bookshelves are filled with old National Geographic magazines dating back to the ’70s, and there’s a hugely impressive beer list to work through. Beardy bar staff know their stuff, and can direct stool-perchers to the right one for their tastes.
Stools are at a premium at Match Box, surely one of the world’s tiniest bars. It’d be a good, old-fashioned dive if it wasn’t for the focus on cocktails. If there’s no space, spill over into the beer garden terrace of next door’s sister restaurant, The Silver Palm, set in a converted train carriage.
But Chicago’s bar scene is at its best when it does big and gregarious. In Logan Square, Emporium occupies a vast former garage space. Food trucks in one corner — rotated periodically — take care of grub. The rest is filled with pool, table football and air hockey tables, vintage arcade games and even a shuffleboard table.
Despite attempts at wine and cocktail bars, Chicago is very much a beer city, and the craft brewing scene has exploded in the past five years. One of the longest-established players is Revolution Brewing, just down the road from Emporium. Pumps are shaped like brightly-coloured fists, and options range from the Wicked Fist imperial rye red ale to the 8.1% Belgian-style farmhouse ale, Coup D’Etat.
Logan Square’s most loveable nightspot, however, is The Whistler. It puts on a roster of free-entry jazz and indie gigs, plus Cards Against Humanity game nights and Movieoke, where participants are encouraged to get up on stage, grab a mic and act out scenes from the movie playing on the big screen behind them. But you’ll have to find the bar first behind its nondescript, unmarked door — not all the best things about Chicago are immediately obvious…
Top 10 local tips
02 The Chicago Riverwalk has recently been extended — and plenty of new bars are cropping up there.
03 Many of the city’s early, ornate skyscrapers are equally spectacular inside. It’s worth going in for a peek.
04 During the morning and evening rush hour and at weekends, the Blue Line train from the airport is usually quicker than a taxi.
05 Avoid renting a car — valet parking charges can be astronomical.
06 Contactless bank cards are a quick and easy way to tap in for public transport instead of buying tickets.
07 The new Virgin Hotels Chicago serves free happy hour drinks to guests between 6pm and 7pm, opening up all sorts of socialising possibilities.
08 The free Chicago Greeter tours show off some of the city’s lesser-known neighbourhoods.
09 They may lack the glamour of local rivals, the Cubs, but the White Sox are considered the true working man’s baseball team.
10 Kayaking is a great way to explore the skyline from down low. Kayak Chicago offers rentals and tours.
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Chicago is more up-to-date, but picture-heavy. RRP: £11.99. (DK Publishing)
Web: Chicago Reader is strong on arts and entertainment, Chicago Eater tracks the restaurant scene and Chicago Tribune is arguably the best local paper.
The tourist board website is choosechicago.org
Published in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)