Chicago awes first-time visitors. They've come expecting a grimy rust-belt metropolis, Carl Sandburg's “Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.” Instead, they're met with broad boulevards, pristine parks, and wide-as-an-ocean Lake Michigan sparkling at the east edge of downtown. World-class describes the city's museums, theaters, architecture, shopping, and dining. Down-to-earth describes the people, who embrace the sold-out Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony with the same enthusiasm they show for “Da Bears” and “Da Bulls.”
Start at the Top See the city at your feet from the glassed-in Skydeck on the 103rd floor of the Sears Tower (233 S. Wacker Drive, 312.875.9696), then check out the deck's multimedia exhibits to learn more about Chicago's history. (Among the questions answered: Why is the heart of downtown called the Loop? It was the area encircled by early cable car lines.)
You'll get an equally panoramic view at the Observatory atop the landmark John Hancock Center (875 N. Michigan Ave., 888.875.8439) or from the Hancock's Signature Room (888.234.6395), the window-wrapped restaurant on the 95th floor.
There's another cool view of the city in store for you from the 15-story Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier (600 E. Grand Ave., 312.595.PIER). Ride it at night for a thrilling look at the skyline after dark. (While waiting to board, impress bystanders with this bit of trivia: George Ferris introduced his novel ride at Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition.) Navy Pier houses restaurants, shops, a stained glass museum, children's museum, and the dynamic Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Architecture At the Chicago Architecture Foundation (224 S. Michigan Ave., 312.922.3432), daily walking tours take visitors past Loop skyscrapers old and new. You can tour individual buildings, or see the city by train, bus, bicycle, or boat. (The river cruise is a visitor favorite.) CAF's gift shop spotlights all things architectural, from books and postcards to tiles and lamps.
Two homes south of the Loop merit a visit. The bold 1887 Glessner House (1800 S. Prairie Ave., 312.326.1480), designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, shocked residents of this early Gold Coast community. Uniquely modern for its time, the house retains its original furnishings.
In 1909, Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie style Robie House (5757 S. Woodlawn Ave., 773.834.1847), all art-glass windows and overhanging roofs, had the same effect on its neighbors. For a more intimate view of Wright, visit his home and studio (951 Chicago Ave., 708.848.1976 ) in suburban Oak Park, a 20-minute drive west of downtown.
Museums You'll find some familiar faces at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 S. Michigan Ave., 312.443.3600) — like the couple with the pitchfork and the dour expressions in Grant Wood's “American Gothic” — and some scenes you've known for years, like the haunting diner in Edward Hopper's “Nighthawks.” The museum claims one of the world's largest collections of Impressionist and Postimpressionist paintings, along with decorative arts, photography, and textiles that span continents and centuries.
Three remarkable museums cluster southeast of downtown. The John G. Shedd Aquarium/Oceanarium (1200 S. Lake Shore Dr., 312.939.2438) is the world's largest indoor aquarium, with more than 8,000 aquatic animals. Exhibits and sky shows at The Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum (1300 S. Lake Shore Dr., 312.922.STAR ) transport you to galaxies far, far away. The Field Museum (1400 S. Lake Shore Dr., 312.922.9410) is home to American Indian artifacts, an Egyptian tomb, and Sue, the world's largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex.
Where can you squeeze yourself into the cramped quarters of a captured German World War II U-boat, descend 50 feet into the dim confines of a coal mine, and revel in luxury train travel aboard the Silver Streak? Only at the Museum of Science and Industry (57th St. at Lake Shore Dr., 773.684.1414), the only building remaining from the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
Music and Theater When neighborhood blues clubs proved too hard for tourists to find, the clubs came to the tourists. Blue Chicago (736 N. Clark St., 312.642.6261) and Blue Chicago on Clark (536 N. Clark St., 312.661.0100), in the heart of downtown, feature exceptional local talent. One cover charge gets you into both venues.
Buddy Guy's Legends (754 S. Wabash Ave., 312.427.0333) is the place to hear true Chicago blues, played by four-time-Grammy-winner Buddy, by local blues artists — and occasionally by folks like Eric Clapton. Rare photos and memorabilia line the walls.
Green Mill Cocktail Lounge (4802 N. Broadway, 773.878.5552) is a Prohibition-era jazz club that never shut its doors — through hard times and good. It's a 20-minute cab ride from downtown, and it's packed on weekends, but the seen-it-all nightspot with its vinyl booths and curving bar is worth the trip.
All the city's a stage, from shoestring storefront venues to gloriously restored Loop theaters. Three local treasures: The Goodman Theatre (170 N. Dearborn St., 312.443.3800) presents classics and premieres new plays that routinely move on to Broadway; Steppenwolf Theatre Company (1650 N. Halsted St., 312.335.1650), known for its edgy style, often brings back members of its early acting company —John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Laurie Met-calf; The Second City (1616 N. Wells St., 312.337.3992) specializes in hilarious topical satire. John Belushi and Bill Murray are just two of the Saturday Night Live alums who got their start here.
Hot Tix booths (housed in Visitor Centers at 78 W. Randolph St. and 163 E. Pearson St.) sell half-price same-day theater tickets. You can't check by phone, but you can go to www.hottix.org to see what shows are available.
Shopping Spiffed up with vintage-look streetlights and polished brass subway entrances, State Street's century-plus reputation as a shopping mecca shines again. The street is dominated by department store grande dames Marshall Field's (111 N. State St., 312.781.1000) — be sure to see the Tiffany dome — and Carson Pirie Scott (One S. State St., 312.641.7000), where entwined metal foliage designed by Louis Sullivan decorates the entrance.
North Michigan Avenue (aka “The Magnificent Mile”) and its cross streets entice with vertical shopping malls, European boutiques, and tony retailers like Neiman Marcus (737 N. Michigan Ave., 312.642.5900), Escada (840 N. Michigan Ave., 312.915.0500) and Ralph Lauren (750 N. Michigan Ave., 312.280.1655). Dolls and the girls who love them come together at American Girl Place (111 E. Chicago Ave., 312.943.9400) which encompasses a bookstore, café, and theater.
Getting Around Taxis from O'Hare airport to downtown are about $35 to $40; Continental Airport Express van service is $21. From Midway Airport, taxis are $27 to $30; vans $16. Rapid transit train service from either airport is $1.75.
Chicago's a walkable city, with a street grid that begins its east-west, north-south numbering at the busy downtown corner of State and Madison streets. Cabs are plentiful and buses run on all major streets.
Chicago's signature transport is the El, short for elevated train (and called the El even when it heads underground). Routes are designated by color — The Blue Line goes to O'Hare, the Orange Line goes to Midway airport, the Brown Line to Wrigley Field, and so on — and the system is easy to understand and safe to ride. A one-way fare on the El or a city bus is $1.75. One-day visitor passes are $5; a five-day pass is $18.
For more information, call 877.CHICAGO (877.244.2246), visit www.877chicago.com or drop in at Visitor Centers at 78 W. Randolph St. and 163 E. Pearson St. The centers don't take phone calls, but staff there will answer all your questions and send you off with helpful maps and brochures. —Judith Knuth writes about travel and design from her home in Milwaukee.