Chicago may be windy, but it blows mega culture and outstanding architecture

In a city that isn’t full of itself, Chicago, the Windy City, really has reason to be boastful with it’s propensity for fine architecture, major art museums and fine dining to please any gourmet’s palate.

Even with seasons that somersault from freezing frostbit winters to stifling humid summers, on this extremely hot mid summer day, there’s a mysterious breeze that issues forth explanations about the wind from all the locals -the mega-skyscrapers create a wind tunnel, the wind comes off Lake Michigan – are but a few. Whatever the more scientifically based reasons, this Midwest city that once had a reputation for mobsters and meat packing, is one of the friendliest place where jazz is hot, hot, hot.

Although I had intended to write about 24 hours in this gateway of commerce and culture, once I started to explore, the reality is that Chicago needs a weekend and is in fact, the perfect get-away just over 1 hour flight from Toronto.

After an elevator ride to the 5th floor marble lobby from the large lion statue bookends at the street level entrance, I reach the reception area of The Peninsula Hotel.

Who would want to leave this bedroom aerie, among the largest in the city? I play around with the various wall and bedside computerized panels exclusive to and created for ‘The Pen’ as it is adoringly called. Twenty-seven inch flat screen TV and radio controls, master lights, climate control, privacy button, housekeeping notification, clock and alarm and nightlight for reading. I particularly like the panel at the door, just above the box for shoe shines and daily paper, which gives current outdoor temperature and humidity. Then there’s a panel for the small TV in the large marble bathroom, where the tub is set just below the window giving way to a panoramic view.

It may be a dying art but dressing up is alive and well at the various well adorned shops such as Barney’s, Nordstrom’s, Neiman Marcus, Saks 5th Avenue, Ralph Lauren. And it’s at establishments like this where you’ll wonder why you ever shoved and pushed your way through the throngs of New York City.

Now that I’ve seen the serious side of fashion, I go directly to Ikram, where the trendy, edgy European designers have a huge presence in this retro designed store.

Just from their window display, Elements makes a statement. Home accessories, super tabletop ware hand thrown in Italy, jewellery from Los Angeles, lamps from Spain and France plus luxury unique leather goods.

Perhaps one of the best known and beloved boutique was Ultimo but how disappointed I was to discover that they’ve closed their doors.

The biggest surprise, on my first visit to the Windy City, was the cutest store, American Girl Place. It’s still the ‘happening’ and one of the busiest spots in town and their red shopping bags are everywhere. It caters to females from 3 years old and up. Here, the plethora of dolls have outfits available in sizes for their ‘mommies’ and a doll hair salon for the definitely un-Barbie like dolls who look and feel like really babies. There is AGP magazines, videos and books are all related to age groups. And the black and white striped tea room with a waiting list as long as my arm, each day, is like the Mad Hatter’s party.

Dolls are loaned from a shelves during the tea time and these cute toys are then set up at the table in a tiny seat. Under the red flowered light fixtures, small polka dot ‘topic’ boxes hold questions for discussion between mom and daughter. Examples-what would you do if you get lost in a big crowd?..what person in your family history would you most like to meet? I shove my way through the wave of red shopping bags wanting the experience of their tea. I leave holding my black and white dot hair scrunchy, the napkin ring, a gift to all girls who take tea.

Worried about missing the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise, I hail a cab and have a friendly, chatty driver who gets me to the pier on time-3PM. I opt to seat on the outdoor top level of the First Lady but since it’s over 30c and the sun is beaming down with no umbrellas or canopy for protection, after about ¾ hour, I head for cover on the inside bar/refreshment room. The two custom designed -1920 -styled yachts (the other is Little Lady) allow unobstructed views of the architectural wonders. And the sound system is terrific that where ever you sit you can hear and learn about the richest architecture in North America. Right off, we pass the Wrigley Building, and soon we’re under the first of several bridges. We float passed the Chicago Tribune, Leo Burnett, RR Donnelley buildings and continue on the greenish colored Chicago River.

The concrete river bank walls are decorated with flowers and significant public sculptures. Montgomery Ward, a mammoth edifice, is now empty since their bankruptcy, colonnaded buildings under construction are potentially grand, a pretty set of ginkgo trees line one side. Then there’s Lyric Opera Center, majestic Art Deco Marshall Field, Lake Point Tower, a huge curved brown glassed condo sits next to a grand marina. Over 50 historic sites include the work of Mies van der Rohe becomes a most worth while 90 minute for any tourist. I did, however, find that an hour would have been enough time to see it all.

Since the Buckingham Memorial Fountain in Grant Park, one of the largest in the world, is a few minute walk. Constructed in Georgia pink marble, the popular spouting sea horses attracts giggling kids and adults tossing coins into the water. Although the annual Taste of Chicago is somewhat quirky with thousands of people who come for the traditional, mainly fried food with odors that permeate the air, the park shows the city’s interest in green spaces.

Not far from here the world acclaimed Art Institute of Chicago, one of the reasons many come to this city and is another ‘must do’ with a renowned collection from impressionists, post impressionists, surrealists plus many more schools of art. Also furniture, jewellery, sculptures. And the new addition of glass by architect Renzo Piano, is a breathtaking building that is so user -friendly and so cleverly thought out with its “magic carpet” shuttled roof and the Renzo Piano restaurant and patio.(They also happen to have one of the finest gift shops in the city.) From here you can see another new addition to Chicago’s list of exquisite 21st century architecture, architect Frank Gehry’s shiny, curved, rounded, undulating titanium Pritzker Concert Hall

Chicago is also known for its great dining experiences and important to booked ahead if you want to get reservations at a top rated restaurant. The local ‘foodies’ seem to love going out for an evening of wonderful meals. Even at the ridiculously early hour, 6.30, restaurants are full

Meanwhile back at The Peninsula, The Lobby’s jazz trio is still performing as I literally have to push into one of the city’s most popular after 10PM meeting spots, The Bar. Fashionistas of every age, are in top form and it’s fun to mingle with the friendly, chatty locals.

First thing, next morning it’s time to indulge at The Spa at ‘The Pen’ with their glassed in 25 foot high ceiling half Olympic length pool. Even though my sessions are each only ½ hour, the total affect lasts for days. Treatments are done by certified, trained aestheticians. Their aroma is terrific with ingredients of herbs, plant extracts and botanicals found around the world.

Before ending this weekend, I visit a once down at the mouth, now an up and coming neighborhood, Wicker Park. On my own, I choose a patio restaurant and watch the locals who zip by on their motor scooters or stop for a ‘nosh’ while walking the dog.

As they say, time flies when you’re having a great time and Chicago offers more than most.

The Peninsula Chicago 108 East Superior St 312 337 2888


Ikram 873 North Rush Street 312 587 1000

American Girl Place 111 East Chicago Ave 1 877-AG Place

Chicago Architecture Foundation Tour/ Mercury Cruise

Michigan Ave & Wacker Drive 312 332 1368

$23 Monday to Thursday and $25 Fridays and weekends.

Buckingham Memorial Fountain -Columbus Drive and Congress Parkway