48 hours in ... Chicago

Home of the blues, American Modernism and a wealth of exciting eateries, the Windy City offers a perfect break - just go before it gets too cold, says Sharon Gethings
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The Independent Culture
Why go now?

Chicago can get uncomfortably hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter. And a crisp, late-autumn weekend offers a riot of colour for your delectation, both in turning foliage and at galleries: compare the neon-bright video installations and photography of Mariko Mori, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (00 1 312 280 2660) at 220 East Chicago until 14 February, with the gentler art of the only woman invited to display her work at Paris's Impressionist exhibitions, Mary Cassatt, at The Art Institute (00 1 312 443 3600) on Michigan Avenue until 10 January.

Beam down

Maya Travel (0181-959 2635) has direct flights from Heathrow to Chicago's O'Hare airport - the world's busiest - for a very reasonable pounds 178 including tax, to arrive at 2.50pm local time on Friday. Other carriers include British Airways and American Airlines.

A cab to downtown will set you back $25-$30, while shuttle buses to major hotels charge $14.75 one way; both take around 45 minutes. A cheaper alternative is the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) train, which leaves from the lower level of the airport between Terminals 2 and 3 every five-10 minutes and costs just $1.50; the journey takes 40 minutes.

Get your bearings

Armed with free maps from the tourist office at the airport, head for Sears Tower (00 1 312 875 9696) on South Franklin Street. Once the world's tallest building - before being superseded by Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers - it has an Observation Deck on the 103rd of its 110 floors, which will give you a bird's-eye view of the city.

Lake Michigan lies to the east of the city and the main streets run north to south, parallel with the lake shore; the most important of these is Michigan Avenue. The middle of the city, west of Michigan Avenue, is dominated by the Loop, a rectangle of elevated railtrack, within which lies Chicago's business and commercial centre; the terms "downtown" and "the Loop" are interchangable for most Chicagoans.

Check in

Chicago's many conventions and festivals mean hotel places are always at a premium. Call the tourist office (00 1 312 744 2400) before travelling for advice on availability and special deals.

For a friendly, informed introduction to the city, try Sally Baker's Gold Coast Guest House (00 1 312 337 0361, from $129 a night), just north of downtown at 113 West Elm St, or the newly refurbished Claridge Hotel (00 1 312 787 4980, from $155 a night) at 1244 North Dearborn Street. If you're on a budget, head for the downtown Motel 6 (00 1 312 787 3580, from $85 a night). And if money's no object? Choose between the Ritz-Carlton (00 1 312 266 1000, from $245 a night) and the Four Seasons (00 1 312 280 8800, from $445 a night), both just off Michigan Avenue.

Take a ride

Chicago is pedestrian-friendly, but to maximise time during a short stay, use cabs. They are cheap and plentiful - about $6 for a three-mile trip - and you can hail them anywhere in the city. Alternatively, buy a two- day CTA pass for $9 at the airport and use it to get into town on the train. It entitles you to unlimited use of buses and trains.

Use your pass for a "free" tourist tour: hop on the No 146 Marine-Michigan bus at the Adler Planetarium in the newly landscaped Museum Campus off Michigan Avenue, and head north past major sights such as Grant Park and the Loop before getting off to relax in pretty Lincoln Park.

Take a hike

You'll leave Chicago with a crick in your neck: the birthplace of the skyscraper is packed with architectural marvels. The Chicago Architecture Foundation (00 1 312 922 3432) at 224 South Michigan Avenue offers walking tours to get you up to speed on the creations of Mies van der Rohe and Louis Sullivan among others.

Lunch on the run

The award-winning Edwardo's Natural Pizza Restaurant does a $5 deep-dish lunchtime special to go and has branches throughout the city, including the Loop-handy one at 521 South Dearborn St - as does the Corner Bakery, which offers a dazzling array of breads alongside its hot snacks, pastries and coffees. The Cedar/Rush Streets branch of the latter has a terrace from where you can watch the bright young things of this busy intersection shop, sup and flirt.

Cultural afternoon

Consult a copy of the Reader, Chicago magazine or the free Chicago Gallery News to see what's on in the up-and-coming warehouse district south and west of the Loop. This area is taking over from the River North district above it as the place to spot the next big artistic thing. A short cab ride away, Wicker Park and Bucktown both have plenty of funky galleries to explore.

Window-shopping

Michigan Avenue is ground zero for shopaholics - block after block of stores ranging from Walgreen's chemist to Tiffany's have earned the section north of the Michigan Avenue Bridge the name The Magnificent Mile. Turn left on to Oak Street near the Drake Hotel for shops such as Gianni Versace, Barneys, Giorgio Armani and the new Prada - due to open next spring.

An aperitif

Hit the Rush Street and Lincoln Park areas for micro breweries, sports bars and yuppie singles bars; south and west of the Loop for hip bars; and various locations for Chicago's famous blues scene. Try Buddy Guy's Legends (00 1 312 427 0333) at 754 South Wabash, owned by Guy and a draw for top names, or the oldest blues club in Chicago, the New Checkerboard Lounge (00 1 773 624 3240) at 423 East 43rd Street for some serious music. Take a cab for the latter, as it's not the best area to explore after dark.

Demure dinner

Foodies will love the designer-restaurant explosion along West Randolph Street, where such stylish eateries as the minimalist Blackbird (00 1 312 715 0708) and the $4.5m One Sixtyblue (00 1 312 850 0303), which is partly owned by Michael Jordan, are garnering gastronomic laurels. Traditionalists should visit Pizzeria Uno (00 1 312 321 1000) on East Ohio Street, where the Chicago deep-dish pizza was invented. Otherwise, the myriad ethnic pockets in the city offer food for all tastes, including Greek, Italian, Polish or Indian.

Sunday-morning worship

Take a Green Line Harlem/ Lake-bound El train (check the front car) from the Clark/Lake stop at the Loop and in 20 minutes you will be in the chi- chi suburb of Oak Park, where you can pay homage to Chicago's famous son, architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Unity Temple (00 1 708 383 8873) at 875 Lake Street - which Wright called his "little jewel" - is still used by the Universalist Church today, but you can take a short tour, before visiting Wright's other Prairie-style buildings in the area. The Oak Park Visitors Centre (00 1 708 848 1500) is at 158 North Forest Avenue.

Bracing brunch

Lou Mitchell's (00 1 312 939 3111) at 565 West Jackson is another Chicago institution. Not a fancy joint, it still pulls the crowds, particularly at weekends, so be prepared to queue for your French toast, waffles, omelettes and coffee. Your patience will be rewarded with a little box of sweets, which staff hand out to those in line.

A walk in the park

Lincoln Park - Chicago's largest - is a few miles north of downtown. If you want a brief respite from the city, head for The Conservatory (00 1 312 742 7736) at 2400 North Stockton. This free indoor garden has hundreds of plants displayed in its four large greenhouses and there's background classical music to accompany your stroll.

The icing on the cake

For a last glimpse of the city from on high - beautifully illuminated in the autumnal dusk - wrap up warmly and take a gentle spin on the 45-metre high Ferris wheel at the renovated lakeside Navy Pier. If you're suffering from height exhaustion but still want to make the most of your last few hours, then sit back in a horse- drawn carriage for a ride along Michigan Avenue. Hop on at Michigan Avenue and Huron, or Michigan Avenue and Pearson.

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