48 hours in Chicago

From alfresco street art and the country's tallest building to hole-in-the-wall pubs and blues bars, this Windy City is just waiting to blow your socks off


Why go?

Why go?

The soul of America is to be found in the Midwest, and its heart is the nation's greatest city: Chicago, the metropolis par excellence. Fizzing with energy, the Windy City possesses the critical mass of energy and culture that New York thinks it has. Chicago combines vibrant artistic and street life with awesome skyscrapers and - thanks to its Lake Michigan shoreline - a seaside ambience.

Get your bearings

From O'Hare airport, the "El" (short for elevated railway, as the CTA network is known) takes you anywhere in the city for a flat fare of $1.75 (97p) or you can invest $9 (£5) on a two-day unlimited-travel pass. A taxi into the city will cost about $40 (£22.20). Once downtown, orientation is easy with most streets running north-south or east-west. The main north-south roads are Michigan Avenue and State Street. The latter slices through the Loop, a rectangle covering about a square mile, defined by the elevated subway lines. The main tourist offices are at Chicago Water Works at 163 East Pearson, open daily 7.30am-7pm; and in the Chicago Cultural Center, open Mon-Fri 10am-6pm, Saturday 10am-5pm and 11am-5pm on Sunday. For more information contact the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau on 001 877 244 2246 or visit www.gochicago.com.

Check in

The Hotel Burnham is a chic and popular establishment in an excellent location (001 312 782 1111; www.burnhamhotel.com), across from Marshall Fields department store and a few blocks from the new Millennium Park with its Frank Gehry concert pavilion. You will be lucky to get a double room here for less than $199 (£110) excluding breakfast. If you fancy your negotiation skills, try the much-filmed Drake Hotel at 140 East Walton Place (001 312 787 2200; www.thedrakehotel.com). You will pay anything between $120 (£67) and $469 (£261), depending on demand. A reliable mid-range choice is Days Inn (001 312 525 7010), where you typically pay $109 (£61) including breakfast. Best budget alternative is the youth hostel at 24 East Congress Parkway (001 312 360 0300; www.hichicago.org) with dorm beds for about $34 (£19).

Take a ride

To understand the scale and beauty of Chicago, take the Loop in full. You will see how the city celebrates the building. Chicago has created its own landscape, best viewed from 30ft up on a swaying train. Orange line trains circle in the clockwise direction and brown line trains anti-clockwise, but beware, after completing a circuit these these trains head straight out to the suburbs.

Take a view

The tallest building in the US is Sears Tower at 233 South Wacker Drive. You can visit the Skydeck (001 312 875 9696; www.theskydeck.com), which is 1,353 feet up, for $9.95 (£5.50). It opens 10am-8pm daily, until 10pm from May to September. The Hancock Tower is less touristy but just as spectacular, with views spanning up to 80 miles. The Hancock Observatory (001 312 751 3681, www.hancock-observatory.com) opens 9am to 11pm; $9.75 (£5.40). Try out the Skywalk while you're there and feel what the air is like at 1,000 feet up.

Lunch on the run

The place that claims to have invented the Chicago deep-dish pizza is Pizzeria Uno at 29 East Ohio Street (001 312 321 1000), which serves meals the size of small Midwestern towns - and will box any of the leftovers for you.

Take a walk

The Chicago Architecture Foundation (001 312 922 3432, www.architecture.org), located in the bottom floor of the Santa Fe Building, runs tours of "Historic Skyscrapers" at 10am daily, with several more time slots added in the summer. For $12 (£6.65), you spend two hours in the company of a well-informed guide who will trace the history of a city built upon unadulterated exaggeration. Keep an eye out for Chicago's famous street art on the way.

Window shopping

For one-stop shopping you can't beat Marshall Fields department store, open 9am-9pm Monday-Saturday, 11am-6pm Sunday, which has grand, century-old style and 10 floors of spending heaven. Water Tower Place (001 312 440 3166) is also worth a visit: with more than 100 shops it's the biggest mall on North Michigan Avenue. Open 10am-7pm Monday to Saturday, and noon-6pm Sunday.

An aperitif

The Billy Goat Tavern (001 312 222 1525) is a convivial pub at Chicago's entertainment core - the Near North area. To reach it requires dedication: you need to go down a set of unmarked stairs located across the street from the Tribune Tower - a discreet plaque reassures you that you are heading in the right direction. But if you're more interested in blues than beer, head to Blue Chicago at 736 North Clark Street (001 312 642 6261).

Dining with the locals

Ed Debevic's at 640 North Wells Street (001 312 664 1707; www.eddebevics.com) serves good, American burgers, but it's the insults you go for. The waiters will shout at you and each other, and then get up on the counter (it's a Fifties-style diner) and perform Rose Royce's "Car Wash". Not for the shy and retiring, who instead should probably seek out Le Colonial at 937 North Rush Street (001 312 255 0088; www.lecolonialchicago.com), with its French Indochina-influenced dishes and slight breeze off Lake Michigan.

Sun Sunday morning: go to church

The oldest public building in Chicago is Old St Patrick's church at 700 West Adams Street (001 312 648 1021; www.oldstpats.org). Founded in 1846 by Irish immigrants, it's one of the few buildings that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Out to brunch

Lou Mitchell's at 565 West Jackson (001 312 939 3111) is an archetypal diner hidden around the back of Union Station. You will be treated to a mountain of French toast, million-egg omelettes and endless coffee, in chrome and cheerful surroundings. It opens at 7am on Sundays (5.30am the rest of the week) and closes at 3pm. For something completely different, try Soundings restaurant at the John G Shedd Aquarium, 1200 South Lake Shore Drive (001 312 939 2438). You can enjoy pasta, fish and grilled food with a spectacular view of Lake Michigan.

A walk in the park

Follow in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway and the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and head to the picture-perfect suburb of Oak Park. The former was born here, and the latter lived in the area and designed 26 of its

Write a postcard

Buy a selection of postcards featuring Oak Park's gingerbread house-fronts and white picket fences from the museum shop at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio. Then wander back towards this peaceful suburb's main thoroughfare, Lake Street, before sinking into one of the vinyl booths, pen in hand, in the Fifties-style Cozy Corner diner (001 708 383 1750) on the corner of North Marion, complete with bouffant-haired waitresses and surly short-order chefs. They do a great breakfast here, too.

Cultural afternoon

The Art Institute at 111 South Michigan Avenue (001 312 443 3600; www.artic.edu) could easily take up your day with its 300,000 works of art. There's a wide variety of objects from medieval armour to works by Andy Warhol. It opens 10.30am-4.30pm on weekdays (until 8pm on Thursdays) and 10am-5pm at weekends. Entrance is free on Tuesdays. On other days you must give something (they recommend $12/£6.65). The current exhibition "Marcus Aurelius: Portrait of a Roman Emperor", is on till September.

The icing on the cake

You've admired the architecture from street level; now see it from water level. The Chicago Architecture Foundation runs boat tours (001 312 902 1500; www.cruisechicago.com) from May to November, which depart from Michigan Avenue Bridge. The 90-minute tour costs $25 (£13.90) at weekends, and slightly less from Monday to Thursday.

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