Chicago is routinely among the top U.S. business travel destinations. But there are even more enticements to stick around and explore once your work is done. Chief among them are the city's architectural jewels and nearly limitless art offerings. Those who visit during the fall will discover they have arrived at the perfect time -- before temperatures dip precipitously and after the summertime hordes have moved on.
In just a weekend it is possible to cover plenty of ground without straying far from the Loop, the city's historic business center. The River North neighborhood, just north of the Loop and a short walk across the Chicago River, is a great place to begin your explorations. The district is home to Chicago's highest concentration of art galleries, plus numerous restaurants and a busy nightlife. Gallery openings, held on Friday nights, are one way to sample the scene. Plot your course after checking the online events calendar offered by Chicago Gallery News, or just head to the district's center -- Chicago, Superior and Huron streets between LaSalle and Orleans streets -- and start wandering.
As dinnertime approaches, you'll find you're surrounded by options, including Sumi Robata Bar, a sleek space that focuses on Japanese barbecue. If the weather cooperates, you can savor your crackly-crisp fried chicken with shishito pepper paste while seated in the restaurant's tranquil garden. Or pull up a barstool at the robata -- a type of Japanese charcoal grill -- to watch owner and former Japonais chef Gene Kato create his edible art behind glass.
Begin your next day with the Chicago Architecture Foundation's 90-minute river cruise. From the Chicago River you'll get the inside story on more than 50 of the city's most striking structures, including the Wrigley Building, Merchandise Mart and Marina City. For landlubbers, the foundation offers tours by foot, trolley, bus, el train and bicycle.
When your boat docks you'll be within a short cab ride -- or a 15-minute walk -- from the Art Institute, one of the city's cultural treasures. Even if you were so inclined, you couldn't take in all that the million-square-foot museum offers in one day or perhaps even one week. So set your priorities and make a plan.
The Art Institute's imposing Beaux Arts building, its main entrance framed by two enormous bronze lions, is among the most-photographed Chicago landmarks. Inside the museum you'll find a permanent collection most well-known for its Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and American paintings. These include works so ubiquitously reproduced that they may seem like old friends: Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," Claude Monet's "Water Lilies," Vincent van Gogh's "Self-Portrait" and Grant Wood's "American Gothic." But the museum is also home to art in a range of forms, spanning cultures worldwide and nearly every recorded time period.
Just north of the Art Institute sits Millennium Park. The popular meeting place, built to celebrate the millennium, opened behind schedule in 2004. Its 24.5 acres feature several notable works of architecture and public art. At the center sits the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion, a band shell with fixed and lawn seating. Gehry also designed the snakelike pedestrian bridge that crosses Columbus Drive, connecting Millennium Park with Grant Park to the east.
Millennium Park's significant works of public art include London-based artist Anish Kapoor's visually arresting Cloud Gate, a giant bean-shaped sculpture made of stainless steel polished to create the effect of a distorted mirror that reflects both sky and skyline. Crown Fountain is another must-see in the park. Designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, the fountain consists of two 50-foot glass block towers that face each other across a reflecting pool. The towers project images of real-life Chicagoans who appear to be spitting water from their mouths gargoyle-style.
After a day spent exploring some of Chicago's architecture and top art destinations, head to your hotel to recharge before dinner. Acme Hotel, located in River North and less than three blocks from Michigan Avenue's main shopping stretch, is one budget-conscious option with a boutique-hotel feel. Regardless of whether you check in, the hotel's recently opened Berkshire Room is worth a visit for custom-made cocktails and bar snacks like bison tartare, served in a comfortable, civilized lounge conducive to conversation.
Chicago's art offerings are matched by its continually evolving dining scene. Plan ahead if you want to experience a multicourse tasting menu at Grace in the West Loop, where reservations are accepted two months in advance. Or sample Macanese cuisine at Fat Rice in the Logan Square neighborhood. Line up for a seat at a communal table to find out why this year Bon Apetit magazine named Fat Rice the fourth-best new restaurant in the United States.
Conclude your whirlwind tour of Chicago the next day with a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art, which highlights painting, sculpture, video and film created since 1945. The museum's sculpture garden overlooks Lake Michigan.
WHEN YOU GO
For general tourism information: www.choosechicago.com
Chicago Gallery News: www.chicagogallerynews.com
Sumi Robata Bar: www.sumirobatabar.com
Chicago Architecture Foundation: www.architecture.org
Art Institute of Chicago: www.artic.edu
Millenium Park: www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/millennium_park.html
Acme Hotel: www.acmehotelcompany.com
Fat Rice: www.eatfatrice.com/index2.php#slide-main
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago: www.mcachicago.org
Adriana Gardella is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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