Chicago - Standing tall

Lively neighbourhoods, art at every turn, music with history, a multicultural population and cuisine, not to mention impressive architecture: tall, robust, distinctive, iconic. It’s the Best Great City to visit in the USA (says Condé Nast Traveler for the third consecutive year). Everything flows in Illinois’s largest city.

A love of heights

You tend to look to the skies in Chicago, the third largest city in the USA. It’s inevitable. Many buildings brandish mirror glass and scrape the sky (one, the Willis Tower, was the world’s tallest between 1974 and 1998), dotted throughout the city’s Downtown area, each has a story to tell. A bit like life. This place is busy, from morning to night, and boasts a friendly population that nears three million.

You get the feeling that Chicago is only going one way: onwards and upwards. And the spirit of progress crackles in each neighbourhood, where a myriad of cultures shape and reinvent them, from undertakers converted into artistic residences, to places that symbolise the 21st century, combining architecture, visual arts, music and family activities in one place.

Architecture and public art are a keen presence and Chicago represents people who respects all its attributes. It’s dubbed the City in a Garden, such is the importance of local botany (“Urbs in horto”, is one of its official mottos). The Lurie Garden, for example, pays tribute to the transformation of a swamp into an innovative green space, with plants from various parts of the state, the rest of North America and Japan.

Music is another key element, which is unsurprising, considering that this is the birthplace of the blues. The story of this musical genre started with migrants from the Southern States following the Mississippi upstream, a river that has been connected to the city by canals since the mid-19th century. And then there’s the Chicago River, which traverses the city it’s named after, lapping the feet of the buildings, still closely bound to the architecture and local people. It meets Lake Michigan, which skirts the entire urban coast, offering fine beaches, as well as long running tracks. In the background, on Navy Pier, you can see a replica of the rollercoaster unveiled at the Chicago World Fair in 1893, a symbol that’s also one of the four stars found on the city’s flag, alongside those commemorating the Century of Progress International Exposition of 1933 and the historic Fort Dearborn. The last represents the Great Fire of 1871, that, although tragic, proved the catalyst for an era of modern construction and innovative architects from other parts of North America and Europe, who would change Chicago forever. The only way is up!

Community + identity

 There’s a mural that stretches along 16th Street, in the Pilsen neighborhood, on Chicago’s Lower West Side. It’s made up of paintings depicting the most important Mexican values: religion, a strong work ethic and education. Pilsen is predominantly Latino, a product of major migration in the 20th century. It also boasts one of the country’s largest collections of Mexican art (National Museum of Mexican Art), as well as street vendors and shops with round windows brandishing the nation’s various motifs. “The architecture tells the story of the neighborhoods,” they explain. And this one, whose traditions come from the working class, “remains the same, whilst also changing”. Before the Latinos, it was the Irish, Poles, Ukrainians and Czechs that made this place their home (Pilsen is a city in Czechoslovakia). In 1892, John Dusek founded a meeting hall for the Czechoslovakian community, which he called Thalia Hall (named after the Greek goddess of comedy and idyllic poetry). Today, it continues to perform a variety of functions, including the performance hall inspired by the Prague Opera.

Each neighborhood has its own identity. That said, the spirit of communion prevails. The same can also be said of the large Swedish community in Andersonville, represented by the Swedish American Museum and the statue of the Dala horse, located on North Clark Street, amongst the different cafes, restaurants and shops. It offers the charm of a small town and a safe haven for the LGBTQ community, like Lakeview, better known as Boystown. Here, people paint the facades of businesses with the colours of the rainbow to fit into the country’s oldest gay neighborhood.

To the south, we find Hyde Park, site of the 19th century World’s Fair, and home to the University of Chicago, the Rockefeller Chapel and Robie House, by architect Frank Lloyd Wright (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Next door is the Booth School of Business, whose construction owes a debt to Wright and the chapel arches opposite, which project natural light. Buildings that communicate with each other, in a city that evolves harmoniously.

Music with soul

“Go Johnny, go” sings Chuck Berry, while his guitar squeals on one of the first rock ‘n’ roll hits ever, “Johnny B. Goode” (1958). Double bassist and producer Willie Dixon was said to have forced Berry to do 14 takes of the song, which might explain the grit and energy of the final product. We listen to it where it was recorded, in the Chess Records studio, and where the Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation – the only blues museum in Chicago – was set up in the 1990s. The foundation was funded by the song “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin, who plagiarised the lyrics from “You Need Love”, which Muddy Waters recorded here. A centre that teaches musicians about copyright and hosts events for blues enthusiasts, it’s raising money, in coordination with the 2020 – The Year of Music in Chicago programme, to make Willie Dixon’s dream come true: to re-open this studio on 2120 South Michigan Avenue, which made artists stars between the 1950s and 1960s.

One of them, Muddy Waters, a southern bluesman who migrated from the Mississippi Delta to work in the city’s factories, electrified the genre. In noisy Chicago, it was the only way to get heard. That said, Muddy also went unplugged, on the Folk Singer album. Chess studios has a photo of Waters, Dixon and Buddy Guy during the sessions of this classic blues record, which highlights the room’s natural echo, recorded with just two microphones. These walls have heard many fine voices over the years, including that of Motown’s Fontella Bass and Pigmeat Markham, who proved that hip-hop was born in Chicago with the 1968 single (yes, 1968!) “Here Comes the Judge”, a distant relation of rap.

Nowadays, it’s rappers like Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco and Common that continue to fly the musical flag of a city where house music started in the 1980s. Others Chicago artists include bands like Tortoise, who mix jazz, electronics and German kraut rock, sometimes called post-rock. Sea and Cake include all these elements, with the additional ingredients like pop and bossa nova. Chicago goes the extra mile in music too.


In the 19th century, Chicago was an important trading post on the American continent. The connection to the Mississippi River and the arrival of the railways made it a boom town before The Great Fire of 8th October, 1871, which lasted for two days, gutted the city. However, this strategic place’s potential made entrepreneurs and investors rebuild it immediately, involving young and innovative architects and engineers with revolutionary ideas. Since then, the city has been a professional playground for American creatives, such as Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Daniel Burnham. At the end of 1870, they began experimenting with tall buildings and metal structures.

If you follow the river, you can see the results. It’s a series of constructions that tells the story of the skyline. From neoclassical, Renaissance-inspired buildings, such as the Wrigley Building (1924), designed by the architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, to the “less is more” philosophy of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, from the Bauhaus school, who responded to the skyscrapers by arguing that the exteriors needed no historical ornamentation (see the metal and glass AMA Plaza tower, 1971). In the middle of all this, there’s number 35 East Wacker Drive, better known as the Jewelers Building, which coincided with the gangster feuds led by Al Capone (Giaver and Dinkelberg designed the lift that safely transported the jewellery merchants’ wares). Bertrand Goldberg, a student of Mies van der Rohe, was responsible for creating Marina City (1967), two buildings that resemble corn cobs: “A city within a city”, with homes, offices and entertainment.
Chicago is a veritable lesson in architecture and a great example of integration. With the growing numbers of buildings along the river, bridges, parks, and riverside promenades were constructed. A place where everyone is welcome.

A day with geniuses

There are various Chicago scenes in the iconic 1980s film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Bueller behind the wheel of a Ferrari on Lake Shore Drive, with the John Hancock Center skyscraper in the background, the stop on South Dearborn Street, the Cubs’ game at Wrigley Field. Director John Hughes called this teen comedy his “love letter to the city”. One of the film’s most iconic scenes is the trio’s visit to the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), where the two lions we see at the beginning of the scene continue to watch over the building and its artistic treasures.

Be warned that four hours isn’t enough for a proper visit. It takes time to enjoy Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942), and to analyse the colourful dots that make up impressionist Georges Seurat’s Un Dimanche Après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte (1884). All artists are here, all eras, all movements, including the Portuguese painter, Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, who keeps Picasso, Duchamp or Matisse company on the interntional modern art wing. Just amazing! And just when we think we’ve seen everything, we stumble across Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles (1889), or Pollock’s Greyed Rainbow (1953), to leave us breathless again. We were also privileged enough to see the stained-glass windows of Chagall’s masterpiece, America Windows (1977).

Outdoors, Chicagoans are also fortunate. A few metres from the AIC, we encounter art in Millennium Park, an open-air museum that interacts with people and architecture, with the giant mirror of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture playing with various reflections. Other additions include Jaume Plensa’s interactive Crown Fountain and Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavillion, home to the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra.

The Loop is Chicago’s busiest area. If you’re facing a perpendicular street to South Michigan Avenue, the buildings, pedestrians, cars and train on the bridge offer a unique urban setting. Life imitating art?

By Manuel Simões - © up-tap inflight magazine

(See article in UP Magazine, November 2019 Edition)


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