Chicago’s windy winter

By | Category: Travel destinations

Chicago reflected in the bean

Adrian champions Chicago, America’s second city that’s the home of Barack Obama

Readers might remember that Chicago is one of my favourite US places to visit. But In January? It’s bitterly cold and the wind shows no mercy in attacking you head-on. In fact if the wind makes your eyes water, by the time they’ve rolled down your cheeks they can have formed into ice. So why go there?

The fashion sported by Chicagoans in winter, couldn’t be replicated by the catwalks of Milan or Paris. Multiple hats are worn, jumpers are worn over fleeces over shirts and then  wrapped in a coat that would put Michelin man to shame. Elegance goes out the window. In winter when it is gloriously sunny regardless of how cold it is, you’ll see people with sunglasses because the sun can be very strong and bright. Warmth is the name of fashion here.

So wrap up warm and take many layers of clothing with you, when you come. And come you should. In one of those idiotic pricing offers that no sane person can understand, I had found that it was £10 cheaper to fly back to the UK by flying to Chicago from New York and then returning home so I flew to Chicago! And had a day to enjoy myself. Unfortunately the day was a Monday when many museums are closed, but not one of the finest museums in the world – the Art Institute of Chicago.
As I walked up Michigan Avenue, the wind chill must have been in negative numbers It was 11°F and the wind coming off the lake only served to remind me why this was called the windy city. Despite being padded up for the day, the wind tore through my trousers making me wonder if the blood meandering through my veins might not freeze. It certainly wasn’t coursing anywhere. Memo to me: bring thicker trousers next time.

I’ve been coming to Chicago on and off for the last 20 years, and winter is a good time to be there. Yes it can be unbelievably cold but it has big benefits too. Fewer visitors for one thing. Hotels at a three or four star level at under $100 a night for another. At one of my favourite ones, the historic Palmer House Hilton, a night cost $110. At five star hotels the cost was under $175 a night –  much too much for a miser like me to stay, but a steal compared to their normal prices. And in January and February, the air fares are at their lowest because everyone knows you don’t holiday in winter in Chicago.

Chicago skyline

Well you should. The museums are open, the architecture isn’t tucked away until spring and the malls are open and having bargain sales. About the only things that weren’t functioning on the day I dropped by, were my legs and the cruise boats.
Chicagoans are politer than you’ll find in many US cities. One man gave me his three day subway pass because he had finished with it and it still had two days to run. After I had travelled around, I returned the favour and passed it another traveller to use. It isn’t legal, but it wasn’t the first time that someone had been kind enough to pass me a railcard. That’s Chicago for you. And another thing: locals don’t lean on their car horns as much either, so your ears aren’t ruptured by continuously impatient noise like in other cities I could mention.

So even on a freezing day I wandered into the Art Institute and worshipped at the impressionistic art collection and the Marc Chagall coloured glass windows created in time for America’s bicentennial. I went into the old Marshall Field’s Building (now a Macy’s) and gazed at the architecture inside whilst stopping below for a hot drink, one of many I had that day. I walked up to the John Hancock building and took the lift to the viewing floor to look at the skyline. From it you can see the second tallest building in the world, the Trump International Hotel – a monument to the developer’s ebulliance and his desire to outshine other city architectual gems. Incidentally the Willis Tower (used to be known as the Sears Tower) is another building that you can go to the top of to soak up Chicagoan views.

Trump International Hotel & Towers

part of the Trump Hotel!

I even braved the walk down to the lake and secretly wondered why. But there were still joggers running along, just not dressed in teeshirts and shorts. Navy Pier was open and beckoning my business but I was running out of time. I still wanted to see the corn on the cob building, one of my favourites, and I had to touch the kidney, a stainless steel millennium celebratory piece of public architecture that gets so hot and is so slippery that birds can’t land on it. The proper name is Cloud Gate, sometimes known as the bean but I’ve always called it the kidney. Gaze at its polished survey and it will give a warped view of the buildings and people around it. For something that seems so simple and so ‘un architectural’ it has to be one of the highlights of public architecture anywhere. And nearby is the Frank Gehry designed Pritzker Pavilion, an open-air concert platform. Even as you turn corners in this city there is something unusual in the architecture. Even modern, glass buildings have appealing creative bits added. It is almost as though there is an unwritten law here which says that if you design a building, it has to have some character.

But my wife had some shopping for me to do, so it was off to Woodfield Mall on the outskirts of the city. Chicago has created some large shopping malls over the years, but I know my way around Woodfield so they got my business. No time for the bus tour on this trip, but it is worth it as it takes you to some of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings that you otherwise might miss. No time for the Water tower (now a shopping centre and one of the few buildings to survive the great fire of 1871) or a visit to the Hershey chocolate shop or even the University of Chicago which is in almost a time warp in the city. It’s in a little world of its own, almost fashioned on an old English university college but more widespread, yet all around it sprawls Chicago.

One of the Chagall windows

I took a quick circular ride on the Loop – the raised railway line that screeches along above central Chicago on the south of the river and which gives an interesting vantage point of parts of the city – and then back on the Blue Line to the airport. This journey has its interest – although many Chicagoans might not see it that way. At stops like California, you see wooden buildings with wooden fire escape stairs, verandas with swings and – in one case – a bathroom sink and pot plants. These buildings, so close together and so different from ours, can almost be touched from the train if you could open the windows. It makes you realise just how lethal the great fire must have been when it torched all the wooden buildings around.

As the huge sun sank over the airport and I re-adjusted my eyes to normal winter dimness, I found it hard to believe that it had been so cold and that the wind had been so biting. They key is walk a bit and then nip inside a store or a museum for a warm-up! Even in a day, I had done and seen a lot. But after all these years, I know my way around the central area. I have even been asked directions by an American and was able to steer them the right way. Maybe I looked like a Chicagoan in my funny hat and thick clothing. Quite a complement really. Or was everyone else in the warmth so they had to ask me?


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