Chicago: Exploring the Windy City

With more than 50 volleyball courts studding its sand, North Avenue Beach, located on Chicago's North Lakeshoe Drive, is the site of July's Corona Light Wide Open

When you think “beach,” Chicago is probably not the first city that springs to mind. But you can guarantee the city will put on a heck of a show when the Corona Light Wide Open takes over North Avenue Beach this summer. The nationwide beach volleyball tournament—which was started in part and run by Karch Kiraly—kicks off June 11 and after stops in Florida and New Jersey, the action moves to the Windy City on July 30 and 31.

Several top professional players have already committed to the 2011 Open (coronalightwideopen.com), including partners Aaron Wachtfogel and Bill Strickland, and Ty Loomis and 2004 Australian Olympian Mark Williams. Amateur divisions are open to all, and the winners of the men’s and women’s open divisions will gain automatic entry to the US Open of Beach Volleyball in Cincinnati this September.

Total prize money of $100,000 is up for grabs on the Chicago leg of the tour, but there will be rewards for all in the form of open-air concerts, beachside fashion shows and other al fresco festivities. And Chicago dwellers are no doubt itching to showcase their summer street life. They might embrace their fierce five-month winter, but when the warm weather arrives, the city breathes a visual sigh of relief. Beer gardens open, the lake-front beaches fill up and outdoor festivals provide further cause for people to abandon the great indoors.

Summer in the city is really something here and there’s no better way to witness the Chicago skyline than reflected in the improbably shiny surface of “The Bean.” Officially called Cloud Gate, the 110-ton legume-shaped sculpture sitting in Millennium Park has proved to be one of Chicago’s top sites for budding photographers and vain tourists keen to admire their own reflection as well as that of the city. The park is celebration central in summer, with open-air concerts, free exercise classes and, in the neighboring Grant Park, an hourly fountain show that comes with a side of music and light after dark. Continuing south from the parks, you’ll find the Field Museum of Natural History and the superb Shedd Aquarium, a duo of attractions appealing to lovers of animals dead and alive respectively.

Of course, there’s no better way to take in downtown Chicago (and three other states too, on a clear day) than from the Skydeck, a vertigo-inducing viewing platform 103 stories up the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower). Crowds here can overwhelm on summer weekends, so for a slightly quieter but equally dizzying view, try the Signature Lounge at the John Hancock Center. Sure, you’ll be seven floors closer to the ground, but once you’re sipping a cocktail in the stylish bar, you’ll feel on top of the world. The John Hancock Center might dwarf its neighbor, the 154 ft. Water Tower, in height, but it can’t compete in status—the Water Tower is the sole structure that survived the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Read up on the fire in the small but superlative Chicago History Museum at the southern end of Lincoln Park, perhaps stopping for a little sun worshiping at the Oak Street or North Avenue Beaches en route. Travelers on a budget should head for the zoo in Lincoln Park—it’s free to wander the zoo and surrounding park, squeezed in between northern Chicago and the chilly waters of Lake Michigan.

Where to Eat

Chicago is foodie heaven, whether you’re looking for quick eats or high-end cuisine, and no one can leave the city without sampling its famous pizza and hotdogs. For the former, locals are divided between Giordano’s (giordanos.com), Lou Malnati’s (loumalnatis.com) and the spot that claims to have invented the deep dish pizza, Pizzeria Uno (unos.com). When it comes to hot dogs though, there is one place that seems to outshine the rest, the wonderfully-named Hot Doug’s (3324 North California St., tel. (773) 279-9550), which describes itself as an “Encased Meat Emporium.” Their fully-dressed dogs start at $1.75 and come in flavors like Keira Knightley (mighty hot) and Salma Hayek (mighty, mighty, mighty hot). The duck fat fries are an absolute must. For a more up-market yet still affordable eating option, try the Frontera Grill (445 North Clark Street, tel. (312) 661-1434), owned by celebrity chef Rick Bayless and serving excellent Mexican dishes and sustainable seafood.

Where to enjoy

If there’s one thing Chicago does well after dark, it’s improvisation. Whether you’re talking stand-up comedy or a jazz jamming session, the Windy City excels in entertaining on the fly. For a laughter fix, there’s nowhere better than Second City (1616 N Wells St, tel. (312) 337-3992), just west of Lincoln Park. Launch pad for such illustrious (and hilarious) stars as Dan Aykroyd and Tina Fey, the club is still churning out talent at its daily shows. At Green Mill (4802 North Broadway Street, (773) 878-5552) you can get your jazz fix and check off a stop on the Capone circuit—this was one of the legendary gangster’s nighttime hang outs. Today the club hosts nightly live jazz and on Sunday nights, the long-running Uptown Poetry Slam. One place you won’t find improvisation is the Goose Island Brew Pub (1800 North Clybourn, tel. (312) 915-0071). Here each of the 15-plus craft beers found on tap is honed to perfection and served with bar food from around the world.

Where to stay

Accommodation in Chicago can be expensive, but there are well-priced rooms to be found. The House of Two Urns Bed & Breakfast (1239 N. Greenview Avenue, tel. (773) 235-1408), north of The Loop, is a friendly option with funky rooms decked out by the arty owners. Rooms start at $100 for a double, plus tax. If location is key, then the Chicago River Hotel (75 East Wacker Drive, tel. (312) 777-0990) is a winner, overlooking the river and right by the Magnificent Mile shopping district. Rooms are compact but have everything you need. For a splurge that’s worth every cent, the W Hotel Lakeside (644 N. Lakeshore Drive, tel. (312) 943-9200) offers chic, sleek rooms with great names like “Wonderful” and “Extreme Wow.” It’s the only hotel that directly overlooks the lake.

Originally published in June 2011

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