I made a huge mistake the first time I visited Chicago, I decided to set foot in Illinois during the winter. In the middle of February, to be exact. Born and raised in New York State, I thought I knew the cold, I thought I had experienced the worst that winter in the United States had to offer. But I was wrong, wrong, wrong. That first day in Chicago, when I left O’Hare to meet a friend at work, I felt like I barely survived the biting and bitter air of the city – the air so cold that ‘he made breathing a chore, the air so cold I did not know how many working members I had left when I went warm inside.
Although I was lucky and the weather got considerably warmer during the week, I stayed in America’s second city, and although I would have enjoyed myself even if the weather had remained awful for My stay, I have to say this – if you are considering a trip to Chicago and you have not yet fallen in love with the many charms of the city, then do yourself a favor and visit during the summer.
Like many cities that experience a harsh winter each year, Chicago comes alive in the summer, its resident’s milk every last sunny day that their calendar offers, and just as it is a little difficult to appreciate Chicago in winter, it’s just as easy to love the city in summer. And although the unspeakable cold of the Midwest prevents me from seriously considering living there, I am always happy to visit and reconnect with one of the best and most surprising cities in the United States.
The first thing I noticed about Chicago, even before the city’s bad weather, was how flat it was. When flying to Chicago, you are immediately struck by the region’s distinct geographic lake. Coming from the east, you are first confronted with the endless expanse of the glass of Lake Michigan and then with the endless plains that extend to the north, south, and west of the city. Historians like to joke that Chicago was a city that should never have been, a dilapidated paved camp on a swamp that takes on national significance only because of its fortuitous connection to the railroad, and by flying around the city, you realize how much the truth is in these jokes.
Chicago is truly in the middle of nowhere, and this remote location contributes to the city’s uniqueness in several ways:
- Chicago serves as a cultural and economic center for much of the country. Without real competition, Chicago easily gobbles up and attracts just about anything exciting, useful and relevant from the center of the country. Yes, there are a few other major metropolitan centers in the Midwest, but in the end, none of them rival Chicago for the best and the brightest breadbasket, especially when it comes to comedy and cooking, two categories where Chicago is toe-to-toe with the eternal favorites New York and Los Angeles.
- Being in the middle of nowhere makes Chicago cheap, and cheap real estate has a multitude of attractive qualities, including a vibrant and adventurous creative community. Of course, you can certainly break the bank by visiting Chicago, but it’s also quite possible to have a good time in the city spending a lot less than you would explore the metropolis of New York or Los Angeles.
- Chicago’s physical flatness, the city’s lack of discernible geography, makes the city a great place for biking and extremely easy to navigate. During the warmer months, you can walk and cycle anywhere in the city without much effort, the L train is one of the most scenic and enjoyable public transportation systems you’ll find in the city. The United States and city planners have used their canvas of flat maps to create one of the most logically grid-shaped metropolises you will ever find.
- Chicago’s unique geography has made it the birthplace of skyscrapers, and few cities make skyscrapers, as does Chicago. Yes, there are many other cities with much larger and surprisingly modern buildings than Chicago, but the Chicago skyscrapers exude a decidedly dated grandeur. This majesty and sense of power are more evident in downtown Chicago, where the perfectly symmetrical street grid provides the perfect base for heavy, precisely cut buildings in the city. Compared to the messy mix of structures competing for real estate and prestige in many other major cities in central Chicago, everything seems very planned and well in place. Downtown Chicago feels decidedly orderly, and it’s a rare quality in most American cities.
- While not all Chicago neighborhoods feel as good as the city center, the industrial quality of downtown Chicago is spreading in a continuous procession of steel and brick neighborhoods. Chicago is a city built from end to end, and few cities feel “built to last”.
Even beyond its propensity to attract young, energetic and ambitious people, Chicago’s unique placement and origins give it a unique feel that is hard to find, at least to such a degree, elsewhere in the United States.
Find the heart in the machine
For such a solid city, Chicago is filled with surprise and continuous change and is not the same city as it was only a few decades ago. There’s still a lot of cool stuff north of downtown Loop, but the Wicker Park neighborhood has long since been renovated and lost its de facto coolness, traded for established “hip” brands like Urban Outfitters. Wicker Park may still be home to misidentified hipsters, but the real cool kids have moved to the Ukrainian village, locally called “The Village”.
The Village not only offers the affordable rent and the authentic dive bars Chicago is known for, but it also offers some of the best inexpensive restaurants in the city. This is largely due to the surprising number of Mexican families living in a neighborhood with the identifier “Ukrainian” in its name. In addition to the handcrafted cafes, bakeries, and butchers you’d expect in a good hipster neighborhood, you’ll find an almost overwhelming supply of taquerias filled with massive and delicious burritos for the US $ 5 (€ 3.75, £ 3) which you can fill with standard dishes like chicken, sautéed vegetables and beef.
One wonders how long the Ukrainian village can keep calm (the last time I visited, I found an appalling number of bro-bars popping up). So be sure to visit before he takes full advantage of his eclectic credibility.