Urbanites are now heading to Chicago for their US-fix. Stylist’s Sejal Kapadia visits to see if they’re on to something.
First the sad news: I’m in a long-distance relationship – I live in London; my boyfriend lives in Toronto. On the upside, we regularly use the 3,000 miles between us as a reason to holiday together, which means I’ve been spending a lot of time in America lately: LA to Las Vegas last September, New York in January and Niagara to Buffalo in July – just call me Heathrow’s best customer (and a cause for concern at immigration).
Having done North America’s ‘blockbuster’ cities to death, I decided it was time to dip below the normal tourist radar with my boyfriend and visit Chicago; I’m so glad I did. Chicago is the third most populous city in the US, but has the heart of an American Midwestern town.
After an eight-and-a-halfhour flight and a 30-minute taxi ride to the Magnificent Mile (the epicentre of Chicago), we are finally in Chi-Town: glass high-rises and Art Deco megastars are offset by streets lined with deep flowerbeds and scattered with water bowls outside cafes for passing dogs. It’s details like these that give the city a ‘small town’ vibe and make it feel genuinely welcoming.
Deliberate, cogitate and digest in the sumptuous comfort of Chicago's James Hotel.
Famed for landmark buildings such as the Tribune Tower and Wrigley Building, Chicago took on a new lease of life with the construction of the stunning Millennium Park in 2004 and the rippled Aqua Tower in 2010. Suddenly astute tourists began to twig that there were alternatives to the Bostons and Las Vegases and in 2012 the city saw a 14% increase in international visitors from the year before.
In recent years an exciting culinary movement and world-class art scene have been growing in Chicago, with Michelle Obama still vouching for the restaurants of her hometown. Combining these two specialties is my stylish boutique hotel, The James. Artworks are dotted throughout thanks to a partnership with local gallery Monique Meloche and food here puts a lighthearted Midwest spin on haute cuisine. At the main restaurant, David Burke’s Primehouse, award-winning chef Burke takes hearty American foods up a notch: the maple syrup glazed bacon sticks and beef, which is dry-aged on-premises, are unforgettable. (It costs from £28, but is definitely a worthwhile splurge.) Our favourite spot at The James, though, is Burke’s Bacon Bar where mini palm-sized ‘handwiches’ are crafted out of brioche rolls, a range of meats and delectable sauces (three for £7).
Upstairs our loft suite is impressive – an open-plan apartment with a king-size bed on a raised platform. Compared to NYC, you get a lot of space for your money.
The smell of cocoa from a chocolate factory reminds us we really are in a foodie’s city
On our first morning, after filling up at the Primehouse on the fluffiest waffles I’ve had in the US, we take a Chicago Architecture Foundation boat tour down the Chicago River: it’s the best way to view the skyscrapers and historic moveable bridges, as well as the quirky Marina City. Ninety minutes in, the hypnotic smell of cocoa from a nearby chocolate factory reminds us that we really are in a foodie’s city.
Millennium Park, in Grant Park, is a short walk from the docking point and not seeing its centrepiece – Anish Kapoor’s stunning mirrored Cloud Gate sculpture – would be like visiting London without seeing Big Ben. Opposite is Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a giant open-air auditorium where thousands of night-picnickers gather for free concerts and events during the summer.
We could easily spend the afternoon moseying around this massive lakefront park but we move on to the city’s greatest asset, the Art Institute of Chicago. The one-million-square-foot colossus is the second biggest gallery in the country and houses a number of recognisable gems, from Andy Warhol’s Mao to Monet’s Haystacks.
Sejal takes to the water to admire Chicago's dramatic skyline.
On other days we happily browse the boutiques on Armitage Avenue in the Lincoln Park neighbourhood and dip our feet into the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan, which is less than 20 minutes walk from The James.
On the recommendation of a food-obsessed local we visit Embeya, in Chicago’s West Loop, to try chef Thai Dang’s Asian-French fusion cuisine: papaya salad (£8), green curry escargots (£11), garlic chicken confit (£18) and a heavenly custard dessert puff (£3).
If the culinary scene is vibrant, the cocktail offerings in Chicago are equally feisty. We discover Jimmy, The James’s new speakeasy-style lounge, hidden behind an inconspicuous wooden door in Burke’s Bacon Bar; the West Loop’s RM Champagne, Salon, a classy bohemian joint; and Aviary, where cocktails are taken so seriously it has an ice chef who carves different shaped ice cubes that enhance your drink as the ice melts.
We save our best brunch, at the rustic Nightwood, an organic restaurant in the Pilsen neighbourhood, until last: a woodgrilled tomato sandwich with bacon-spiked goats cheese, the dish I now daydream about at my desk every lunchtime. I can only sum up my three days in Chicago by quoting Dh Lawrence, who said: “It seemed to me more alive and more real than New York”.
Four nights in Chicago with Virgin Holidays, staying at The James Chicago, starts from £859pp. Includes scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic for 2 adults from London Heathrow direct to Chicago and a standard room at The James Chicago on a room only basis. The price is based on a departure on 3 March 2014. To book: virginholidays.co.uk, 0844 557 3859
For further information on The James Chicago visit jameshotels.com
For further information on Chicago please visit ChooseChicago.com