As I wrote in yesterday’s American Nomad post , I’ve decided to prepare a six-part series about Chicago, one of my favorite U.S. cities, in the hopes that some of you might head there very soon for a weekend getaway. In the second part of this weeklong series, I’m focusing on the art and architecture that have helped to shape this amazing town.
While attending college in Evanston – a northern suburb of Chicago – I often took the train  (affectionately called the “L” ) into the city to experience its myriad festivals, museums, restaurants, theaters, music venues, and other diversions. One of my top choices was and still is The Art Institute of Chicago  (111 S. Michigan Ave., 312/443-3600, daily, hours vary seasonally, $18 adults, $12 seniors, students, and children 14-17, children under 14 free), and I’m not alone in this. My husband – who also spent several years dwelling in the Windy City – is equally fond of this incredible repository of ancient sculptures, modern paintings, photography, and other artwork. In fact, during our last trip to Chicago, we made a point of visiting this marvelous place.
Now, if you try to examine every single exhibit, then you might be there for days. The best advice is to grab a map at the front entrance (or download several self-guided tours  ahead of time), pick a few prioritized galleries, and plan your route accordingly. With numerous permanent galleries and collections that range from decorative paperweights to architectural drawings to African art to an outdoor sculpture garden, the Art Institute offers something for everyone. In my case, I always make a beeline for the Impressionist gallery – which features Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte – 1884 among other quintessential works – followed by the Thorne Miniature Rooms – an incredible display of 68 miniature dioramas, from a Tudor-style great hall to a traditional Japanese interior.
Of course, the Art Institute isn’t the only ideal spot for art lovers. The city also boasts a plethora of downtown art galleries, not to mention the inventive Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)  (220 E. Chicago Ave., 312/280-2660, closed Mon., $12 adults, $7 seniors and students, children under 13 free), which houses an impressive collection of visual art from 1945 to the present, with an emphasis on surrealism, minimalism, conceptual photography, and work by local artists. In addition, the MCA presents live theatrical and musical performances, which, in recent months, have ranged from Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s hip-hop-inspired “mixtape for the stage” to a selection of ballet duets as part of the annual Chicago Dancing Festival. If you’re staying in Chicago longer than a weekend and hoping to save a few bucks, stop by the MCA on Tuesdays – when admission is free.
Beyond the galleries and art museums, however, is the city itself – an incredible amalgam of dramatic skyscrapers, art deco edifices, Victorian homes, Romanesque buildings, and other creations. First-time visitors and longtime residents alike can gain an appreciation for Chicago’s architecture by visiting the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF)  (224 S. Michigan Ave., 312/922-3432, daily 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.), which houses Chicago: You Are Here, a free, permanent exhibition that features “the spaces, places, and structures that define Chicago,” from Wrigley Field to the Sears Tower. If you’re really curious about the city’s rich architectural history, reserve a spot on one of CAF’s many tours, from a walking tour of Graceland Cemetery to a bus tour of three Frank Lloyd Wright-designed neighborhoods. Prices and dates vary for the tours.
If you’d rather not spend a lot during your trip to the Windy City, you can always opt for a self-guided tour through the varied towns and neighborhoods that comprise the Chicagoland. Even a stroll downtown will reveal a wide array of architectural styles, not to mention a cornucopia of public art, from monuments and murals to sculptures and fountains. The 24.5-acre Millennium Park  (201 E. Randolph St., 312/742-1168, daily 6 a.m.-11 p.m.), which opened in July 2004, offers a free glimpse of several amazing creations, from Jaume Plensa’s interactive Crown Fountain to Anish Kapoor’s gleaming Cloud Gate sculpture. So, clearly, expense is no excuse for not strolling amid Chicago’s art and architecture – even in the frigid winter months.
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me at laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.