The heart of the Loop is Chicago's business center, where you'll find some of the city's most famous early skyscrapers, the Chicago Board of Trade (the world's largest commodities, futures, and options exchange), and the Sears Tower (officially renamed the Willis Tower, though Chicagoans still refer to the landmark high-rise by its original name). If you're looking for an authentic big-city experience, wander the area on a weekday, when commuters are rushing to catch trains and businesspeople are hustling to get to work. The Loop is also home to one of the city's top museums, the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as a number of cultural institutions including the Symphony Center (home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), the Auditorium Theatre, the Civic Opera House, the Goodman Theatre, and two fabulously restored historic theaters along Randolph Street. On the eastern edge of the Loop in Grant Park, three popular museums are conveniently located within a quick stroll of each other on the landscaped Museum Campus. Busy Lake Shore Drive, which brings cars zipping past the Museum Campus, was actually rerouted a few years ago to make the area easier to navigate for pedestrians.
Walker's Warning -- While Chicago is a great city to explore on foot, Lake Shore Drive is no place for pedestrians. People have been seriously injured and even killed attempting to dodge traffic on the busy road. Near Grant Park, cross only in crosswalks at Jackson Boulevard or Randolph, East Monroe, or East Balbo drives, or by using the underpass on the Museum Campus. North of the river, use underpasses or bridges at East Ohio Street, Chicago Avenue, Oak Street, and North Avenue.
The Loop Sculpture Tour
Grand monuments, statues, and contemporary sculptures are scattered in parks throughout Chicago, but the concentration of public art within the Loop and nearby Grant Park is worth noting. The best known of these works are by 20th-century artists including Picasso, Chagall, Miró, Calder, Moore, and Oldenburg. The newest addition is the massive elliptical sculpture Cloud Gate (known as "The Bean" because it looks like a giant silver kidney bean) by British artist Anish Kapoor. The sculpture, in Millennium Park, was Kapoor's first public commission in the U.S.
A free brochure, The Chicago Public Art Guide (available at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.), can help steer you toward the best examples of monumental public art. You can also conduct a self-guided tour of the city's best public sculptures by following "The Loop Sculpture Tour" map.
The single most famous sculpture in Chicago is Pablo Picasso's Untitled, located in Daley Plaza and constructed out of Cor-Ten steel, the same gracefully rusting material used on the exterior of the Daley Center behind it. Viewed from various perspectives, its enigmatic shape suggests a woman, bird, or dog; the artist himself never discussed its inspiration or meaning. Perhaps because it was the first monumental modern sculpture in Chicago's conservative business center, its installation in 1967 was met with hoots and heckles, but today "The Picasso" enjoys semiofficial status as the logo of modern Chicago. It is by far the city's most popular photo opportunity among visiting tourists. At noon on weekdays during warm weather, you'll likely find a dance troupe, musical group, or visual-arts exhibition here as part of the city's long-running "Under the Picasso" multicultural program. Call tel. 312/346-3278 for event information.
Grant Park & Millennium Park
Thanks to architect Daniel Burnham and his coterie of visionary civic planners -- who drafted the revolutionary 1909 Plan of Chicago -- the city boasts a wide-open lakefront park system unrivaled by most major metropolises. Modeled after the gardens at Versailles, Grant Park (tel. 312/742-PLAY ; www.chicagoparkdistrict.com) is Chicago's front yard, composed of giant lawns segmented by allées of trees, plantings, and paths, and pieced together by major roadways and a network of railroad tracks. Incredibly, the entire expanse was created from sandbars, landfill, and debris from the Great Chicago Fire; the original shoreline extended all the way to Michigan Avenue. A few museums are spread out inside the park, but most of the space is wide open (a legacy of mail-order magnate Aaron Montgomery Ward's late-19th-c. campaign to limit municipal buildings).
The northwest corner of Grant Park (bordered by Michigan Ave. and Randolph St.) is the site of Millennium Park, one of the city's grandest public works projects. Who cares that the park cost hundreds of millions more than it was supposed to, or the fact that it finally opened a full 4 years after the actual millennium? It's a winning combination of beautiful landscaping, elegant architecture (the classically inspired peristyle), and public entertainment spaces (including an ice rink and theater). The park's centerpiece is the dramatic Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Music Pavilion, featuring massive curved ribbons of steel. The Grant Park Symphony Orchestra and Chorus stages a popular series of free outdoor classical music concerts here most Wednesday through Sunday evenings in the summer. For a schedule of concert times and dates, contact the Grant Park Music Festival (tel. 312/742-7638; www.grantparkmusicfestival.com). Two public artworks well worth checking out are the kidney bean-shaped sculpture Cloud Gate and the Crown Fountain, where children splash in the shallow water between giant faces projected on video screens. Free walking tours of the park are offered daily from May through October at 11:30am and 1pm, starting at the park's Welcome Center, 201 E. Randolph St. (tel. 312/742-1168; www.millenniumpark.org).
During the summer, a variety of music and food festivals take over central Grant Park. Annual events that draw big crowds include a blues music festival (in June) and a jazz festival (Labor Day). The Taste of Chicago (tel. 312/744-3315; www.cityofchicago.org/specialevents) is purportedly the largest food festival in the world, with attendance estimated at 3.5 million people during the 10 days leading up to the 4th of July. Local restaurants serve up more ribs, pizza, hot dogs, and beer than you'd ever want to see, let alone eat.
Head south to the lake via Congress Parkway, and you'll find Buckingham Fountain, the baroque centerpiece of Grant Park, composed of pink Georgia marble and patterned after -- but twice the size of -- the Latona Fountain at Versailles, with adjoining esplanades beautified by rose gardens in season. From April through October, the fountain spurts columns of water up to 150 feet in the air every hour on the hour, and beginning at 4pm, a whirl of colored lights and dramatic music amps up the drama. The fountain shuts down at 11pm; concession areas and bathrooms are available on the plaza.
Sculptures and monuments stand throughout the park, including a sculpture of two Native Americans on horseback, The Bowman and the Spearman (at Congress Pkwy. and Michigan Ave.), which was installed in 1928 and has become the park's trademark. Also here are likenesses of Copernicus, Columbus, and Lincoln, the latter by the great American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, located on Congress Parkway between Michigan Avenue and Columbus Drive. On the western edge of the park, at Adams Street, is the Art Institute , and at the southern tip, in the area known as the Museum Campus, are the Field Museum of Natural History, the Adler Planetarium, and the Shedd Aquarium.
To get to Grant Park, take bus no. 3, 4, 6, 146, or 151. If you want to take the subway/El, get off at any stop in the Loop along State or Wabash streets, and walk east.
The Grant Park Museum Campus's Big Three -- With terraced gardens and broad walkways, the Museum Campus at the southern end of Grant Park makes it easy for pedestrians to visit three of the city's most beloved institutions: the Field Museum of Natural History, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium. To get to the Museum Campus from the Loop, walk south on Michigan Avenue to East Balbo Drive. Head east on Balbo, across Grant Park, then trek south along the lakeshore path to the museums (about a 15-min. walk). Or follow 11th Street east from South Michigan Avenue, which takes you across a walkway spanning the Metra train tracks. Cross Columbus Drive, and then pick up the path that will take you under Lake Shore Drive and into the Museum Campus. The CTA no. 146 bus will take you from downtown to all three of these attractions; it also stops at the Roosevelt El stop on the Red Line. Call tel. 312/836-7000 (from any city or suburban area code) for the stop locations and schedule.
A large indoor parking lot is accessible from Lake Shore Drive southbound; you can park there for $16 for up to 4 hours, $19 all day. Be aware that there is no public parking during Chicago Bears games in the fall; Soldier Field is next to the Museum Campus, and football fans get first dibs on all the surrounding parking spaces.
Along South Michigan Avenue
The high-fashion boutiques may be clustered along the Magnificent Mile, but aesthetically, Chicago's grandest stretch of boulevard is still the stretch of Michigan Avenue that runs south of the river. Running from the Michigan Avenue Bridge all the way down to the Field Museum, it serves as the boundary between Grant Park on one side and the Loop on the other. A stroll along this boulevard in any season offers both visual and cultural treats. Particularly impressive is the great wall of buildings from Randolph Street south to Congress Parkway (beginning with the Chicago Cultural Center and terminating at the Auditorium Building) that architecture buffs refer to as the "Michigan Avenue Cliff."
Photo Op -- For a great photo op, walk on Randolph Street toward the lake in the morning. The sun, rising in the east over the lake, hits the cliff of buildings along South Michigan Avenue, giving you the perfect backdrop for an only-in-Chicago picture.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.