By David Landsel
Chicago, Chicago. Why go to Chicago? Well, thanks to low fare airlines such as Southwest and Airtran, both of which fly into Midway Airport, fares into the Windy City are always relatively cheap. But if the low fares that Airfarewatchdog.com finds every day to Chicago's two airports aren't enough to convince you to visit, here's our pick of ten other great reasons to fly there.
BECAUSE IT'S PARTY TIME Few cities make better use of summer than Chicago, which throws a whole string of parties in its front yard each year to celebrate the fact that it's not freezing cold (for once). Up next: The annual Taste of Chicago, which draws hungry crowds June 26-July 5. The big shindigs are definitely two tons of fun, but don't miss the less advertised Grant Park Music Festival, a seasonal series of classical concerts at Millennium Park's perfect Pritzker Pavilion.
PALM TREES, WARM SAND, BLUE WATER Whose crazy idea it was to install palm trees on the city's Oak Street Beach? Whoever you are, we salute you! At the top of Michigan Avenue, steps from the Armani and Prada boutiques, this appealing stretch of sand is where you'll find the city's sexiest sun worshippers. For a happy hour to remember, plan a visit to the on-site Beachstro. (Get it?)
BECAUSE THE ART INSTITUTE JUST GOT BIGGER The amazing Art Institute of Chicago just kicked things up a notch with the opening of the $300 million Modern Wing, designed by architect Renzo Piano. The expansion significantly increases the capacity of the already vast facility, making it the second-largest in the country after New York's Metropolitan Museum.
SPEAKING OF MAKEOVERS Named after a neighborhood long ago "disappeared" in the name of progress, the open air, Sunday-only Maxwell Street Market might be a shadow of its former self, but those who don't remember the bad old days love Chicago's premier destination for cheap socks, tools procured through questionable channels and the city's best street food (mostly Mexican) for what it is: A really interesting way to begin your Sunday morning (S. Des Plaines St., south of W. Harrison St.).
SPEAKING OF THINGS MEXICAN IN NATURE Once you've eaten everything there is to eat at the market, head to the nearby Pilsen neighborhood, home of the National Museum of Mexican Art. This free facility offers a great crash course in one of the most colorful traditions anywhere in the Americas. Afterwards, hit the Chicano-cool Café Jumping Bean for an espresso and great people watching (1439 W. 18th St.).
IT'S A WALK IN THE PARK! Chicago has so much open space along its lake front, there are times where it can't scare up nearly enough people to fill it. Example: Walk out past the Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium, and south on to Northerly Island. On a weekday, things can be so quiet, you'll feel like you're trespassing. The former Meigs Field is now one of the most peaceful open places in town; the brilliant skyline views alone are worth the trek.
BECAUSE IT LOOKS DAMN GOOD There's no denying that Chicago is one of the most handsome cities in the hemisphere, particularly after more than a decade of efforts to scrub down and shine up what was turning into a bit of a rustbucket. If you're ready to make the leap from merely impressed to seriously informed, book a tour with the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
BECAUSE THE COFFEE FREAKING ROCKS Seattle may get the credit for sparking the national coffee craze, but Chicago was right there at the forefront of the roasting revolution - it just forgot to tell the world. These days, Metropolis Coffee Company is emerging as a local favorite; their sprawling roaster/café on an otherwise nondescript Edgewater block is a reminder that Chicago is still very much a coffeehouse town.
THE RIVER IS UP Most visitors prefer to take to the Chicago River via pricey sightseeing boat; why not save a bundle and work up an appetite for the city's famous pizza? For $15/hour, rent from Chicago River Canoe & Kayak for a northbound trip up the river, which enables you to ride the current back to the launch. Not comfortable on your own? Take a guided trip.
DINE IN AN ABANDONED HOTEL Well, technically. The centerpiece of the long-shuttered South Shore Country Club is an impressive, hotel-like structure at the center of a resort-like property, just south of the Museum of Science and Industry. Now known as the South Shore Cultural Center, or, colloquially, the People's Palace, the whole thing belongs to the city, which maintains the beautiful golf course and rents the original country club building out for weddings. Just off the grand lobby, you'll find the likeable Parrot Cage Restaurant, a teaching facility for the on-site Washburne Culinary Institute. Sunday brunches are memorable and affordable - chicken and waffles by the lake, anyone?