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Chicago: Glitter and lots more

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CHICAGO AT NIGHT: The city skyline from Lake Michigan.
  • CHICAGO AT NIGHT: The city skyline from Lake Michigan.

Sometimes, the only way to survive a Little Rock summer is to flee for a cooler climate.

Glittering Chicago is well worth your time, even for a short trip, and the cooling effect of breezy Lake Michigan is evident in average temps — 82 high, 64 low on July 4.

It's a 10-hour drive or a nonstop flight via American to O'Hare or Southwest to Midway. Either airport provides a cheap El train ride into town.

The most recognizable part of the city is the skyscraper-studded Loop, the downtown. But downtown Chicago isn't all about broad-shouldered business. There's the brand-new Millennium Park and the Art Institute of Chicago on Michigan Avenue. A little farther north is high-end shopping on the Magnificent Mile. Architecture buffs shouldn't miss the Carbide and Carbon building (230 N. Michigan), or the Tribune Tower (435 N. Michigan), among other gems.     

Just to the east of this bustle lies the lake, with a park along its Chicago length. The Field Museum for natural history exhibits, the Shedd Aquarium and the remodeled Soldier Field are among the attractions in the center of things.

As you walk around the city, you are under the constant looming gaze of the Sears Tower. The skyscraper will remain the defining icon of the city until the 2011 completion of the 2,000-foot-tall Spire. Take a ride to the top of the Sears Tower, at 233 S. Wacker Drive, while it's still king.

The Loop may offer glitter, but Chicago's soul lies in the neighborhoods outside of downtown. Pilsen, on the near South Side, is home to a large Hispanic population and features the National Museum of Mexican Art. Beverly, on the deep South Side, is an old Irish bastion with fine architecture. Between these neighborhoods, Hyde Park is home to the University of Chicago. Going south to Hyde Park on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, in the Bronzeville district, you'll find a focus of Chicago's black culture. On the North Side there's Lincoln Park, home to the city's zoo; Wicker Park, a center of Chicago hipster culture; and Wrigleyville/Boystown, an enclave that welcomes both gay people and Cubs fans. 

Expensive restaurants and cutting-edge cuisine abound in Chicago, but more noteworthy in my book is the jaw-dropping proliferation of street food, grease, and blue-collar grub. Can't-misses: Weiner's Circle (2622 N. Clark), where you can get a Chicago-style hot dog or a Char-Cheddar Burger with a heaping portion of fries. You'll also get a lot of sass, free of charge — Weiner's Circle employees are notorious for gratuitous rudeness. For Italian beef, another Chicago specialty sandwich, drop into Mr. Beef (666 N. Orleans). There are only three choices at Mr. Beef: The Beef, the Sausage, and the Combo, which is the Beef and the Sausage put together. For Mexican, head to Azteca (1836 S. Blue Island Ave.), home of the best burrito I've ever eaten. Chicago-style pizza is controversial — it's an inch of cheese and 1/8 inch of crust — but if you have to try it, the original Pizzeria Uno (29 E. Ohio) is a good bet.

Entertainment should not be a problem, whatever your taste. Chicago is home to the Second City comedy troupe (1616 N. Wells), which has been a springboard for many a Saturday Night Live cast member. Around the corner is the Steppenwolf (1650 N. Halsted), one of several fine theater offerings in the city. The Music Box (3733 N. Southport), an elaborately decorated movie house built in 1920, is a good place to catch a flick. Live music abounds as well — the Metro, across from Wrigley Field at 3730 N. Clark, typically has good contemporary pop music shows, though there are many venues around the city worth checking out.

Need some sleep? Check the web for occasional specials at the venerable Hilton Palmer House (Hilton.com). Its an enormous hotel and often has good weekend deals on its huge  rooms. The grandiose lobby is fine for afternoon cocktails.

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