CHICAGO -- They call it "the people's park." And judging by the cross-section of humanity streaming into Millennium Park for a free Thursday-night jazz concert, the description is right on.
Young, old, middle-aged, teens, toddlers, locals and visitors settle into seats in the open-air Jay Pritzker Pavilion or spread out across the lush Great Lawn with blankets, lawn-chairs and snack-filled coolers for the kick off of the annual Made In Chicago summer jazz series. Once the music starts there is toe-tapping and hand-clapping -- even a little dancing in the dark on the soft July night. It's a casual feel-good scene. People sip wine and beer (permitted in the park), come and go between sets, and exchange pleasantries with companions and strangers.
While soaking up the good vibrations, it hits me -- the essential thing people forget to tell visitors about Chicago -- this big city has a small-town Midwestern heart. The locals are friendly and proud of their hometown.
During a recent visit with my husband and a friend, people engage us in conversation on street corners and happily recommend restaurants or dispense directions. At the environmentally friendly Argo Tea shop on the Magnificent Mile, district manager Kourtney Vahle takes time out of her busy morning to suggest places for us to try (Lincoln Park Zoo, Cafe Baci, Pastoral Picnics). Later, en route to Navy Pier, a businessman senses we are lost and offers aid before being asked. A woman pushing a baby stroller uses her iPhone to look up directions to a shop in The Loop.
In five days, we only scratch the surface of all Chicago has to offer, so an encore visit will be on the agenda soon.
If you are heading to Chicago, put these attractions on your Top 3 must-see list:
1. The Windy City is known for its distinctive architecture. A Chicago Architecture Foundation Cruise with Chicago's First Lady Cruises will help you get your bearings as you float through the city centre.
Along the way, you'll learn about Chicago's most significant historic and modern buildings -- from the Beaux Arts Wrigley Building, to the Boeing headquarters, to the John Hancock Center, the NBC Tower, the Trump Tower, the Tribune Tower, the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) and more. During our 90-minute excursion aboard the Leading Lady, volunteer docent Constance Rajala provides interesting tidbits on more than 50 sights as we sail under iron bridges and along the three branches of the Chicago River.
Most interesting factoid: The river once carried the city's untreated waste directly into Lake Michigan, fouling its fresh water supply. In 1887, city fathers decided to have civil engineers reverse the flow of the river through a system of locks and canals that emptied into the Mississippi River watershed.
Efforts to clean up the once toxic river are ongoing, Rajala adds.
Multiple cruises per day leave from the leafy Riverwalk below Michigan Ave. and Wacker Dr. Cost is $37.85 US plus tax per person. Photography and night cruises are also available. Reservations are recommended. The cruises can accommodate people of all ages and abilities. Contact 1-800-982-2787 or cruisechicago.com.
2. Millennium Park. This town square for the 21st century in the bustling Loop area is home to the irresistible Cloud Gate sculpture -- aka "The Bean." Made of a reflective material, The Bean mirrors its surroundings and the visitors that gather under and around it. Other attractions include the interactive Crown Fountain, where two 15-metre-high video towers display photos of scenery and passersby, and spout water on visitors, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Lurie Gardens and more.
Hundreds of free cultural events take place at the park each year -- concerts, from classical to jazz to electronica, theatrical and dance performances, lectures, a film series, family fun festivals, workouts on the Great Lawn, and more. See millenniumpark.org.
3. Chicago is home to many world-class institutions. Top picks are the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, the Adler Planetarium and the Art Institute of Chicago.
We checked out the Shedd -- the world's largest indoor aquarium and home to 32,500 aquatic animals. Among the highlights is the Abbott Oceanarium, which features playful beluga whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea otters and aquatic shows, plus the Caribbean Reef, home to sea turtles, moray eels, rays, sharks and an army of colourful fish. Several types of penguins reside in the Polar Play Zone, where we catch an informative talk on the amusing seabirds.
Touch tanks allow visitors to get up close to creatures such as sea stars. And a special hands-on Stingray Touch exhibit continues through fall. Until the end of 2013 a Jellies exhibit provides a glimpse of these mysterious yet enduring creatures, which have survived in our oceans for more than 500-million years.
A one-day Total Experience Pass is $37.95 for adults, $28.95 for children. Other options are offered at different prices. See sheddaquarium.org.
NEED TO KNOW
-- For travel information on Chicago, visit choosechicago.com.
-- Save cash and skip ticket lineups with a Chicago CityPASS. The pass ($89 for ages 12 and up, $79 for children 3-11) is good for nine days and provides 49% off VIP admissions to five top attractions -- Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, Skydeck Chicago and a choice of either the John Hancock Observatory or the Museum of Science and Industry plus the Adler Planetarium or the Art Institute of Chicago. See citypass.com/Chicago.
Chicago has hotels to suit every budget. We choose the convenience of the centrally located and recently renovated InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile, where rates currently start at $209 plus tax per night. See icchigacohotel.com.