My recent weeklong stay in Chicago was in some ways a personal journey back in time to when I got to know the city as a college student. Chicago has changed dramatically since then, with less sense of threat from crime downtown (though tourists are still warned not to venture south of Congress Parkway or much west of the river), many new amenities and that big burnished skyline.
But what was wonderful about it then is wonderful still, beginning with the great Art Institute on South Michigan Avenue, built for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. The collection embraces 225,000 art objects, ranging from 4,000-year-old jades to key American paintings such as Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" and Grant Wood's "American Gothic."
But at the information desk underneath the beaux-arts dome, it's the institute's Impressionist and Postimpressionist masterpieces that visitors ask for, even if, like the couple ahead of me, they happen to be French. This is because, as far as I'm concerned, nowhere else in the United States is there such a striking assemblage of early French modernists: Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Gauguin, Renoir, Seurat. Boston may have as many Monets, for instance, but not six of his haystack paintings. The Impressionist and Postimpressionist collection took shape around 24 masterpieces, considered daringly avant-garde in 1926 when they were donated to the Art Institute by the Chicago painter Frederic Clay Bartlett in memory of his wife, Helen Birch Bartlett. Today, to stand in the Bartlett room, with Seurat's "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" on one wall, Van Gogh's "The Bedroom" on another and Picasso's "Old Guitarist" on a third is a mood-elevating experience, better than antidepressants and almost as good as falling in love.
There are other places to see art in Chicago, of course, like the galleries of River North and the Museum of Contemporary Art, just off North Michigan Avenue near the Water Tower, housed in a building completed in 1996 by the German architect Josef Paul Kleihues. In a room on the fourth floor, mobiles by Alexander Calder hang in front of a window that looks east, echoing the white sails of boats out on the lake. Farther afield (though reachable by train), the suburb of Oak Park holds scores of further treasures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
In 1889, while still employed by Louis Sullivan, he built a home beneath a spreading gingko tree at Chicago and Forest avenues that has an exquisite barrel-vaulted playroom. He added an octagonal studio in 1898 and built signature Wright homes all over the neighborhood, such as the Arthur B. Heurtley and Frank W. Thomas residences, which both demonstrate the genesis of the Prairie Style.
A perfect Chicago day could start with a tour of wright's home and studio in Oak Park or, better still, a jog, with fall's early nip in the air, along the path that runs all the way from the beach at Oak Street to the Museum Campus. Here you're met with a thorny dilemma: Will it be the natural history museum, planetarium or aquarium? I chose the first, the Field, built like a Greek temple in 1909 and rather more a feast than a museum. It contains an uncomfortable-looking gold breastplate made in Colombia between 300 and 1,500, a 4-pound meteor that fell on a garage in Benld, Ill., in 1938, and a glass-enclosed lab where paleontologists are working to assemble the dirty bones of 65-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus Sue.
Then it only seemed right to lunch at Michael Jordan's Restaurant on North LaSalle Street (he also owns the trendier 160-Blue on the West Side), teeming with tourists who come for a burger and a chance to pay homage to the hero who led the Bulls to six NBA's World Championships.
Later, from my hotel, the small, elegant Whitehall across the street from Bloomingdale's on East Delaware Place, I shopped at Bendel's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Marshall Field's, and wandered into the lovely, leafy residential precincts of the Gold Coast before dressing for dinner and the theater. Dinner was a martini and a plate of tagliatelle with veal at Vinci on Halsted Street in Lincoln Park, just up from the heralded Steppenwolf Theatre. The play was "Pot Mom" by Justin Tanner, brought to Chicago from Los Angeles by longtime company member Laurie Metcalf, who plays the pot-smoking mom in a dysfunctional but fundamentally loving family.
Founded in 1974 and known for its tough, edgy productions, Steppenwolf is one of the most established companies in a city that thrives on theater, nurtured in church basements and school auditoriums all over town. This is why on almost any given night there are scores of productions to choose from, be it a big New York tour at a theater in the Loop or "SCARRIE!: The Musical" at the little Sweetcorn Theatre. There are scores of restaurants, too, because Chicago is one big, well-stocked refrigerator: from deep-dish pizza (a hometown invention) at Edwardo's on Printer's Row to gourmet Mexican at pretty Topolobampo on North Clark Street.
On my last night in town, I went with a friend who was born and raised in Chicago to a Near South Side club, Buddy Guy's Legends, to hear Otis Rush sing the blues, and then dined at Red Light on the city's newest restaurant row, Randolph Street. Between the chicken satay appetizer and seared shrimp main course, we talked about cities, their variety and allure. Mike still lives in Chicago, though he knows New York and L.A. well. And I'm a city maven, hopelessly enraptured by bright lights, tall buildings and crowds. And the more we talked, the more I envied his rootedness and his luck in hometowns--Chicago, livable, bright, busy and getting more beautiful by the day.