Choose Your Hotel and Choose Your Chicago
While it may be labelled as America’s second city, there is nothing second-rate about Chicago, particularly if you arrive in Illinois’ largest city as part of a backpacking excursion. Hotels in Chicago are the perfect platform from which to witness an incredible accomplishment of development, and there are those to suit even the smallest of budgets.
As the skyscrapers loom over Lake Michigan, it is difficult to conceive of a time when Chicago didn’t rule the Illinois skyline; it is truly a timeless city and, as it is effectively built on a swamp, a great feat of engineering.
Although the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed most of what had become of Chicago, it was also a chance for the city’s rebirth. The redevelopment brought about the epithet ‘second city’, although this nickname also applies to the fact that it has long been the United States’ second-largest city.
Today, Chicago is a diverse hub of different communities and districts. A cosmopolitan city with a long tradition of welcoming new settlers, it is home to large and vibrant communities of people from China, South Korea, Italy, Ireland and Poland. So, if you’re backpacking, you’re likely to meet a number of people with different nationalities.
It is, however, the African American community that has had the biggest influence on the city’s cultural development. This community grew rapidly in the first half of the 20th century as many thousands of people travelled to Chicago from New Orleans and Memphis during the Great Migration. This resulted in the city becoming a key hub for jazz and blues music.
Today, especially in the city’s South Side, you can still find the jazz clubs that made the likes of Louis Armstrong and Jimmie Noone famous; a must see when in Chicago.
The city’s reputation for blues was immortalised in the film The Blues Brothers. While places such as Buddy Guy’s Legends and House of Blues are slightly more upmarket clubs, for some vintage blues history head to Bronzeville or Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation.
When admiring the view from one of the many hotels in the city it would be impossible to ignore the city’s skyscrapers. Chicago is the place that first introduced the concept of high-rise buildings to the world and three of the United States’ tallest buildings adorn its skyline: the Sears Tower, the Trump Tower and the Aon Center.
Although the downtown area and business district are the beating financial heart of the city, it is in the outer districts where its personality is most evident. Even further out and you end up in some of the Mid West’s fantastic countryside and shorelines; perfect destinations for the backpacker to explore.
The city’s sporting tradition is, like most American cities, vibrant and fierce. While the Chicago Bulls cater for the Chicagoans’ basketball needs, the city’s two baseball teams perfectly sum up the rivalries and identities associated with different districts.
The Chicago Cubs play in Lakeview, in the North Side, while the Chicago White Sox play their games at Comiskey Park, on the South Side. Despite the big games that regularly happen in Major League Baseball, the two three-game series between Chicago’s two big teams are about as good as it gets. The baseball season runs from April to October, and given the opportunity, a trip to either venue is definitely recommended.
For backpackers on a budget it is well worth purchasing a Chicago CityPass, which covers admission to a variety of museums and attractions and will save a lot of money. Some museums also have specific days when they are free so it is worth checking out these days in advance.
Jazz and blues bars in the outer districts are also often much cheaper options and offer as good as, if not better, entertainment. The city’s excellent subway links also mean you can stay in a hotel or hostel away from the busy and expensive downtown and yet still be within easy reach of all the major attractions.
During your visit you can stay in the city, or head to the shorelines of the lakes. The trek along Waterfall Glen, or through Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore provides a particularly good escape from the hustle and bustle of the city centre.
Go in the summer and hit some of the sandy shoreline that joins Chicago with Lake Michigan, or arrive in the winter, make sure you wrap up warm, and wander into cheap local pizza joints to fill up on the classic deep-fill pizzas, overflowing with meatballs and cheese. A great example is Bella Bacino’s Margherita Napoletana, which is fairly cheap and serves great pizzas.
With its nicknames and rivalries, Chicago has a plethora of identities, yet somehow manages to live up to all of them at once; it is a matter of heading away from the central parts and exploring each area for yourself.