Karla Zimmerman, the author of Lonely Planet’s Pocket Chicago Guidebook, suggests the following to wow your friends back home with tales of a magic Bean, your daring walk onto a skyscraper’s ledge, and exploits with supersized pizzas in the Windy City.
Snap Selfies in Millennium Park
Located right downtown, Millennium Park is a trove of free and arty sights. The biggest draw is “the Bean”—officially titled Cloud Gate—Anish Kapoor’s 110-ton, silver-drop sculpture. It reflects both the sky and the skyline, and everyone clamors around to take a photo and to touch its silvery smoothness. Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain is another cool sight. Its two, 50-foot–high, glass-block towers have video images of Chicagoans spouting water gargoyle-style. On hot days, it’s like a water park where everyone jumps in to cool down. www.millenniumpark.org, 201 E. Randolph St.
Get Lost in the Art Institute
The second-largest art museum in the country hangs masterpieces aplenty, especially impressionist and post-impressionist pieces. Georges Seurat’s dotted A Sunday on La Grande Jatte is here; so is Grant Wood’s American Gothic. The Modern Wing puts up Picassos and Mirós by the roomful. Download the free app for DIY tours. It offers 50 jaunts, everything from an hour-long look at highlights to a “birthday-suit tour” of naked works. Then again, you could always just wander the endless marble corridors past rooms stuffed with Grecian urns, suits of armor, miniature houses, and whatever else pops up. www.artic.edu, 111 S. Michigan Ave.
Check Out Sky-high Views Atop Willis Tower
It’s Chicago’s tallest building (and one of the world’s highest), and the 103rd-floor Skydeck puts you 1,353 feet into the heavens. Take the ear-popping, 70-second elevator ride to the top, then step onto one of the glass-floored ledges jutting out into midair for a knee-buckling perspective straight down. If crowds are light, you can sprawl prone for the ultimate Instagram post. www.theskydeck.com, 233 S. Wacker Dr.
Splash on a Boat Tour
Loads of tour boats ply the waters around Chicago, but only Seadog does so via a high-speed, jet-propelled thrill ride. The flame-painted vessel departs from Navy Pier and then blasts along the lakefront for 30 minutes, providing local history to a rock and roll soundtrack. Seadog slaloms, spins, and splashes, and it’s a good bet you’ll get wet during the proceedings. The company also offers slower-moving (and drier) architecture tours along the river and shoreline. www.seadogcruises.com, 600 E. Grand Ave.
Listen to the Blues at Buddy Guy’s
No music is as identified with the city as the blues—the electric blues, to be exact. When Muddy Waters and friends plugged in their amps circa 1950, guitar grooves reached new decibel levels. Today, Buddy Guy’s Legends is the hot spot for the genre. Top local and national acts wail nightly. You might even see Buddy himself hanging around. Only those age 21 and older can enter after 8 p.m., but during the day the venue hosts free, all-ages performances from noon to 2 p.m. (but not Monday and Tuesday). Listen while having lunch; the club doubles as a Cajun restaurant. www.buddyguy.com, 700 S. Wabash Ave.
Cheer on the Cubs at Wrigley Field
The ivy-walled, 1914 ballpark is the second oldest in the major leagues. Games here are big fun, with cheering crowds and sunlight sparkling on the retro playing field. Wrigley is filled with legendary traditions and curses, and has a home team that suffers from the longest dry spell in U.S. sports history. The hapless Cubs haven’t won a championship since 1908! No tickets? Peek in the “knothole,” a garage-door–size opening on Sheffield Avenue, to watch them play the Pirates for free this weekend. www.cubs.com, 1060 W. Addison St.
Laugh at an Improv Show
Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, and many more honed their wit on Second City’s storied stage, where improvised comedy first launched. Shows are outlandish, hilarious sketch revues that revolve around politics and pop culture. Who knows: you might be seeing the next Amy Poehler or Steve Carell. iO is another great improv house. Tickets are a bit cheaper and easier to get. The Improvised Shakespeare Company works its magic here on weekends, making up plays on the spot—in rhyming verse. www.secondcity.com, 1616 N. Wells St.; ioimprov.com/chicago, 1501 N. Kingsbury St.
Rock Out at the Metro
Small and gritty, this renowned rock club puts you close enough to see the musicians sweat and feel the bass thump your chest. The Ramones, Nirvana, Arctic Monkeys, and Chance the Rapper are among the large number of artists who played here pre-fame. Each night, prepare to hear noise by three or four bands that may be teetering on the verge of stardom. Some shows are all ages, most are 18-plus, and a few are 21-plus. Metro’s basement holds Smart Bar, an unpretentious dance club, where house and techno pound the turntables. www.metrochicago.com, 3730 N. Clark St.
Have a Hot Fudge Sundae at Margie’s Candies
Margie’s has dipped ice cream sundaes for everyone from Al Capone to the Beatles (check the wall photos). The old-fashioned parlor sports a cool red neon sign and booths with mini-jukeboxes. But Margie’s sundaes are the star attraction. They’re enormous, served with much fanfare in a white clamshell bowl on a silver platter, alongside a silver pot of the famed hot fudge. It’s awesome (and even more awesome that Margie’s is open until midnight daily). www.margiesfinecandies.com, 1960 N. Western Ave.
This article appeared in the May 14, 2016 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.