Travel review: Chicago
Chicago – it's the city of mobsters, skyscrapers, Walt Disney, Michael Jordan and President Obama.
But did you know that it is also the place that brought you Wrigley's chewing gum, invented the chocolate brownie, and gave birth to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer?
The Windy City is full of surprises, and the final fact is a poignant one.
Chicago at Christmas time is a sight to behold.
The United States' third biggest city becomes a city of lights – over four million in fact.
The Lincoln Park Zoo is home to an impressive array of more than two million illuminations. And there are a further million glistening lights along the Magnificent Mile shopping strip.
Think Paris – but bigger. Everything is bigger in America.
Meanwhile, you can go ice skating in Millennium Park or the adjacent Maggie Daley Park and feel the chilly winds blow in from Lake Michigan.
The stunning skyline makes for a simply incredible backdrop.
The skating at Millennium Park is free, providing you have brought your own skates, while the ribbon-shaped rink at Maggie Daley Park offers a different experience to the conventional square civic rinks seen all over the world.
It's a tranquil corner of one of the world's greatest and biggest cities.
For a Christmas shopping trip, Chicago is every inch a rival to New York.
The city created the concept of the great American department store with names such as Sears, Marshall Field's, Montgomery Ward, and Carson Pirie Scott.
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was actually created for Montgomery Ward in the city by Robert Lewis May in 1939.
The store had traditionally been buying and giving away colouring books for Christmas every year and it was decided that creating their own book would save money.
It was a hit and a Christmas icon was born.
Today many of the trailblazing names of Chicago's booming department store industry have gone.
The impressive Marshall Field's flagship building still exists but is now home to Macy's which controversially bought the firm a decade ago.
Its iconic Christmas widow displays are still maintained and continue to draw crowds to State Street in Downtown Chicago.
Interestingly, a former stock boy at Marshall Field's by the name of Harry Selfridge started out in the Chicago store before moving to London and founding Selfridges.
Also at Christmas is the city's famous Christkindlmarket where Daley Plaza becomes an old German village filled with quaint shops and holiday treats.
You can also embark on a trolley tour of the 'holiday lights' with the Chicago Trolley & Double Decker Company from outside the John Hancock Center.
The tour lasts two-and-half hours and let's you explore the magic of Chicago’s lights and sights. There are stops at the Christkindlmarket and the zoo – but beware of being stuck in traffic jams on weekends and evenings.
For the kids, a trip to Navy Pier and the Winter Wonderland will be a Christmas treat with a vast array of fairground rides in the warmth of a huge exhibition hall.
But there is much more to Chicago than just Christmas.
One of the best ways to get a feel for the city is by taking a holiday hike walking and food tour with Bobby’s Bike Hike.
The tour – led by charming and funny guides – takes you to all the main sights in the city.
It includes sampling local craft beer, a chocolate brownie at the Palmer House Hotel (where the brownie was invented), the Chicago-style hot dog, and Chicago deep dish pizza – sampling all four is an absolute must and the pizza is to die for.
You could easily spend a day at the Museum of Science and Industry – the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere – which is housed in the only remaining building from the 1893 World’s Fair.
The museum has a Second World War German U-boat, a replica Illinois coal mine, and an actual 727 aeroplane hanging from the ceiling that you can get on board.
One of the best things to do is to take a boat ride through the city on an architecture cruise – trust me it is better than it sounds and you don't have to be am architecture buff to appreciate it.
It is run by The Chicago Architecture Foundation and Chicago’s First Lady Cruises. It is the best way to explore the city's skyline and to discover the stories behind these incredible buildings, including the 1871 Great Chicago Fire that led to much of the city being destroyed and needing to be rebuilt, hence the nickname the 'Second City'.
It is also rated as one of the top 10 tours in the whole of the US by TripAdvisor.
But if you want to view the city from above, head to the Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower.
At 110-storeys, 1,450ft (442.1m), it is America's second tallest building.
From the top you get unbelievable panoramic views. And if you are brave enough you can venture on to 'The Ledge' a glass floored box overhanging from the edge of the top of the skyscraper.
For entertainment, Chicago has a range of theatres that regularly host musicals before or after stints on Broadway.
A night at The Second City comedy club will not be regretted.
Its improv nights show the best of America's upcoming comics and counts the likes of Bill Murray, John Candy, and Steve Carell among its illustrious alumni.
And no visit would be complete without going to the legendary Green Mill jazz club.
It boasts some of the best musicians in the States and was a haunt of mobster Al Capone. You can even sit in his booth in an experience that takes you back to the start of 20th Century.
Culinary delights can be found all over the city.
Farm House Chicago, in West Chicago Avenue, offers beautiful locally sourced food, while Orso’s, in North Wells Street, is a superb Italian restaurant with a 40-year history in the city.
While Bernie’s Lunch & Supper, in North Orleans Street, has the best cheeseburgers I have ever tasted.
It really is a city second to none.
> Rob travelled courtesy of Choose Chicago, staying at the luxurious Sheraton Grand Hotel.
United Airlines offer return fares from London Heathrow to Chicago starting from £499.00 (incl all taxes in Economy), and from £2,605 (incl all taxes) in Business.
For more details visit www.choosechicago.com