CHICAGO // How do you take a spring fling in this city without springing for an expensive vacation?
First, plan to spend a lot of time outdoors and second, hope for fine weather.
With spring in the air and summer just around the corner, I headed to Chicago for a $500 getaway. The plan was to meet up with my mother -- who was traveling from California -- for some sightseeing.
On a clear April day, I arrived in the city as tulips blooming in a kaleidoscope of color set the tone. A dash of boosterism added to the atmosphere: Banners with Mayor Richard M. Daley's picture that proclaim, "We're Glad You're Here!" dotted the downtown district. A pair of high-rise structures shaped like corncobs further set the Midwestern mood.
I have seen Chicago in summer, when swimming, shopping and falling in love with the majestic lion statues outside the Art Institute -- not to mention a man who took me to a party there thrown by John F. Kennedy Jr. -- were the most important items on the agenda.
On this visit, I planned to see the lions again, but the shopping would have to be of the window-variety.
I tried to time my trip for a Cubs home game at storied Wrigley Field. No such luck. (Seats can cost as little as $6 on so-called value dates.)
But I did luck out in finding a hotel. With a high-end city and a low-end budget, finding a place to stay was a challenge for a midweek trip. Using hotels.com, I found the House of Blues Hotel on North Dearborn Street in the downtown Loop.
We weren't at the hotel, restaurant and nightclub complex long before we heard someone singing the blues. The six-story hotel opened in 1998 and has a lightheartedness at odds with its name. The lobby was a riot of eclectic decor. The guest rooms featured a bold color and design, including a mosaic sink. Folk art and Southwestern pieces were on the wall, some for sale. Every room has the same design scheme, with a few variations.
Soon after breakfast we walked several blocks from the hotel to State Street for a visit to the original Marshall Field's department store.
About State Street, the old song was right: I just want to say, it was a nice way to start the day. The well-preserved Marshall Field's was something my father remembered as a big deal from boyhood visits in the 1940s. Today, the store retains some of its atmosphere (quieter than in my father's day) with a Tiffany stained-glass ceiling and a distinctive street-corner clock.
After looking around the store without spending a dime, we headed to the Chicago Cultural Center several blocks away on East Washington Street. A lunchtime concert was under way as we arrived at the center, which first opened as the ornate public library in 1897. We were struck by the vision etched in marble: "the people's palace."
My mother summed it up as we passed Millennium Park on Michigan Avenue in the city's heartland: "They did it right, they did it big, they did it to last, and they did it for everybody."
She didn't mean the sculptural landscape of Millennium Park, the latest stroke on the canvas beautifying land under railroad control for a century and a half. No, she meant Chicago and its spirit as it emerged from the ashes after just about everything - except one waterworks building - burned to the ground in 1871.
A city reclaimed
The Chicago-born used that fire as a chance to reclaim the city on a grand scale. And so they did - and they love to talk about it. From docents to foreign-born taxicab drivers, residents are not shy - they are upbeat and generally friendly to travelers.
Take the middle school pupils playing in the new Crown Fountain in Millennium Park, the inspired public space. The park's public art is centered by a stainless-steel concert pavilion designed by the contemporary architect Frank Gehry. Nearby are rows of gardens, a curving walking bridge to the lakefront and Cloud Gate, a sculptural ellipse locals call "the bean," which looks like a mirror made of liquid mercury, reflecting the sky and life around it. (In winter, the park has room for an outdoor ice skating rink.)
"It's like walking on water ... it's very relaxing," said Becca White, a 13-year-old on a field trip from nearby Winnetka, Ill., as she waded barefoot on the glass-brick fountain's base.
For her and her classmates, playing in a fountain in the middle of a metropolis was cool.
"You can go walking on water and be surrounded by buildings," said Scott McLinden, 13.
The starkness of the glass-brick fountain is remarkable and unlike any other in the world. Behind the transparent brick, images of a thousand faces - Chicagoans of every kind - flash on two 50-foot screens as a celebration of the diversity of the city. Every so often, water spurts out of the portrait's mouth, creating the impression of ancient gargoyles.
Left on my own for an hour or so, I could have taken the grown-up Chicago Architecture Foundation Cruise on the river, which is highly recommended, but instead I chose to take my inner child on a Ferris wheel ride.