- darkometer rating: 2 -
The third-largest city in the USA
, (after New York
) and one of its most spectacular as far as skyline (skyscrapers!) and location are concerned. The latter benefits from being on the shores of the vast Lake Michigan as well as from the Chicago River. Both give the city centre an extra “maritime charm”.
From a dark-tourism perspective, the city doesn't have all that much to offer, though the main exception to this, the Illinois Holocaust Museum
, has to rank as one of the top institutions of its kind in the country.
What there is to see:
The one top destination for the dark traveller here is in fact not strictly speaking in Chicago itself but in the northern suburb of Skokie (which is, however, part of the Chicago metropolitan area):
Apart from that prime institution, there isn't much of a specific dark nature that is developed for tourism. There may be many dark aspects of the city (e.g. its pivotal role in the development of the meatpacking industry), but as far as I could see these mostly do not really form part of its tourism portfolio.
An exception can be found in the specialist guided bus or walking tours which follow Chicago's connection with the Mafia and organized crime as a whole. After all, Al Capone, arguably the most (in)famous gangster of all time, had his main stomping ground in Chicago in the 1920s. However, since I am personally not a great fan of such crime-scenes guided tours I didn't go on one and hence can't say anything about them from first-hand experience. I still thought I'd mention them briefly here, as they may appeal to quite a few other people.
One reason Chicago played such a forerunner role in skyscraper architecture (see below) was actually a great tragedy, namely the Great Fire of 1871. Amongst the very few surviving buildings are the water tower and pumping station on N Michigan Ave, (between Pearson St and E Chicago Ave). Plaques outside commemorate the disaster, and the inside houses a visitor information centre and photo gallery (water tower) and a cultural centre (pumping station) – while the original function of pumping water continues to this day as well.
The great fire wasn't the only fire, of course. I spotted a smaller plaque in memoriam of firefighters killed in a blaze in 1981, on the wall of a fire department station near LaSalle Station.
Another memorial plaque I discovered on the riverside (parallel to W Lower Wacker Dr) commemorated the Eastland disaster, one of the worst maritime tragedies in US history, when on 24 July 1915 the excursion steamer Eastland capsized while still partially moored on the Chicago River. Over 800 passengers drowned just a couple of yards from the riverbank.
Just a bit further down the river one of the many bridges crossing the Chicago River, namely the one taking State Street from south to north, is called Bataan-Corregidor Memorial Bridge
– in commemoration of some of the most significant WWII
battle sites in the Philippines
And then there's the Slaughtering Indians Bridge marked by a monument depicting just that … er, no, they actually call the monument “Defense”
and the bridge's official name is DuSable Bridge. The elaborate relief on the south-western bridge tender house, however, does indeed depict a fight between Indians and Whites, with one Indian already dead on the ground and another about to be stabbed by a white soldier's sable, while a terrified white woman clutching her toddler child is trying to run away. This depiction is to commemorate the 1812 evacuation of Fort Dearborn and an alleged massacre perpetrated “by the Indians” (as the inscription plainly states). As so often in history, the true circumstances of the “Dearborn Massacre” are a bit more complicated than that one-sided description. But this is not the place to dwell on this story. For more about Indians (or “native Americans” in contemporary “pc” parlance) in American dark history see under Wounded Knee
History in solid stone can also be seen on the wall of the classic Tribune Tower
(still home to the Chicago Tribune newspaper): here you can see stone fragments from a wide range of sites from around the world embedded in the lower wall. This includes bits of the Great Wall of China
, a small stone from the dome of St Peter's in the Vatican
, little pieces taken from e.g. Ta Prohm temple at Angkor in Cambodia
, but also a relic of recent history: a piece of concrete from the Berlin Wall
Chicago also played a key role in the dawn of the Atomic Age
. It was at the University of Chicago
that nuclear physicist pioneer Enrico Fermi
carried out the first controlled self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, namely in the so-called Chicago Pile-1 (CP-1)
, a graphite-moderated small reactor which had no radiation shielding, containment vessel or cooling system. So running it was a bit of a gamble – and that right in the middle of a densely populated conurbation. Luckily, Fermi's calculation proved correct and the reactor operated as planned. Fermi then went on to become one of the key members of the Manhattan Project
developing the atomic bomb
at Los Alamos
The CP-1 reactor was dismantled and moved shortly after the first experiments, as were its two successors. The former site of the lab with these early reactors is now marked by a Henry Moore sculpture entitled “Nuclear Energy” which looks uncannily like a cross between a mushroom cloud and a human skull.
A piece of the CP-1 reactor allegedly is or was (?) on display at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry
. This also has some other items of somewhat dark significance, such as a WWII
German submarine (U 505) and an original Stuka dive bomber. It also has a space-flight section (with the Apollo 8 capsule a star exhibit) as well as a reconstruction of an underground coal mine.
Not itself dark as such, but with very dark associations is one of Chicago's prettiest skyscrapers (see also below
), namely the former Carbide and Carbon Building. That's the name of the precursor company of Union Carbide – the company infamously responsible for the Bhopal
disaster in India
, the worst chemical industrial catastrophe
in history. Today, this pretty dark-green-clad skyscraper with its iconic gilded top houses a hotel.
in the Midwestern state of Illinois, USA
, on the south-western shores of Lake Michigan.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs:
quite easy to get to, but not necessarily cheap.
Details: Getting to Chicago is fairly easy both overland and by plane (and theoretically even by water, though as far as I know there are currently no public ferries crossing of Lake Michigan from/to Chicago).
The city is a transport hub of the highest order. Major train lines and roads converge here and its O'Hare International Airport is one of the largest and busiest in the whole world. Connections are plentiful to almost everywhere else in the USA
and the world.
Getting around is very easy, in the downtown area at least – within the central core of the city you can walk almost everywhere. In fact by American standards Chicago is a pedestrian's dream. But when your feet do get tired there's also public transport. Most notable in this respect is the famous “L”, which stands for “elevated”. This is Chicago's famous old metro (one of the world's oldest, in fact, dating back to 1892!), which in part runs on elevated viaducts above street level, most notably around the so-called “Loop” section.
Driving your own car in Chicago, on the other hand, is not recommended. Not so much because the traffic here is any madder than in other large cities in America, but rather because parking is so excruciatingly expensive. This is especially true for hotel parking charges – which is an important aspect to bear in mind when planning to drive into Chicago and stay overnight ...
Accommodation: if you plan well ahead you can get great discounts even on superbly located downtown hotels. Real budget options, however, are rather thin on the ground (whereas there's no scarcity at the other end of the price scale). Parking at hotels, however, can easily cost as much as an average motel room elsewhere.
With regard to food & drink
, Chicago is characterized by its immigrant culture, so lots of Polish, German, Greek, Italian and other influences have left their mark. But some have also been turned into distinctly Chicagoan forms, most famously the Chicago deep-pan pizza, more often rather a pie, with its essential toppings of cheese and tomato piled upside down (i.e. cheese at the bottom, tomato sauce as the top layer and any extra toppings in between).
For just the dark bits mentioned here, two days may suffice, but the city deserves more time. I definitely felt I had way too little time (a day and a half) to do it full justice when I visited in August 2015, so I intend to go back for more some day.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
nothing much within easy reach – the nearest major other dark site listed on this website would be the USAF Museum
in Dayton, Ohio, some 250 miles (400 km) to the south-east.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Chicago is a prime city break destination, one of the most rewarding in the whole of the USA
. Apart from numerous world-class museums, art galleries, theatres and so forth, it is also one of the most appealing US cities looks-wise, partly thanks to its lakeside location and its inner city river, but mostly due to its impressive archetypically American architecture.
Chicago can be considered the birthplace of skyscraper architecture, and indeed features both some of the oldest classic designs as well as some of tallest modern ones.
The one that tops all others, literally, is the Willis Tower at 442m (1450 feet), aka Sears Tower – the original name most commonly still used to refer to this giant. While this typically 1970s design may not be the most aesthetically appealing, its soaring height doesn't fail to impress. You can go to the top (for a hefty admission fee) and gaze down almost the full height of the building from its famous Skydeck observation gallery, parts of which consist of glass balconies with glass floors for extra thrills (not recommended for vertigo sufferers).
The Sears Tower's record height could nearly have been trumped by the proposed Chicago Spire … which was supposed to be about a third taller yet. But the project fell through in the financial crisis in 2008 and only the foundations were finished … all that remains now is just a big circular hole in the ground west of DuSable Park and N Lake Shore Drive.
Also not quite trumping the Sears Tower is, despite its name, the Trump Tower at 423m (1390 feet) finished only in 2008. It's a rounded, silver structure containing condos and a hotel. The name of the billionaire who gave the city this tower and whom it is named after is emblazoned on the front facade – in letters as tall as its namesake's ego. (And he's probably unaware of the fact that in British English this name, and its oversize proclamation on the facade, rather trigger totally different associations ...)
A modern classic (finished in 1969) to the north of the river and the downtown area is the John Hancock Center, a black obelisk-like tower with its X-braced tubular system visible on the outside facade – it is now only the fourth-tallest skyscraper in Chicago, but still one of its most iconic.
Lake Point Tower, also dating from the late 1960s, is unique in that it stands isolated on the eastern side of Lake Shore Drive – a prominent position, especially as current laws forbid further building on the lakefront. The design is very, very Mies van der Rohe, with its rounded facade on a clover- or propeller-like Y-shape ground plan. (Allegedly it does indeed go back to a Mies van der Rohe sketch and was executed by two of his followers.)
Another remarkable modern ensemble from the early 1960s is the Marina City. These 65-floor high twin towers also contain condos, which radiate out wedge-shaped from a central core, all ending in a rounded balcony so that the outer facade consists entirely of these balconies. That is: only the top three quarters do, as the lower part provides parking spaces for the residents on some 20 floors spiralling up from street level. The overall impression of this design is that it resembles two cobs of corn. The design set a new standard that has frequently been adopted elsewhere since. The name of this city-within-a-city comes from the fact that it includes its own marina for pleasure boats on the Chicago River.
On the classic design front notable examples of earlier skyscraper architecture styles include the Tribune Tower, a 1920s neo-Gothic affair in an exuberant decorative style, as well as the Wrigley Building across the street (also dating back to the 1920s) with its south tower featuring a four-sided campanile. The four clock faces each have a diameter of almost 6m (29 feet), so they are visible from far away.
A prime example of the even earlier, so-called “Chicago school of architecture” style is the Chicago Savings Bank Building, or simply Chicago Building, completed in 1905 and featuring the typical bay windows characterizing this style. Another example is the even older 18-storey Fisher Building which dates from 1896.
There are countless more notable skyscrapers and other significant buildings, and many are covered on the popular architectural-themed tours by boat (there are several competing companies). Alternatively you can use the Chicago Riverwalk to do parts of the route independently – for free and in your own time, but without the (rather loud) narration.
Architecture aside, Chicago is also very diverse culturally. Its classical, jazz, blues, soul and modern alternative music scenes are all highly acclaimed. So are its theatres, art galleries and museums. There is certainly a lot going on.
A less highbrow centre for entertainment is the old Navy Pier, which these days features things like a Ferris wheel, carousels, a water park as well as fast-food chain restaurants.
Oh, and finally: the epithet “the windy city” that is famously attached to Chicago is not really borne out by reality. It is no more or less windy than just about average. Boston, for instance, has much higher mean wind speeds.
- Chicago 01 - great city
- Chicago 02 - classic skyscraper architecture
- Chicago 03 - the River in the morning
- Chicago 04 - river traffic
- Chicago 05 - opened bridge
- Chicago 06 - the L on the Loop
- Chicago 07 - old water tower and Hancock Center
- Chicago 08 - the Sears Tower, which is now actually called Willis Tower
- Chicago 09 - Skydeck
- Chicago 10 - upside down reflection
- Chicago 11 - reflection of Marina City Towers
- Chicago 12 - Marina City closer up
- Chicago 13 - by night
- Chicago 14 - the city in evening light
- Chicago 15 - businessmen sculpture group
- Chicago 16 - conquering Indian lands ... called Defence here
- Chicago 17 - historic bits of walls in the wall of the Tribune building
- Chicago 18 - Fire station memorial plaque
- Chicago 19 - boat disaster memorial plaque
- Chicago 20 - righteousness commemorated
- Chicago 21 - gilded top of the former Union Carbide Building
- Chicago 22 - House of Blues
- Chicago 23 - top of Hancock Center shrouded by clouds
- Chicago 24 - plane seemingly aiming at the Trump Tower
- Chicago 25 - the city by night
- Chicago 26 - deep pan pizza
- Chicago 27 - suburbia