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A lakefront masterpiece: Culture abounds in Windy City

Nov. 7, 2011 - 06:00AM   |  
By ADAM STONE   |   Comments
The Windy City has an abundance of cultural activities for visitors.
The Windy City has an abundance of cultural activities for visitors. ()

Chicago is known for many things. Baseball, a long-ago fire, a gaudy hot dog. The city doesn't always get the credit it deserves as a cultural hotspot, but visiting federal workers will discover much here to tickle the intellectual and aesthetic senses.

The Art Institute of Chicago is a giant among museums, claiming the nation's third-largest permanent collection of art. Its holdings span historical periods, geographies and artistic styles, supplemented by an ongoing series of special exhibitions. The museum is especially strong in works of the Impressionists, early 20th century European painting and Japanese prints. The Modern Wing, which opened in May 2009, is an architectural knockout, and is home to a trove of European works along with contemporary art and photographs.

With its two remarkable glass domes, the Chicago Cultural Center has proven a magnet to hundreds of thousands of annual visitors who come for the diverse free cultural offerings. Film and theater, lectures, art exhibitions and family events make the center a hub of cultural activity. On the south side, the world's largest stained-glass Tiffany dome contains some 30,000 pieces of glass, while on the north side some 50,000 pieces of glass make up a 40-foot dome by Healy & Millet.

Now in its 25th year, the Chicago Shakespeare Company reproduces the plays of the Bard with intelligence, energy and exceptional creativity. The company has reeled in a slew of commendations, including the Laurence Olivier Award and Chicago's own Joseph Jefferson Award for Artistic Excellence. In addition to Shakespeare's plays, the company presents other works of classical theater, alongside modern works and pieces intended for family enjoyment.

The Oriental Institute was established in 1919, at a time when European and American sensibilities were captivated by the art and culture of the Middle East. As the University of Chicago's archeology museum and research center for ancient Near Eastern studies, the institute aims to trace the rise of Western civilization back to its genesis in the ancient Levant.

Artifacts span the history and geography of the region, with pieces drawn from Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Iran and elsewhere. Artifacts include a 40-ton winged bull with a human head and a monumental statue of King Tutankhamun. A working academic center, the museum's upper floors are home to classrooms and faculty offices.

Not all culture is carved in stone or painted on canvas. Touted as the largest science center in the Western Hemisphere, the Museum of Science and Industry offers more than 35,000 artifacts and roughly 14 acres of space for visitors to explore and better understand their world. Some 175 million visitors have passed through its doors since 1933. Exhibits span a range of scientific areas, including the physics driving massive storms, the engineering behind World War II-era German submarines, and the complex mechanisms of human biology.

Some of Chicago's most notable cultural landmarks exist not in galleries but in the open air. Take the Michigan Avenue Bridge, for example. With its magnificent view, it's a popular picture spot. More than this, the bridge is a monument to early 20th century sculptural art. The bridge-houses were decorated in 1928 with scenes of famed discoverers; pioneers making their way through America; the Battle of Fort Dearborn; and the rebuilding of Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871.

For further outdoor culture this time a taste of immigrant traditions Maxwell Street Market has been a longtime destination. An open-air flea market with more than 500 vendors, the market began as a gathering point for immigrant Italians, Germans, Poles and Eastern European Jews. The market has seen changes over the years, most notably a 2008 move several blocks east to make room for an expansion of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Still, much remains the same: Shoppers can find a wide range of goods from clothes to CDs to tchotchkes. And while the heady mix of ethnic fare remains as broad-reaching as ever, some of the aromas and flavors have changed as a Latino palate emerges, reflecting the changing immigrant makeup of the city.

One of the city's best known destinations, the Field Museum of Natural History holds in its collection more than 21 million biological specimens. The big draw quite literally is Sue, the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus known to exist. Forty-two feet long and 13 feet high, this 67 million-year-old skeletal creature was named after her discoverer, paleontologist Sue Hendrickson. Among its other highlights, the museum's taxidermy department boasts two African elephants, while the permanent collection includes more dinosaurs and a large collection of Native American artifacts.

For more of the natural world, some 25,000 fish paddle along in 5 million gallons of water in the John G. Shedd Aquarium. An estimated 2 million visitors a year pass through to marvel at 1,500 species of fish, along with marine mammals, snakes and insects.

Chicago offers ample opportunities to kick back. A solid and well-conceived pub, Hopleaf Bar has been going strong for almost two decades. It might take that long to drink one's way through all of its 325 bottled and 45 draft beers. The Map Room offers another take on suds, with 26 drafts and 150 bottled offerings.

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