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By Margaret Deefholts
For Travel Writers' Tales

There are a couple of things about Chicago that come as a pleasant surprise. Firstly, you don't need a car to get around-buses and L-trains, cover a huge swath of the city and suburbs. They run frequently, are clean and have ample room. A 7-day unlimited transit pass for only US$23 is as close to a freebie as you can get!

Secondly, Chicago, is all about show time! And a lot of it is absolutely free.

The city's Department of Tourism "Greeter" program offers daily (free) walking tours of Chicago, come rain, hail or snow. Enthusiastic volunteers, with an obvious love of their city and pride in its history, take visitors on a variety of different neighbourhoods. I send my request in to the Tourism department outlining my interests (history, culture, architecture and music) and on arrival at the Chicago Cultural Centre in the heart of downtown, I meet my Greeter, Jim Gary.

We head out to explore the Loop-a business district south of the Chicago river bristling with theatres, art galleries, restaurants, museums, and street art by the likes of Picasso and Miro.

As we walk along Michigan Avenue, an arterial road in downtown Chicago, Jim unravels for me the thread of Chicago's history, "The area was first explored by Louis Jolliet, a Canadian explorer, and French-born Jesuit Jacques Marquette in 1673, but it wasn't until the first permanent settlement was founded in 1781 by Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, an African American from Santo Domingo that the city established itself as a strategic trading post. Then came the catastrophic fire of 1871 that reduced Chicago to rubble. Jim pauses in his narrative to point out an ordinary-looking road with a far from ordinary history. "This is Jackson Boulevard," he says. "It's the start of America's Route 66!" Click goes my camera!

Resuming where he left off, Jim talks about how the city arose Phoenix-like from its ashes, and is today a vast living museum of grand architectural design. The historic Marquette Building for example, a structure with a brown-banded terra cotta façade was among the first of the city's steel-framed structures. I stand marvelling at its entrance hall rotunda, decorated with mosaics depicting Indians greeting Fr. Marquette and Louis Jolliet, the first explorers to arrive in this area.

Jim and I wind up our 90-minute tour in Millennium Park, where all the action is free. The day has turned into a scorcher and the entrance to the Park is filled with shouts of glee by tots and teens from the nearby splash pool. We watch a face (one among 108 portraits of Chicago citizens) projected onto a giant screen, and await the moment when he puckers up his mouth to spout a stream of water into the pool. The kids shriek with delight.

Millennium Park's iconic stainless steel sculpture, "Cloud Gate" by Anish Kapoor, is popularly known as "The Bean" because of its shape and groups of young Japanese teenagers giggle as they peer at their inverted reflections under the arch.

The free guided tour through the Chicago Cultural Centre, built in five years from 1892 to 1897, is an absolute must for visitors to the city. Two magnificent glass domes - one in the Grand Army of the Republic, and the other in the Preston Bradley Hall are tour highlights. The GAR glass dome with a botanical theme shimmers in warm autumnal colours, while the Tiffany designed dome in Bradley Hall is a composite of 2,848 faceted glass jewels and rippled opalescent glass cut into a fish-scale pattern. Mosaic designs in iridescent colours of jade, topaz, sapphire and ruby also border the sweeping marble stairwells.

Chicago's hosts a variety of free concerts during the summer-jazz, rock, C&W, folk music, blues, and last but very far from least, some magnificent classical and operatic performances. Millennium Park's Pritzer Pavilion is just one among several other outdoor amphitheatres. Sleek, gleaming, modernistic, it is the city's 21st century showpiece.

The stage is framed by curled-back steel petals, from which a canopy of webbed criss-cross pipes embedded with amplifiers fan out to carry the sound to as many as 13,000 listeners seated on the lawns. In addition the Cultural Centre offers free live concerts and weekly film festival movies.

But wait, there's more. Enjoy dancing? Mosey over to the corner of E. Balbo and S. Michigan Avenues, take a picnic basket, and join in an open-air free weekly dance session. No partner? Just team up with another single on floor and twirl, shake, boogie, tango, quick-step or polka! And as dusk falls, watch the city draw a diamante studded cloak of night around its shoulders.

How about the free spectator sport of people-watching? Nowhere is this more lively than downtown Chicago. Choose your sidewalk corner, bus-stop or park bench. Trendy cuties in designer apparel, groups of camera-toting Japanese, punk-rockers looking like pink and purple cockatoos, demure sari-clad Indian women, Jamaicans sporting dreadlocks and newly-wed couples posing for pictures-they're all part of a unceasing flow of Chicagoans and visitors from every corner of the globe.

Watch-or join-the parade. It's fun. And it's free!


Chicago Greeter Program: About Chicago, Chicago Tourism: Chicago Cultural Centre: Grant Park Music Festivals:

Other links:

Architectural River Cruise: Chicago Architecture Foundation:

PHOTOS: By Margaret Deefholts

1. Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate, Millennium Park
2. Mosaic Mural in Marquette Building
3. Dome of the Grand Army of the Republic Hall (detail), Chicago Cultural Centre
3a. Bradley Hall Mosaic
4. Newly wed couple on a Chicago sidewalk
5. Jay Pritzker Stage, Millennium Park
5a.Jay Pritzker Open-Air Concert Venue
6. Spouting Face Fountain in Millennium Park
7. Miro Street Art
8. Free dancing spree - setting up the stage
8a. Enjoying a picnic in the garden at the dance venue
9.Chicago by night
10.Greeter Jim Gary and Author
11. Buckingham Fountain


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