After a very pleasant day or two of cruising through endless cornfields and tiny farm town after tiny farm town, we came upon Minneapolis. Here was a lovely city, with an extensive waterfront of old Victorian mills sitting on the upper Mississippi River. A vast stone 21-arched bridge spans the great river just south of the impressive St Anthony Falls, right in the heart of the city.
We had a very enjoyable wander around the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, with its collection of outdoor public art ranging from the impressive to the down-right weird.
Minneapolis’ tidy modern downtown area is notable for its nearly 70 enclosed pedestrian bridges that link the various city blocks at the second storey. I imagine that they were put in because it gets so cold in the winter – we’re talking an average low January temperature of -14° –andvery snowy. We spent a fair while playing a game where we’d try to get from one point of the city to another without touching the ground, just by finding our way across these bridges. Trust me, it was more fun than it sounds…
Continuing east into Wisconsin, we detoured through the impressive university town of Madison, nestled on a series of lakes. Even though it was school holidays there was still a really nice cool vibe about the place, with lots of interesting small shops, cafes and bars.
Then came Milwaukee, home of countless breweries and, of course, the TV show Happy Days. I was expecting a fairly industrial city with not much character. There was plenty of industry on show, but surrounding a really wonderfully surprising city centre. We were based in the historic Third Ward, an old warehouse district, gently turned into funky apartments, art spaces and bars.
The river walk through the centre of the city was really nice, with the water surrounded by tall buildings on all sides, and public art liberally scattered along the way – one of the most famous pieces being a statue of The Fonz, who should need no introduction.
But probably the best part of Milwaukee was the Lake Michigan waterfront. With the buildings of the city as a backdrop and the expansive waters of that huge inland sea in front, it was a really nice place to be. And the highlight was the awesome Milwaukee Art Museum – a staggeringly beautiful sailing ship-like building. The construction almost takes precedent over the impressive art inside, including, when we visited, a Kandinsky retrospective.
After Milwaukee we followed the Lake Michigan coastline as closely as possible until we reached the dramatic metropolis that is Chicago. Third most populous city in the country, Chicago is an armada of awesome architecture. Its dramatic population growth coincided with a great fire in 1871, which destroyed almost the whole city centre. This gave the city the chance to start again, to use the improved building techniques, technology (including the simple elevator) and designs that would lead to construction of some of the world’s first skyscrapers.
The city boomed, and became home to some majestic buildings, including the renaissance inspired ivory-coloured Wrigley Building and the neo-gothic Tribune Tower. The foyer of the Tribune Tower boasts a map of the US made of $1million of shredded dollar bills, while the outside contains fragments of countless famous constructions from around the world, including the Great Wall of China, the White House and the Pyramids of Giza.
At street level there were brilliant views from along the Chicago River as it picked it’s way through the monstrous maze of construction, while we also got the bird’s eye view from the observation deck on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Centre, one of the tallest in the city, with breathtaking views across Lake Michigan and the city skyline. There was also the unique view that comes with the elevated train that circles around the central CBD. The ‘L’ sits a couple of stories high, and gives great nosy-parker views into the apartments and offices of some of the buildings closest to the line.
Back on the ground, we loved Millennium Park, a public area reclaimed from old rail yards, particularly the famous Cloud Gate art work that looks like a permanent blob of mercury, somehow managing both to reflect all its surroundings and also not when you try to find yourself in it. The park also played host to free movies and events – we had the surreal experience of watching Helen Mirren’s The Queen as the Chicago sun was setting on the park.
While in Chicago we indulged the world’s greatest donuts – no really, they were unbelievable. And we spent one night at Al Capone’s favourite jazz club, the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, where tunnels for bootlegging spirits allegedly still exist. (Talking of gangsters, we also went past the theatre where celebrity bank robber John Dilinger (aka Johnny Depp) was killed by the feds – though the image conscious city is shy about pointing it out.) And no visit to Chicago would be complete without an evening at Zanie’s comedy club, a venue that has helped launch a thousand funny-peoples’ careers.
Overall we absolutely loved Chicago, it is one of the greatest cities in the world, and it was sad when we had to say goodbye. However, the mighty Mississippi awaits…