Glitz, Gangsters and Ghetto Segways in Chicago

The 2012 Ryder Cup in Chicago was the most exciting I can remember. But what will remain for me far longer are the sights, sounds and smells of the brash, bold and bustling city, which I hadn’t visited in more than 20 years.

America’s second city — home of President Barack Obama and Playboy magazine — promotes itself as ‘second to none’ and that’s no exaggeration.

Arriving at lunchtime, I quickly settled into the ritzy Peninsula Hotel and then re-acquainted myself with downtown Chicago by joining a Segway tour of lakeside areas.

That meant swerving on a two-wheeled, electric machine which can be made to go forwards, backwards and sideways, at a maximum of 12 miles an hour. Our Segway training took no more than five minutes, and no one fell off — unlike ex-President George W. Bush and TV presenter Piers Morgan, who’ve each taken a dive from their machines. 

Then it was off around eight miles of paths, taking in The Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, the Grant and Millenium parks and the Buckingham Fountain, which resembles a water feature close to our own dear Queen’s London residence.

We stopped for a hot dog at a mobile stand overlooking Lake Michigan. Our 360-degree view took in the lake and dramatic cityscape. The skyscraper was invented here, and 108-storey Willis Tower (still commonly referred to as Sears Tower) was the tallest building in the world when completed in 1973. But now it’s the seventh tallest. 

Other Segway jaunts glide through the city’s rich architectural heritage, while the Gangster Tour visits the sites of speakeasies, hang-outs and crime scenes from the Twenties era of Al Capone. (If you don’t fancy Segways, join The Untouchables bus tour of mobland)

I’d never imagined Segways could be so much fun. Timmie, the lady who ran our tour, told me she’d tried to interest London in the idea but was rebuffed.

After dark, I sallied forth for cocktails in the RM Champagne Salon, in the city’s West Loop neighbourhood, once a warehouse area, now a smart enclave of chic restaurants, bars and loft apartments, similar to Manhattan’s former meat-packing district. Then I ate at Nellcote, a cheerfully noisy brasserie.Next day, I checked out the city’s famous architecture from the deck of Chicago’s First Lady, on the Chicago River. Our guide was so interesting, informative and amusing about the buildings, their architects and owners that she’d have made the subject interesting to a Rhianna-infatuated teen.

Lunch afterwards was a special treat: Chicago Gourmet — a visit to ‘the best of Chicago’s food and wine’ at lakeside Millennium Park. Free samples of wine, beer, vodka, whisky, brandy and food of every kind in ‘chef tasting pavilions’. Glad I didn’t bring the Segway. Later — now adjusted to Central Time, six hours behind GMT — I was invited to dinner at The Bedford, a classy joint in the Wicker Park area, followed by cocktails at Buddy Guy’s Legends, on the South Loop.

I was encouraged to visit the Skydeck Chicago, in the Willis Tower, next morning. It was a clear day and we could see 50 miles in every direction, over four states, from The Ledge, a perch 1,353ft above the street — visible (eek!) through the glass floor.

Everyone visiting the U.S. for the first time wants to see New York, or LA. New York-raised writer, Norman Mailer, said New York was a ‘world capital’, but Chicago was ‘the last great American city’. 

And Oprah Winfrey has been even more enthusiastic: ‘My first day in Chicago, September 4, 1983. I set foot in this city, and just walking down the street, it was like roots, like the motherland. I knew I belonged here.’ 

I did, too. You may feel the same.

Travel Facts

America As You Like It (0208 7428 299, www.americaasyoulikeit.com) has five-night holidays to Chicago staying at the Peninsula Hotel, including return flights with  United Airlines from £1,255 pp.

By Erin B 10/23/2012 06:57:00