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Chicago Union Station was designed by famed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham and opened in May 1925 after ten years of construction at a cost of $75 million dollars.

Chicago Union Station was designated a Chicago city landmark on May 1, 2002.

The main physical attraction of Amtrak's Great Hall at Chicago Union Station is the 300-foot-long barrel-vaulted skylight that soars 115 feet over the room.

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Chicago By Design

Travel by Train for a Windy City Day Trip

Mija Riedel

San Francisco-based writer and photojournalist Mija Riedel writes about travel, art and the environment.

Chicago was singled out not long ago as the number one city in the U.S. for design, ahead of New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Portland (Oregon), San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.* I've been fortunate to visit the Windy City many times, as well as all of the runners-up, and Chicago's world-class architecture and public art make it my favorite city for outdoor rambling.

This April I had two days to revisit some of my favorite spots and explore a couple I hadn’t yet seen. First stop, Millennium Park, to study Anish Kapoor's monumental Cloud Gate, also affectionately known as "The Bean."

Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago's Millenium Park. Photo: Dhilung Kirat.

Kapoor's masterful public sculpture stands 33 feet high by 66 long, and was constructed from 168 stainless steel plates that were welded into a seamless, silver legume shape. Its highly polished surface reflects and distorts the surrounding skyline, along with the hundreds of visitors who are drawn to it at all times of day and in all manner of weather. On this particular April afternoon, gray with occasional snow flurries, not one but two wedding parties paraded around The Bean with their respective photographers, the second group of bridesmaids sporting strapless gray minidresses and neon yellow umbrellas, sunglasses and stilettos.

Visitors interacting with "Restless Rainbow" by Pae White at the Art Institute of Chicago Modern Wing. Photo: Phil Roeder.

After 20 minutes, I pulled myself away and paused by the Crown Fountain — two towers displaying 50-foot-tall video portraits of local residents — before heading inside to the Art Institute. With the addition of the new Modern Wing, designed by Renzo Piano and opened in 2009, this art museum is now the second largest in the country. A series of floating stairs and terraces hover in the contemporary, light-filled atrium. The institute's collection of 20th- and 21st-century masterpieces, which includes the largest collection of Impressionist paintings outside of Paris, has room to breathe in the bright galleries. A handful of the city's architectural masterworks can be glimpsed through numerous windows, blurring the boundaries between art inside and out.

A painting of a deer from the walls of the caves of Lascaux.

The Field Museum, two miles to the south, is among the finest museum of its kind in the world, recognized internationally for its groundbreaking exhibitions as well as its research in the natural sciences. The museum houses more than 20 million objects including Sue, the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex ever discovered. On the day I visited, special exhibitions ranged from wolves to contemporary fashion to cave paintings. Having no immediate plans that included France in my schedule, let alone the caves in question (they've been closed to the public since 1963), I made my way directly to Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux, which was making its North American debut at the Field. Twenty-first century technology has made it possible to produce accurate, full-sized replicas of the ancient cave art dating back nearly 20,000 years. As I walked through the caves' chambers, admiring the extraordinary fusion of ancient art and modern technology, a docent explained how the animals would have appeared to move on the cave walls in the flickering light of Paleolithic oil lamps.


*RMJM Hillier's 2008 report rated the best large cities for architecture, sustainability, and transit and gave top honors to Chicago for its ongoing commitment toward sustainable design, innovative culture and architecture.

Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux, through September 8, 2013