The Bean is big.
The Bean is already one of Chicago’s major landmarks, up there with the Hancock Tower, the Chicago River, the Willis Tower, Navy Pier and, yes, Wrigley Field.
In fact, it is Chicago’s No. 2 tourist attraction. It has gotten an estimated 4.5 million visitors a year since it opened in 2004, second only to iconic Navy Pier with 8.6 million.
The elliptical Bean, as the stainless-steel sculpture is known by locals, is the major landmark in the city’s Millennium Park, a $475 million public park that opened in 2004.
It sits where railroad yards and parking lots once stood at the edge of downtown. It has become Chicago’s new front yard. The park has its own greeters, welcome centre and gift shop.
Officially, the three-story sculpture by London artist Anish Kapoor is known as Cloud Gate. But its kidney-bean shape is why is it is known simply as The Bean.
The public sculpture strikingly reflects and distorts the neighburing skyline and clouds on its gleaming surface.
It cost $23 million and is made from 168 stainless steel plates with no visible seams. It is 66 feet long, 33 feet high and 42 feet wide, weighing 110 tons. It looks like an oversized drop of mercury.
Visitors can walk under its 12-foot-high arch and even touch the stainless steel surface. It is whimsical and irresistible. Everyone loves The Bean, on AT&T Plaza, the centrepiece of Millennium Park.
The park lies on the south side of the Chicago River, tucked between the downtown area (the Loop) and Lake Michigan.
What Chicago has done with Millennium Park is a major urban renewal effort.
From the 1850s to 1997, the land where the park is now was controlled by the Illinois Central Railroad. Visionary Chicago leader Daniel Burnham realized that the tract was untouchable in the early 1900s and designed Grant Park around it. By the 1990s, the area was covered with parkland, unsightly tracks and parking lots.
In 1997, Mayor Richard M. Dailey unveiled plans for a 16-acre park and outdoor concert venue in the Beaux Arts style of nearby Grant Park. With the involvement of architect Frank Gehry and other partners, the project grew to 24.5 acres.
The park also features Crown Fountain. Spanish artist Jaume Plensa created a shallow pool between two 50-foot-high glass-block towers. The black granite reflecting pool fountain and the towers cost $17 million.
The water operates from May to October, cascading down the towers and spouting through nozzles on the front of the towers that show faces of 1,000 Chicagoans.
Concerts are held in the park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion with its Great Lawn. It has seats in the pavilion for 4,000 and can accommodate 7,000 more on the grass.
It features a stainless-steel band shell designed by Gehry. A trellis of curved steel pipes holds the sound system. It is home to the Grant Park Music Festival.
The McDonald’s Cycle Center offers bike rentals at the park’s northeast corner.
Millennium Park has won awards for its accessibility and green design.
The park offers greeter tours at 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily from May to October. It is a 45-minute free walking tour that looks at the park’s art and architecture.
Tours are also offered of the 2.5-acre Lurie Garden at the park’s southern end at 11 a.m. Fridays and 10 a.m. Sundays from May to September. It cost $13.2 million to build the garden.
Millennium Park is bordered by Michigan Avenue to the west, Columbus Drive to the east, Randolph Street to the north and Monroe Drive to the south.
It is connected via the 925-foot-long BP Pedestrian Bridge and the Nichols Bridgeway to other parts of Grant Park, Lake Michigan, the Lakefront Trail and Navy Pier.
Park hours are 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Admission is free. For information, call 312-742-1168 or 312-742-2963, or see www.millenniumpark.org.
One good way to get an eyeful of Chicago and its skyscrapers is to explore the RiverWalk that runs along the Chicago River. It is 1.3 miles long and growing. You are at the bottom of an urban canyon. The walkway was started in 2001.
You can also cruise the river on boat trips that look at the architecture of the city. It’s impressive even if you don’t care about architectural styles.
Or rent a kayak and paddle the Chicago River. It’s a three-hour tour with Kayak Chicago for $65: 630-336-7245, www.kayakchicago.com.
The green river now flows backward from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River, carrying sewage away from the city. Its water quality is far from pristine. It is dyed kelly green on St. Patrick’s Day.
Chicago is also known for its world-class museums, shopping, night life, entertainment and more than 6,000 restaurants. It’s an impressive and friendly city with a strong Midwest vibe.
It gets 46 million visitors a year. It is the birthplace of the skyscraper and features public art. It embraces Lake Michigan with its 33 public beaches. Its 550 parks cover 7,500 acres.
My personal favourite downtown sight: On the outside of the Chicago Tribune building are bits of rock and artifacts from historical sites around the world. It is unexpected and a little surreal.
You can see pieces of the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramid, the Alamo, Notre Dame de Paris, the Great Wall of China, the Coliseum, Angkor Wat, the Parthenon, Corregidor Island, the Palace of Westminster, Reims Cathedral, Berlin Wall, Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent and the World Trade Center.
The 150 labeled artifacts are set in the exterior limestone walls of the Gothic-style building at 435 N. Michigan Ave. There’s at least one from all 50 states. The artifacts were reportedly brought back to Chicago as gifts for Col. Robert F. McCormick, the paper’s owner and publisher.
You can walk, run and pedal on the Lakefront Path that runs 18.5 miles along Lake Michigan. The imposing downtown skyline is never far away.
The path goes through city parks and past 31 beaches, playgrounds, picnic areas, statues, marinas, a golf course, ball fields and more. It is the best and most crowded bikeway around Chicago.
One neat way to learn about the city is via Chicago Neighborhood Tours that offer a look at churches and ethnic fare. Chicago is made up of 77 community areas with 120 neighbourhoods.
You take a guided tour on bus and on foot to neighborhoods like Little Italy, Hyde Park, Historic Bronzeville or Ukrainian Village.
The tours last four hours with a refreshment stop. Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for senior citizens, students and children 8 to 18. Tours depart at 10 a.m. Saturdays year-round from the Chicago Cultural Center at Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue in the Loop.
For reservations and more information, call 312-742-1190 or www.chicagoneighborhoodtours.com.
Navy Pier has been a Chicago landmark since 1916. It served as a pilot training base in World War II. The 3,000-foot-long pier reopened in 1995 after a $150 million reconstruction.
Today it is an entertainment facility with IMAX theaters, a concert venue, a children’s museum, bars, restaurants and shops. It can be wall-to-wall people.
Among other attractions: Sue is the skeletal Tyrannosaurus rex and the star of the Field Museum of Natural History. The Shedd Aquarium is the best in the Midwest. The Art Institute is stellar. The vMuseum of Science and Industry includes a full-sized German submarine in its basement.
For tourist information, contact the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau, 312-567-8500, www.choosechicago.com.
Bob Downing is a reporter with the Beacon Journal in Akron, Ohio.