It didn't take long for theatre lover Joanna Davis to discover that Chicago and its diverse offering of the arts is her kind of town.

SOME things may surprise you about Chicago.

The friendliness of its people and its nickname ‘the Windy City’ having nothing to do with the weather, among them. (More on that later).

But greatest of all, for anyone who loves to be entertained, is its theatre scene.

Think theatre and the United States and our brains only lead us in one direction - New York City's Broadway. But Chicago has enough theatres and sufficient variety of shows to rival the Big Apple. And that extra hour on the plane flying to the Midwest is worth it for what you save in dollars on theatre seats and eating out.

Whilst still pricey (Chicago is the third largest city in the US, after all), there are many affordable accommodation options in the heart of theatre land, the downtown area known as The Loop - among them the Cambria Chicago Loop, where I stayed.

Just 18 months old, this fledgling hotel is already standing out like an attention-seeking younger sibling among the faceless sea of familiar big name hotels in downtown Chicago. Located in the same building as the Oriental Theatre, the neon signs in every direction let you know you are in the heart of theatreland, within walking distance of musicals, drama, comedy and family theatre.

The hotel likes to be different - decked out in on-trend contemporary decor, its lobby is up on the ninth floor and each room has a bluetooth installed speaker on the bathroom mirror so you can play your music while getting ready. And, like me, you won’t believe the amount of floorspace in your downtown room. Take that New York!

Chicago was the first city outside of New York to stage Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the smash-hit musical about Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the West Indies who became George Washington’s right hand man. It’s slated to continue at the CIBC Theater until July 21 - and yes, it really does live up to the hype. Its hip-hop sounds and storyline intertwine themselves with a skill and dexterity that will leave you wide-eyed with amazement long after the curtain falls.

If mainstream musicals aren’t your thing, the city offers a range of smaller scale productions like How to Catch Creation, which I took in at the Goodman Theater - a stone’s throw from my hotel. Exploring parallel timelines as the lives of four artists intersect and they come to terms with the life-changing possibility of becoming a parent, it’s a tumultuous look at creation by playwright Christina Anderson.

But if you fancy being spirited away an entirely different way with some on-the-nose humour, The Second City’s improv-based sketch comedy is just the job. This troupe of young, up-and-coming comedians brought the funny with sketches on white liberals, #MeToo, astrological love connections and much more. Unscripted moments attracted some of the loudest applause and if Second City’s alumni of the likes of Tina Fey and Bill Murray are anything to go by, you’ll be seeing plenty of these young comedians in the future.

I visited the city during Chicago Theatre Week, and in that month alone, there were more than 100 productions on offer for visitors. It’s no wonder that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has declared 2019 the Year of Chicago Theatre. You just wonder what took them so long!

Away from the bright lights of the theatre, you’ll be similarly dazzled by the beauty of Chicago’s downtown architecture. Just a five minute walk from the hotel leads you to the revamped Chicago Riverwalk, the waterfront of Lake Michigan and, the city’s most photographed spot, British sculptor Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, more commonly known as ‘the bean’. Amidst the pulsing throng of city strollers, commuters dashing to the office and selfie-enthusiasts yoga-posing at the bean, take time to look up. Unlike midtown Manhattan the skyscrapers aren't crammed in together - they have room to breathe, so you can take in all that finely crafted detail.

I strolled to the nearby Chicago Art Institute - one of the world’s finest art galleries. The impressive, airy space, is an antidote to the dimly lit, wood panelled intimidating spaces of galleries in other major cities. I found myself strolling up to some of the most famous artworks in the world and a lone viewer of iconic paintings such as Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. I have never been so transported in a public art viewing space.

Back to the friendly, unpretentious Midwesterners of Chicago. Not only will they happily stop to assist with directions, the welcome continues to be warm in the city’s 7,300 restaurants, 22 of which are Michelin-starred. We ate at The Dearborn tavern just across the street from the hotel, an urban spot with an ambience more like your friendly local rural pub, where I enjoyed every morsel of the skirt steak. Also within a short stroll of the hotel was the Latinicity food hall, offering an interpenetration of Latin street food in eight innovative kitchens.

A visit to Chicago wouldn’t be complete without sampling deep dish pizza, a signature dish at Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, where the secret is in the tomato sauce, we were told.

Up-scale but casual dining is also popular in Chicago, especially eateries with a view such as the Beacon Tavern, just steps from the riverfront and the city’s main shopping area, the Magnificent Mile. We enjoyed a pre-theatre dinner here and sampled gastropub fare with a seafront slant. The catch of the day, the scallops, were delicious.

With the city now boasting more than 65 craft breweries, dining spots like culinary brewhouse Band of Bohemia in the Ravenswood neighbourhood are proving popular. It might have been the first Michelin rated brewpub, but this dining spot’s conviviality and knowledgeable sommeliers and in-house brewed ales give it more the air of a welcoming dinner party.

We soaked up the unique atmosphere of the city’s historic Motor Row District with a visit to Motor Row Brewing, where beer is brewed in the original automotive district of Chicago. This district eventually became part of the beginnings of the Chicago blues community. Motor Row Brewing is breathing new life into the neighbourhood, with regular music nights where you can BYO food and enjoy brews such as Fleetwood Black (named after the car not the band).

So back to that Windy City moniker. It's no surprise that it comes from a New York journalist. New York Sun editor Charles Dana wrote about "the nonsensical claims of that windy city" as Chicago politicians wooed the organisers of the 1893 world’s fair.

While this is a rivalry that may have petered out over the years, Chicago has decided that now it is ready to woo and covert you for life, with its superb theatre offerings, delicious dining spots and tantalising attractions. It's time to stoke that rivalry again.


Joanna Davis stayed in downtown Chicago at the Cambria Hotel Chicago Loop, 32 W Randolph St, Chicago. Rates start at $99 per night.

It's just across the street from the Chicago Transit Authority's Blue Line train, which will take you to and from O'Hare International Airport and around the city. Joanna flew British Airways from Heathrow; Norwegian Airlines also flies direct to Chicago from Gatwick. See and for more information.