Nearly half a billion dollars was spent on the 24.5-acre park along Michigan Avenue. In winter, visitors can ice skate there. In the other three seasons, they can hear concerts in a Frank Gehry-designed band shell that is more like a sculpture that happens to include great acoustics, 4,000 seats and lawn space for 7,000 people. One end of the park is a garden whose lead landscape architect, Kathryn Gustafson, designed the Princess Diana memorial in London.
It's worth a trip to Chicago just to see two of the massive sculptures in the park. One, by Anish Kapoor, is a 110-ton piece of polished steel that is basically a 33-foot-high 3-D mirror that reflects the skyline and funhouse images of all who come to take a close-up look.
Chicago's Greeter Program gathers at the stately Chicago Cultural Center, which overlooks Millennium Park.
(Photos Warren Skalski For The Washington Post)
The other is a fountain area that includes two 50-foot glass and brick towers. The sides of the towers are covered with giant LED screens that periodically display the face of one of 1,000 Chicago residents. Before freezing weather sets in, water cascades down the sides of the towers. At regular intervals, water shoots from the pursed lips of the faces shown on the towers, to the delight of kids who play around them.
On the two-block walk to the elevated train that will take us to Lincoln Park, I discover that the tourism bureau is even paying for my round-trip fare. During the ride, McDaniel points out the neighborhoods and attractions worth a later stop on my own. Suggestions include a gallery district called River North.
"They tried to get people to call the area SuHu, because it's around Superior Street, but happily the name didn't stick," McDaniel says.
The greeter program will take a single person and groups of up to six. If you fail to plan ahead, you can try for a spot in the InstaGreeter program, which offers free one-hour walking tours of downtown. The city's tourism office also provides, for a $25 or $50 fee, neighborhood and special interest tours by motorcoach.
On my tour, I'm quickly beginning to feel like I have a new friend. McDaniel, I learn, grew up in the Chicago suburbs and has been living downtown since finishing college. After recently retiring early, at the age of 50, she started a part-time business selling African art that she collects on trips to Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa. She also volunteers at the zoo and as an usher at Chicago theater productions, is president of the board of directors of the city's Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, and takes at least one yearly trip as a volunteer with Earthwatch, a scientific research group. Why does she volunteer to take strangers around town?
"Because I'm just mad for Chicago. I love this city, and am terribly proud of it," she says. "It gets better and better and more beautiful each year, and I like to show it off to people." Even before the greeter program existed, she says, she had "this thing" that would happen when she would see people on Chicago streets holding a map and looking confused.
"I invariably go up to them, because I have almost an obsession: I want people visiting here to go home and say, 'Chicago is such a beautiful city and the people are so friendly. Who knew?' " Sure, Chicago gets a lot of visitors, she says. Still, she thinks it's underrated and should be higher on people's must-see list of world-class cities.
I haven't even yet reached Lincoln Park, which is McDaniel's favorite neighborhood in her favorite city. Yet already, I'm sold. Chicago really is a beautiful city, and the people are so friendly. Who knew?
To arrange a free tour with the Chicago Greeter program, contact the Chicago Office of Tourism, 312-744-8000, www.chicagogreeter.com. For info on the New York greeter program, 212-669-8159, www.bigapplegreeter.org; Adelaide, Australia, 011-61-88203-7168, www.adelaidegreeters.asn.au; Melbourne, Australia, 011-61-3-9658-9658, www.visitvictoria.com.