Chicago. Breathe the name of this mid-continent metropolis to most Americans and thoughts lightly turn to stockyards and sausage, railroads and ribs, wind, cold, conventions and Capone.

But conjure instead a crescent of comfortable beaches, green playing fields, colorful marinas, bounded by an azure sea and backdropped by a forest of gleaming skyscrapers.

Think of one of the world's best symphonies, the nation's most vibrant regional theater, superb museums containing timeless masterpieces and innovative, interactive exhibits, intimate clubs where jazz remains cool and hot.

Savor with restaurants serving high, middle and low cuisine from the best regional kitchens of the five continent's four corners.

Add a dizzying maze of factories set among impacted neighborhoods of tar paper-roofed frame bungalows and limestone townhouses where black, white, brown and yellow contend -- sometimes honorably, sometimes wickedly -- for political control.

Web it together with the world's busiest airport, a noisy, friendly subway on stilts and booming arteries across an endless grid of streets stretching to the Great Prairie's edge.

This sprawling complexity, this concentrate of contradictions, this place of ceaseless movement, this glory and grime . . . this is Chicago, the most real American city in all of America.

You might not want to send your kids to school here (three teachers' strikes in three years, lousy national scores in the 3R's). And with heavily armed black and Hispanic gangs feuding and shooting in some areas, you shouldn't wander too far off beaten paths. But for a great place to get away from it all and get in touch with America, Chicago is the standout, stand-up prime choice.

It may seem an odd pleasure, but close to the top of any list of refreshments available here are the attitudes of the denizens of Chicagoland.

"Hiya, how's things today?" they open a conversation.

"Mornin', " says almost every bus driver as you swing aboard.

"I've got that door," says a passer-by as you maneuver with your packages.

"C'n ya help me with this?" asks an elderly man unabashedly as he struggles with his sister-in-law's overstuffed suitcase at a parking lot at O'Hare Airport.

The queen city of these open, straightforward flatlanders got its start early in the 19th century as Fort Dearborn, on the north bank of the Chicago River at the lake shore. But the War of 1812 brought British and Indian raids, and it wasn't until after the war that a black man, Jean Baptist Point DuSable, founded a permanent settlement here.

The city grew swiftly and haphazardly, an important jumping-off point for westbound settlers and a dominant shipping center for food and grain eastbound from the newly settled prairie farms. With the railroads, Chicago became the nation's most important transportation center. It remains so today; O'Hare Airport leads the world in landings and takeoffs.

But greatness, ironically, is traceable to the disastrous Great Fire of 1871. With much of the ramshackle frame-construction city in ashes, such visionary leaders as Yankee merchant prince Marshall Field saw the opportunity to rebuild Chicago on a grand scale.

Their zeal and determination guided reconstruction. With its center along the river, which branches north and south a few blocks inland from Lake Michigan, the city became a powerful urban magnet of uniquely American flavor. Although encompassing nearly 100 distinct ethnic groups, its flavor is owed to no special epoch or offshore culture.

Unlike Boston or Philadelphia, Washington, Georgetown or Alexandria, the presence of England and the colonial and federal periods does not dominate. Unlike Miami, Chicago is for hard work, hard winters, grit. Unlike Los Angeles, Chicago in fact is a city, where hordes of people roam a real downtown, rub elbows, ride a real subway, vie for cabs and do other things that knit them into a genuine urban community.

And Chicago's 23 miles of totally public lakefront is unrivaled anywhere in North America for beauty and esthetic pleasures. The handsome downtown and outlying neighborhoods add up to an especially pleasing urban mass.

To be sure, as in almost any city of the Northern Hemisphere's global industrial belt, there are slums and ghettos, derelict factories, abandoned buildings. White flight, Rust Belt recession and protracted political wars between the black mayor, Harold Washington, and his white adversaries have depleted the city's customary buoyant self-confidence.

But on balance, this city of 3 million is as exciting, as livable and as handsome as any city anywhere. And its special attractions for visitors seem without limit.

The Loop is its financial and business heart, nicknamed for the curving, elevated subway that winds at second-story level through the downtown. The appropriate starting point here is the Sears Tower, the world's tallest building at 110 stories. Its slender black bulk topped by white telecommunications antennae dominates the skyline.

The building, located at the southwestern rim of the Loop, has just added a handsome glass bird-cage atrium to its entrance; express elevators whisk visitors to the world's loftiest observation deck. Clear days bring a panoramic view nearly 100 miles in diameter, encompassing the city, Lake Michigan, the suburbs and the beckoning prairie.

Then come the Board of Trade on LaSalle Street, the oldest commodities exchange in the country, and the nearby Mercantile Exchange, on Wacker Drive. Here and at several other smaller exchanges, frantic traders of futures contracts in corn, soybeans, precious metals and financial notes make their home.

Home to uniquely adventuresome local traders, the Windy City has long been the dominant player in this worldwide crapshoot in major foodstuffs and livestock. From windowed galleries above the pits, outsiders can watch what one awed friend, a recent emigre from the Soviet Union, called, "the raw, beating heart of naked capitalism."

The Loop and immediate environs is an architectural gold mine. The term "skyscraper" was invented here and buildings by such important architects as David Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson are scattered throughout the downtown, and in several suburbs.

But for a jolt into the future, visit the new State of Illinois Center at Clark and Randolph Streets near the Chicago River. This controversial building, designed by the avant-garde Helmut Jahn, boasts a curved, 17-story, glassed-in atrium, tiers of offices rising above an enclosed, circular marble mall of shops and restaurants. Boastful, garish, stunning, it demands your attention.

The Art Institute downtown houses masterpieces of almost every major creative period in the New and Old Worlds. Its art school is world-renowned. But its glory to me is its rich collection of European Impressionists. Degas, van Gogh, Manet, Monet and others of the most luminous, lyric period in art are here. But my special favorite is Seurat's huge, mysterious canvas, "Sunday in the Park at La Grand Jette," upon which the Broadway musical hit "Sunday in the Park With George" is based.

Beyond the Art Institute, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the DuSable Museum of African-American History, the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, the Maurice Spertus Museum of Judaica and the Polish Museum of America all make their own special contributions to the city's cultural scene.

Then there is the string of lakefront jewels: The Shedd Aquarium has more than 500 species of fresh- and salt-water fish; the Adler Planetarium offers new celestial shows every few months; the Field Museum of Natural History has vast zoological, geological, botanical and anthropological collections. Finally, the pioneering and still-innovative Museum of Science and Industry in the South Side neighborhood of Hyde Park near the University of Chicago offers myriad push-button, hands-on, walk-in exhibits. Among the most famous are the coal mine and the pace-through heart.

Few cities have so concentrated or startling an outdoor sculpture collection as Chicago. The assemblage includes a giant Picasso at the Richard J. Daley Center, a Miro' sculpture nearby, a Dubuffet outside the Illinois Center, Chagall's "Four Seasons" three-dimensional mosaic, Oldenburg's giant bat and dozens of other smaller sculptures. These pieces are part of the fabric of downtown, welcoming comment, stares, sitting.

For lively arts, out-of-towners can find plenty of theater and music in Chicago, as well as good dance. There are about a dozen active theaters in town, including such increasingly well-known places as the Goodman, the Drury Lane, Steppenwolf and Wisdom Bridge. David Mamet and John Malkovich, two of the country's most explosive theatrical talents, matured here. The Second City, where Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd and dozens of other comedians got their start, is still packing them in, still getting plenty of laughs.

Under the baton of Sir Georg Solti, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is peerless in the United States and arguably the best symphony in the world. Septuagenarian Solti has no intention of handing over the baton in the foreseeable future.

For the other lively arts -- sports -- Chicago offers numerous professional teams; their sometimes dubious prowess is not always the point.

There are the National League Cubs at Wrigley Field on the North Side and the American League White Sox at Comiskey Park on the South Side. Each team has its own special ambiance. The White Sox won the AL Western Division title in 1983; the Cubs won the NL Eastern Division in 1984.

However, if baseball is over for the year, or your taste runs to other sports, the Windy City offers much more: the football Bears with the incomparable Walter Payton at running back; the basketball Bulls, Michael (Air) Jordan, prop.; the hockey Black Hawks; the soccer Sting.

If college sports attract you, Northwestern, just 10 miles up the line in Evanston, plays football with the big boys of the Big Ten; and DePaul and Loyola usually field strong roundball teams.

There's one other attraction: If the team's name begins with the word Chicago, you can pretty well be sure you don't have to trek out to the burbs to get to the stadium: Almost everyone plays downtown.

This quick tour of the place where my family and I have made our home for the past few years has to end somewhere. But before we depart, a few words about one very special part of the city, where we feel very much at home with our city, and its past.

This place is Wrigley Field, at the corner of Sheffield and Addison streets, home of the seldom-mighty Cubs. But the traveler doesn't head to Wrigley Field expecting a Cubs victory. There are pleasures in the park itself, which is the only one left that lacks lights, insuring daytime ball only. The field is the proper size for mortals as players (355 feet to the left field fence, 400 feet -- straight-away center, 353 feet -- right field) and the stands seat just a few hundred fans more than 37,000.

Unlike modern parks, this relic from Grandpa's America was built close to the playing field. Even from the upper deck, the distance to home plate is not more than a few hundred feet: No need for giant instant replay screens and fireworks to tell you what happened; you're close enough to see for yourself.

The park's setting adds to the pleasure: smack in the middle of a North Side neighborhood of townhouses, bars and corner stores known as Wrigleyville. No 80 acres of raw parking lot, no endless lines of cars filed with tense fans. Today's America asks: How can I get there? Grandpa's era answers happily: by The El. A subway flight at second-story level from downtown up to the park gets things off to the proper start.

Beyond all this, on a perfect day, you can sit in the bleachers and watch something occur that cannot happen at any other ballpark in the world: a home run from the mighty bat of some latter-day hero flies over the bleachers, lands on Sheffield Avenue, takes one hop and with a delicate sound of shattering glass, goes clean through the bay window of a house over there.

If that doesn't send Daddy back to his glory days of sandlot or stickball, nothing will. Wrigley Field is the world's loveliest place to watch the national game. Come see for yourself.