The Magnificent Mile

michaveThe 14-block stretch of Michigan Avenue between Oak Street and the Chicago River is nicknamed the Magnificent Mile. Lined with upscale boutiques, fancy restaurants, and luxury hotels, the street is a tourist attraction unto itself.

It’s the most popular place for high-end shopping in Chicago, but there’s more to it than that. You can check out historic buildings, watch street-performers and enjoy priceless people watching as wide-eyed tourists and designer-clad locals dodge horse-drawn carriages, cabs, and exuberant bridal parties who are having their photos taken in the middle of the busy thoroughfare.

While the street has historically been filled with only luxury names like Prada, Chanel, Gucci and Tiffany, more budget retailers have slowly been moving in. So even if you aren’t in the market for designer goods, you can still do some shopping at designer-discount retailers like H&M and Filene’s Basement.

Ten historic buildings are located on the Magnificent Mile along with four of the city’s tallest skyscrapers. The Mile is also home to rotating art and garden displays each season, such as Tulip Days in April when the sidewalk planters are filled with hundreds of thousands of blooming Tulips. Carriage tours are operated up and down the street; you can find their stands around Water Tower Place.

Sights on the Magnificent Mile

tribuneThe Michigan Avenue Bridge over the Chicago River serves as the starting point for the Magnificent Mile and is the boundary between the neighborhoods known as the Loop and the Near North Side (or River North). The bridge is also the site of Fort Dearborn, an early army outpost built in 1803. Sculptures and an inscription under the bridge commemorate the fort and the massacre that occurred there in 1812.

The Michigan Avenue Bridge is a Chicago-style bascule bridge (so named because the engineering style was developed in the city) that spans 220 feet. Construction began in 1917 and was completed in three years. In spring and autumn the bridge is raised twice a week to allow sailboats to return to their inland winter moorings. The bridge was designated a Chicago Landmark in 1991.

The tower on the southwest corner of the bridge houses the McCormick Tribune Bridgehouse and River Museum. The tower was originally used to house the bridge-tender, the person who manually controlled the actions of the drawbridge. Now you can visit to learn about the history of the city’s River and its many bridges and, in summer or fall, watch as the tower’s gears lift and lower the bridge for passing sailboats.

As you cross the River, you probably won’t notice that it flows in a southern direction, away from Lake Michigan. But it’s interesting to note that it wasn’t always the case. The flow of the River was reversed in 1900 to protect the city’s drinking water. The River always has a slightly green tinge, but every year around St. Patrick’s Day, the River is dyed an electric bright green to celebrate the holiday festivities.

To the north of the bridge on the west side, you’ll see the Wrigley Building, which was built as the company’s headquarters in 1920 and was the first air-conditioned building in Chicago. On the northeast side is the Gothic-style Tribune Tower, home to the Chicago Tribune and WGN radio. If you’re passing by on this side, be sure to check out the stones incorporated into the base of the building. They’ve been brought from places like the Great Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Alamo and the Great Wall of Chine, and are each labeled with their origins.

As you walk by the Michigan Avenue Macy’s at the base of Water Tower Place Mall, be sure to check out the inventive window displays. Colorful and stylish any time of year, the windows are specially dressed for the holiday season. Magical displays of snow, glitter and lights will capture the imagination of children of all ages. For many Chicagoans, a visit to the holiday window display is an annual tradition. Each year a theme is chosen and the display is filed with animated characters, toys and gifts that reflect the theme.

There is a bit of controversy surrounding Macy’s in Chicago, particularly at the State Street location. The State Street location was the flagship location of the iconic Marshall Field’s department store. Marshall Field’s was bought by Macy’s in 2005 and converted into a Macy’s store, much to the outrage of loyal Chicago customers. Protesters still hand out anti-Macy’s fliers at both locations.

Notable shops on the Magnificent Mile

Water Tower Place
Water Tower Place Mall is Chicago’s most popular. There is a Macy’s, Food Court and over 100 retail stores spread over eight floors.

American Girl Place
A must for anyone traveling with a child, American Girl Place doesn’t just sell the popular dolls, it also features a doll hair salon and tea party restaurant.

Hershey’s Chicago
Hershey’s Chicago is a chocolate-lover’s dream come true. Browse for sweets both big and small, indulge in fresh-baked treats from the Hershey bakery, pick up chocolate-themed treats and toys and even try your hand at working on a replica Hershey production line.

Hours – Most stores on the Magnificent Mile are open from 8 or 9am to 8 or 9pm, with restaurants staying open until at least 10 or 11pm. The street is busiest on weekends and on weekdays from late morning to early evening.

Getting there
– The Red Line of the El stops at Grand and State, a few blocks away, and buses run up and down Michigan Avenue. You can also take the water taxi from the Michigan Avenue bridge to Chinatown or Navy Pier.

Photo by The West End, scmikeburton