You've never needed a special reason to visit Chicago, but this fall the city practically demands you come. Everyone else is: Chi-town will score national exposure from both The Real World (the hot Bucktown neighborhood provided the setting for the latest season of the MTV series, which airs in January) and the art world, nabbing the only North American stops of two major exhibitions. Posh new hotels have sprouted up downtown, and a sexy new Asian vibe is turning up the heat at several city restaurants. All this, and Midwestern prices—read: cheaper than the Coasts—will make you smile more than finding a parking space in Lincoln Park.
Chicago now has double W's. W Chicago—City Center (172 W. Adams St.; 877/946-8357 or 312/332-1200; doubles from $329) targets young urban hipsters with its suave lobby scene—a DJ spins nightly in the cathedral-like lobby. Several rooms have a sleek forties feel, from the framed nickel compacts and cigar cases to the aubergine, black, and silver color scheme. Most rooms at the new-this-fall W Chicago—Lakeshore (644 Lake Shore Dr.; 877/946-8357 or 312/943-9200; doubles from $309), as the name suggests, have magnificent Lake Michigan views as well as a luxe Asian-tinged aura. • You'll hate to leave your little island of calm at the Peninsula Chicago (108 E. Superior St.; 866/288-8889 or 312/337-2888; doubles from $425), which has apartment-sized standard rooms and sunken tubs with splash-proof TV sets. • The posh Park Hyatt (800 N. Michigan Ave.; 312/335-1234; doubles from $425) taps two Chicago architectural biggies for its décor. Frank Lloyd Wright's style influences the clean lines of the rooms, which also sport desk chairs designed by Mies van der Rohe. • The Ritz-Carlton Chicago (160 E. Pearson St.; 800/332-3442 or 312/266-1000; doubles from $375), a Four Seasons property voted America's top hotel in T+L's World's Best Awards survey, astounds with its perks, such as hypoallergenic rooms and a 24-hour "compcierge," on call for laptop dilemmas.
Ikram Goldman, owner of Ikram (873 N. Rush St.; 312/587-1000), canvasses Europe to handpick exclusive designer and vintage clothing. She also carries women's shoes and exotic gifts. • New York jewelry designer Alex Sepkus chose tony Oak Street for his only U.S. retail shop (106 E. Oak St.; 312/440-0044); check out his textured and bejeweled rings that can be worn alone or stacked together for extra bling. • Offbeat flavors infuse the to-die-for truffles at Vosges Haut-Chocolat (520 N. Michigan Ave.; 312/644-9450). Munch on a Black Pearl for a subtle wasabi—and—ginger kick. The hottest new item?Couture cocoas like Aztec Elixir, which blends vanilla bean, chiles, and maize powder.
where the elite meet to eat
Food here isn't just meat and potatoes. Culinary diversity reigns supreme in Chicago. • Forget dinner and a play. For superlative dining that doubles as theater, book seats at Tru (676 N. St. Clair St.; 312/202-0001; dinner for two $150). Pan-Asian flavors subtly influence French cuisine in an understated space that keeps attention focused where it should be—on the beautifully designed food. Indulge in Tru's "caviar staircase," but save room for desserts such as a sublime melted chocolate tart with toasted-almond milk sherbet and strawberry-balsamic butter. • Spring (2039 W. North Ave.; 773/395-7100; dinner for two $80) gives upscale dining a comfortable (and more affordable) neighborhood vibe. Chef Shawn McClain—an Ohio native, but Japanese at heart, co-workers say—jazzes up contemporary American seafood dishes with Asian flair: the lobster spring roll gets a fiery jolt from a curried passion-fruit sauce; juicy sea scallops are served alongside wild mushrooms and braised oxtail. • Sushi lovers should head to Heat (1507 N. Sedgwick St.; 312/397-0668; dinner for two $75), a minimalist addition to Chicago's hot sushi scene with inventive daily menus. • Mod (1520 N. Damen St.; 773/252-1500; dinner for two $60), in the hip Wicker Park district, lives up to its name with a futuristic interior and zippy food combos. Chef Kelly Courtney reinvents all-American favorites, adding rich mascarpone to homey mac and cheese, while the "Texas Truck Stop" beef rib-eye is embellished with blue-cheese fondue and fire-roasted onions.
the new restaurant row
Nelson Algren, who immortalized the once-grungy West Division Street in his novel The Man with the Golden Arm, might scorn the upscale crowds now packing the area, but he'd be pleased to know that the street's multi-ethnic flavor still reflects its immigrant past. Smoke Daddy Bar-b-que (1804 W. Division St.; 773/772-6656; dinner for two $30) is the block's pioneer, serving inexpensive barbecue with a sweet and sassy sauce. Mas (1670 W. Division St.; 773/276-8700; dinner for two $42) offers nuevo latino fare, while the trendy Mirai Sushi (2020 W. Division St.; 773/862-8500; dinner for two $50) is housed in a former church. And despite the tapas-style presentation, the dishes at Rambutan (2049 W. Division St.; 773/772-2727; dinner for two $56) are Filipino, not Spanish. Try the salad of jicama, green papaya, candied almonds, and pears.
on the town
Le Passage (1 Oak Place; 312/255-0022) may be close to the frenzied scene of Rush and Division Streets, but it's miles away in spirit. The posh French-Moroccan setting is entrancing, as is the mellow world beat. • The spacious second floor of the Tasting Room (1415 W. Randolph St.; 312/942-1313) offers postcard-perfect views of the Loop skyline. Unwind with a wine flight—a trio of perfectly matched vintages—or one of the 110 wines offered by the glass or bottle. • The latest blues star—turned—club owner here is guitar great Eddy "the Chief" Clearwater, who has opened Reservation Blues (1566 N. Milwaukee St.; 773/645-5200). The nightspot pumps out live blues Wednesdays through Sundays; Chicago favorite Melvin Taylor & the Slack Band has been known to grace the stage. • Cross over to the other side at Ghost (440 W. Randolph St.; 312/575-9900), the of-the-moment boîte atop Nine restaurant. Eerie black-and-white portraits from bygone eras line the walls, but its glow-in-the-dark Ghostini (Absolut and Midori, served with a spooky swizzle stick) will keep you in the land of the living.
Chicago is currently playing host to two of the hottest tickets on the art scene. Ask your hotel about special packages that include entry to one or both of the exhibitions. • The venerable Art Institute of Chicago (111 S. Michigan Ave.; 312/575-8000) is showing "Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South" through January 13. Using 125 works, primarily paintings, it explores the personal and professional rivalry of the two masters, as well as their brief collaboration in France. • Through March 3, the Field Museum (1400 S. Lake Shore Dr.; 312/922-9410) explores the mysteries of one of history's greatest seductresses. "Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth" will bring together sculptures, ceramics, coins, and jewels to uncover the life behind the legend.