Chicago has almost always been about shopping. Its first non-native settler, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, was a trader. Later, because of its railroads, Chicago was home to the nation's great mail-order catalog houses. That era is gone, and suburban malls, as in many places, have diluted downtown Chicago's retail dominance.
But few American cities' central business districts today can match Chicago's for sheer energy -- and neighborhoods offer charms as well. Here's a brief guide to Chicago shopping.
A celebration of consumerism, Michigan Avenue from Oak Street on the north nearly to the Chicago River on the south is essentially one store after another, interrupted by the occasional hotel. Tiffany is here, and Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman-Marcus, Cartier, Burberry, Disney, Nike, Apple, Brooks Brothers and a rare local entry, the ever-popular Garrett's Popcorn Shop. Worth special mention are 3 major malls that open onto the Mile: Water Tower Place is 8 levels anchored by Macy's (the former Michigan Avenue outpost of Marshall Field & Co.) and American Girl Place; The Shops at North Bridge has Nordstrom as the primary tenant; and anchor Bloomingdale's sets the high-end tone at The 900 North Michigan Shops.
Long home to Chicago's most stylish shops, this 2-block stretch between Michigan Avenue and Rush Street has retained its elegance over generations. National brands (Hermes, Prada, Barney's New York) share the neighborhood with fashion houses (Sofia, Tessuti, Vince, Piazza Sempione and more). Not for the light of wallet.
Two blocks of Wabash Street (a block east of State Street) between Washington and Monroe Streets are home to dozens of vendors and creators of jewelry. The sheer volume of booths shops can be overwhelming; a little knowledge of the trade helps. No Chicago landmark (and this is an officially designated landmark) feels more like New York.
Once home to all of Chicago's big department stores, it's not that anymore -- though Macy's has retained much of the grandeur and tradition (including the familiar clocks) of the Marshall Field & Company store it took over in 2005. The former Carson Pirie Scott & Co. store, with its wondrous Louis Sullivan exterior ornamentation intact, is in the process of being subdivided. Sears, Old Navy and other familiar mid-range chains have a presence.
River North Gallery District
Art galleries are scattered throughout the Chicago area, but for a concentration of galleries mixed with home-furnishings boutiques, nothing beats this area from the Chicago River north to Chicago Avenue and extending a couple of blocks on either side of the Wells Street 'L' tracks. Just wander at will and enjoy the rattle of the trains going by . . . pure Chicago.
Maxwell Street Market
The original, literal Maxwell Street -- a picturesque if crumbling West Side remnant of the old pushcart era -- has been gentrified to death. The name and some of the spirit now belongs to a Sundays-only market east of the original, along Des Plaines Avenue between Roosevelt Road and Harrison Street. It's essentially a flea market, plus produce, street food (primarily Mexican) and all kinds of Chicago T-shirts, mostly the cheap kind.
Ethnic Shopping, a Sampling
For saris, Indian music and videos, Little India (Devon Avenue, North Side). For Polish imports and amazing sausages, Polish Village (Milwaukee Avenue, Northwest Side). For Mexican goods and flavors, Little Village (26th Street, Southwest Side). For all things Swedish, Andersonville (Clark Street, North Side). For German clocks, glass and figurines, Lincoln Square (Lincoln Avenue, North Side). For a variety of East Asian foods and cookware, Argyle Street (Argyle Street, North Side).
Like the art galleries, quality antique shops (and basic resale and nostalgia shops) can be found all over town. But for a concentration likely to delight serious collectors, it's the 6 blocks of Belmont Avenue from Paulina Street to Western Avenue on the North Side. Some of the familiar names include Father Time Antiques (timepieces), Good Old Days (stained glass, furniture, memorabilia) and Miscellania (aptly named).
They can show up anywhere, but on Damen Avenue between Webster and North Avenues in Bucktown, find stylish shops and galleries of every description; about a mile east, near the DePaul campus, are more shops on Armitage Avenue between Halsted Street and Racine Avenue. Both neighborhoods are north and west of downtown.
Travel writer Alan Solomon's cousin sold socks for a dollar a bundle on Maxwell Street.