The phrase “come or go, Chicago” – meaning to take things as they come without much thought to the consequences – is familiar to Sri Lankans from all walks of life. It occurred as a catchphrase in Nihal Silva’s Sergeant Nallathamby, and as the title of a Sinhala film. This shows how deeply Chicago has registered in Sri Lankan culture, but as a place that no longer exists, in which Al Capone and other Mafiosi gun down their opponents ruthlessly, and where life is vicarious.

This view of the great Midwest American metropolis as a place of gun violence is borne by its statistics: about 3,000 people get shot each year, with about a fifth of that number getting killed. However, that is not the entire story of Chicago. It is one of the most important transport hubs in the world, the key to the Midwest. It is also a beautiful city, home to many works of architecture and art, and a thriving centre for the arts.

●When visiting Chicago, a carry-on bag rather than checked-in baggage seems advisable, one problem being the likelihood of losing your baggage. This is a regular occurrence, according to one employee of Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Employees appear stressed, being too few for the tasks at hand, many with only a tenuous grasp of English. This is strange, as O’Hare is the second-busiest airport in the world by aircraft movements, with 867,049 take-offs and landings in 2017. Although with 80 million people going through, it falls behind Atlanta, Beijing, Dubai, Tokyo (Haneda) and Los Angeles in terms of passenger traffic. By cargo traffic, it was 20th in the world. A further 22 million passengers and 22,000 tonnes of cargo come through Chicago Midway International Airport.

As these statistics indicate, Chicago is the logistical hub of the Midwest. A major intermodal port, serving the movement of containers via multiple transport methods, it is the centre of a network of railways, highways, air routes and shipping routes stretching out over the entire continental USA. About 30% of all US freight originates, terminates or passes through the Chicago region.

●It was Chicago’s strategic logistical position, near the southern end of Lake Michigan, allowing shipping to navigate up the St. Lawrence River from Québec, which caused it to be built. It was occupied originally by Algonquin American Indians, who called the place Shikaakwa, meaning “stinking onions”, after the wild plants growing on the banks of the river. In the 1780s, an African-American, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable settled here, on a site beside the Chicago River now occupied by the Apple store. Although a small settlement of 350 people came up in the area, capitalist enterprise caused its rapid growth after the organisation of the town of Chicago in 1833. Developers saw the potential of the area and obtained the best sites. A new technique, the “balloon frame” – which used lightweight studs instead of posts and nails instead of joinery – enabled the cheap and fast erection of multi-storey wooden houses (this technique developed into the “light-frame” construction method, which still dominates US housing). A frenzy of building activity resulted in a fast-growing city, based on livestock processing, manufacturing and transport.

●Unfortunately, balloon frames were fire bait. In 1871, a great fire swept Chicago, devastating the city. Undaunted, the enterprising Chicagoans started re-building, constructing even taller buildings using steel and stone. The world’s first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building, came up in 1885, and three years later, The Rookery, the oldest surviving skyscraper – both of which combined a steel frame with load-bearing walls. They were followed in 1889 by the Tacoma building, which although combining a steel frame with internal load-bearing walls, had non-load bearing curtain walls on two façades. The next stage of skyscraper evolution came the next year, when the Rand-McNally building became the first all-steel-frame building.

Chicago maintained its position at the cutting edge of skyscraper architecture and construction well into the 20th and 21st centuries. In 1929, Union Carbide built its regional office, the art deco Carbide and Carbon Building, featuring a base clad in black granite, with a central shaft clad in dark green terracotta with gold accents capped with gold foil trim. For many years the site of the Hard Rock Hotel, this summer, it is due to reopen as the St. Jane Hotel.

In the 1960s, the iconic Marina City complex pioneered the combination of residential towers with a parking base, and commercial space with living space, which became the worldwide norm. In the 1970s, the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) became the tallest building in the world for over two decades; it features a skydeck, glass platforms sticking out of the side of the building on which visitors can stand. In the 2000s, the Chicago Trump Tower (briefly the world’s tallest apartment/ condominium) was joined by the Aqua Tower, the tallest female-designed skyscraper (designed to avoid bird collisions). The juxtaposition of older skyscrapers with newer ones gives Chicago a unique architectural importance. The view from each street corner changes remarkably within a few metres, revealing a completely different panorama. Even glimpses through the gaps between buildings reveal astonishing skylines or highlight details.

●In February 1890, after a vigorous debate, the US Congress decided on a site to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 arrival in the New World with a “World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition.” Amid bitter rivalry from New York, Congress chose Chicago because of its central location and extensive railway system, enabling Americans ease of access, and because of its impressive fundraising ability. The city saw this as an opportunity to celebrate its phoenix-like rise from the ashes of the 1871 great fire and to underline its position as the second city in the US.

The exhibition, held in 1893 on the 600-acre Jackson Park, containing nearly 200 temporary buildings set amid canals and lagoons, proved a success, with over 27 million visitors. Although most of the structures were pulled down or moved elsewhere, the park still endures, home to the commemorative Statue of The Republic, the Japanese Garden, and one of the two exhibition buildings that survived: the “Palace of Fine Arts.” This is now the Museum of Science and Industry, the exhibits of which include the Apollo 8 command module, a full-size replica of a coal mine, a World War II German U-boat and a huge model railway.

The other building, the World’s Congress Auxiliary Building, had an auditorium in its court to host the World Parliament of Religions. The Hindu philosopher Swami Vivekananda addressed this body; a plaque commemorating this event is set outside Fullerton Hall. Later, Anagarika Dharmapala addressed the gathering, explaining the parallels between Buddhism and Christianity. In response, on 26 September, a New York businessman, Charles T Strauss, accepted the Five Precepts from Dharmapala, becoming the first native-born American to convert to Buddhism on American soil. Following Dharmapala’s second visit to the US, a branch of the Mahabodhi Society opened in Chicago, which no longer exists.

●The Auxiliary building itself now houses the Art Institute of Chicago, a must-see art gallery/museum, the third-largest in the world and the best according to TripAdvisor for several years running. It features ancient and modern art and artefacts, notably collections of works by Gauguin, Cézanne and Seurat. Must-sees are the Thorne Miniatures, a collection of tiny dioramas of rooms from medieval times to the 1930s; and the Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room, a reconstruction from the original 1893 building when it was demolished in 1977. The building was located right on the lakefront in Grant Park. In subsequent years, the reclamation of land from the lake enabled the park to expand. It now accommodates several other parks, one of which is Millennium Park, connected to the Art Institute by the Nichols Bridgeway. This holds several open-air works of art, such as Cloud Gate by Sir Anish Kapoor, a three-dimensional mirror with multiple convex and concave portions known popularly as “the Bean” on account of its shape; Crown Fountain by Haume Plensa, a combined video sculpture, fountain and play area, featuring large faces; and the insect-like Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a combined sculpture and music pavilion by Frank Gehry, who also designed the snake-like BP Pedestrian Bridge connecting the pavilion to Maggie Daley Park. The lastnamed, also within Grant Park, contains a garden dedicated to cancer survivors and children’s play areas.

Two equestrian statues of American Indians, The Bowman and The Spearman flank Congress Plaza, serving as gate-keepers to Grant Park. They are part of the large collection of open-air sculptures spread over the city, including landmark statues by Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, part of a determined effort by Chicagoans to advance their city as a cultural capital to rival New York.

The performing arts also benefitted from this cultural enthusiasm. Even the gangster Al Capone loved the opera, and Chicago is well endowed with opera venues: the iconic Civic Opera House, home to the Lyric Opera; the Studebaker Theatre; and the Harris Theatre for Music and Arts. There are also many more venues for musicals and other music and dance performances. Every year, the Chicago Cultural Centre organises a jazz festival. The world-acclaimed Chicago Symphony Orchestra is located opposite Millennium Park.

● Traditional American food is heavy in sugar, salt, starch and fat. A typical American breakfast of eggs, Scotch pancakes, fried potatoes, butter and maple syrup is a particularly lethal combination, and may not suit the palates of most Sri Lankans. However, Chicago is diverse and cosmopolitan, and offers a range of ethnic foods. According to one Italian-American in the hospitality industry, the Italian food is “not authentic”, being heavily Americanised, but other cuisines are delightful. Of special note are Polish pierogis, filled dumplings; Mexican empanadas, spicy baked patties; and Japanese poke poké, combinations of rice or noodles, raw fish, tofu, spicy sauce and toppings. Avoid tea, which is undrinkable—it generally tastes of muddy water. Coffee, which does not come from a dedicated coffee house, is no better—it generally tastes like it has been made from used coffee grounds. However, coffee shops such as Intelligentsia, Fairgrounds or Starbucks provide good coffee and passable tea. Avoid ice coffee. Health drinks such as aloe or iced green tea are good.

Chicago’s sewage is floated down a canal to the Mississippi River, and thence down to St. Louis, the inhabitants of which are reputed to bottle the sewage and return it to Chicago as beer; so avoid St. Louis beer, is the advice Chicagoans give you. However, Chicago itself is home to very good beer, and a visit to the Goose Island Beer Company brewery is called for. Each neighbourhood has its own favourite beer: lager, pale ale, blonde ale or Kolsch. Cider is also a surprising favourite.