The Windy City. The Second City. Even The Big Onion. Chicago's eco-friendly initiatives may soon push those nicknames aside for "The Greenest City in the Nation." Which is not bad timing, considering the city's recent bid for the 2016 Olympics. (The city lost out to finalists Rio de Janeiro and Madrid, but that's merely one chapter in this green city's story.) Famous first for inspiring architecture, music, flavorful food and a rich history, Chicago leads the nation in green travel opportunities for people seeking an urban getaway.
Though the Hotel Cass will surely be missed, lodging in the city shouldn't be written off as standard fare. Nestled among bright lights and big attractions, historic downtown buildings converted to luxury suites, and budget chains spreading out from the city's center, give guests greener options without skimping on extras. With five Green Seal certified hotels, Chicago leads the country in eco-travel options. Padding extravagance with behind-the-scenes conservation, lush accommodations add glitz and to the city's green tourism. Recognized as one of the top 40 hotels in the world, Hotel Monaco, a refurbished hat factory hugging the river, has received awards from National Geographic Traveler and the Travel Industry Association for its environmental efforts. Updating equipment, recycling and printing company materials on recycled paper with organic ink top the list of invisible improvements that pamper guests and Mother Earth. Hotel Burnham, the InterContinental, the Talbot Hotel and the recently renovated Hotel Allegro use similar methods while maintaining the highest level of luxury in the city. Economical chains, such as Days Inn, also work with customers to conserve water and energy usage. A stay at the Lincoln Park location sets you within a stroll's distance of the zoo (with free admission) and cuts expenses with available street-side parking.
Chicago glamour begins on the Magnificent Mile. Built to resemble the Champs Elysees in Paris, the stretch sports top designers and the latest fashions. Organic options can be found here and there in the largest stores, but boutiques off Michigan Avenue -- branching off into funky and hip neighborhoods near downtown -- truly cater to eco-conscious customers. If you're looking for high-end fashion (with high-end prices) hit Pivot, located off Fulton Market. Celebrated as the city's first eco-friendly boutique, this store's the source for amazingly soft, organic cottons in cutting-edge style. Futurgarb, in Wicker Park, and Lincoln Square's hip Stellar26, focus on reusable, vintage and organic selections for both men and women. Tucked in along tree-lined streets, these shops pull in repeat business and provide visitors with great places to get to know the neighborhoods. From a quirky kids' shop like Green Genes to A Cooler Planet, where you'll find home furnishings, it's in these areas that small business and Chicago's sustainable, eco-conscious style and community intertwine.
Green living has transformed everything from fine dining to Chicago pizza pie. Whether you're in the mood for triple-glazed scallops or a slice of moist angel food topped with the season's finest fruit, green options tempt the pallet. The sophisticated elegance of Naha relies on local, organic fare and naturally grown chicken and beef. North Pond exists to sustain local culture, from giving back to small area farms to the refurbished warming-shed-turned-restaurant, masterfully remodeled in Arts and Crafts style. If you're looking for something more laid-back, feel free to relax in Uncommon Ground, a fun, funky eatery for eco-friendly adults and the site of the city's first certified green-roof farm. Head to Cafe Luna, where seasonal local offerings make for a creative, refreshing menu that changes daily. For dessert? Savor the sweet nothings from Bleeding Heart Bakery, the first certified-organic bakery in the country.
Charged by Barack Obama's recent election, adventure and discovery has seeped its way into the oldest of haunts. This wind of change comes heavily charged with eco-endeavors, proving how easy it is for communities to work together to become sustainable. Chicago boasts more than 2.5 million square feet in green rooftops. Photovoltaic sites around the city provide power to local parks. Government, business and community groups continue to work to make this the greenest place in America, all while supporting more than 1 million people. Dedicated to nature conservancy, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum hosts demonstrations and events throughout the year. Twice a week, the Green City Market sets up shop on the grounds, complete with food presentations by top chefs in the area. Similarly, the Garfield Park Conservatory, the largest in the world, and the Lincoln Park Conservatory show visitors how little it takes to lessen their impact. Chicago's shining star, the 24-acre Millennium Park, rests peacefully among the city's busiest streets, and supports local efforts to cut energy waste and fight emissions. Even swank retreats, such as Salon Echo, have caught the bug. A number of day spas throughout downtown offer Earth-friendly products, cut back on waste and use reusable materials in their businesses. Home to O'Hare, Oprah and Obama, innovation has always been at Chicago's heart. You can see it in the gilded streets of the downtown shopping districts, and the height of the Sears Tower, which for years was the tallest in the world. Now it can also be seen in green rooftop gardens, new environmental standards and the growth of options embracing eco-tourists.
MNN homepage photo: Paraflyer/Flickr