Northern Irish singer-songwriter Foy Vance experiences the magic of Chicago-style blues, dives into the origins of house music and samples some of the best street food the city has to offer
Renowned for its jaw-dropping architecture, world-class museums and mouth-watering street food (did some say deep-dish pizza?) it's no wonder Chicago was voted the second-best city in the world by media and hospitality giant TimeOut.
As many as 48.9 million tourists, both international and domestic, visited the US city in 2022, according to the tourism group Choose Chicago.
This figure is expected to rise to 54 million by the end of 2023, just six million visitors shy of the numbers recorded for 2019, pre-pandemic.
Chi-town, one of Chicago's many nicknames, is also the birthplace of house, gospel, urban blues and modern jazz — another reason why musician Foy Vance added it to his travel list. Foy is on a journey around the US to experience the best music, food and culture on offer.
The first item on his itinerary was a visit to one of the city's many legendary blues venues, Rosa's Lounge, to learn more about the evolution of blues music from Chicago blues guitarist and singer, Wayne Baker Brooks.
"Chicago, man, is the capital of the blues right now. I think this is where the birth of all American music was expanded. Through Muddy Waters [one of the fundamental figures in the post-World War II blues scene].
"When he electrified the blues, he turned it into something else," said Brooks.
Rosa's, a family-run institution that will mark 40 years in the industry next year, is a must-visit for any blues lover, according to Brooks. Kingston Mines, a 55-year-old world-famous blues club is also a favourite.
Another city staple is the Chicago Blues Festival, which typically attracts 500,000 people every year across three days, all its concerts are free and open to the public.
Food glorious food and 'Chicago Greeters'
For foodies, tapping into the city's iconic street food culture is a must. The Chicago Dog (an all-beef frankfurter in a seeded bun) and the Italian Beef (a sandwich made with sirloin steak pieces, roasted in garlic and spices) both got Foy Vance's seal of approval.
Chicago is the third largest city in the US, so a free guided tour that helps showcase the Midwest's famed hospitality is always a good idea, especially for those who want to experience the city from a Chicagoan's perspective.
Jared Wouters, a "Chicago Greeter" is one of many local volunteers offering such tours: "We take groups of anywhere from one to six people around and spend two to three hours showing them the city and just giving them a view of what it's like to be a local in Chicago."
According to Wouters, the Chicago River and the Lake Michigan waterfront are two natural features that make the city stand out and provide a different vantage front.
'Gotta have house music all night long'
Did you pick up on the Marshall Jefferson "Move Your Body" reference above? Jefferson was one of the forebears of house music who found his calling in DJing and producing 40 years ago.
The genre was predominately created by Black American artists in Chicagoan underground clubs in the late 1970s and early 80s and was popularised by the LGBTQ community.
Frederick Dunson, the Founder and Director of the Frankie Knuckles Foundation, the Grammy award-winning godfather of house music, brought Foy Vance on a trip down memory lane and showed him Frankie's original warehouse venue.
"This is it. This is Mecca. This particular two-block is named Frankie Knuckles Way. So, this is where everybody came in," explained Dunson.
"It doesn't look like anything special on the outside. Well, from the outside, but inside it was very simplistic, very clean. Uh, not a whole lot of gadgets. It was all about the sound and the music that was coming out of that system."
The Stony Island Arts Bank, an artist-led, community-based platform for art and cultural development, is home to Frankie's record collection. It's the perfect museum for anyone who wants to learn more about the origins of house music and listen to some of his original beats.
Foy Vance is currently on tour in the US and has later dates in Australia, the UK and Ireland.