This may be the only city in the world where architecture ranks as a sport. Bleachers are erected around construction sites so the locals...

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CHICAGO — This may be the only city in the world where architecture ranks as a sport.

Bleachers are erected around construction sites so the locals can sit and watch cranes swing steel beams into place.

In fact, Chicagoans are so engaged in the state of their skyline, public opinion in 2001 sounded the death knell for initial renderings of the Chicago Trump Tower. Critics argued that the proposed structure would not look right among its iconic brethren.

Two renderings later, Chicago Trump Tower now edges its way upward. The handsome design will tickle the sky by 2009, along with the its heighty neighbors — the Sears Tower, the John Hancock Center and other mighty marvels.

The visitor to Chicago doesn’t come away without appreciating the sophistication of this town. Architecture, restaurants, museums rank world-class, and then some.

Nor does the visitor fail to remark on the Midwestern friendliness. I got a quick reminder of this as I entered Chicago Place shopping center. A woman on her way out said, “Hello, how are you today?” For one startled moment I thought I should know who she was.

Chicago friendliness is legendary, but so are the city’s museums and Michigan Avenue shopping.

My first stop in Chicago is always the Art Institute of Chicago, a splendid neo-classical structure housing one of the world’s most important impressionist collections. The spacious rooms and beautifully displayed works make you linger and absorb the art.

Lake Michigan is also a star player. I also always run, walk or ride a bike along the lake during fair-weather visits. But look out for winter in this town — winds off the lake can feel like knives slicing into your bones.

In summer, though, the lake is a shimmering jewel adorning the long preening neck of this skyscraping queen.

I came late to understanding Chicago as a world architectural gallery — an accidental museum of design that a hay-eating cow kick-started to glory. In 1871 Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, so the story goes, kicked over the lantern that started the fire that leveled this critical railroad hub. Commerce needed to be housed, so architects around the world heard the call of commissions, and a nice flat uncluttered canvas. The architectural playground gave birth to the world’s first skyscraper. Other buildings were erected over the ensuing decades, ranging from daredevil to elegant, with styles including beaux-arts, art deco, international and postmodern.

So how does the visitor begin to decode the skyline? The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers bus and walking tours, plus a 90-minute river cruise along the Chicago River. The river cruise is very popular — I liked it so much I want to do it again. The enthusiastic, well-trained docent didn’t stop to take a breath, there was so much to point out.

Once you get your sea legs with the architecture scene, it’s time to visit the newest showstopper, Frank O. Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Gehry’s trademark curvaceous, superpolished steel design takes on the look of curly silver ribbons unfurling to reveal — ta da! — the stage of this outdoor concert hall. Free concerts are offered almost daily in summer, with plenty of grassy seating for everyone.

The pavilion is in the parks-are-for-people Millennium Park, opened in 2004. Gawky adults join the kids kicking off their shoes to splash in Crown Fountain on a hot, humid Chicago summer day.

Another Millennium Park draw is the affectionately named “bean,” a sculpture that looks like a shiny giant silver jellybean and draws people like a magnet. “Cloud Gate,” its real name, is by British sculptor Anish Kapoor, and has become everyone’s favorite photo spot. Get your photo taken with the bean reflecting you in the Chicago skyline.

With Gehry’s footprint now in Chicago, next up is Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who will make his mark in 2010 with the 150-story Chicago Spire. The rendering looks like a giant twisted birthday candle, intended to spin its way upward as the tallest building in North America.

Frank Lloyd Wright is the architect most Americans recognize, and Wright also left his imprint on this town. Wright worked in his Oak Park studio from 1889 to 1913, designing 25 structures in Oak Park.

On this trip I visited Wright’s Robie House, the 1909 Frank Lloyd Wright prairie-style home on the University of Chicago campus. The tour included as many Europeans as Americans; such is Wright’s world-renowned status. Tours of Robie House and in Oak Park are offered by the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust.

Kids visiting Chicago will tire of craning their necks, but this town is as kid-friendly as they come. Navy Pier with its Ferris wheel and carnival atmosphere is right on Lake Michigan. Rent bikes or Segways here or in Millennium Park, and take off along paths leading to Shedd Aquarium and Field Museum of Natural History, or just ride along the beautiful lakefront. All are nearby.

The town’s allure for little girls, though, is in a red paper bag. Moms, dads and little girls tote goodies from the American Girl Place flagship store.

The young owners of these sweet-faced historic doll characters are smitten with this store. It’s chock-a-block with doll furniture, clothing and accessories, but there’s more. Dolls can get a new ‘do at a dolly beauty parlor, and sit in a place of honor at the lunch table (make those reservations well in advance).

Wherever I looked I saw little girls with red bags — they were in my hotel lobby at the Sheraton, and when I was shopping in Bloomingdales, I smiled to see a girl flopped on the floor poring over an American Girl catalog as her mom shopped.

All this trotting around town leaves a person hungry.

Not a problem. Chicagoans suffer a hard winter and are familiar with the antidotes.

My best find on this trip was De La Costa, a Latin fusion restaurant recently opened by Douglas Rodriguez, whose Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia has been one of my favorites. De La Costa was just blocks from the hotel (so much is walkable in Chicago).

The Latin-fusion cuisine was inventive and delicious — we exclaimed over each arrival, but especially over the chocolate cigar and sugar book of matches for desert. Mostly, though, I remember the Caparhinas, a Brazilian cocktail that made the night seem very young at 11 p.m.

That was Chicago fun on the up side. But to dip a little lower, there’s always the Billy Goat Tavern, part of Chicago’s underground — literally. The city is designed so that delivery trucks and trains can deliver goods below street level, but you can descend the stairs to find a few dives, including Billy Goat Tavern, whose claim to fame is as the model for the skit with the server who intoned “Cheezborger — cheezborger, no Coke, Pepsi” on “Saturday Night Live.”

Many of the SNL players, including Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi and Gilda Radner, came out of Chicago’s famous improvisational theater group, the Second City. The Second City is every bit as funny today. Check it out to catch tomorrow’s comedians.

And check out Chicago to see today’s architecture.