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Exploring the Second City’s Second Shore

Today’s column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

Exploring the Second City’s Second Shore

The WISCH LIST

July 16, 2011

You’ve heard of North Avenue Beach, Montrose Beach and 63rd Street Beach. You know all about Navy Pier, have spied the harbors along Lake Michigan and savored the city’s skyline while zipping up Lake Shore Drive.

But when it comes to shorelines in Chicago, there’s a good chance that you’ve missed out completely on what’s perhaps the most pleasant of them all.

Say hello to Chicago’s Riverwalk, the best-kept secret in the Windy City – even though it’s kept right in the middle of everything.

“The Riverwalk is part of Mayor Daley’s vision to boost Chicago’s second shoreline, the Chicago River,” Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Bobby L. Ware said a couple of years ago when explaining one of the ex-mayor’s pet beautification projects.

“The river has played an integral part in the city’s past and the Riverwalk will play a vital role in the city’s future,” Ware continued. “It will be a place of recreation and reflection, a place where office workers and families can relax, and a great place to get a bite to eat.”

Well, thanks to my recent summertime explorations, I can vouch that the city’s Riverwalk no longer just will be those things.

It already is.

Tucked just below the way most people wander downtown Chicago – from the streets – the first sections of city’s river-level walkway opened in 2009, stretching from Michigan Avenue to State Street. Today, the Riverwalk, which was built out 17 to 20 feet into the river to literally create a new shoreline, winds under the Michigan and Wabash bridges and provides an uninterrupted route along the river from State Street to the lakefront.

Future plans call for extending the Riverwalk even deeper into downtown, but its current state is already fantastic. If you’ve taken an architecture boat tour in Chicago, you’ve likely already accessed part of the Riverwalk when you boarded a boat along it just below Michigan Avenue. But next time you’re downtown, I encourage you to skip the boat tour and conduct a river adventure on foot instead.

The Riverwalk provides the perfect place to enjoy Chicago’s architecture with an array of public plazas, outdoor cafes and bike rentals. It also features one of the city’s quirkiest, but least known museums in the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum (bridgehousemuseum.org), which is located in the southwest tower of the Michigan Avenue Bridge.

Beginning at river level and spiraling five stories up, the museum takes visitors past the massive gears of Chicago’s most famous movable bridge while also telling the story of the Chicago River and offering a 360-degree view of the city and river at its top.

The museum is open Thursday-Monday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., between May 15 and October 31. General admission is $4.

All along the Riverwalk, you’ll find spots to grab a bite or drink, but the most unique is Cyrano’s Café & Wine Bar, located on the river’s south bank between the Michigan Avenue and Columbus Drive bridges. An offshoot of its sister restaurant in River North, the café offers a menu of French dishes such as quiche Lorraine and homemade pate (although my American palate ordered the burger). There’s an ice cream shop and crepe stand, as well.

But what really sets Cyrano’s apart is the setting, as chef-owner Didier Durand designed the café area to resemble artist Claude Monet’s home in Giverny, France.

And, in fact, while sitting at a table at Cyrano’s surrounded by flowers and beneath a canopy of trees as a live guitarist strums in the background, one can almost mistake the Chicago River for the Seine and Michigan Avenue for the Champs-Élysées.

Vivé la Riverwalk.

It’s worth a visit.

Just a stretch of the Riverwalk, Chicago's "Second Shore."