Millennium Park

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The highly anticipated, massive new recreational complex opened in July 2004--a few years past the millennium and a few dollars more than expected--but a stroll through this state-of-the-art cultural playground is sure to spark renewed interest in the 24.5 downtown acres, once humbly sporting railroad tracks and parking lots.

The smooth steel curves of Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" sculpture (known locally as "The Bean") reflect the city skyline and visitors' faces with the skewed intensity of a fun house (be sure to stand underneath the structure for truly mind-bending views.) Frank Gehry's massive Jay Pritzker Pavilion, now the permanent home to the Grant Park Music Festival, meshes superb style with function: the 95,000-square-foot lawn seats 7,000 and will drain in 10-15 minutes after a heavy rain. An additional 4,000 fixed seats are available. More than 100 speakers are suspended on the canopy of crisscrossing steel pipes and a steel "headdress" takes the helm, framing the proscenium stage. Carrying the theme with similar design elements, Frank Gehry's 925-foot-long pedestrian BP Bridge links Millennium and Grant Parks. The curved structure also provides an acoustic barrier between pavilion audiences and the less appealing traffic along Columbus Drive.

Crown Fountain, designed by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa, consists of two glass-block towers and a shallow reflecting pool that attracts splashing kids and late-night revelers. Changing video images, lights and cascading water adorn each 50-foot tower.

Other attractions: The Harris Theater for Music and Dance hosts performances ranging from classical ballet and contemporary dance to classical, opera and folk music. Lurie Garden features narrow pathways and sculpted hedgerows, perennial plants and cherry trees for a moment of respite. Trees and hedges line the centrally located Chase Promenade, a three-block long walkway through the park. McCormick Tribune Ice Rink boasts views of Michigan Avenue during colder months, and the Park Grill restaurant, adjacent to the ice rink, features an enormous outdoor dining area during warmer months, when the rink is not in use. Millennium Monument, the grand peristyle surrounding Wrigley Square at the corner of Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue, is a replica of Greek columns that graced the same spot between 1917 and 1953.

A heated, indoor garage offers free parking for 300 bicycles, plus bike rental, repair, showers and other amenities. Four pavilions, opening this fall along Randolph and Monroe Streets, will provide access to parking garages and serve as a welcome center. Ladies, take note: there are almost twice as many restroom facilities for women than men. Welcome to the 21st Century.

The Millennium Park Welcome Center (201 E. Randolph St.) is open seven days a week (9 a.m.-7 p.m.) and offers park maps, free guided tours, and a wheelchair sign-out service.