A Visitor’s Guide to Chicago

Chicago, IL

I recently gave some advice to a foreign friend visiting Chicago. And I’m visiting there soon! I thought it would be fun to turn it into a blog post because I’m so proud of my hometown and would love to share my two cents about what to do there. In order to keep this from getting too out of control, I limited each category to my top 10 recommendations. It was so hard. Chicago has so much to offer! Here we go…

Sights Chicago is a world class city filled to the brim with cultural experiences for every visitor. I’m the type of person who isn’t bothered doing “touristy” things in their own town. Therefore, this list is quite touristy. Take it or leave it.

  1. Visit a museum. The Chicago History Museum to dig into the city-named-after-a-wild-onion’s turbulent past. The Field Museum for its famous dinosaur skeletons. Adler Planetarium to learn more about the sun, its planets and everything else under the stars. Museum of Science and Industry for inventions that will blow your mind. And finally, the Shedd Aquarium, provided the fascinating jellyfish exhibit is still ongoing.
  2. Ponder some art. The Art Institute of Chicago has major clout. How else do you explain why they’ve had Seurat’s famous Sunday Afternoon for all these years? Try the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago for ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics. I used to visit it often during my art history obsession in college. As a counterbalance, go to the Museum of Contemporary Art for art that makes you wonder what the heck art is. I saw an impressive Jeff Koons exhibit there a few years back.
  3. See a show. Chicago’s theater scene varies widely. Goodman and Chicago have great shows come through. Or check out Broadway in Chicago for all the places that host, you know, Broadway shows. But then, there’s the smaller gems like Steppenwolf, Lookingglass, and the Shakespeare theaters that all have incredible, intimate performances.
  4. Have a laugh. In the mood for something light? The Second City is where Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Jon Belushi, Mike Meyers, Steve Colbert, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and many others performed before they made it big. Or try the Blue Man Group if you don’t mind getting sprayed with mushed banana. (They provide ponchos.)
  5. Listen to music. From the symphony at Lyric Opera House to the small time rock band at Schuba’s to jazz at Kingston Mines to big time festivals (ever heard of Lollapalooza?), there is something for every… ear. And if you are still not satisfied, take the train up to Highland Park’s Ravinia, where you can choose either lawn or pavillion seats, while listening to the many artists that come through. Sprawling on the lawn as the sun goes down and candles light up, drinking wine, munching on cheese, sharing pasta salad… Those concerts used to be one of my favorite summer activities.
  6. Attend a sports event. Da Bulls (or the Blackhawks) at United Center. Da Bears at Soldier Field. The Cubs at Wrigley Field. Even the Chicago Fire at Toyota Park. There is something really powerful about the Chicago sports community. The pride and the devotion of its fans are unmatched.
  7. Enjoy the outdoors. There are parks galore in this planned city, thanks to Daniel Burnham and his comrades. Lincoln Park is topped only by Central Park in NYC for the number of visitors it draws each year (according to Wikipedia anyway). Millennium Park (home of the Cloud Gate) and Grant Park (Buckingham Fountain) are other popular parks which, in my opinion, offer solid photo ops for locals and visitors alike. Case in point:

    J+J at the cloud gate

    J+J at the cloud gate

  8. Take a tour. The Architectural Boat Tour is probably the most popular and it’s easy to see why. As you cruise the Chicago River, knowledgeable guides explain all about the rather incredible history of Chicago’s buildings. Or try a Segway Tour, which doesn’t need any explanation.

    segwaying

    segwaying

  9. Walk or bike the lakefront. Just in general. It’s pretty in all seasons, but best in summer. There is a lakefront path that stretches the entire city, north to south. Now that there is Divvy, the sweet, new shared bike program, it’s easier than ever to glide through the whole darn thing. Enjoy the rollerbladers, bicyclists, joggers, volleyball-ers and, oh yeah, some really beautiful skyline views.
  10. Take in the view. Speaking of views, head to the Sears Tower Skydeck. Okay, actually I have never done this (but I plan to on my upcoming visit). I hear it is quite astounding and on a clear day, you can see Wisconsin and Indiana. Also, there is a glass ledge you can step into, suspended over 100 stories up, for the thrill-seekers out there.

Eats Food is a very important, I’d even say critical, part of Chicago culture. Just see this Chicago Food Glossary and you’ll understand. You just can’t experience this city without exploring some of the fabulous restaurants. While trying to think like a visitor, I also added some of my personal favorites.

  1. Deep dish pizzaLou Malnati’s. Best Chicago-style pizza, hands down. Seriously. Giordano’s, Uno’s and Gino’s East are all “fine”, but they don’t compare to the glory that is Lou’s butter crust.
  2. Hot dogPortillo’s. No visit to Chicago is complete without a classic, Chicago-style hot dog or a sweaty Italian beef. This is the place to get it. I actually detest the downtown location, but bite the bullet hot dog here. And don’t ask for ketchup. Never ketchup. They’ll slap your face (or should). If you really want to get fancy with your dog, scramble over Hot Doug‘s as they open. Don’t let the line around the block discourage you.

    hot doug's

    hot doug’s insanity

  3. TacoBig Star. Very trendy and you may have to wait in a (sometimes very long) line, but there is no better way to spend a sunny afternoon than by sipping margaritas and chowing down on inventive (& cheap) tacos at this hipster hangout. Note: lime juice + your skin + the sun don’t mix well. Want the cheap late night stuff? Picante.
  4. Pig face. In the mood to, you know, eat a pig’s face? How about a cod cheek? Solution: Girl and the Goat. Opened a few years ago by Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard, this creative American hotspot is completely, positively, absolutely worth the hype. (I heard her new eatery, Little Goat, is superb as well.)
  5. Seafood. GT Fish and Oyster. One of our favorite date locales. The best nights were spent sitting at the bar, downing raw oysters and dirty martinis. Another great choice is Le Colonial on Rush. 
  6. Steak. David Burke’s Primehouse. You can’t visit Chicago and not have a steak. That’s just blasphemous. I’m not really a red meat person, but David does it right. Avoid the chains. 
  7. ItalianVia Carducci. There are a million Italian restaurants in the city. What I love about this one is its neighborhood charm (now that our beloved Terragusto closed its doors). We spent many casual date nights and family birthday dinners here. The one on Division is teeny tiny, reasonably-priced and there’s never a wait. Don’t mind waiting? Rosebud on Taylor. 
  8. Sushi/Thai. Butterfly Thai. There is nothing fancy about this place, let’s get that straight. It’s a hole in the wall. But, it had to make the list, if only because they got so much of my business while I was living in Ukrainian Village (I told you this would be biased). My favorite sushi and Pad Thai, and it’s BYOB, c’mon.
  9. Sandwich. As any Chicagoan will tell you, sometimes you just need a gigantic sandwich. At Jerry’s. If you don’t get the Mindy F with peanut butter… I don’t know what to tell you.
  10. Brunch. If brunch was a sport, I’m a gold medalist. I can’t choose just one place. Milk & Honey for their huevos rancheros casserole. Toast for that pancake orgy. Nookies for any of their weekly specials. Orange for the fru-shi (fruit sushi, duh). Feast for the benedict. Rockit for the Bloody Mary bar… The list goes on.
  11. Bonus! Some places that I have never tried, but will from all the rave reviews I hear: RPM for Italian, Frontera Grill for Mexican, Sunda for sushi, Kuma’s for his famous burgers and Ruxbin for creative American.

Drinks We more or less stuck to our usual hangouts (Ola’s being one of them), but here is a variety of places depending on your mood.

  1. Beer. Head over to Goose Island Brewery (or almost any bar in the city) and get a Green Line. Really want to impress the bartender? Order the vintage Sophie or Matilda and they’ll think you’re a local. Or just someone that appreciates really good beer.
  2. Wine. Sono became a popular place for friends and I to have wine nights; it was the perfect stop after shopping binges on North Ave. They also have tasty pizzas. 404 Wine Bar (nestled in the Southport Corridor) and DOC Wine Bar (in my old stomping grounds, Lincoln Park) are also very good.
  3. ChampagneRM Champagne Salon is swanky, tiny, with French-inspired details and beautiful chandeliers. Great for dates.
  4. With a view. Duh, the Signature Lounge. Okay, I will warn you right away that this is very touristy. But, it’s on the 96th floor of the Hancock Tower and there are beautiful sweeping views of the city.
  5. Pre-dinner. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Hunt Club because we headed there on our very first date before a meal of epic proportions at nearby Carmine’s.
  6. Post-dinnerTrump Hotel‘s Rebar or Terrace. As the name suggests, it’s a bit on the upscale side. Such great views of the river that you almost forget you paid $18 for that cocktail.
  7. Secret. Is the light on? That means Violet Hour is open. A disguised facade with a “hidden” entrance, VH has the best cocktails in the city.
  8. Sports Bar. Try Old Town Social for a sports bar that doesn’t feel like a junky college hangout. If you want a junky college hangout, go anywhere in Wrigleyville. There’s my bias again!
  9. Mobster-style. The Bedford. People around the world still remember Chicago as Al Capone’s territory, filled with mobsters, and basically a corrupt city (which it is…). This old school real bank vault turned trendy bar/restaurant celebrates that image in the best way. With stiff drinks.
  10. Late night. Innjoy. The late night dance parties can’t be beat. Although maybe I only liked this place because I could stumble home afterward. Of course, there’s also dive bar Ola’s, which hands out $1 mystery shots and has an ancient jukebox from which you can blast LaBouche. Not that I ever did that…
  11. Bonus! Need to try Maude’s Liquor Bar on Randolph (maybe before dinner at Girl and the Goat?), Hopleaf up north with it’s massive beer selection, and the Whistler because it just looks cool.

Shops Organized this category by street since there is no easy way to do this.

  1. Michigan Ave (Magnificent Mile). This is where you’ll find all the major department stores and designer boutiques. Prepare to get sucked up in the current and just go with it.
  2. Damen. Between Armitage and North are a ton of little boutiques. Old favorites include Apartment number 9 for menswear, Stitch for beautiful home goods, Riley for clothes and jewelry, etc, etc. Goddess & Grocer is a wonderful place for lunch.
  3. Armitage. Great boutique shopping (try Art Effect), with a lot of beauty stores thrown in like Kiehl’s, Benefit, MAC, and more.
  4. Southport. My Anthropologie was/still is over here, but now I’d love to also browse through Krista K and Perchance. Southport Grocery is a great place to refuel, but if you are there in the evening, Tango Sur is a dynamite Argentinian steakhouse.
  5. Division. Itty bitty boutiques abound. I loved Penelope’s for the clothing and Paperdoll for stationery.
  6. Milwaukee. The heart of what-used-to-be-hipstervile-and-now-is-yuppieville. That’s okay though. Find your Levi’s, Free People, Urban Outfitters and some interesting vintage stores here.
  7. North. I used to do some real damage on this street. With power labels like J.Crew and housewares mecca Crate & Barrel (and it’s trendy baby C2), I’d gather my necessities here. (Then grab wine at Sono.)
  8. Grand. Some of my favorite antique/junk stores are over here and they are amazzzzing. Salvage One is the best and it’s also an event venue (we considered having our wedding here, but went with this incredible space…which made this awesome list at #3)
  9. Montrose. Admittedly, I never made it up here myself. But I hear Neighborly is rad.
  10. Just trust me. The Walgreens on North & Damen. This isn’t your average drug store.

And there we have it. Now that I don’t live there anymore, I realize two things 1) how massive that city is (2.7 million residents! 234 square miles!) and 2) how little I really knew of it (I didn’t even touch on cool neighborhoods like Logan Square, Andersonville, or Pilsen). It’s amazing how you can find your little niche wherever you live and once you find that comfort, you kinda stick with it.

I know a city this large has way way wayyyy more to offer. Have something to add? Please leave a note in the comments!

xxx

{first image is from a boat tour I took with my dad back in 2010.)

P.S. My guide to visiting Amsterdam.

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Happy Valentine’s Day

Wes Anderson

I love these valentines from flavorwire. And Wes Anderson films. And this quote, specifically. It actually sums up my relationship with Jaro quite well. When we started out on our journey almost six years ago, we had NO idea where it was going (and still don’t). It has taken us from Chicago to Amsterdam, almost to Stockholm and now to Portland. It’s been a crazy ride. And I look forward to continuing it with him for the rest of my life.

Hallmark commercialization aside, I don’t mind the excuse to shower those you love with… love. What’s the shame in that? We always try to do something a little special.

Several years ago, back when we were newly dating and being the food freaks that we are, we went to this restaurant in Chicago. Our dinner cost about the same amount as a weekend trip to Mexico. (I always compare costs of things to travel, like that’s a plane ticket to Europe! Do you do that too?) As much as we love food and as incredible as that nine course tasting menu was, we vowed to never do that again.

Last year, Jaro was traveling for work, so I went out in Amsterdam with some girlfriends to MOMO, a see-and-be-seen spot where we drank and laughed and happily stumbled home.

Tonight, we’re meeting new friends (yes, friends!) for some wine. (I know, on a Thursday. Living on the edge again.)

Hope you all find a way to celebrate love today.

xxx

Monday Travel Memory

So, I’m still reeling from the past couple months. Did anyone else feel like this holiday season was more of a whirlwind than usual? In an epic “Monday travel memory” post, I’m going to share what we were up to in November & December. It did involve a fair amount of travel, albeit stateside travel. Here we go…

A quick rewind first: We were about to move to Stockholm and got very unexpected news (on moving day, no less), which changed our route to Portland. Due to the timing with the holidays and our planned visit to Chicago, Jaro began living and working in Portland to get the ball rolling while I stayed in Chicago to stay out of his way, shop til I drop, visit with family & friends. While far from ideal (very, very far, like 2,000 miles far), it made the most practical sense. Besides, we’re used to living apart. Though we prefer not to, let’s be real.

What ended up being an extended vacation was filled with wonderful things. Yet we often forgot to pull out our camera or post on the blog because it mostly felt so… normal. There we were, back with our families, friends; heading to familiar homes, restaurants (Jerry’s! Old Oak Tap!) and stores (J.Crew! Sephora! Nordstrom!). It was the same and it wasn’t. But more on that later.

First, we were in Chicago for a million birthdays (five in four weeks) and holiday celebrations. We had some rather memorable moments…

…like celebrating Jaro’s birthday in Chicago with an oyster and martini dinner at GT Fish & Oyster followed by late night Lou Malnati’s at The James (our wedding hotel!):

Chicago

…Sharing a delicious Thanksgiving dinner with Jaro’s family and eating so much food and drinking too much vodka. Oy.

…Celebrating my sister’s birthday by freezing our buns off at Lincoln Park Zoo Lights (below) followed by a family dinner tradition at RJ Grunts:

Christmas

…And my dad’s birthday at the Chicago History Museum and new Italian hotspot, Ripasso, in Wicker Park where we consumed way too many gin & tonics:

Chicago

…Then celebrating the actual birth day (as in, day of birth) of our darling little nephew, Stephan. If we had stuck to our original move, we would have missed the birth. Everything happens for a reason. Also, I’m convinced, there is no image more precious than that of my husband holding a fresh baby:

Family

…Enjoying, a few days later, my brother’s birthday at Milwaukee’s Public Market for lunch and at Tamales Mexican Cafe in Highland Park for dinner.

…And just hanging around with our friends and enjoying delicious meals. Like this fancy rack of lamb with our city roommates, M&M (recipe here):

Rack of Lamb

Then we headed to Florida to celebrate Christmas with my family.

…We spent a day swamp-buggy-ing through the Everglades National Park:

Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park

…Spent Christmas morning on the beach (below) and ate my grandma’s Mexican-style Christmas dinner outside:

Florida

…Jaro even spent an afternoon with the guys taking a plane ride around the SoFlo coastline piloted by my uncle:

Florida

…And we got tons of cuddle time with my baby cousins. This is Harper:

FamilyAnd finally, we road-tripped over to Detroit to celebrate my girl Stacy & her man Tim’s wedding and ring in the new year, which was awesome. Here’s pretty much my only shot of the happy couple:

Wedding

You know what all these things have in common? Love. Fun. Celebration. Okay, and lots of food. It was wonderful. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world Stockholm, that’s for sure.

xxx

Monday Travel Memory: One Way Tickets

Moving AbroadThis is us at O’Hare Airport on our moving day just over a year ago. One-way tickets from Chicago to Amsterdam. We were starting a new adventure and receiving a new title: Expats. I remember being so excited I could barely sleep or eat. I remember laughing with Jaro’s brother and sister-in-law as they drove us to the airport. But, I also remember sitting in the lounge crying on the phone with my dad. The range of feelings I experienced that day was intense. Eager, nervous, giddy, sad, proud, anxious, happy… all of it. It was one of the most emotional days of my life. I spilled my champagne all over myself and my seat when we boarded the plane. I was a mess.

This week we have one-way tickets from Amsterdam to Stockholm, our second international move. Over the next three days, we are packing up our apartment and saying goodbye to Amsterdam. It’s not as difficult as our first move, but it is still a mix of sadness and excitement. I guess we should take a picture of ourselves at the airport again, huh?

Looking at this picture and thinking about that day, I can’t help but reflect on how different our lives are. Not just where we reside, but also how much we’ve changed.

It’s been a good year. Here’s to another.

xxx

P.S. My first travel memory (sort of).

Booked: Sweet Home Chicago

We have booked our flights home to CHICAGO for this December. We’ll be home from December 7 through January 8. A solid month. It’s long overdue… It will be 15 months since we last set foot on American soil. We miss it.

Skyline views from North Ave beach.

Jaro & I on the roof of our old place. Summer 2010. Photo by Kate.

My beautiful sister & I at the Bean just before we moved. August 2011.

I can’t wait to go back. However, the bean is going to look more like this:

My handsome college roommate and I. December 2010.

And the streets will look like this:

Our old street, Leavitt. January 2011.

Oh well. There is something lovely, even romantic, about Chicago in the winter. (Though I much prefer summer.)

Thinking about everything we’ll want to do and everyone we’ll want to see is overwhelming. How are we going to fit it all in? The biggest focus is, of course, people. Then food, then sight-seeing (like tourists!). But I’ll save those other topics for future posts. We have already begun to think of ways to spend quality time with the people we love. Such as:

1. Couch surfing. Many of our friends live in the city. When we did, we had countless sleepovers with people from out of town (and sometimes people from in town too lazy to go home). And while that might have had something to do with our world’s-most-incredible couch (which I’m tempted to sleep on in our storage room while we’re back), we’re hoping there’s a pay it forward system here and people will take us in. It would be fun, right? Maybe we can even pay our rent for the night by cooking breakfast before they head off to work the next morning? I think it would be a great way for us to have private catch up time with some of our closest friends.

2. Hosting a bar night. This way, we can see lots of people at one time for a fun night out. There are so many people we would love to see and I wish we could do individual gatherings with everyone, but some are going to have priority… For one, my best friend Stacy (who visited in May) is getting married on NYE and she will be a huge priority for me since this is her special time. Missing her showers and bachelorette party is an unfortunate consequence of living so far away and I want to make up for it in whatever way I can. Secondly, Jaro’s brother & wife are having a baby in early December (good timing!) and we’ll want to see the little munchkin as much as possible. It’s our first niece or nephew! I think it will also take some of the attention off us. Babies are cuter/more exciting than me & Jaro. Thirdly, we are going to Florida to see my family down there for Christmas and that will pull us away from the Chicago scene for a few days. So… bar night? I think yes.

3. Lunch dates. Practically all our twenty-something/thirty-something friends work downtown. Since I will have free time during the day, lunch dates will be a super convenient way to see more friends. Plus, there are a million restaurants I want to visit, so that will knock some of those out. More on that later.

What else can we do? Thing is, we’ll also still need to find time to just be together back in our home city. Where we met. Where we fell in love. Where we got married. So we need to squeeze some at least one date night in there as well. And spend time with our parents. And siblings. It’s going to be the fastest month of my life. Like I said, I can’t wait.

xxx