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.

Advertisements

A Visitor’s Guide to Amsterdam

Sometimes when visiting a new city, people like getting advice from a local. Not from TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet or even the New York Times, like everyone else. A local. That’s a badge I now wear with honor in Amsterdam. I’ve been asked many times to provide tips for visitors and I’m really happy to do so. Having lived in Amsterdam for fourteen months and hosting dozens of guests, we have done and seen a LOT. Rather than continue sending individual emails, I thought it would be smart to make one giant list, so going forward, I can just send someone this link. It was impossible to cut this down; there are so many things we love about this city. I did my best to explain everything and hopefully this will be useful to someone! So here we go, my massive list of suggestions on what to do, see, eat and drink.

Sights There is a lot to do in Amsterdam despite its small size. This mighty mini-city packs a punch. These are my top picks and how long you need:

  • Van Gogh Museum A sizable collection of this artist’s works, curated by his family. Doesn’t have several of his masterpieces, like Starry Night, but it does have others you’ll recognize such as The Bedroom and Sunflowers. Ton of other stuff like works of artists that influenced him, etc. 2 hours
  • Anne Frank Huis While a sobering experience, it’s something worth seeing. Read or re-read the book before the visit, it makes a much bigger impact when her story is fresh in your head. Buy ahead, the queue can easily be over an hour alone. 1 hour
  • Stedelijk Museum Newly reopened modern art museum. The building itself is an interesting hybrid of old and new architecture. 2-3 hours
  • Olde Kerk & Tower Oldest surviving building in Amsterdam, dates back to 1300-ish. Climb the tower (extra fee) for really nice city views. 1 hour
  • Canal Bus Tour I have done this three times with different guests. We like to bring beer on it and, rather than constantly hopping off, we sit there for the whole loop and then switch to the next route. Ticket is good for the entire day though. Half a day
  • Bike Rental This is the best way to see the city. While I haven’t rented a bike myself, I know having one allows you to get around quickly. (See my pros and cons on the subject) All day
  • Heineken Experience When we went, I thought it was lame. I was so not into being a tourist; I mean I live here. But maybe it is a good rainy afternoon diversion for a beer-loving tourist. It’s not exactly cheap (I think €17 a person), but a teeny beer during the tour and two beers in the bar at the end are included. 3 hours
  • Boat Rental This is the BEST thing to do on a nice, sunny day. Get your own boat, fill it with friends, food and booze and you’ll have the perfect afternoon.
  • Ajax Game Although the stadium is outside the city center, it’s worth the short metro ride if you are in town for a game day. The Dutch take football very seriously and going to a game is a unique way to experience the culture.

Markets Market culture is huge in Amsterdam and an essential experience as a visitor. From souvenirs to antiques to food to household supplies, the markets have it all.

  • De Pijp: Albert Cuyp Markt This is the market in my neighborhood so I know it best. It’s also the most famous and if you take the tram to it, you’ll hear “Albert Cuyp Market, Amsterdam Famous Street Market” over the intercom. It’s also the most diverse and some of the home furnishing stores along the way are worth peeking in. When we first moved here, we “ate our way” through the market (more than once), stopping for cheese, waffles, stroopwaffel, loempia, frites and more.
  • Jordaan: Noordermarkt (Saturdays only) We love this one. There are a ton of food stalls; you can pick up fresh pasta and organic olive oil for dinner. There’s also produce, meat, cheese, oysters (which I showed you here) and bread galore. Tons of non-edibles too. Like pretty, pretty flower bouquets.
  • Jordaan: Lindengrachtmarkt (Saturdays only) This is a long, narrow market around the corner from Noorderkerk. One of our favorite lunches is the “hot meat” stand (which I gushed about here). We have eaten there probably 15 times. Love it.
  • Old Center: Bloemenmarkt The flower market. Le sigh. Not much else to say about this one, it speaks for itself. It is always jam-packed with tourists. Bonus: The Henri Willig basement cheese shop is very, very generous with the samples. Try the herb gouda with balsamic mustard. Or young gouda with dill mustard. Do it.
  • Old Center: Waterlooplein Markt The junk antique market. You know what they say, one man’s trash is another’s treasure. There is a ton of random old stuff here that is fun to rifle through. You never know…
  • Old Center: Westergasfabriek Markt (first Sunday of the month) We only found out about this one recently, but I wish we had known it sooner! It rarely makes an appearance (once a month), so you have to go; it’s a special one. There are a lot of interesting crafts and pretty jewelry from local artists. Also, there are a ton of food cats in the back with everything from falafel to gyros to cupcakes. It’s great for lunch.

Eats While you’re here, be sure to try the following Dutch snacks: Cheese (!!), raw herring (with pickles and onions), bitterballen (deep-fried meat paste), frites (with mayo, don’t be a wuss), poffertjes (mini-pancakes) and stroopwaffel (waffle sandwich glued together with caramel). Regarding dining: Dutch food itself is rather boring and plain, IMO. It’s a lot of meat and potatoes. It took us awhile to discover the full scope of the dining scene in Amsterdam. Once we did, we realized there is no shortage of excellent restaurants. I can’t narrow this down, sorry. Grouped by neighborhood.

  • De Pijp: Bazar [North African/Turkish] This is our favorite place for both its crazy fun ambiance and good food. We have been here with almost every guest. Favorite dishes include Irfan & Abdul starters, Tavuk Sis (chicken skewers), Adana Yogurtlu (lamb) and the couscous with fish. You can’t go wrong. Portions are enormous so come hungry.
  • De Pijp: De Duvel [International] Our other favorite. I love this cozy spot for the tuna melt at lunch, but dinner is great too. It’s the perfect neighborhood cafe.
  • De Pijp: Spang Makandra [Surinamese] Cheap, delicious and cash only. Try the sampler platters to taste much of the menu on one plate. Have a ginger beer as well. Also, I heard Anthony Bourdain approved.
  • De Pijp: Simpel [International] Modern and like the name implies, simple, food. Really good for a quiet date.
  • De Pijp: White Elephant [Thai] Our favorite Thai place in the city. The combination appetizer is so, so good and I love their Tom Ka Kai.
  • De Pijp: Suvi [Sushi/Vietnamese] My go-to sushi place. I ordered from here about once a week. It’s really fresh.
  • De Pijp: Mamouche [North African/French] Pricier, but worth it. Love the mirrored walls and candlelight. Great date night.
  • De Pijp: Taj Mahal [Indian] It looks like a cheap take out place from the street, but give it a chance. This place lacks in charisma, but the food is really good. I love the presentation; everything comes in little silver pots with candles to keep it warm.
  • De Pijp: The Butcher [Burgers] Closest thing to American burgers we have tried. And they are good. Really good. My fave is the truffle burger cause I’m fancy like that.
  • Canal Belt South: Pata Negra [Spanish] Our favorite tapas place in the city. Want to feel like you are really in Spain? Cram yourself into this dark, loud, graffiti-ed hole in the wall and you will. Sangria goes down a little too easy.
  • Canal Belt South: Tempo Doeloe [Indonesian] Very pricey, so watch yourself. This bill adds up quick if you let the server order for you. Food was incredibly delicious. Interior is a bit dated, but still worth a visit.
  • Canal Belt South: Pont Acari [Italian] Scenic spot on a quiet, pretty canal. I believe the owner and staff are really Italian, so they get it.
  • Canal Belt South: Lion Noir [International] Fancy food just south of old center, one street over from the Bloemenmarkt. Trendy, posh decor and delicious food. Not sure if the menu rotates, but try the Earl Grey ice cream dessert. Heavenly.
  • Jordaan: Balthazar’s Keuken [International] Another all-around favorite. Limiting your choices to either meat or fish, a €30 prix fixe gets you a 3-course, amazing meal. The best food in the city, IMO. House wine is surprisingly good too.
  • Jordaan: Mazzo [Italian] Great sandwiches and pizzas, but pass on the soggy pastas. We like it for lunch. Good place for a morning coffee or afternoon beer too.
  • Jordaan: Cafe Winkel [Dessert] Go here for the apple tart. Wait in the enormous queue that wraps around the block. I’m telling you right now: It’s worth it.
  • Canal Belt West: Envy [International] Best oysters I’ve had in Amsterdam. Small plate menu is inventive and the decor is swanky.
  • Canal Belt West: De Belhamel [French] If you want to impress someone, you go here. It’s the epitome of Amsterdam romance, as it sits on the intersection of two very pretty canals. Food is lick-your-plate delicious, but don’t do that. This place is classy.
  • Old Center: Cafe de Jaren [International] An easy, classic choice. The bright, airy cafe is great to have beers with friends as we’ve often done, or full meals like spaghetti and meatballs and game pie. I like the waterfront patio in back.
  • Old Center: Nevy [Seafood] Another great spot for a date, right on the Ij. Lots of creative fish dishes on the menu and everything is delicious.

Drinks There are pubs on every corner where you can get Dutch & Belgian beers like Heineken or La Chouffe. Flinck, Groene Vlinder and Chocolate Bar, since they were a 2 minute walk from our place. Here are others we found worth the extra time:

  • De Pijp: Cafe de Pijp (Cafe/Bar) Hip, large bar and cafe in our ‘hood. We liked the classic music and mid-century modern interior.
  • De Pijp: Barça (Cafe/Bar) Right on Heinekenplein, this is a great place for a drink in the summer when they have the huge patio seating area. Good sangria and mixed drinks.
  • Canal Belt South: Njoy (Cocktail bar) A narrow two-level cocktail lounge with incredible drinks and loud music. Try the spicy thai chili Blazing Mule or the refreshing Grape Dreamer Collins.
  • Canal Belt South: Suzy Wong (Cocktail bar) Great for a girls night. Or date. Or anything. It’s cool. Mojitos are a dangerous €5 on Wednesdays.
  • Canal Belt South: Bar Moustache (Cafe/Bar) Quirky bar on lively Utrechtsestraat with photographs of people in, you guessed it, all variations of facial hair. Great for drinks or dinner. I love the window seats.
  • Canal Belt West: Vyne (Wine bar) This is a classy wine bar on the beautiful Prinsengracht. I love their wine flights and the sexy decor. Yeah I said it. The sommeliers are friendly and knowledgeable too.
  • Museum Quarter: Momo (Cocktail bar) This is about as pretentious as Amsterdam gets, where many people go to see and be seen. Don’t turn to the dark side and become a stiff, but do go there for the surprisingly good cocktail menu and seriously delish snacks (like crispy duck). It’s also a posh restaurant.
  • Museum Quarter: Tunes (Cocktail bar) I like this lounge for the dark, moody interior and the lengthy cocktail menu, but it does get packed on weekends. It’s inside the newly renovated Conservatorium Hotel.

Shops The shopping here in Amsterdam pales in comparison to cities like London, Paris and Stockholm. But it does have some great shops that are worth seeking out, other than heavy hitters Zara, H&M and Mango. The 9 Straatjes, in whole, are just fun to cruise through to poke into all the little unique boutiques. Here is my short list:

  • De Pijp: Streetclothes (women’s streetwear)
  • De Pijp: Cottoncake (women’s streetwear)
  • De Pijp: Raak (women’s streetwear)
  • Utrechtsestraat: Labels (women’s streetwear) *also in the 9 Straatjes
  • Utrechtsestraat: Bendorff (men’s streetwear) *also in the 9 Straatjes
  • Utrechtsestraat: Rams (home decor)
  • Old Center: Maison de Bonneterie (department store)
  • Old Center: Bijenkorf (department store)
  • 9 Straatjes: Denham (men’s & women’s streetwear)
  • 9 Straatjes: Leifde (loungewear & home decor)
  • Throughout city: Hema (Target-like for you Americans)

And finally some random advice:

  • You do not have to tip in the Netherlands, but servers now expect it from tourists. A few euro is enough, even for a dinner. 10% max for truly great service.
  • Avoid taxis. They are very expensive and the city is too small to warrant them.
  • Watch out for bicyclists.
  • Always carry an umbrella.
  • Don’t freak out when you smell marijuana or see a red light (yes, they exist outside of the district).

There you have it. My top picks for Amsterdam. Please, I urge you, pass this along to travelers headed this way. I hope they find it helpful and enjoy this incredible city as much as we have! One last tip: Make sure to go for an evening stroll along the canals…

If you have other faves, please share with a comment!

xxx

P.S.  Check out my guide for living in Amsterdam.