A Weekenders Guide to Chicago

A Weekenders Guide to Chicago

“My first day in Chicago, September 4, 1983. I set foot in this city, and just walking down the street, it was like roots, like the motherland. I knew I belonged here.” — Oprah Winfrey

I’ve had the Windy City in my sights for several years now. When I announced that I had finally booked a trip to the architectural mecca, friends, colleagues, and casual acquaintances couldn’t stop singing its praises. As my wish list of food, sights and shows continued to grow with every passing conversation my only concern was how to fit it all in.

With merely a long weekend to spare, my trusty travel partner, Mindy, and I wasted no time in hitting as many of the cultural and foodie hot spots as possible. Good thing I’m basically an expert at the weekend getaway by now.

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We landed at O’Hare International on Saturday morning after a red-eye flight and made a bee-line for the famed Millennium Park with a brief detour past Navy Pier. On our way we passed by Giordano’s and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to finally try the much anticipated Chicago-style deep dish pizza.

We ordered a small cheese and pepperoni stuffed deep dish, which was intended to serve 1-2 people. We were hungry and barely finished half. This stuff is no joke. It was delicious but also not something I’m prepared to eat again anytime soon. Sorry Chicago, but I still prefer New York style.

Next on our agenda was the world-famous Chicago Bean. I’ve been to my fair share of monuments and tourist sites over the years and I was dumb-struck by the sheer magnitude of the crowd. In retrospect, visiting on a sunny, Saturday afternoon on a long weekend in summer probably wasn’t the best strategy for people-free photos. The public sculpture is actually titled Cloud Gate and certainly earns its popularity with its very cool reflective and distorting abilities.

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After visiting the bean, we decided to continue exploring Millenium park. We ended up stumbling across Buckingham fountain which I had never heard of before but turned out to be one of the most impressive fountains I’ve seen. And unlike the bean, it was nearly devoid of crowds while offering both stunning lake views and skyline vistas. My favourite surprise of the trip!

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From there the only place to top what we’d already seen was to shoot for the sky. So that’s exactly what we did at the Observation deck on the 94th Floor of 360 Chicago. The adrenaline junkie in me couldn’t resist trying out the TILT which essentially involves standing in a window that tilts outwards over the skyline. It wasn’t nearly as scary as the squealing girls riding beside would have you believe. But, if heights aren’t your thing then consider yourself warned.

We also made sure to time our visit so that we would be able to take in golden hour and sunset and even splurged for cocktails – now that’s what I call Happy Hour!

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Believe it or not, we managed to fit all of those activities into Day 1 after a red-eye flight. Needless to say, we were ready to call it a night by 9:00pm. We woke up well-rested and ready to take on another jam-packed day.

We kicked off round two with the much touted Architecture Boat Tour. Nearly every single person I spoke with about my upcoming trip to Chicago recommended this tour specifically so we knew that it needed to happen. The people were not wrong. After boarding our open air vessel and toasting with a morning mimosa, we spent the next 90 minutes in the very good hands of the Chicago Architecture Foundation. The tour expertly guided us down all three branches of the Chicago river showcasing more than 50 skyscrapers, bascule bridges, and historic sites along the way. Informative and stunning – this was a trip highlight.

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Our next foodie goal was sampling an authentic Chicago-style hot dog. Our vendor of choice was Portillo’s which is known for the local delicacy. This “restaurant” could not be more American if it was located in the White House itself. The americana memorabilia and frenzy of calorie consumption was almost too much to handle but we soldiered on. I wasn’t sure if I could truly enjoy a hot dog without ketchup but the Chicago-original delivered.

In case you’re curious, the ingredients of this particular style dog include yellow mustard, chopped white onions, relish, dill pickle spear, sliced tomato, pickled peppers, a dash of celery salt on a poppy seed bun.

We had just enough time to Uber from downtown to Old Town to see a show by the legendary improv company – Second City. This is the same place where famed comedians Bill Murray, Tina Fey, and Steve Carrell got their starts. The performers we saw had some very big shoes to fill and they delivered a fantastic show of sketch and improv that lived up to its title Fast, Loud, and Funny. 

We took the scenic way home along the beach to dip our toes in Lake Michigan. I still can’t believe that it’s a lake and not the ocean. This is a seriously photogenic city and so much more than just the home of Oprah and Obama.

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As the weekend drew to a close we knew we hadn’t seen it all. With more time I would have loved to check out a jazz club and taken in a Cubs game at Wrigley field. But, I always like to leave a few activities still on the table because then I know I’ll have to come back again. I’m not finished with the Windy City yet.

 

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Back to California: The San Diego Obsession

Back to California: The San Diego Obsession

Contrary to popular belief… I am not moving to San Diego, as much as I may wish otherwise. After my annual pilgrimage to America’s Finest City last month, I reflected once again on why I fall more in love with California living each time I visit.

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There are some very obvious advantages: Near constant sunshine, + 25 ºC weather in February, an abundance of delicious Mexican food (mmm… fish tacos!), palm trees and beaches as far as the eye can see… I could go on and on.

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I love the laid back lifestyle and I love that after six visits, I am still discovering (and re-discovering) favourite places, eateries, and activities.

Balboa Park

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I can’t believe that it’s taken me this long to finally explore Balboa Park. If you want to get technical, I did visit the famous San Diego Zoo back in 2009 which is located in the area of Balboa Park. But, I have never spent time touring the park itself, which is gigantic and lovely. I could have easily spent the entire day marveling at the Spanish architecture, watching street performers, and admiring the manicured gardens. I’m already itching to return.

Pacific Beach Boardwalk

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There is something so lovely about returning to the same familiar spot year after year. My best friend Jennie just so happens to live in Pacific Beach, and the first thing we do every time I visit is take a walk down to the PB Boardwalk. This area is quintessential California. You’ve got surfers, roller skaters, cyclists, and everyone from retirees to families on vacation. I love the endless beach, the waves crashing on the outstretched pier, the palm tree lined sidewalks… This never gets old.

La Jolla

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No trip to San Diego would be complete without brunch and a stroll along the cliffs in La Jolla. There’s always a new place to sample or an angle that I haven’t photographed yet (although that seems impossible!). There’s just something soothing and revitalizing about this seaside community that instantly relaxes me. These are the moments that I store up and savour to keep me going long after I’ve returned home.

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 Do you have a favourite state?

Do you ever return to the same place again and again?

 

 

Trip Journal: A Whirlwind Weekend in San Francisco!

Trip Journal: A Whirlwind Weekend in San Francisco!

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my last trip (okay – my only trip) to San Francisco in August 2008. I’m thinking about heading back before the end of the year so I thought it might be the perfect opportunity to revisit a place that steals so many hearts around the world.

I definitely wouldn’t call myself an expert when it comes to the city by the bay – but I do know how to jam pack a lot of activity into a weekend getaway. And, that’s exactly what I did when I decided to take my mom on a mother/daughter birthday trip. Don’t go handing out daughter of the year awards just yet (unless you feel compelled of course)… I really just wanted an excuse to go away and to see the Full House in person ;)

FRIDAY

I found us some insanely cheap flights (If I remember correctly, we both flew round trip for less than $100) on Allegiant Air departing from Bellingham, WA direct to San Fran. I am going to take a gamble and say that 75% of the flyers out of that airport are actually Canadian because it saves us SO much money. We arrived in the late afternoon and took the easy and convenient BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) from the airport straight downtown to our swanky hotel in the financial district. At the time I was working at a travel agency and scored us a really good rate. So why not stay at the 4 star Hyatt Regency?

Now that's what I call a lobby!!

Now that’s what I call a lobby!!

After checking in, we set off to find the oldest restaurant in San Francisco, the Tadich Grill! First started during the Gold Rush in 1849, this restaurant mainly known for its seafood (mmm…) is one of the city’s top restaurants. We agree!

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We wrapped up our first night with an evening walk along the Embarcadero to get some lovely views of the Bay Bridge. I wasn’t quite prepared for August in San Francisco… the weather is crazy! Among major U.S. cities, San Francisco has the coldest daily mean, maximum, and minimum temperatures for June, July, and August… not exactly the California heat I was expecting. During the summer, rising hot air in California’s interior valleys creates a low pressure area that draws winds from the North Pacific High through the Golden Gate, which creates the city’s famous fog. A popular quote (incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain) explains it well. “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” I couldn’t agree more… whoever you are.

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Brr… I can’t feel my toes…

SATURDAY

We woke up bright and early Saturday morning after a restful night on our Grand Hyatt beds and set off to explore the city with a bus tour of the very unique neighbourhoods. I think we saw nine in total but some of our favourites (or the ones I can remember) were China Town, Nob Hill, Union square, and North Beach. We made three stops during the tour… all places that you should definitely take the time to visit.

Stop #1 – Golden Gate Bridge

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Obviously I don’t need to say much about this one but I will because blog. The Golden Gate Bridge is arguably the most famous bridge in the world and heralded as one of the top ten construction achievements of the 20th Century. Other adjectives used to describe it… most beautiful, most photographed… basically you should see it and walk across it too if you have the time.

Stop #2 – Twin Peaks

The Twin Peaks are two hills near the center of the city that provide great views of San Fran and the bay area. Frankly, I was just happy to get above the fog and feel the sun on my skin. Did I mention that San Francisco is chilly in summer?

Look mom... the sky is still blue above the fog!

Look mom… the sky is still blue above the fog!

Stop #3 – The Painted Ladies

Everywhere you look, Everywhere you go...

Everywhere you look, Everywhere you go…

You will recognize these well-known Victorian houses from the opening credits of the widely popular 90s television series Full House and numerous other media programs. Built in the late 1800s, these colorful homes across from Alamo Park are also often referred to as “Postcard Row.” I waited around for a while, but it was next to impossible to get a photo without any people in it… so I ended up buying a postcard as well.

We left our bus at Pier 33 where we quickly jumped on a ferry to Alcatraz Island. I normally love ferry rides and the views were certainly beautiful, but I was not (I repeat NOT) dressed warm enough for the open air seating. I’m starting to sound like a broken record here but seriously wear lots of layers.

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We spent about two hours in total touring “The Rock” and the abandoned prison site, which also includes the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast, a military fort, and lots of wildlife. The isolated island was the perfect spot to house war prisoners and was eventually used as a federal penitentiary for 29 years. Most of the prisoners were notorious bank robbers and murderers, even housing some of the most famous criminals in history such as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and James “Whitey” Bulger, to name a few.

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It was a very interesting trip and admittedly a bit creepy stepping inside those cells. I shutter to think about being incarcerated way out there, but I have to say, those prisoners had some prime real estate with vistas like this…

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We ended our very busy day at Pier 39, a famous shopping centre and tourist attraction located at the edge of Fisherman’s Wharf. It was a really fun spot to people watch, enjoy street entertainers, stock up on souvenirs, and grab a bite to eat. We stuck with our seafood theme and dined at the Crab House. When in San Fran…

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SUNDAY

On our last day we decided to relax a bit and basically spent the whole day shopping in Union Square and enjoying the sights and sounds of downtown.

We didn’t have time to accomplish everything on my list, like riding a cable car or taking a stroll in Golden Gate park, but I was sure I’d be back again someday. And hopefully that day is soon! The chilly temperatures won’t keep me away… I’ll just bring a warmer jacket next time.

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The Happiest Place on Earth

What could possibly be better than visiting the happiest place on earth at the most wonderful time of the year?

After 15+ years since my last Disneyland adventure, I eagerly coerced my new SoCal resident, best friend into a day trip to remember!

Early on a mid-November morning we made the 75ish minute drive from San Diego to Anaheim. Upon arrival we quickly parked our car (FREE), stored our bags (FREE) and loaded up at the breakfast buffet (FREE) at our awesome hotel, the Residence Inn Anaheim Maingate, conveniently located just across the street from the park. We were off to a great start!

After the mandatory photo-stop at the entrance we quickly joined the throngs of people lining the sidelines of Main Street, U.S.A. for the filming of the Disneyland Christmas Parade special, which airs Christmas Day on ABC. It was great to see the park all decked out for the holidays, but the filming meant that the Parade was not running like normal. Sorry to burst your bubble, but Disney magic takes a lot of rehearsing, resetting, and rewinding. Instead of waiting around all day, we opted to take advantage of the minimal crowds and cross off a few of the big name attractions: Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, and the Haunted Mansion (with a spooktacular Nightmare Before Christmas dressing)!

For lunch we enjoyed a sit-down meal in New Orleans square – preparation for my upcoming trip to the Big Easy this December! The jambalaya was good, but I’m sure the real deal will taste even better.

The afternoon crowds were a bit bigger but we still managed to spot one of my childhood icons, Joey Fatone of N’Sync fame! A trip to California wouldn’t be complete without spotting at least one celebrity. We also managed to squeeze in a holiday cruise on the iconic it’s a small world ride, followed by the Storybook Canal ride where our tour operator sounded so robotic in her high-pitched Disney voice that I thought her head might explode. Kudos to all the ride operators at Disneyland for performing such a monotonous job while wearing those ridiculous fun costumes in the hot sun every day.

We capped off the day with the Matterhorn (my first time in 3 visits!) and my personal favourite Space Mountain. By 4:00pm we were ready for some adult time at the bar in Downtown Disney – something I certainly couldn’t have enjoyed 15 years ago. All in all it was an enjoyable day if not slightly less magical as an adult. The rides seemed less impressive while the attention to detail surpassed my previous recollection. November truly is a great time to visit – the weather was perfect and the crowds, totally manageable. I wish I could say that I’m dying to go back, but I think this travelista has come to appreciate a more mature way of travel. And, I hope this evolution takes me to some far off corner of the globe in the very near future.

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