Chasing the Chicago Skyline: Trip Recap & Gallery

Lurie Garden at sunset

Lurie Garden at sunset

It used to be that I wanted to visit Chicago to see Oprah at one of her live show tapings. You never know. Maybe I would have walked away materially richer due to her famous giveaways. Alas, I didn’t have the chance to do that. Oprah has long since retired from her talk show, and, unlike New York City, there are few other internationally renowned hosts that film in Chicago. So, on my recent trip to the Windy City, celebrity and television were the last things on my mind.

Instead, my parents and I set off from Edmonton, Alberta to Chicago for a week’s vacation. Staying in the downtown area, we were able to walk to all of the sights and attractions that we planned to see. Our days were filled with activity and the nights were relaxed. We lucked out with fantastic weather. Chicago lived up to the “Windy City” name (although, the moniker really is politically based) our first full day there with strong breezes and cooler temperatures, but it warmed up immensely, hitting highs in the mid-thirties (degrees centigrade).

For those who have been to Chicago before, hopefully this brings back some great memories of your time there. If you haven’t been, perhaps this post will serve as a bit of a guide or a glimpse into what you can do (and eat) there. Enjoy!

Accommodations

The Godfrey Hotel

Situated centrally from everything on our itinerary, this River North hotel was the perfect home base for our trip.

I will admit that things got off to a slightly rocky start though. While the hotel was accommodating in upgrading us to a room with two queen beds versus one king bed upon arrival, there was only the one unit available. Made to be handicap accessible, it really wasn’t the nicest of their rooms (and I have to say that the placement of certain items didn’t make sense in a room for the disabled). It was also on the fifth floor right next to the elevator, and we knew ahead of time that the lounge on the fourth floor of the hotel could get very noisy on the weekends (it seems to be a really popular spot for party goers), which is something we were hoping to avoid.

Thankfully, the next morning, the hotel was able to switch us to a vacated room on the top floor of the hotel. With a beautiful view and much quieter surroundings, it ended up being a clean and comfortable respite from our adventures for the remainder of our holiday.

Food

Anyone who has read this blog knows how much I love food. Naturally, I tried to seek out a variety of offerings while in Chicago. Although I really wanted to try the food at Alinea – one of only two Michelin 3-star restaurants in the city and considered to be one of the top in the world – I couldn’t get a reservation, nor could I justify the cost when our Canadian dollar is doing so terribly. Therefore, rather than pre-planning our meals well in advance as I have in the past, we either attempted to search for whatever was best nearby whenever I was able to sign onto Wi-Fi, or we left it to chance. These are the places we tried. They’re listed in chronological order.

Troquet

Troquet's French-inspired menu and atmosphere.

Troquet’s French-inspired menu and atmosphere.

Literally down the block from the Godfrey Hotel, we happened to catch Troquet on a particularly jovial evening. Live music was spilling out from the French-inspired restaurant out into the street and they had a sweet Wednesday night deal of a croque-monsieur and a bottle of Kronenbourg 1664 for just $12. Both my parents ordered the special and I actually went for a burger. French comfort food all the way, it was the atmosphere that really made this place seem like such a gem. With a piano pushed up near the open window and the performer celebrating his birthday, it was as if the pianist knew everyone there. Guests had prepared songs to sing and others walked around sharing chocolates from baskets that they had brought. It was a fun affair and a great way to start our first official hours in Chicago.

Billy Goat Tavern & Grill

The fast food version of Billy Goat Tavern & Grill at TheMART.

The fast food version of Billy Goat Tavern & Grill at TheMART.

This is the fast food version found at Merchandise Mart. I’m not one for onions or relish and stuff like that on my hot dogs, so I had a very simple polish dog on a sesame bun. It was juicy and flavourful without any condiments on it. I could have had another, no problem.

Labriola

Deep dish pizza at Labriola.

Deep dish pizza at Labriola.

Deep dish pizza joints are abundant in Chicago, and there are a few that tend to get mentioned. Yet, somehow we didn’t eat at Pizzeria Uno, Gino’s, Giordano’s or Lou Malnati’s. Rather, we found ourselves sauntering towards Navy Pier when we came across Labriola. Voted the best deep dish pizza in Chicago by ABC 7’s Hungry Hound, we figured it couldn’t hurt to try it. Warned that the pizzas take about 45 minutes to prepare and cook, we settled in for a bit of a wait. When the pizza arrived, it was piping hot, and there was cheese and toppings galore. We shared a 12-inch meat ball pie between the three of us, and I honestly wish that they came in smaller sizes. Delicious as it was, there was just too much. We left with a quarter of the pizza to go.

Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken

Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken

Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken

The name really speaks for itself. If you enjoy doughnuts as much as I do and you also like fried chicken, you’re going to love the Erie Street location of Do-Rite. They had the best doughnuts I sampled during the trip and they have the gall to combine a fresh glazed doughnut with a breast of fried chicken, calling it the Sweet Heat sandwich. Even though a neighbouring diner was chastising one of her companions for ordering the same thing (she said it’s a heart attack waiting to happen), I don’t think you can walk into Do-Rite and not get one of those, right? The chicken was perfectly crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside; the glazed doughnut acting as the perfect shell with added kick from the spicy maple aioli. Awesome.

The Signature Lounge

Look at that view!

Look at that view!

We were told that the lounge on the 96th floor of the John Hancock building was a good way to get spectacular views of Chicago. The side we wound up sitting on allowed us to overlook the north side of the city. But, as it turns out, if you walk around the rest of the floor, you can get almost a 360 degree view. The women’s washroom even had huge windows that looked out towards Navy Pier and the east side of Chicago. As for the food, we didn’t have any. The drinks were fine, but extremely overpriced. Essentially, you’re paying for what you can see, not what you’re ingesting.

Sprinkles

Oh, my beloved Sprinkles. I do think that my love of a good doughnut has now surpassed my love of a good cupcake, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to pass up Sprinkles if I pass it by. It was a total fluke that we ended up across the street from the Sprinkles on Walton. I picked up one strawberry and one banana cupcake to go. Had I time to go back later in the trip, I would have. The receipt I got after my purchase had a 2-for-1 deal on it for Father’s Day weekend, and I’m kind of sad I didn’t take advantage of that.

Chicago q

Mmmm, BBQ! Those fresh potato chips were amazing!

Mmmm, BBQ! Those fresh potato chips were amazing!

Wandering around on night three, we had no idea what we felt like eating or where to go, but it was a Friday night and the streets all around us were bustling with activity. As we continued walking, we found ourselves on Dearborn street facing an adorable white brick building with a sign that simply said, “q.” After determining it to be a BBQ joint, we head inside and we were lucky enough to get a table in the lounge. What I liked most is that you’re offered complimentary pickles (not my thing) and fresh homemade potato chips (we had three bowls). The food was pretty fantastic as well.

My dad said his pulled chicken sandwich was just so-so, but I loved all of the barbecue sauces that came with his meal. Both my mom and I ordered the mac and cheese with two meats – she got the brisket and pulled chicken and I ordered the brisket and pulled pork – and we were wowed by the portion size. We could have shared one skillet and it would have been plenty. However, I will say that the value is tremendous. A plain mac and cheese without any meat sells for $12, but for an extra $4, you get your choice of two meats, and they definitely don’t skimp out. I’d definitely recommend this place if you have a hearty appetite.

Latinicity Food Hall + Lounge (Block 37)

Inside the Latinicity food hall. Pretty good tacos!

Inside the Latinicity food hall. Pretty good tacos!

Created by world-renowned Chef Richard Sandoval, this is essentially a glorified food court with a fancier name, but I actually really liked it. Every entrant is given a swipe card that can be used at any vendor within the hall. Whatever you order is recorded as data on the card. When you’re ready to leave Latinicity, the cashier will tally up your total and you pay right there at the exit. It works well, and the food was decent. The sushi vendor was questionable though. It’s nowhere near Latin-inspired and the rolls that my dad bought were not that fresh. However, the tacos I got were much better than expected and the pork al pastor had wonderful flavour that reminded me of what I usually eat at the best Mexican restaurant back home in Edmonton. It was also pretty quiet there for a Saturday (probably because it’s in the middle of the business district), but I enjoyed that it wasn’t crowded.

Cafe Iberico

Seafood paella at Cafe Iberico.

Seafood paella at Cafe Iberico.

This tapas restaurant was recommended to us by the Chicago Greeter that we were matched up with while on our trip. It was just a few blocks from our hotel. After a long day, we were starving and we decided to give it a go. The food was quite tasty. We did fill up on an awful lot of complimentary bread, but the beef skewers, mussels and the seafood paella were great. The paella was a particularly good deal as the portion size was large and there was plenty of seafood – squid, clams, mussels, scallops and shrimp – all cooked until perfectly tender. My only qualm is that we were seated in, what I’m guessing is, the lower-level of the restaurant just off to the side from the deli. It felt cramped and was extremely noisy. I assumed that was the only space in the restaurant, but when I Googled the restaurant later, I found numerous photos of a more open space with much better decor and high ceilings that would have felt much more comfortable, so consider that if you ever find yourself dining there.

The Vig

The fantastic food at The Vig and a hipster bartender to boot!

The fantastic food at The Vig and a hipster bartender to boot!

Situated in the middle of Old Town, this was a bustling place to grab brunch on Father’s Day. It’s supposedly a sports parlour, but even with some TVs strategically placed around the space, The Vig managed to feel more elevated than that, likely owing to the 1950s style and decor. Fun touches like their drink “bible” (pages and pages of beer, wine and liquor listings) took it up another notch. The food wasn’t too shabby either. My dad decided to go a bit healthier that day and he opted for a salad. The veggies were piled high and the chicken was nicely seared. The whole dish tasted really fresh. My mom went for the skillet cinnamon bun, which was generously smothered with cream cheese icing. Because it wasn’t a high-rise bun, it didn’t quite have that fluffiness, but it still had that slight doughy quality that I like. I also dabbed some of that cream cheese frosting on my dish – chicken and waffles – to give the sweet side of my meal a twist over the usual maple syrup. The combo of the icing on my waffles with my juicy crisp chicken and their homemade hot sauce was spectacular.

Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar

Our spread at Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar.

Our spread at Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar.

Another completely last-minute choice while we were in Chicago, Union Sushi was a happy surprise. Located on the corner of Franklin and Erie Streets, the restaurant has a very urban vibe with concrete walls covered in colourful graffiti. The service was top notch with our server providing some great recommendations and the manager even providing a complementary ice cream sundae for my dad since it was Father’s Day. My parents and I ended up sharing a handful of dishes, including the truffled tuna, buffalo duck wing, uni alfredo soba, barbeque king crab legs and the pacific coast rolls. The rolls I could probably skip on another visit, but everything else was top notch. I liked that the dishes veered from the traditional and were a bit more adventurous. Before we left, I had to try some dessert and after a nudge from our server, I was sold on the pumpkin mochi cake. The cake itself really did have that sort of chewy consistency of a rice paste ball, but it was a bit more dense, and the combination of the cream cheese ice cream, caramel and pumpkin seed brittle was worth all the calories.

Dolce Italian at The Godfrey Hotel

The cool interior of Dolce Italian and our continental breakfast.

The cool interior of Dolce Italian and our continental breakfast.

The interior of the restaurant is quite nice and they also have a nice patio area outside. However, I would say that the breakfast menu is lacking somewhat. Although, I shouldn’t complain so much considering we didn’t have to pay for our meal here (this requires a long story about weird thumping sounds above our room that went on all night). We each ordered the continental breakfast, consisting of self-serve pastries, fruit plates, yogurt, granola and juices. For an additional cost we were able to add any of the main breakfast entrees. We all chose the smoked salmon, which was served with a side of tater tots. The salmon was really good, but minimal. If we had paid full price, I don’t think the few slices of smoked salmon would have been a good value at all. Service was also slow and inconsistent. It took a while for us to get any condiments at our table and when we asked for extra cream cheese, the server forgot about it. All-in-all, it was alright for free. Perhaps their brunch, lunch or dinner menus are better.

Niu Japanese Fusion Lounge

Dinner at Niu Japanese Fusion.

Dinner at Niu Japanese Fusion.

After a long afternoon of me wandering through the Art Institute of Chicago and my parents exploring The Loop, we were in need of some sustenance. While we were resting for a bit in the Hyatt Regency, I started searching for nearby restaurants on OpenTable. After flip flopping between a couple of choices, we finally decided to give Niu a go. Just a short walk away, this place had that mood-setting dim lighting inside, but it looked nicely decorated and it was busy. We perused the menu for a bit, and eventually we made up our minds. I placed our order and asked our server if he thought that would be enough to share. He said it would be plenty. To start off we got the classic spider rolls as well as one of their current feature rolls. Both were fresh and excellent, although I’d probably lean more towards the spider as my favourite of the two. We also shared a couple of noodle dishes, one a spicy seafood noodle soup and the other, pad Thai. Those were much larger portions than expected and we had no problem filling up with them. The best part is that the food came to the table nice and hot, which my mom definitely appreciated. Dessert was spectacular, too. The matcha creme brulee was good enough to rival my favourite from Japonais Bistro at home in Edmonton, and the black sesame ice cream is just something that isn’t very common in north America, so it was great to give that a try as well.

Doughnut Vault

Doughnut Vault's adorable space.

Doughnut Vault’s adorable space.

I actually heard about Doughnut Vault at the beginning of the trip and I knew it was close to Merchandise Mart, but we missed passing it by on our first visit to MM, and it ended up being left to our last day. It’s a cute little shop with a blue door, a vintage cash register and a mail slot that welcomes both love letters and hate mail. Plus, they sell doughnuts. I’m the type that likes the really fun flavours and fillings that are starting to pop up at specialty doughnut shops. This place seems to go with the more traditional. We ended up getting an apple fritter, a blueberry glazed cake and an apricot jelly. The latter was by far my favourite (although, it was also the messiest) because the tartness of the jelly balanced the sweetness of the glaze, and the jelly helped to keep the doughnut moist. The blueberry glazed cake doughnut was okay, but I’m not typically a fan of the cake variety, anyway. I just thought I’d give it a try. The apple fritter was, honestly, a disappointment. It didn’t feel like it was soft or fresh enough. It had that greasy taste to the dough like they’d been left in the fryer too long, which is unfortunate. If it was fluffier, it could have been great, especially since they thought to dust them with powdered cinnamon, which I thought was a nice touch.

Glazed and Infused

Glazed and Infused doughnut shop.

Glazed and Infused doughnut shop.

While we were sitting on the sidewalk patio of the Vault, another patron told us about Glazed and Infused, so when we entered Merchandise Mart, I immediately used their Wi-Fi to find out exactly where it was located. Not too far away, we figured we could make it there before our lunch reservations. I guess Glazed and Infused is actually known for their chocolate dipped long john doughnuts with a strip of bacon on top of it. That may be their signature, but I didn’t opt for it. Instead, I ordered the PB & J and the mango pineapple to go. I split the mango pineapple donut with my parents when we were waiting at Chicago O’Hare for our flight home, and it was good. The glaze actually had little bits of mango or pineapple mixed into it, so you got great bursts of flavour. The PB & J I saved for breakfast at work the next day. I probably should have eaten it when it was fresh though. The dough was already a little firmer and the glaze had sort of melted. It was decent, but nothing compared to Vancouver’s Lucky’s Doughnuts.

Mercadito

Mercadito's Mexican offerings and interior.

Mercadito’s Mexican offerings and interior.

I took to OpenTable to find a place where we could enjoy a last meal in Chicago. Mercadido fit the bill. It was within walking distance from our hotel and Merchandise Mart and it served Mexican fusion food, one of my favourites. Again, we shared all of the dishes, including the trio of guacamole (traditional, mango and beets), blackened swordfish tacos, mac and cheese and fried plantains. Of the guacamole, the beets was unexpected and so tasty. I wish I could have had more of it. I actually loved the tacos. The swordfish was nice and thick and the cabbage-jalapeno slaw with the spicy aioli was a great accompaniment. My only dismay with the dish is that there was, in fact, cilantro on it, even though it wasn’t mentioned in the description on the menu (other items did list cilantro, so why the inconsistency in the write-ups?). The mac and cheese was alright. However, I thought they could have sized that up a bit. For over $7, it was quite a small plate. I’ve never had fried plantains before, but these were awesome. I love bananas, and these were crispy on the outside, but not battered, which I appreciated, and the ginger-jalapeno sauce was the perfect dip.

Firecakes

Check out all those doughnuts!

Check out all those doughnuts!

We passed by Firecakes on our way to Mercadito from Glazed and Infused, and I wasn’t satisfied leaving Chicago without trying a doughnut from here, too. So, before we headed back to our hotel after lunch, we made a short pit stop. This shop was really cute and they had a lot of flavours to choose from (way more than Doughnut Vault). I glanced back and forth at all the doughnuts on display and the price of each and, although, some caught my eye, I wasn’t satisfied with the fact that, for almost the same price as the giant vanilla glazed doughnut, some of the other options were much smaller. There seemed to be very little consistency between the pricing and sizing of their products. I did eventually pick the coconut cream. Because of the way it was bagged, I made sure to eat that one as soon as we returned to our hotel room. When I bit into it, I was slightly taken aback. Turns out it was a cake doughnut, not a yeast doughnut as I expected. But, thankfully, it was a really moist and fluffy (not dense) cake doughnut and it was much better than I would have thought.

Sights and Attractions

Chicago is a city with a lot of history. In fact, it has two histories. The one before the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the one after. It’s known for it’s architecture and the river that runs through it, so there was a lot to see in a week and we managed to cover most of the main sights and attractions.

TheMART (Merchandise Mart)

This is an interesting building because it is open to the public and there are some neat designs for seating tucked throughout the main floor as well as some stores that are accessible to anyone. However, the majority of the building is relegated to professionals, so you’re not really able to see anything past the first and second stories. However, there are free design and architecture magazines galore, if you’re willing to carry them all. Still, it’s worth a visit. The building was created by Marshall Field & Co. back in the 1930s as a central marketplace for retail buyers, so it has a pretty long history in Chicago.

Chicago Riverwalk

Okay, so we didn’t quite make it down to the riverwalk, which is quite expansive. But, we did follow the river on street-level and I was able to see quite a bit of the riverwalk below. The river goes right through much of the Chicago’s beautiful skyline, so combined with the water, their riverwalk is quite the sight. There is currently construction happening along some areas of the river where they’re expanding the riverwalk, so pedestrians can continue all the way down. It should be pretty great when everything is done.

Wendella Boats

Our tour guide and some of the sites along the cruise.

Our tour guide and some of the sites along the cruise.

Wendella has been family-owned and operated since 1935. They claim to be the originators of Chicago’s architecture tour, and, if they are, they’re still doing a pretty fine job. We signed up for a river cruise on our first full day in the city (the coldest one during our week there), and for 75 minutes, I almost forgot about the chilly wind because our guide was just pumping out information and history non-stop. It was extremely educational and there were some amazing views of the Chicago’s skyline from a number of angles as we moved up and down the river. I’d highly recommend their tour.

Navy Pier

Celebrating it’s 100-year anniversary in 2016, Navy Pier was a must-see on this trip. There are some shops and restaurants as well as rental venues located at the pier. There is also the Children’s Museum as well as a few rides like the ferris wheel and the merry-go-round. The best thing about the pier is the spectacular views you’ll see of Chicago’s skyline and the water. If it wasn’t so cold out that second night in the city, it would have been a nice place to sit and stare out at the landscape.

Magnificent Mile

The best way to describe the Magnificent Mile is to liken it to NYC’s Fifth Avenue. It’s a 13-block street of high-end shops, most of which we skipped on this trip since it was never our intention to go on a spree. We did, however, walk this area often because it was usually busier than the streets that ran parallel, especially at night, and because many of the more well-known buildings that my dad wanted to see were situated just off the Mile. If you’re looking for some hustle and bustle, this is the place to be.

Museum of Contemporary Art

This is one of the more affordable museums in Chicago and they seemed to have some interesting exhibits, so we decided to stop by and check it out. My favourite current exhibition is from The Propeller Group, which runs until November 13, 2016. Their pieces are tactile and visual and a couple have definitely stuck out in my mind after seeing them. Their short film, The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music was especially enthralling. I’m not sure what’s the museum will be showing in the future, but it’s a decent one to visit if you have a couple of hours to kill.

Chicago Water Tower

Passing by the Chicago Water Tower.

Passing by the Chicago Water Tower.

One of the few buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, we really just passed this one by as we walked the Magnificent Mile. We simply viewed it from outside. But, I guess they actually have free exhibits inside the building, so it’s too bad didn’t realize that at the time.

John Hancock Center

This is an iconic building in Chicago known for it’s striking industrial design. Mainly allocated for business use, it also houses the 360 Chicago observation deck and the Signature Room restaurant and lounge.

Chicago Cultural Center + Chicago Greeter Tour

The Chicago Cultural Center was previously known as the first Chicago Public Library. Even though the facade of the building still hints towards its history, its purpose has changed immensely since it was completed in 1897. Prior to it being established as the nation’s first and most comprehensive free municipal cultural venue in 1991, it was actually sitting neglected before it was named a city landmark and the space was restored. Now, it’s home to rotating exhibits and performances throughout the year, and you can still see the world’s largest Tiffany stained-glass dome on the south side of the building as well as another renaissance patterned glass dome designed by Healy & Millet on the north side of the building. Chicago Greeter also has a desk in the lobby of the building for last-minute InstaGreeter tours around The Loop and Millennium Park. We pre-registered for a Chicago Greeter tour prior to arriving in the the city, so we were paired with a guide who asked us about some of our interests and she created a 2-hour tour of public art (Did you know that Marc Chagall created a mosaic mural or that Pablo Picasso designed a giant metal sculpture for the city? Or, that inside the Marquette Building lay hidden for years some gorgeous mosaic tiled murals?) around Millennium Park and The Loop for us.

Chicago Design Museum

Located inside Block 37 on the 3rd floor is the Chicago Design Museum. Limited-engagement exhibitions rotate through the small space. The one we happened upon is called Unfolded: Made with Paper and it is running until the end of July 2016.

The Palmer House Hilton

Some of the opulence found in The Palmer House Hilton.

Some of the opulence found in The Palmer House Hilton.

A famous and historic hotel in Chicago’s Loop. This is a lavish building that has been built and rebuilt on the same site three times. With intricate details and design, it’s considered to be another iconic Chicago landmark.

Grant Park (Buckingham Fountain)

It had been a long day by the time we made it to Grant Park, so we pretty much just went straight for Buckingham Fountain. At first we were worried we wouldn’t get close to the fountain since there was some sort of craft beer festival taking place on the grounds, but once we circled around all of those tents, we managed to see the famous fountain. It’s definitely pretty, especially with the skyline behind it. Sitting on the benches that surround the park made for a lovely view.

Maggie Daley Park

The giant rock climbing wall.

The giant rock climbing wall.

Created as a kids park, I think it is equally enticing for adults. Granted, we didn’t quite venture far enough into it to be overwhelmed by children, but it’s pretty sprawling with lots of green grass and a giant rock climbing wall. It also links, by bridge, to Millennium Park.

Millennium Park

This is where you’ll find the famous Bean (a.k.a. Cloud Gate) and Crown Fountain. It’s also home to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion (designed by Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry), which played host to the Grant Park Music Festival and Flight of the Conchords while we were there. Unfortunately, I did not get to enjoy the latter, but it is a fantastic outdoor venue that reminded me of a more upscale version of the concert pavilion in Hawrelak Park in Edmonton. Last, but not least, was Lurie Garden, a 5-acre space that pays tribute to Chicago’s marshy origins.

Old Town

I quite enjoyed walking through Old Town Chicago. Of course, it’s now full of fun independent stores, coffee shops and eateries, but it still has some of that historic vibe going on. Strolling down the main street of Old Town, plaques will become apparent. Stop and read them to learn more about the area and what efforts the city is making to revitalize the neighbourhood.

Chicago History Museum

We popped inside this building to take a peek, but we didn’t pay the entrance to go through the whole thing. What I was able to see in the front entrance, I liked, and I suspect it would be a really interesting museum to poke around. There was also an excellent cafe-style space that was accessible to the public called Chicago Authored. It’s a multimedia-based gallery with a crowd-sourced collection of works by writers from the past, present and future that define the character of Chicago. Patrons are asked to bookmark pages that they feel speak to their idea of Chicago and to also fill out postcards about their Chicago experience. It was fun and interactive. The museum also has a cute little gift shop where I found a great pair of glass earrings, which I saw at another store later on for almost double the price.

Lincoln Park

It was scorching hot when we decided to wander through Lincoln Park, but it’s very picturesque, and if you follow along the boardwalk, it will eventually lead you to the Lincoln Park Zoo and the Lincoln Park Conservatory (both free for everyone all year-round).

Rock N Roll McDonald’s (River North)

We passed this McDonald’s by numerous times during our trip. It was located just a couple of blocks from our hotel and you really cannot miss it. Considered as one of the flagship McD’s, it’s a large, 2-story building with the top floor created using floor to ceiling windows and a 360 degree view of its surroundings. The rear half of the second floor also has a museum with memorabilia that dates back to the 1950s and spans all of the following decades since. Each section of the restaurant directly next to that decade’s display is decorated to look like that time period.

Money Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago

A small, but interactive museum, my dad loved it. It’s all to do with American currency and its history. There are various iterations of $1,000,000 throughout the museum, so you can imagine what it’d be like to have all that money in your account, and you can even leave with about $370 US in cash (shredded, of course). NOTE: To enter the museum, you will be led by security through a metal detector and your bags will be checked. Photos can be taken once inside the museum, but not within the lobby of the Federal Reserve building.

The Art Institute of Chicago

Founded in 1879, this is one of the oldest and largest art museums in the United States. This was the last major attraction I saw on this trip, and I spent over four hours perusing the museum’s galleries. Having been to The Met in NYC and The Louvre in Paris, it’s difficult to say which is the best. They all have their strengths. At the Art Institute, they really do have an amazing collection of impressionist artwork though. There was also a great temporary exhibition of American Art in the 1930s. I snapped many photos of pieces I wanted to remember as I walked through the whole museum as a lot of them spoke to me or intrigued me. The Thorne Miniature Rooms collection was also quite fascinating for the novelty of it.

Overall, Chicago turned out to be a wonderful city. Sure, it can be gritty and the streets are populated by a lot of homeless beings, but the people we came in contact with were often friendly and helpful, and we had no problem filling our days. However, should I ever go back to Chicago, there’s still plenty left for me to see and do.

I didn’t make it to the Adler Planetarium or to Wrigley Field. Granted, I’m not much of a baseball fan. Hockey is more my thing. Maybe next time I can see a Chicago Blackhawks game. My boyfriend would probably like that, especially if they’re playing against his team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Like the High Line in NYC (one of my favourite places in that city), the 606 is an elevated urban park that combines public art, bike trails and landscape design while connecting a number of trendy neighbourhoods. It’d be interesting to compare the two. Plus, there are definitely more doughnut shops for me to visit.

For the time being, I’ll have to be content with this first experience, and, don’t worry, I certainly am. I’m just always thinking ahead. So, until next time!

Vegas Revisited

On the High Roller with a view of the Paris Eiffel Tower.

On the High Roller with a view of the Paris Eiffel Tower.

A week and a half ago, my friend and I returned from our latest trip to Las Vegas. Booked relatively last minute for the two of us – a little less than a month before our departure – we used WestJet Vacations to get a flight and hotel package (we later found the same package for less through WJ, so we put in a claim for their new Price Drop Guarantee and were approved to get the difference back in WJ Dollars). Vegas isn’t necessarily a relaxing trip. Not the way we planned ours, anyway. But, it’s a good city to go when you want a quick and much needed getaway from the everyday. So, despite the fact that we were there together a mere eight and a half months earlier, we decided it was the perfect vacation. This time it was going to be filled less with debauchery (even though it was overlapping with Halloween festivities) and be more like a traditional sight seeing trip. We would catch all the highlights, wander the outlet mall, go on a hike, and, of course, the holiday was booked to coincide with one of the handful of shows Britney Spears would be performing this month. Everything simply fell into place. Rather than give you a day-by-day telling of what we decided to do this time around, I’ve broken our trip down into the following sections: accommodations, shows, nightlife, food and fun stuff.

Hotel

The Cromwell, a new boutique hotel (less than 200 rooms) on the strip, was pretty amazing from before we even left Edmonton to the day we departed Las Vegas. Part of the Caesars chain of accommodations, our experience was top notch. Prior to our trip, the concierge emailed asking if there was anything they could do to make our stay better, so I requested extra toiletries as well as the possibility of champagne upon arrival as we missed the complimentary champagne and tasting that occurs every Friday and Saturday at around 6pm or so. Without skipping a beat, they had glasses of champagne brought out to us while we were checking in and they had a gift bag filled with lotion, shampoo, conditioner, body wash and soap ready at the desk. We were also told that we could have sangria sent up to our room on the house (yes, please!). The receptionist then escorted us to the room elevators, pointed out the free tea and coffee stations, showed us how to scan our keys to get to our floor and sent us on our way. The service was quite impeccable and I could already see that it was going to stand out from the rest of the giants in town.

The only issues I would point out, and these can easily be fixed, was: 1) when we were trying to find self-parking at The Cromwell on our first night there, one of the valet said to drive ahead; however, he didn’t let us know that valet was the only option for the property and that it was free. If we had known that, we wouldn’t have had to park at the Flamingo; 2) Housekeeping missed cleaning our room while we were out on the second day (we were gone for a good 12 hours or so). The good thing is that there’s usually staff on the floor, so we waved one of the housekeepers down and she promptly came to give us turndown service, including making the beds, changing our towels, replacing toiletries and dropping off bottled water and some macarons; 3) The walls are a little thin, so you can hear when people pass by through the hall, which wasn’t much of a problem late in the evening when we went to bed. It could be a bit noisy in the mornings when housekeeping started work though. The staff are all so great, so I hate to say that they should pipe down during early morning hours, but that would have helped. On the bright side, they totally ensured that we’d be up and out with plenty of time to do everything we wanted to each day. As a suggestion, maybe they can think about supplying earplugs with the free slippers they provide in-room.

Despite these few things, I have never felt more like a VIP than at this hotel. I would stay here again in a heartbeat.

Shows

Britney Spears: Piece of Me
She’s still not exactly giving the show her all, but I love Britney nonetheless. I grew up watching her and listening to her music, so to see how far she’s come after her breakdown several years ago makes me happy. I feel like she has pulled it together. Even if she’s not 100% at every concert, I’m still a huge fan. I’ve seen Piece of Me twice now, and almost all the costumes have been updated since I first saw her show in February. A couple of the dance sequences have changed as well. I love her shorter hair, too. I think the wigs were a little constricting  and another thing for her to worry during her previous performances. Fun fact: Comedian Kathy Griffin, who has been doing periodic shows in Vegas, was called up on stage to be Britney’s bitch during her Freakshow performance. I love Kathy, and while I wasn’t close enough to tell it was her when she was taken from the audience, I had a feeling that she was the sassy lady on stage, and I was right! My two favourite segments of the show are the sections that include “…Baby One More Time,” “Oops!…I Did It Again,” “Me Against the Music,” “Gimme More,” “Break the Ice” and “Piece of Me” because they’re the most dance heavy songs and she usually does a good job nailing all her moves. I was a little bit disappointed that I didn’t see many fans dressed up in costume, especially because it was Halloween Saturday, but that’s okay. At least people get dolled up for the shows in Vegas.

Me in my "...Baby One More Time" school girl Halloween costume.

Me in my “…Baby One More Time” school girl Halloween costume.

Michael Jackson ONE by Cirque du Soleil
I’ll be honest and say that I’m not a huge fan of the circus. Clowns especially scare me, so some of the more traditional Cirque shows are not exactly my cup of tea. I know all the showmanship is amazing no matter what, but I still have a hard time getting past some of the crazy makeup, costumes and contortions at times. This is why Michael Jackson ONE was perfect for me. I also grew up listening to MJ as a kid. I had his music on cassette and then on CD, so the music is not only upbeat, it’s familiar to me. While the show did have some fantastic acrobatics and trampolining, it also had fantastic dance sequences, which satisfies me immensely because I’m one of those people who loves competitions like So You Think You Can Dance and dance movies like Step Up. Right up my alley!

Nightlife

Drai’s Nightclub at The Cromwell

The two of us had initially planned on going out dancing more than we did during our trip, but the one night we did was at the new Drai’s Nightclub located on the top floor of our hotel. As guests, we had free access to the venue, which upon walking in was pretty packed. We were there late on Halloween Saturday, which likely contributed to how busy it was. Although, it is Las Vegas, and if there’s ever a place to party any night of the week, it’s there. From what I could tell, it was one of the few clubs on the strip celebrating Halloween all weekend long, and handing out big prizes for those dressed in costume. Most of the other hotels/clubs seemed to only have festivities on the Friday night before we arrived in the city. Full of raised platforms for Drai’s dancers, it’s a circular room where the middle is party central. Fog machines and laser lights were working overdrive and the music was pumped up to keep the ambiance going. Overall, I liked the space. If you needed some breathing room, moving towards the outer edges was a good idea. The club opens up to the hotel pool/beach club, which is cordoned off at night, but still provides a lovely view of crystal clear water and palm trees as well as some fresh air.

Brooklyn Bowl

This bowling alley/restaurant/bar/concert venue is new to Vegas. Located on the LINQ promenade, we decided to pop in and have a look. It’s a fairly large, open space with two stories of bowling lanes and a mid-size stage and dance floor. The band, New Age Tribe, that was playing was great, and had everyone there up on their feet dancing. It’s really dimly lit in the building, so it sets a mood, but I like the low key, laid back vibe of the place. They also didn’t charge cover that night…perhaps because it was a Monday evening?

Food

Sushi Roku

I don’t recall how I happened upon this restaurant. But, I do know that OpenTable reservations are available, including 1000 point reservations on certain dates and times. However, they can only be made for the dining room and space cannot be reserved at the bar for Happy Hour. The Japanese eatery is located inside the Caesars Palace Forum Shops, so it was super close to our hotel. Dinner prices in the main dining room are quite a bit higher, so we opted to try out their Happy Hour menu, which was available from 4 to 7pm on the Sunday we ate there. For less than $30 I got two orders of maki cut rolls and two appetizers. While I’m sure the portions are a bit larger when ordering from the main menu, I doubt that doubling or tripling the price of each dish means getting two to three times the amount of food, so I think sitting at the bar was the way to go. Every item we ordered was fresh and delicious. The maki was especially good. I’d go back anytime!

Feast Buffet

If you don’t have a car available, this will be hard to get to. Located at Red Rock Casino, which is about 20 minutes away from the strip, we rushed here after a hike in Red Rock Canyon. My friend had redeemed a voucher for two free buffet lunches through the myVEGAS Slots app. We managed to get in about 10 minutes before lunch was technically over and we piled our plates with various cuisines and salads. They were really good about letting people eat past the 3pm lunch cutoff though, so both of us didn’t have to vacuum down our food like we did. I’d say for the usual price of the buffet ($8.99 for an adult at lunch with a casino card), they put out a great spread. There was a decent variety and everything tasted great.

Giada

What can I say about Giada? This new restaurant is the anchor of The Cromwell hotel. The very first eatery from Food Network star Giada De Laurentiis, I would say it’s modern Italian at its finest. My friend and I ended up there on two occasions.

Our initial visit there was a surprise because we hadn’t planned to go out. This was on the second evening of our trip when we unexpectedly had to vacate our room, so housekeeping could clean what they had missed for us. Since the establishment was right there, we thought we’d go for dessert to kill time. We wandered up to the second floor where the hostesses asked if we had a reservation. As we did not, we had to wait for a little bit. However, the minutes passed quickly as we occupied them by taking advantage of the Giada photo booth. When our table was ready, we were led inside where you get an immediate view of the chefs in the appetizer prep area as well as the bar. The restaurant is quite beautiful – a lot of white, light woods, clean lines, neutral accents, a mish mash of seating (leather upholstery, booths, rattan chairs, colourful pillows), original art showcasing Giada, custom made lights with a Giada quote, “I eat a little bit of everything, and not a lot of anything” for added whimsy, and big windows, some of which can be opened up to let in fresh air, that frame the Bellagio fountains.

The wait for someone to come by with our menus was longer than I expected, but once they did pop over to drop them off and explain some of the available items, service was top notch. In the end, we opted to skip getting dessert and decided to go for a couple of the cocktails (all named after films her grandfather, Dino, produced) and crostini appetizers. The drinks were tasty. My friend ordered the La Strada and, I, the Hannibal. Both were excellent drinks with 2 oz. of alcohol, which for $15 a pop should be the case. For the crostini, we went with the Vitello Tonnata – veal loin, seared tuna, caper aioli – and the Tomato & Strawberry Jam – paired with thick slices of feta cheese and a mint leaf. Both were wonderful, but I think the Tomato & Strawberry jam was my favourite. The simplicity of it, along with the salty/sweet palate made me want more. I also love feta cheese, but sometimes I find it can be overwhelming. The feta used here was a little more subtle and incredibly smooth. Oh, and I cannot forget the bread platter that was provided as a start to the meal. A combination of bread sticks, flat bread and a warm loaf, they were all superb on their own, but add some of the butter, pesto, chili flakes, sea salt and capers that accompanied the bread, and those flavours just stepped everything up.

Our second meal there was something we had been planning on. An OpenTable reservation had been made for our last lunch in Vegas before we departed. Our server was fantastic, letting us know that the breakfast menu was still available all day long and giving us suggestions for a shared appetizer. Originally we had intended to go with something from the lunch menu, but the breakfast options completely swayed us. I selected the carbonara pizza, while my friend chose the polenta. My pizza was not overly large, but it really is quite rich. With nice fluffy crust, baked in cheese, crispy pancetta and a sunny side up egg, my belly was filling up fast, and I wanted to sample some desserts, so I left a bit of the crust behind. My friend raved about the polenta dish as well.

To finish off lunch, we ordered two desserts to share – the cookie platter and the zeppoles. The cookie platter had an assortment that included chocolate chip, chocolate with blueberry filling and lemon ricotta. They were all toothsome, but the best, hands down, was the cake-like lemon ricotta, which were soft and moist “cookies” covered in a zesty icing that gave it a great tangy taste. The zeppoles, which were also citrus infused, are like doughnut holes, but airier. Served with a side of hazelnut spread, it was heaven on a plate.

If Vegas didn’t have so many other amazing restaurants to try, I’d say that Giada would, otherwise, make my list each and every time I visit.

This is a cupcake and ice cream shop chain. The Las Vegas location is, again, found on the LINQ promenade. For quick pick ups, you can try out their awesome Cupcake ATM machine, which will distribute your selection, boxed, after you swipe your credit card. Once delivered, it plays a stupidly catchy Sprinkles branded song. We watched as someone purchased their snack from the ATM, and then we danced to the music with them, but my friend and I ultimately opted to walk into the store to buy ours. I sampled a full-size triple cinnamon cupcake because I cannot pass up anything with cinnamon. It was surprisingly fresh considering how late we were there. The cake was so soft. The icing was pretty sweet, maybe a little more than I like nowadays, but they don’t slather on too much. In fact, I think the cupcakes there have the perfect amount of frosting as the layer is just thick enough, so that you don’t see the cake beneath. As we were sitting there devouring our cake, I noticed the ice cream on the other side of the shop. The feature flavour was pumpkin – cinnamon ice cream with pumpkin cake and frosting mixed in. Being that I was on holiday, I decided to indulge further and went ahead and bought myself a scoop. It was awesome. My friend ate the red velvet cupcake that evening, which looked scrumptious, too. The next day, our last in the city, we headed back because my friend wanted a salty caramel (available through November) one before she left.

Fun Stuff

North Premium Outlets
This place is chock full of stuff from big name brands and designers. The sales weren’t really that great though, and it’s likely because Black Friday hasn’t rolled around yet. However, some stores offered additional markdowns, but most of them were minor. Despite the lack of slashed prices, I still walked away with a few choice items from Ann Taylor and Max Studio at some excellent prices. I also got in a lot of cardio because I walked over 16,000 steps that day, mostly at this mall.

Red Rock Canyon

With a rented car, it made it easy for us to venture anywhere we wanted this time, so we planned to take a drive to Red Rock Canyon. Only 20 to 25 minutes from the Las Vegas strip, we reached the National Conservation Area where we paid $7 for access to the scenic drive and a number of hiking trails. Like a mini Grand Canyon, the mountains are washed in colours of red, orange and yellow, making the route through the park quite the site. We pulled off at the Willow Springs stop and headed out for a hike. I think we ended up on the Lost Creek Children’s Discovery Trail, which joins up with the Willow Springs Loop because it turned into an uphill course that led to a spot where I think there is a seasonal waterfall. The water wasn’t really flowing for us, but it was a really nice trek in an area that, although there was little sunshine, shielded us from the high winds that day. This particular hike was also one of the shorter ones, which was perfect for us because we needed to make it to Red Rock Casino before the lunch buffet ended and we were kind of tight on time. Both of us really enjoyed the canyon and would love to go back next time to try another hiking trail.

Trader Joe’s and Nordstrom Rack

Before we left the Red Rock area, we stopped at Trader Joe’s, which was just a few minutes away from the casino there. I’d never been to this grocery store before, but it sort of has a cult following in Canada. Their branded products were actually more affordable than I expected, and for a smaller store, they carry quite a variety of items. I was especially impressed with the relatively inexpensive yet huge pieces of Ahi tuna steaks that could be found in the fish aisle. I would have packed some home if I could have. The outdoor shopping area also had a Nordstrom Rack, which is similar to TJ Maxx and Marshalls or Winners, if you’re Canadian. I wasn’t super impressed with the clothing department, but they had a ton of shoes in my size, which ranges from a 7-8, and I ended up walking away with two pairs of shoes for less than $100.
Tantalizing packs of Ahi tuna steaks at Trader Joe's.

Tantalizing packs of Ahi tuna steaks at Trader Joe’s.

Neon Museum

This was probably the number one thing we did on this trip. We pre-booked tickets for a nighttime guided tour of the Neon Museum Boneyard where old neon signs have found a second life. Many of them are past the point of ever being used again, but some have been restored, and all of them seem to have a fascinating history. Our tour guide, Paul, was full of interesting facts about how the signs were made, who designed them, where they came from and why they were of importance. I walked away from the museum feeling ever more knowledgeable. For any photographers out there, this place is wonderful to hone your skills of night shoots and working with the bright neon lights. If you’re getting married in Vegas, think about coming here because the signs provide a really cool backdrop, including the chopped up marquee of the defunct Moulin Rouge Hotel whose letters now spell out “in love.”

High Roller

The new High Roller, a giant ferris wheel, now surpasses the Singapore Flyer as the world’s tallest observation wheel by a mere 9 feet. Having missed the opportunity to ride the London Eye last year, I really wanted to see what it was like, so I was pretty excited to see that Groupon had a deal. The voucher we bought allowed for two different passes, but we went with the Happy Half Hour selection. Our tickets gave us access to a car with a bar and bartender and as many drinks as we could fit in during the 30 minute ride. The views were pretty spectacular and since it moves relatively slowly, you had ample time to take it all in. Should you choose to do the Happy Half Hour, I would suggest that you refrain from pre-drinking because if you imbibe too much, you may have trouble making it off the car when your ride is over. The cars never dock – it is in continuous motion – so if you’re at all drunk, you could find yourself lying in the net that has been strung up below the wheel.

The LINQ Outdoor Promenade

This area of the strip is very new. It’s situated in between the recently renovated The LINQ Hotel & Casino and the Flamingo. Filled with various restaurants, bars and shops, it’s pedestrian and family friendly. When we walked through after our ride on the High Roller, it is where we found the Brooklyn Bowl and Sprinkles. On our last day we also dropped into the Polaroid Fotobar, where you can use the computers to upload photos from your phone or social media and have Polaroid sized prints made. The store also houses a Polaroid Museum that happened to be closed for a private function when we were there. The promenade was also being set up for Britney Day festivities, which were taking place on November 5 when Britney Spears was getting the key to Las Vegas.

A view of the High Roller from near the entrance to the LINQ promenade.

A view of the High Roller from near the entrance to the LINQ promenade.

Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat

My friend and I both redeemed loyalty points through the myVEGAS Slots app for full passes to the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage. I was particularly excited to see the three white lion cubs that had been born just six months earlier. It really isn’t very big, but we spent probably an hour to an hour and half in there. The pass allows you access all day, so you can come and go if you choose. They had lions, white tigers and leopards in the garden. Truthfully, I was a little bit sad to see them all caged up behind fences, but they did seem very well cared for. The cubs looked like they were having a great time with the trainer that was playing with them in their space. In between viewings of the giant cats, we stopped to watch a dolphin training session where a lady had paid for a VIP dolphin experience. Her dolphin was adorable as it used squirt bottles to paint her a picture. As we wandered around I couldn’t help feeling like I had deja vu. When I got home from my trip, I asked my mom if I had been there before when we’d done family trips to Vegas and, sure enough, I had. That’s where my beloved white tiger stuffed toy had come from.

Well, this was quite the rundown of my holiday. If you’ve been to Vegas a number of times like I have, I hope that this post gives you some new ideas for your next trip. It seems like there is always something new, unique and interesting to do in that city. Why not try them all?