Category: Travel

Planning Three Fantastic Days in Chicago

Three Days Chicago

My parents and sister came up for a visit over Columbus Day weekend, and we had a fantastic time!  I spent a lot of time online searching for good ideas and options for us to do while they were in town, and I wanted to share those ideas here as a resource for others.  Each item on this list meets the following requirements:  (1) not too expensive, (2) easy access by car, (3) close to parking/car in case of a health emergency, and (4) family friendly, as well as caters in some way to the personal interests of my family.

Because we needed a plan we could play by ear, I put together a lot of options and then chose from those options based on how everyone was feeling and the weather.  We had a few extra hurdles this weekend, as this past Sunday was the Chicago marathon and there were many road closures and lots of extra people in the city.

Planning for Meals

No one has fun when they are hungry all day, so I typically plan days with guests around meals and am sure to include snacks.  Before my family arrived, I made sure to cook/purchase lots of healthy and not-so-healthy snacks, based on what my family likes and what I like.  I made sure to have carrots and hummus for a healthy snack, meatballs, cooked chicken, and nuts for protein, and some homemade and purchased cookies and candy for sweet snacks and desserts.

Feeding five people requires a lot more food (and effort!) than feeding two, so it’s important to take that into consideration when shopping.  I thought I did this well but still ended up running out of eggs before we ran out of mornings!  We planned to eat breakfasts at home and to make at least one dinner at home (so we could watch football), but made sure to have other things on hand in case our plans changed and we needed to stay closer to home.  And, there’s always takeout.

Choosing Restaurants

Instead of making reservations that would put stress on our days to be at certain places at certain times, I made a list of restaurant options that I knew we could go to without making reservations.  Here’s what we had on the list:

  • Deep Dish Pizza (a Chicago must) at Lou Malnati’s
  • Sandwiches from Panazzo’s Italian Sandwiches, a lunch location within walking distance from our apartment and with great Yelp reviews
  • Bongo Room, the current winner on my search for the best brunch locations in Chicago — get cheese on your breakfast potatoes.  Trust me.
  • Pita Heaven, another casual walk-in for lunch that added a little variety to our options
  • Uncle Julio’s Mexican Restaurant, with on-site parking and an easy-to-please menu
  • Chinese Food in Chinatown, since Chinese food is a favorite in my family — we ended up choosing Go 4 Food which was delicious!

Sightseeing

There is a lot to see and do in Chicago, but I know my family and I know they’d rather do a few enjoyable things than rush around the city trying to fit too much into each day.  My number-one choice for seeing the city without getting a workout is Shoreline Sightseeing’s Architecture River Cruises.  These cruises are fun, informative, and give you a chance to learn Chicago history and really get to know the major elements of the skyline.  I’ve been on two now and would absolutely go again — each tour guide gives you a different feel for the city.  And if you don’t love architecture, it’s still really fun to be on a boat, and kids love the boat noises, going under bridges, etc.  I think it’s a perfect start to the city.  After the architecture cruise, no matter where you go in the city you’ll see a building you remember from the cruise and feel like you’ve learned a little about the city.

Other easy options for sightseeing include:  the Chicago Tribune Building, which is right along Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile of shopping and has a very interesting construction that includes pieces of famous buildings across the world, the John Hancock Observatory and/or Lounge (locals recommend skipping the typical price of the observation deck and spending that money on a cocktail or espresso in the lounge instead), and a spot along Lake Michigan for beautiful city views.  The two options I chose for shoreline views were Promontory Point, a southern-view that would be better for afternoon photo-taking, and North Avenue Beach, to get a feel for what a Chicago summer would feel like.  We opted for North Avenue Beach and I think my parents enjoyed seeing the waterfront and the shuttered beach house.

ChicagoCollage

Finally, you will absolutely want to stop in Grant Park and/or Millennium Park and see the Bean.  It’s really cool and a great photo-taking opportunity.

Other Activities

While cookie-cutter sightseeing is fun for a while, what really makes a vacation are the fun things you do.  I had hoped to take my parents and sister to see the Best of Second City show on Saturday night, but unfortunately it had sold out before I purchased tickets and the Monday night showing did not fit our scheduling needs.  Try to get tickets if you can, but we’ll be saving that for their next visit.  We made sure to stop over at the Amish Healthy Foods Unique Grocery in the Ukrainian Village, and got delicious unusual flavors of gelato from Black Dog Chicago.  Also on the list but not on our final agenda was a Saturday stop at the Green City Farmer’s Market (can you tell we love looking at weird organic food?) and a visit to the Field Museum or the Shedd Aquarium.  On our last afternoon in the city, a stop at the nearby Horseshoe Casino was a fun break.

Finally, be sure to plan for quiet time/individual downtime.  Everyone needs some time to decompress, and that need can be even greater on vacation.  It’s supposed to be fun, so don’t let planning or getting places ruin the fun of it all.  Play some cards, people watch, read that book that’s been waiting for you, and enjoy your time together.

 

So, what did I miss?  What are your favorite parts of the city to share with your out-of-town guests? 

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My First Notre Dame Football Game

My husband and in-laws are really into sports.  Like, really.  A few years back, I decided to have opinions about sports teams and pretty much randomly began loving and/or hating teams based on things I completely made up, on the spot.  Using bits of sports knowledge picked up like second-hand smoke, I pieced together a web of love and hate based on the coolness of mascots, the ridiculousness of my reasoning (the more random and unexplainable the better), which team ruined my March Madness bracket the previous year, which colors were cuter with my favorite boots, and so on.  I’m sure you’re getting the picture.  This weird allegiance to random teams and unwavering hatred for others keeps me entertained during football Saturdays, football Sundays, basketball every-single-days, and baseball holy-cow-baseball-never-ends.  I’ve even started loving the sports talk, although if we’ve been watching sports for more than an hour or two, chances are I’m actually taking a nap.

My love for Notre Dame began this way.  I’d always favored President Bartlet‘s alma mater when picking winners and losers, but really committed to this at the beginning of the 2012 football season.  We were picking the Notre Dame-Navy game, and I was incredibly confident for the following incredibly convincing reasons:

  • President Bartlet loves the Irish,
  • The game was being played IN IRELAND,
  • The Pope is Catholic so clearly God loves Notre Dame football.

I know what you’re thinking:  how could anyone not be a believer after reading all three of those reasons.  And then Notre Dame won that game, and every game for the entire year, losing only to Alabama in the National Championship Game (and who can really hold that against them).  And while no one believed me for the first few games, after a while the entire family started [secretly hating?] picking ND with me.

Last weekend, H and I road-tripped to South Bend, Indiana to see my boys in action.  And we saw them fail.  Hard.  It was horrible.  But let’s just set that aside, because even though Oklahoma kicked our football-loving hearts into the dust, the campus and the community at Notre Dame were incredibly welcoming, the weather was perfect for tailgating, and we had a fantastic time.

Our view of the game — with Touchdown Jesus in the opposite end zone:

IMG_0893

The Golden Domed Building that is super cute but I have no idea what it is:

Golden Dome

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart — we went inside and it was even more beautiful inside than outside:

basilica

After the game, we checked out the Grotto, a.k.a. The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, which was beautiful and peaceful and a perfect end to a very long day:

Grotto

(Unfortunately we still had a two-hour drive, so we technically ended our day eating Chicken and Dumplings in tired silence at the Cracker Barrel half-way home.)

It will probably be next year before we go again, but I can’t wait to return to South Bend.  Unlike my first UT game where I was nearly pushed down the bleachers by a drunky, Notre Dame has successfully maintained its place in my tiny football heart.

Why Hello, New England!

Disclaimer:  I think repeated posts about pieces of vacations are really boring, and I usually get tired of the re-telling and leave off the last half of vacations to avoid the lameness of it all, so this is a GIANT vacation post that may seem ridiculous.  If so, here’s the short version for you:  our vacation was awesome, I caught a lobster and took my picture with Nathaniel Hawthorne, so now my life is complete.  The end.

As I mentioned previously (perhaps too many times!), H and I spent Columbus Day Weekend investigating the Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine coasts. It was a wonderful trip.  We tried to squeeze in a lot of activities while still relaxing (and catching some college football) during our short visit.  Here’s a quick run-down for you:

Day One:  Salem, Massachusetts, York, Maine, and Portland, Maine

First stop, Salem.  I’ve been wanting to visit Salem for ages.  [Random side story — Junior year of college, my little sister in KD and I drove up to Charlottesville, VA for fall break and made a stop in Salem, VA — which turned into a running joke about “where are all the witches?”  Wait, what?  Massachusetts?]

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial in Salem, Massachusetts. Each stone jutting out from the wall represents one victim of the trials.

Quotes from the Accused line the entryway: “I do plead NOT GUILTY.”

So, I was pretty excited about this whole trip idea. I had this dream that the witch museums would be out of control and that there would be gallows and history everywhere. And, to be honest, I was a little disappointed. Instead of lots of witch history, there were a lot of Halloween-related gimmicks. So that piece of the journey was a little disappointing. However, the Witch Trials Memorial, installed twenty years ago, was beautiful. Surrounding a graveyard in which Cotton Mather’s brother was buried, was a rectangular area surrounded by a stone wall on three sides, with memorials to each victim of the hysteria in 1692-1693.

Me with the House of the Seven Gables

The statue of Nathaniel Hawthorne

However, much to my history-loving delight (and not exactly to H’s delight), there were tons of other fun historical items on our agenda!  We had a photo shoot with the statue of Nathaniel Hawthorne in the town center, toured the House of the Seven Gables, and visited the home of his birth and upbringing (which has recently been moved onto the same property as the House of the Seven Gables).  Fact:  did you know that when Hawthorne was alive, the House of the Seven Gables really only had three gables?  The owner had torn down the other four gables to make the home more stylish.  Since that time, preservationists built the other gables back onto the house.

H in front of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site Museum

These are new ships made to look old, but they are still pretty cool! This one was built in Brazil.

Also, there was a lot of pirate history (still pretty gimmicky, so we skipped the live-action museum, haha), but the ships [real historians know that “boats” are submarines and on-top-of-the-water vessels are always called “ships” — don’t you forget it!], custom house, and National Park were very entertaining.  The water was also beautiful, and made for a pretty wonderful day.

The Cape Neddick (“Nubble”) Lighthouse in York, Maine.

So delicious!

Next on the list, a quick stop on the Maine coast in York, to see the beautiful lighthouse and eat the best ice cream in the world.  Well, I can’t really say for sure that this is the best ice cream in the world, but it was mighty fine and came highly recommended by our friends up north.

 

The Elms, Greater Portland

Then, we were back in the car and on our way to our evening destination:  Portland.  Portland was a weird little city.  We stayed just outside of the city on Friday night at a bed and breakfast we loved, but where our hosts basically told us that Portland was only good for eating and drinking beer.  We were okay with that. We spent the evening in a huge room overlooking the river, and enjoyed dinner that was so delicious we forgot to take photos, but included a huge bowl of the most delicious mussels I have ever eaten in my entire life.

Day Two:  Scone-off, Lobstering, and the Great Shopping Experience of 2012

We woke up Saturday ready for some action.  Our B&B served us fantastic eggs

The bakery with a sad looking carafe of coffee but the greatest most beautiful blueberry pies I have ever seen (still wish we had tried a slice!).

The Coffee Bar around the corner.

benedict for breakfast.  We were very happy food-wise, but the coffee was a bit weak for us so our first stop in the Old Port area was for a dark-brewed beverage.  We stopped first at a “famous” bakery to get pastries and coffee, but quickly discovered that they probably were not going to have the coffee we wanted.  So, we bought a maple scone to save face and then headed to the another coffee shop.  There, we ordered two mugs of drop coffee, a second scone, and sat down to read the local paper and plan out our day.

The scone on the right from Two Fat Cats Bakery was the clear winner.

So even though we’ve already eaten a delicious breakfast, we are sitting not an hour later at Crema devouring two scones and two coffees.  Don’t judge — it was mandated by the circumstances, and it was fun and delicious.

 

 

 

H and Me showing off one of the seven lobsters we caught!

This is the tool you use to determine if the lobster is the proper size for harvesting.

Then, after a few hours of exploring the Old Port area’s shops and offerings, we boarded our Lobster Cruise with Lucky Catch and baited traps, pulled up traps, evaluated our catches, secured lobster claws with rubber bands, and explored the islands off the coast of Portland.  This was perhaps the most exciting part of our entire trip — we wore the gloves and aprons and went all in.

Our guides taught us how to tell if a lobster is male or female and what the laws are in Maine which protect and increase the number of lobsters in that state.  At the end of our cruise, we went over to J’s Oyster House and I ate my first lobster.  It was not as delicious as I anticipated and quite a lot of gross.  I prefer crab legs, shrimp, and steak any day!

Then, we drove up to Freeport, Maine, to visit the L.L. Bean Factory Stores and to do a little shopping.  And let me tell you — those L.L. Bean stores are OUT OF CONTROL!  And, there aren’t really any good deals.  It’s more about the

The Hunting and Fishing Store.

experience.  So, we bought a few things because it was so COOL to be there but spent most of our time there just hanging out and experiencing the crazy that is five separate L.L. Bean stores in one location and about five-billion-cars and twenty-billion-people everywhere.  Who knew?  We did both purchase new winter jackets (H’s from L.L. Bean, mine from the North Face Sample Sale) and grabbed a few select items from J.Crew (how typical…)

 

Day Three:  Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and a Scenic Coastal Drive

Fort Constitution

Rock sculptures along one part of the coast.

We woke up mid-morning on Sunday and drove to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for lunch.  It was a cute little city but we forgot to take photos because, frankly, it looked just like everything else we had seen all weekend.  We had lunch at “Me and Ollie’s” bakery and, while the cashier was not super great at ringing up orders, our sandwiches were fantastic.  Then, we hit the road back toward the airport, following Ocean Blvd. down the coast of New Hampshire.  This was so much fun and really

The rocks were green from some sort of algae.

interesting, because the coastline up north is so different from down South where both H and I have typically vacationed.  We stopped at a couple of forts (obviously, I wanted to stop at more but H did not!), took photos at different look-out points, and saw exactly what we wanted to see.

 

 

The only thing missing from our trip was seeing a moose!  We weren’t far enough west to really expect a moose-sighting, but we still really want to see one so we may have to venture up to Maine again in the future to mark that off our bucket lists.

The closest we got a seeing a moose — this statue at the gas station!

Beer-ing our way through Minneapolis

So, mid-westerners take their beer pretty seriously.  According to one friend, there’s no need to have an open bar when you get married in Wisconsin, just pop open a couple of kegs and everyone (even your grandma) will be happy.  The local beer in Minneapolis did not disappoint. H and I rocked this out while we were in Minneapolis.


The most mainstream of the local beers is the Surly Furious.  It was good, but a little hoppy for me.  We tried the Surly at the Brits Pub, which is cool because it has lawn bowling on the upstairs patio. 

Lawn bowling looks a lot like croquet but has no mallets.  Instead, you just try to get your ball closer to the big ball than your opposition.  And you can only roll the ball, and it’s pretty funny.

 

But on Saturday afternoon of our weekend in Minneapolis, H and I took a personal tour of the Fulton Brewing Company.  And let me tell you — it was adorable.  The location is a few blocks away from Target Field (home of the Minnesota Twins) and has no food.  But, do not fear, hungry beer lovers, because Fulton has a schedule of Minneapolis’s best food trucks cycling into their parking lot and feeding the masses.  And if you don’t want whatever they are serving that day, you can just order a pizza.  The bartenders will help you.  Minnesota has a lot of nice people, including bartenders.  Wait, are people who serve beer bartenders?  Beer-tenders?  Keggers?  What are they?  Anyway, it’s pretty fantastic.

So back to the brewery tour:  the guy who gave us the tour was the father of the guy who created the beer.  And he was one proud papa.  He told us the entire story of the creation of the beer, starting with a “Mr. Beer” kit as a birthday gift, tracing the brewing station from a single-car garage to a double-car garage to the final warehouse and ending with $20,000-per-mixer production systems and how the Minnesota state laws on beer production have just been changed and that local breweries are going to be popping up all over the state.  (Good reason to move to Minnesota?  check). 

Also, the tour guide/proud papa told us a story about the origin of India Pale Ale (IPA):  British soldiers in India wanted beer, but by the time the beer barrels reached India, the beer was spoiled.  So, instead of using magic to keep the beer refrigerated, those smart British just put lots of extra hops into the beer to cover up the rotten flavor.  And, those soldiers got used to drinking gross-spoiled-hoppy beer in India, and wanted it when they got back to the homeland.  Doesn’t that sound delicious? 

Welcome to Minneapolis

Minnesota was beautiful.  They call it the land of 10,000 lakes for a reason, and while I can’t speak for the frigid ice-cold arctic* winters, living there in June was a pretty convincing alternative to the hot concrete here in DC.

This is the view of Minneapolis (not St. Paul) from the Prospect Park Tower.  The tower is apparently an old water tower but H called it the Witches’ Tower all weekend and often lapsed into saying some version of “Witches are Bitches” the entire weekend.  The photos are a little blurrier than normal because I am not technologically savvy and I had to use the “dusk/dawn” function to take the photos, but it was really a great view.

This photo is really terrible, I know!  But, it’s not a good story if you can’t see it!  [You can see an actual photo here.]  Also, there was a couple quietly fighting on the only bench while we were there and it totally killed the moment…because I started giggling and H ran away and then H said he saw a snake and I almost screamed but he was totally lying, of course, because sometimes he tries to be funny but is so NOT funny.  And I hope that couple made up because it would kind of ruin the Prospect Park magic if they broke up there.

*Actually, somehow in the course of my work duties last week I was informed that neither Minneapolis, Minnesota nor Anchorage, Alaska, were in the Arctic circle.  My job is kind of weird. 

Recap: Antietam in Snapshots

This is a recap post.  Things have been happening, we have been traveling, and I’ve just been too distracted and busy to keep up with the blog!  But, I’ve been taking photos and getting ideas so I’ll have a few posts here and there catching you up on all of the things we were doing before today.

Because, you see, today I became a single lady.  H left for Minnesota and I’ll be here in DC for three weeks before I can make it up for a visit.  Luckily, my granny, aunt, and cousin are here visiting a.k.a. keeping me super busy so I won’t have time to feel lonely!  It’s going to be a busy week with them here but I’m very excited about all of the fun things we will do together.

Leo is also doing a great job at entertaining me.  Today we played tag and he totally won (as indicated by the scratch on my hand).  He LOVES playing hide and seek attack.

This is a photo collage of our weekend trip to explore the Antietam battlegrounds.  It was a fun, hot day and we explored history a little and searched for an ice cream parlor a lot.  Because we enjoy canons and bullets and bridges and all but nothing says Civil War like homemade butter pecan.  And try as we might, we never found that ice cream shop.  So, if you are looking for new business ideas, perhaps try opening an ice cream parlor in Shepardstown, WV?  We would be regular customers, and trust me — we eat a lot of ice cream.

Exploring the Beach!

This is the continuation of my camping chronicles.

We went straight to Ocean City, MD, which was about 70% ghost town and about 30% AWESOME.  First, we drove down the strip and viewed all of the not-quite-open hotels.

Then, straight to the beach!
The views were beautiful, but it was kind of freezing.
We had a mini-photo shoot, but it was mostly just me taking photos while everyone else looked at me awkwardly.  Just saying.

M and S were looking cute as always, and H was giggling while I tried to convince him that it was time to change his Facebook profile picture.  I mean, it hasn’t even been updated since we were engaged, or married.


And isn’t this one so cute?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once we were done, we went up to the Ocean City boardwalk for some real fun.  We walked down the strip, bought fancy flavored popcorn, and M and I listened as S and H talked smack and then fought it out with a basketball shoot out (sadly, H was robbed by a broken machine counter in the first round but proved himself when he set the high score the second round).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then, the main attraction:  the most delicious thing I have ever eaten in my entire life — deep fried, battered oreos.  Oh my goodness, so delicious.  And terrible for us.  But, I mean, I’m going camping so I can do whatever I want.  Right?

Right.