We’re staying domestic for this Travel Tuesday post
People seemed so shocked to learn that I’d never been to Chicago. I don’t know what to say…I just never made it there? I didn’t really know what the big draw was. I mean, The Bean seemed cool and all but not really worthy of a trip to another time zone. However, when UGA and Notre Dame (me and my beau’s respective teams) announced the date of their face-off, we (along with the rest of the Bulldawg Nation) booked our trip to Chi-town. Now I know I was way wrong. Chicago is a really freakin cool city. I kept saying it would be such a great place to live (homes in the heart of the city are surprisingly cheap) if the weather wasn’t so miserable 6 months out of the year. I guess I’ll remain an East Coaster but will happily return to the Windy City in the future. While we didn’t have a ton of time there (especially since Saturday was spent traveling to and from South Bend for the game), we got a nice taste of the city. There is so much more to see so I’ll be sure to post a follow-up guide if and when I do go back to continue my Chicago exploration.
We left for Chicago straight from work, arriving (with the time change) at 9:30 PM. By the time we got to our hotel, it was just after 10 and we went nearby for some food. I had done my research and knew there was not a ton of late night food in Chicago and had written down one of the few places in walking distance of our hotel that was still serving. Bijon Bistro was surprisingly good and served some more upscale food options. It’s nothing too fancy, but it’s one of the few non-fast food places where the kitchen is open past 10. (Theirs is open til 3 AM, in fact.) I had some mac and cheese while Albert had a steak sandwich that was actually quite tasty. Bonus points for the avocado on his side salad (when does that happen?!).
There was a cool bar in our hotel so we stopped for a quick nightcap on the way to the room. The Broken Shaker is a mix of tiki and antique-y and is way better than most hotel bars I’ve seen. It’s the kind of spot I would go to even if I wasn’t staying at the hotel. If you’re into mixology, this is a great spot. Their menu already has some delicious options, but they also have a daily special and a punch service on offer if you want to mix things up.
I woke up early so I could go to a 7:10 AM Barry’s Bootcamp class, which happened to be right around the corner from our hotel. I never thought about going to these classes when traveling (vacation should be all about indulgence not exercising, right?!), but I once read a post from a blogger who likes to check out local boutique fitness classes when traveling, and it stuck with me. I’m now a big fan. It’s a great way to feel like a local. It also gives you the extra opportunity to do some window shopping on your way to/from class and see a bit more of the city. Most importantly, it forced me to get up and out of the hotel early so I could squeeze in one more meal that day. When you’re in a fun foodie city, that extra bit is precious.
Speaking of breakfast, the place I stopped was called Beatrix. I hear it’s a great place to sit down for a full meal (breakfast, lunch, or dinner), but I quite enjoyed grabbing from the to-go counter. If you’re a coffee snob, there is some great caffeine in Chicago. Beatrix happens to serve Chicago roasters, Intelligentsia and Metric, and they have some really yummy concoctions including the Hawaiian Surprise (mocha with coconut milk) and the Mexican iced latte that I tried (which has cinnamon – yum). I also got a pineapple bran muffin that was fresh, sticky, and delicious.
I got my bearings within the neighborhood as I walked back to the hotel where I finished showering/getting ready just in time to head down to the lobby and meet up with Smerg and Steph, who had just landed. Everyone was starving so Albert did a quick search for on Google and found Longman & Eagle on Eater. We hopped into an Uber and made our way to the Logan Square eatery for brunch. We all loved his pick – the Southern inspired menu featured a PBR breakfast (for the boys), hash (for Steph), and shrimp and grits (for me). We all cleaned our plates and sucked down our delicious whiskey-based cocktails. Somehow I’m missing my photos from this meal, but trust me it was good.
After brunch, we wanted to check out the popular Wicker Park neighborhood so we ordered an Uber and had it drop us off at a spot that looked (on Google Maps) to have a lot of stores and restaurants. We spent some time walking down Milwaukee Ave., stopping in Volumes (a bookstore and café – heaven!) and then Store B Vintage. I picked up an old pharmaceutical vial that I intend to use as a bud vase. There were TONS of great finds there.
While Steph and I were browsing the vintage shop, the boys had stopped in a nearby bar where they noticed a bottle labeled Koval. That’s the last name of Smerg’s cousins so he was immediately intrigued. When they learned the distillery was uptown and open for tours, a field trip was in order. Ten minutes later we were in another Uber and soon tasting all the whiskies Koval had to offer. We realized there was a brewery just two blocks away so after whiskey, it was time for beer at Empirical Brewery.
Soon it was time to start making our way back down to our hotel area but we couldn’t head in that direction without stopping in Wrigleyville to see the iconic stadium. The area was packed because the Cubs game was about to get started so we had a few drinks, mingled with some Chicagoans, and ate some fried food snackies. It’s crazy how the area around Wrigley is a real area with nice bars and restaurants and cute apartments. It’s a different experience than most stadiums, which often seem to be like an island in the middle of a shady area with one nearby bar.
We didn’t have tickets for the game so after the first pitch we headed to our hotel to change for supper. We needed to stay in the area by our hotel because we were trying to coordinate a ticket exchange for Saturday’s game. We didn’t want anything that felt fancy or stuffy, particularly since we’d been running around all day and wanted to just relax. We decided on Imperial Lamian because I had read the soup dumplings were both tasty and cute enough for Instagram. Dumplings and noodles are low-key comfort foods so everyone was on board. The soup dumplings, which come in an array of colors to distinguish the flavors, were as tasty as they were fun to look at. They were a bit light on the broth, but the flavors were on point. We tried the sampler (shanghai, spicy Szechuan, gruyere, crab, truffle, and duck flavors) and loved all of them. I was judgy about the gruyere since it’s not traditional, but it was actually fabulous and one of my faves. We ordered the asparagus in XO sauce and green beans with minced pork for the table. I was a very big fan of that asparagus. For my entrée, I ordered the minced pork la mian (hand pulled noodles) and added sliced pork at the waitress’ [very helpful] suggestion. Flavorful broth, very tasty meat. All around great bowl of noods.
After dinner, the boys went to the bars for a couple hours, but us gals decided to go back to the hotel to prepare for a very early game day…
In terms of a Chicago city guide, Saturday is pretty much a complete wash. We got to a bar at 9:30 AM for drinks (yes, drinks) and breakfast before boarding the party bus to South Bend at 10:30 AM. The day was spent tailgating and checking out the campus until kickoff at 7:30 PM. After a tense game (and exciting win for UGA!), we re-boarded the bus, waited a while for the parking lot to clear out, and arrived back in Chicago around 2:30 AM.
Before the day started, however, I did manage to cross one foodie item off my list with a 9 AM stop at Firecakes doughnuts. I got 3 minis – maple pineapple bacon, peach cobbler, and valharona chocolate with espresso cream – that we devoured as soon as we got to the bar that morning. My pick was the maple pineapple bacon, but the peach cobbler was the crowd fave.
FYI – The Notre Dame campus is beautiful and their fans are SO nice!
With a 4 PM flight, we needed to leave for the airport by 1:30/2 PM. Since our Saturday was quite long we allowed ourselves to sleep in a bit. By the time we were showered and check-out ready, it was 10:30 AM. Since we didn’t have a ton of time to go explore a more local-y neighborhood, we decided to make Sunday a touristy day. We planned to pack all the Chicago sights and food musts into about three hours. If I’m going to hit up tourist attractions on a trip, I prefer to power through them like this. We could have meandered through these activities on Friday and spent the whole day doing so, but I would have felt we wasted the trip by not spending more time seeing Chicago as the locals do.
We grabbed lattes from West Town coffee shop and bakery next door and walked a few short blocks to the institution that is Portillo’s for a breakfast of champions: hot dogs. Albert got a tried and true Chicago dog, while I got the chili cheese dog (don’t worry, I tried his to make sure I got the full experience). I am NOT a hot dog person but actually really liked these! The poppy seed bun makes a big difference. Check that one off the bucket list!
From Portillos it’s about a .7 mile walk to Millennium Park so we were able to work off those hot dogs a bit. On the way, we stopped to gaze at the river and look at the architecture. Chicago has some seriously cool architecture, FYI. Then it was time for the main event: the Cloud Gate sculpture aka THE BEAN. We saw it and took pics. Great. Glad we did since it’s a cool sculpture. Would I have spent all day Friday looking at it? Nope. Happy we did the rushed version. I was actually more impressed by the whole of Grant Park. There are some other cool sculptures there and a gorgeous amphitheater – I would love to see a show there.
And then it was time for our next meal. I mean, it wasn’t really time since we were still full, but we had to say we tried deep dish pizza. Not only have I not had deep dish in Chicago, I hadn’t had deep dish ever. It was time. We went to Lou Malnati’s because, like Portillo’s, it’s an institution. Like Portillo’s, I was concerned about going to a chain, but I was assured it became a chain for a reason. We got the original, which is buttercrust with cheese, crushed tomatoes, and sausage. I would say this can’t be classified as pizza (sorry, Chicago), but it was quite tasty.
We managed to see and eat a lot in a short amount of time, but I can tell there is so much more of the city that I want to check out. We will definitely make our way back.
- Accommodations: Freehand Chicago
- I loved this hotel! The decor was funky…kind of hipster Southwestern vibes. I love that they had non hotel-y food and drink options, including Café Integral (good coffee and avocado toast) and Broken Shaker.
- NOTE: This is a pod style hotel. That means the rooms are small. Very small. Like only about 14 square feet to walk around once you account for the bed and desk. For us, that’s fine because we were spending so little time in the room so I prefer to give up space for nice touches (like the Argon products in the bathroom, a rainhead shower, bluetooth speakers) and cool decor touches.
- In addition to the food and bev amenities, the hotel was great about suggesting fun activities, like yoga in the park. It was also in a super central location.
- Neighborhood: River North
- Similar to the South Loop, there are tons of hotels here so it’s a good place to set up camp, especially if you want to head to that South Loop and other tourist areas to check out attractions like The Bean, Magnificent Mile, and Navy Pier. It’s near all the tourist spots and is still pretty touristy itself, but is slightly removed from the complete tourist life. It’s also central enough that it’s an easy ride to other fun neighborhoods.
- Steakhouses are big in River North so if you want fare that’s traditional to that neighborhood, that’s your best bet.
- Hubbard Street is the main drag for bars and restaurants.
- Weather: Chicago really is the windy city. It felt noticeably colder than NYC. Pack appropriately and make sure to wear layers in the Fall since it’s warm in the sun but chilly at night.
- Eat Some Tacos: Ok so number one you gotta eat a hot dog and deep dish. If you’re going all the way to Chicago, you have to at least try their most famous food items. After you’ve gotten that out of the way, you can try all the other amazing food Chicago has to offer. There are tonssss of great restaurants. I mostly noticed there were about a million places to get tacos. I had no idea this was such a taco town! They clearly excel at the dish, so make sure you try some.
- Leave Magnificent Mile: Even though it doesn’t look nearly as crowded as NYC, this is basically the Times Square of Chicago. Don’t be the lame-o who just stays in this area. There are so many other cool areas to explore, like Wicker Park, Lincoln Park, and Bucktown.
- Don’t Count on a Ton of Late Night Food Options: I was most surprised to learn there are very few late night eateries. I know New York is the city that never sleeps, but Chicago’s not exactly a sleeper town. Bars are open til 4 AM, for crying out loud! That said, there are not a lot of places to get drunk food or even, say, a late meal at a diner after a long flight.
- Look Up: There are so many gorgeous buildings in Chicago so be sure to simply admire the architecture. We didn’t have time, but the architecture tour (especially the boat one where you can drink) came highly recommended. You can also kayak down the river, which would be a great way to see the city.