Chicago, Chicago

The US city to rival New York for things to do!

Lake Shore Drive

When considering a city break in America, many people think of New York but in my mind, Chicago definitely rivals it for atmosphere, World-class museums, tall buildings, history and sheer amount of things to do. And its setting on the shores of Lake Michigan, one of the Great Lakes, makes it one of the prettiest cities to visit too.

I first visited the city for 4 days at the end of a 2 week multi-city trip to the States which had also taken in New York and Washington DC. Of the 3 cities, Chicago was the one I knew least about and I was unsure what to expect but I fell in love with the city and have returned again and again since – I’m currently weighing in at 6 visits in total but expecting that to go up in the future.

So what is it about the city that keeps pulling me back and what is there to do?

The Lake

Paddling in Lake Michigan

Chicago lies on the west side of Lake Michigan, a lake so big that, looking out at it from the city, you could easily mistake it for the ocean! Lake Shore Drive runs north to south alongside the lake and is worth a stroll, jog, bike ride or even segway along.

Beaches sit on the lake’s edge and, whenever I’ve been in the summer months, are crowded with sunbathers and volleyball players and while I’ve never seen anyone taking a dip in the lake, people must do as lifeguard stands stood along the main beach!

View of the Chicago skyline from Lake Michigan

From Navy Pier, you can choose from a variety of boat trips out onto the lake and once out there you can enjoy unparalleled views of the Chicago city skyline.

Chicago River

Chicago River at night

The Chicago River runs through the city from Lake Michigan at Navy Pier. A river walk has been created which runs alongside, lined with shops, bars and restaurants or you can take the Chicago Architectural Tour, a boat ride along the river with a commentary about the multitude of architectural styles of buildings that make up the city’s skyline.

Navy Pier

This Chicago institution juts out over Lake Michigan and is an entertainment hub for the city. Entry onto the pier is free and once there you’ll find a huge food court and plenty of entertainment and shopping opportunities to keep everyone amused for hours.

Many of the boat trips onto Lake Michigan launch from here and you’ll also find a couple of museums – the Children’s Museum of Chicago and the Museum of Stained Glass.

One of the big draws of Navy Pier is it’s small amusement park. While it mainly offers rides aimed at young children, there’s also a carousel, flying chairs and, of course, the Chicago Ferris wheel offering views over the city and lake.

In the summer months, firework displays usually run twice weekly from the pier!

The Miracle Mile

Dylan’s Candy Bar on Michigan Ave

Chicago is a great place to shop. Michigan Avenue, also known as the ‘Miracle Mile’, runs down the centre of the city and here you’ll find a mix of high street stores and top fashion houses all on one long road!

The Wrigley and Tribune Buildings
Pieces of famous buildings built into the Chicago Tribune Building

Museums

Sue the T-Rex at the Field Museum

If museums are your thing then you’ll be spoilt for choice in Chicago. Down at Museum Campus, you’ll find the Field Museum – Chicago’s Natural History Museum – home to one of the largest collections of dinosaurs in the World including Sue the T-Rex who stands proudly in the museum entrance hall. Museum Campus is also home to the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium and even if you’re not planning on going to the museums, it’s worth a visit to the area for the views across Lake Michigan!

For art, head to the Art Institute of Chicago situated near Millennium Park. This museum houses some World renowned works of art including Grant Wood’s America Gothic and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks as well as impressive collections of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and artefacts.

For something a bit more unusual, head upstairs at the city’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonalds” where you’ll find a small McDonalds’ museum with old advertising, Happy Meal toys and other merchandise!

President Lincoln’s bed at the Chicago History Museum

A bit more out of the way, in the North part of city at Lincoln Park, but definitely worth the trip, is the Chicago History Museum containing displays and exhibitions from the city’s past – and what an interesting past it is! From the Great Fire of Chicago to the city’s close links with President Abraham Lincoln, from its hosting of the World Fair in the late 1800s to it’s Prohibition era gangsta connections, there’s plenty here to learn about this great city.

Prohibition era Chicago

While on the subject of Chicago’s links to prohibition era mobsters, there are plenty of companies offering guided tours of the city talking about this. My favourite is the ‘Untouchable tour’ where you are driven around in a battered, bullet-hole covered mini-van as 2 actors dressed appropriately for the era recount the grisly stories of the city’s past and point out the scenes of the crimes in an informative but humorous way. Fascinating stuff!

The City Parks

Cloudgate at Millennium Park

The first place I like to head to on any visit to Chicago is Millennium Park to see my favourite outdoor works of art, Cloudgate and the Crown Fountain. Cloudgate, also known as the Silver Bean, is a huge silver bean-shaped sculpture which lies in a square in the centre of the park reflecting the city skyline and the many tourists who crowd around, and under, it! It’s great fun to stand facing the sculpture from different angles and see if you can spot yourself in it!

Crown Fountain

Not far from Cloudgate, also in Millennium Park, is the Crown Fountain which also has another more descriptive name – the spitting fountain! The fountain has a huge pillar at each end broadcasting the faces of actual Chicago city-dwellers who, once every 15 minutes or so, appear to spit water out of their mouths. I once made the mistake on a very hot day of thinking it would be a good idea to stand under the jet of water being spat out while wearing denim knee-length shorts. Despite the heat, it took forever to dry out again!!! Great fun for the kids though.

A short walk south from Millennium Park is Grant Park where you’ll find another famous Chicago Fountain, Buckingham Fountain. Try to visit on the hour as the water spouting from the fountain jumps impressively higher into the sky!!

Buckingham Fountain
Statue of President Lincoln in Lincoln Park

The city’s largest park is Lincoln Park, named after President Abraham Lincoln.

This park is situated on the Northern edge of Lake Michigan and is also home to the city’s zoo!

The Pizza

Chicago is famous for its Deep Dish Pizza and there are a few restaurants in the city all claiming to have the best. My personal favourite is Gino’s East. Expect to queue for a while outside it’s flagship restaurant on Superior and then to wait at least an hour for your pizza to be cooked and served but it’s definitely worth the wait.

The restaurant allows customers to graffiti its interior – any surface, the tables, chairs, walls, ceilings etc, can be scribbled on – so while waiting for your food to arrive, keep yourself amused by reading through the messages left by previous customers and leaving your own mark on the place!

The Tall Buildings

View from Willis Tower Skydeck

Chicago is home to many skyscrapers and there are two offering visitors a viewing deck on the upper floors. The most famous of these is at the building formerly known as the Sears Tower (many native Chicago dwellers still refuse to call it anything different to this, so synonymous with the city is the name), now known as Willis Tower.

The building was once the tallest in the World and it’s Skydeck, offering visitors the opportunity to stand on a glass floor above the city, is situated on the 103rd floor. On a clear day, it is possible to see 4 states from here!

Stood on the edge!

As it is situated closer to Lake Michigan, I personally prefer the views from the Chicago 360 observation deck in the city’s John Hancock Building from where you can look down at the beaches running alongside the lake. This observation deck also offers Tilt, a kind of Observation Deck thrill ride where you lie against windows that slowly tilt outwards over the Magnificent Mile!

All of my visits to Chicago so far have been in the summer months and I’d imagine it’s a very different city in the harsh winter months but it really is a wonderful city and if you get the chance, I definitely recommend a visit!

Northern BLT Days 12-14: Jackson, Wyoming

The view after leaving Yellowstone National Park
Hiking at Grand Teton National Park

After an incredible few days, we were all feeling a bit down as we drove out of the south entrance of Yellowstone National Park but this didn’t last long as we were suddenly met with stunning views of snow-capped mountains ahead of us. Pulling over so we could take photos of the beautiful view, we were told that these were the Grand Tetons and our next stop that day would be at the often over-looked Grand Teton National Park. Most of us had no idea that this was even on the itinerary and were excited at the prospect of visiting another National Park straight after Yellowstone.

Views while hiking at Grand Teton National Park

We arrived at Jenny Lake Visitor Centre mid-afternoon and after looking around, grabbing some souvenirs and trying some of the local huckleberry products, we embarked on a lakeside hike to Hidden Falls. The easy trail provided us with more stunning views of the Grand Tetons and of the lake itself and we even spotted a few deer along the way. Rather than hiking the entire perimeter of the lake, once we reached Hidden Falls, we took the park’s shuttle boat across the lake back to the visitor centre.

Dinner in Jackson, Wyoming

Unfortunately that was all we had time for at the park but I made a mental note to return and explore more at some point in the future. From the park, we drove south to the town of Jackson, Wyoming. As we drove through we were all quite excited to see some well-known branded cafes and stores such as Starbucks as we’d been out in the middle of nowhere a lot since Chicago! We didn’t stop but continued on to our KOA site a few miles out of the town centre to check in, freshen up and have a bit of downtime.

The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar

It was Saturday night and this evening we were going to be dropped back in to the town on Jackson for dinner and a night out at the famous Million Dollar Cowboy Bar – something many of us girls were particularly excited about! Once back in Jackson, some of the group decided to eat at a nice steak house just off the main square while the rest of us chose the cheaper option of a small diner further down the high street and we arranged to meet after inside the cowboy bar.

After dinner, we entered the bar to find the bar stools were saddle seats! We all took turns to sit on them for a photo opportunity before ordering our drinks and finding a table. We spent the rest of the evening enjoying the live country music band which was playing and watching the two-stepping taking place on the dancefloor while trying (and failing!) to attract the attention of some of the younger local cowboys!

The next morning, most of the group had booked to go white water rafting along the nearby Snake River. This was something I was actually quite nervous about but had no reason to be as it was one of the most fun things I did all trip! With 8 of us in the raft and an experienced guide steering at the back, we navigated our way through the rapids, all managing to stay firmly in the boat – until we reached a still water area and were invited to jump in for a swim in order to earn a wristband!

Rafting along Snake River

Being a water lover, I was first in before the guide had even finished talking. The water was freezing and I was clambering back on board within seconds or at least attempting to, as climbing back onto the raft was a lot easier said than done! Once we were all back on board, we continued to ride the remaining rapids until we reached the exit point where a shuttle met us to take us back to our KOA.

Jackson Square

Soaking wet and exhausted from the effort, we quickly made use of the KOA showers and changed before heading back into Jackson for the afternoon to meet back up with the remaining group members and tell the about all the fun they had missed!

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the town, visiting countless souvenir shops and cowboy apparel stores and eating ice cream sat out in Jackson Square before dinner at a local brewery then returning to the KOA for an evening sat around the campfire talking and drinking.

Some of us were up bright and early the next day to go horse riding at the OK Corral Stables just across the road from the KOA site. I hadn’t been on a horse since I was a child but the guided trails are set up for beginners to enjoy and once we had been assigned our horses and climbed on we were lead along the road to a trail leading up into the mountains. This was such a fun activity and once we had made it to the top of the trail, the views over Wyoming were absolutely beautiful making the early start to the day more than worth it. Once back at the stables, we said goodbye and thank-you to our horses and returned across the road to our KOA to meet back with the rest of the group, load our things onto the trailer and jump back on the van to say goodbye to the beautiful state of Wyoming as we began our journey to our next destination.

Watch my Trek America adventures in Jackson, Wyoming here:

Northern BLT Day 7-8: South Dakota

After a fun morning visiting the Jolly Green Giant in Minnesota state, we crossed the border into South Dakota for lunch in the town of Brandon. This stop was notable mainly for us having a group member with the same name, causing all sorts of hilarity as we dug into our Subway sandwiches followed by some frozen yoghurt!

This afternoon we were heading towards Badlands National Park but delayed for various reasons, we arrived to late to spend any time in the park that day and instead, went straight to our KOA site to check into our cabins and do the first group cook of the trip.

That evening there were early nights all around as we prepared to get up at the crack of dawn to head into the National Park for sunrise. Those plans were abandoned the next day when we awoke to torrential rain and it became apparent that there would be no sun to view rising. Instead, we made multiple attempts to get to and from the shower blocks without getting so drenched we had to change clothes all over again before having a pancake breakfast under a marquee only just about holding up under the weight of the heavy rainfall.

Deciding the weather probably wasn’t improving any time soon, we made the decision to head into the park anyway. Luckily, as we approached, the weather started to clear up and by the time we’d spent some time in the visitor centre looking at the displays, watching a video about the Badlands and buying souvenirs, it had stopped raining completely allowing us to go hiking over the odd moonscape.

With a long drive ahead of us, we didn’t spend too long at Badlands National Park. We made a brief stop at a National Park Service Missile Silo on the way out then continued to our main stop for today, Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Mount Rushmore was somewhere I’d wanted to visit for years but unlike many of the other recognisable US site such as the Hollywood sign and the Statue of Liberty, isn’t in one of the major cities and is therefore more difficult to get to.

As we travelled through South Dakota on our way to Mount Rushmore, we kept passing signs advertising the town of Wall Drug. The signs continued for hundreds of miles showing pictures of cowboys, ice cream, coffee and even a dinosaur! We were all intrigued and our guide informed us that Wall Drug would be today’s lunch stop.

Once there, we found a Wild West type town with plenty of places to eat and drink. We settled on a bar where many of the groups tried bison burgers while the rest of us tucked into pizza then spent the next half hour wandering through the themed stores, buying souvenirs and eating ice cream. Unsure why the town had been hyped for so far along our drive, we returned to our Trek van to continue on our journey.

Carved in to the Black Hills of South Dakota, Mount Rushmore depicts the faces of four USA presidents, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. It was a lot smaller than I expected it to be but I still took way more photos of it than I needed to and bought loads of useless souvenirs, including a Christmas bauble in the shape of Mount Rushmore, from the visitor centre.

Just up the road from Mount Rushmore, we stopped at the Crazy Horse Memorial. Currently being carved into the Black Rocks and unlikely to be finished in our lifetime, it was fascinating to see the work going on in the distance and see displays showing the progress so far and how the sculpture will look when it is finally finished.

Our overnight stop tonight was on the South Dakota/Wyoming border at another KOA, our cabins overlooked by the looming Devil’s Tower National Monument. Arriving at dusk, we went straight to the site’s cafe for dinner followed by drinks around the camp fire and a few hours sleep before an early start the next day.

Watch my Trek America adventures in South Dakota here:

Northern BLT Day 6-7: Wisconsin and Minnesota

After a fun day exploring Chicago, we were heading to one of those break-up-the-journey, middle-of-nowhere stops today somewhere in the state of Minnesota.

Just before leaving the state of Illinois, we stopped in the town of Des Plaines to see the Original McDonald’s but unfortunately, when we arrived we found it was closed so instead of going inside and visiting the museum, had to make do with taking photos from outside.

Walking along Braodway at The Dells

Our lunch stop today was in Wisconsin at a place called Wisconsin Dells. As we drove through the Dells towards the main street, we were all very excited to see various water parks, amusement rides, adventure golf courses…followed by all sorts of tacky attractions including a Mirror Maze and Museum of Torture along the main street so when we were told we’d only be getting just over an hour to explore and get some lunch, we were all a bit disappointed. We spent our time browsing in the many tacky souvenir stores with most of us grabbing lunch from The Cheesy Tomato Cafe which specialised in menu items containing Wisconsin cheese. I went for their ‘famous’ Donut Grilled Cheese – a grilled cheese sandwich but with a jam doughnut being used where the bread usually goes! It was just as sickly as it sounds.

Minnesota

The rest of the day mainly consisted of sitting on the van as we entered Minnesota state and drove past seemingly endless fields, farms and red barns until we reached out motel in Albert Lea.

Popcorn!

After dinner in the motel restaurant, we went out to the cinema for evening where we were pleased to find that the bags of popcorn were just as huge as they appeared to be on TV!!

The next day was to be another long drive day as we aimed to reach the state of South Dakota but first we had one more stop in Minnesota, one that the whole group had been looking forward to. We were off to visit the Jolly Green Giant in the town of Blue Earth. Unfortunately, it was raining heavily by the time we arrived so we didn’t spend as long as we probably would have taking photos. There was a small gift store by the statue with all kids of random Jolly Green Giant themed items and we spent most of our time in there rather than outside with the Giant himself.

After seeing the giant, we were dropped off just around the corner at the Jolly Green Giant Museum, an unexpected stop. Here we learnt all about the history of the Jolly Green Giant and found more Jolly Green Giant merchandise on display than we ever thought possible! It was such a fun place to visit.

Then it was back onto the van to continue our journey through Minnesota state towards the border of South Dakota where we’d be spending the next few days of our trip.

Watch my Trek America adventures in Wisconsin and Minnesota here:

Northern BLT Day 4-5: Chicago

Day 4 of our coast to coast Trek America tour and we were up early to leave our Ohio KOA cabins and begin our journey to Chicago.

Horse and cart on the streets of Shipshewana
Exploring Shipshewana

Our first stop to day was just across the border of Indiana state in the Amish town of Shipshewana. I’m not exactly sure what I expected but it wasn’t what we got. Shipshewana was in many ways a typical American town like any other I’d visited. Except for the occasional horse and cart rolling down the streets and the odd person in traditional Amish dress passing by. With it’s Amish market selling handmade food and crafts and the opportunity to take a ride on the traditional horse and carts, it felt like a very touristy look at Amish life rather than getting an accurate snapshot but we enjoyed wandering around and especially enjoyed the homemade ice cream we purchased before leaving to continue our journey.

Shipshewana, Indiana

We had one more stop before arriving in Chicago, Illinois – at the childhood home of Michael Jackson in the town of Gary, Indiana. The house had become something of a shrine with fan messages and gifts covering the gates around the house.

Then it was on to Chicago where we were staying at the HI Hostel in the Loop area. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived so as we got ourselves settles into our rooms – it was a really nice hostel and us girls had our own en suite dorm! – deep dish pizza was ordered in from a nearby Gino’s East area which we ate down in the common area. Having had Gino’s deep dish fresh at the main restaurant in the past, I didn’t enjoy the take out pizza as much and many of the others in the group were unimpressed.

At Bobby’s Bike Hire in Chicago

That evening most of us had taken up the option to take a bike tour of Chicago, something I’d not done on my previous 2 visits to the city. Short on time, we caught taxis uptown to the headquarters of Bobby’s Bikes where we were each provided with hi-vis jackets, helmets and a bike before setting off to follow our tour guide. Our first stop was on the shore of Lake Michigan but unfortunately the fog had moved in over the city obscuring any views we should have had. Then we rode uptown to see some of the huge mansions including the original Playboy mansion.

The Cloudgate sculpture in Millennium Park

We were all a bit nervous when told we’d be riding on the main road alongside all the Chicago traffic for the next section of our tour but it was less scary than it sounded and we paused for photos down by the Chicago river before cycling back lakeside and down to Millennium Park to see the amazing Cloudgate sculpture then further south past Grant Park to the museum campus where, completely coincidentally, fireworks started going off at an event being held there just as we arrived.

Fireworks at the end of our tour

Bike tour over, we walked to the Hancock Tower where the rest of the group were having drinks in the sky bar. We joined them for a drink but left shortly after as the cloud meant there was zero visibility and it was an expensive place for drinks when there was no view! Instead, we walked back to the hostel and spent the rest of the evening in the common room playing table tennis and pool.

Chicago River
Willis Tower

The next day we had a full day in Chicago to do what we liked. Most of us decided to use it to try and see as much of the city as we could in a day and as I’d been before and vaguely knew my way around, I lead the way. We started at Willis Tower, formerly Sears Tower, once the tallest building in the World. The queues for the viewing platform weren’t too long so we bought tickets to go up and spent some time enjoying the views over the city.

Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park

Next, we walked back towards the lake and visited Grant Park to see Buckingham Fountain. There was a food festival going on in the park so we stopped for a few free samples as we walk through towards Millennium Park. At Millennium Park, we stopped to see Crown Fountain, also known as the ‘spitting’ fountain as digital faces each end appear to spit water out at regular intervals. Then we walked back to the Cloudgate Sculpture which we’d seen on our bike tour the previous night but is always a fun place to visit in the city as you can see yourself reflected in it!

Next up was Navy Pier where we had lunch at the huge food court before taking a boat cruise on Lake Michigan. The pier has a few fair rides so as lunch had gone down, we took a ride on the flying chairs.

Ride on Navy Pier

From Navy Pier, we walked back alongside the Chicago River to Michigan Avenue, also known as the Miracle Mile. Similar to New York’s Fifth Avenue, this is where all the big stores are and we spent a while browsing in the shops as we went past.

Beach on Lake Michigan
Gino’s East

Getting hungry again, some of the group decided to go to the Cheesecake Factory in the Hancock Tower for food while two of us decided to give deep dish pizza another go, this time at Gino’s East restaurant. Eating the pizza at the restaurant made a huge difference and this time, it was just as good as I had remembered!

It was evening by the time we all met up again and the sunshine had disappeared and been replaced by big, black clouds. As we walked back down Michigan Avenue, it started to pour down with rain causing us to decide to call it a day and run back to the hostel to shelter. But we’d had a fun day sightseeing in the city and managed to fit a lot in in a short time.

Watch my Trek America adventures in Chicago here:

Northern BLT Day 3: Ohio

Sandusky and Cedar Point Amusement Park

Entering the state of Ohio

After breakfast at the local Dunkin’ Donuts in Buffalo, it was back on the road to drive towards the state of Ohio. Once there, we’d be visiting Cedar Point Amusement Park near Cleveland, an activity I was really looking forward too!

Stops along the way we’re kept to a minimum today as we wanted to make sure we got as much time as possible in the park. We did take a slight detour to drop the American member of our group in Cleveland itself as he wanted to visit the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame there rather than visit Cedar Point.

Our cabins at the KOA park

Our base in Ohio was Sandusky where we’d be staying at the first of many KOA sites this trip. As this was a BLT (Budget Lodging Tour) rather than camping, we were staying in cabins. We checked in and dropped our luggage off and then jumped back on the van to be taken to Cedar Point.

Roller Coasters in the distance as we drive towards Cedar Point

Cedar Point is sat right on a peninsula by Lake Erie. It has some of the biggest roller coasters in the World and as we approached it we could see the tangled, colourful structures twisting and weaving through the sky ahead of us.

Arriving just after 2pm, we qualified for a reduced entry rate. The park was open til 11pm so we still had plenty of time to spend there. Not being familiar with the site, once inside, we headed straight to the nearest coasters which we’d seen from the car park, which were great but I wish we’d looked at a map and realised just how huge the park was and how many coasters were on offer rather than spending so much time in the front area riding not just the few coasters in that area but the smaller rides like the carousel.

The Gatekeeper coaster

Once we had delved deeper into the park, we were amazed by the sheer volume of coasters on offer – huge wooden coasters, the former World’s longest coaster, the former World’s tallest coast, steepest coaster…looping coasters, racing coasters, pretty much every kind of roller coaster imaginable! Thankfully the queues weren’t too long and we got to go on most of what we wanted. Highlights were the Raptor ride where you sit hanging from the track like on Alton Tower’s Nemesis and Millennium Force, once the World’s tallest, fastest coaster.

The Dragster

Throughout the day we’d been eyeing up a terrifying looking coaster called Dragster, debating whether or not to ride it. The ride shoots off reaching 120mph in under 4 seconds before climbing a 90 degree incline, twisting over the top and shooting straight back down the other side. The queue for it started to die down early evening so 5 of us decided to pluck up the courage to give it a go. A few minutes into the queue, one of the cars failed to make it up and over the top, causing the coaster to close for a while so we left the queue and went elsewhere. An hour before we had to leave, we decided to join the queue again and again, the coaster broke down. We were told it would only be a short closure so deciding we didn’t have time to go elsewhere we stuck it out and this time made it to the front of the queue, extra nervous about riding after witnessing the coaster fail a couple of times! We need not have worried as our car made it up and over without problem and it was an amazing exhilarating ride, totally worth the wait!

Rides at Cedar Point

All roller-coastered out and exhausted from traipsing around the park all afternoon, at the end of the evening, we went to meet with the rest of the group choosing unanimously to go straight back to the KOA site and sleep rather than wait for the end of night firework display. Cedar Point was one of the best amusement parks I’d ever visited and I definitely wanted to return someday.

Watch my Trek America adventures in Ohio here: