Sunday, October 5, 2014

Some new things to do in Chicago

My husband and I just had the best 15th wedding anniversary trip to Chicago, thanks to our sweet moms who were each willing to watch Gavin part of the time.  3 nights without the kiddo, (our first time for that long of a stretch - each year of his life we've tried one more night away - 1 night when he was 1, 2 nights when he was 2... etc.) and lots of grown-up activities, just what the doctor ordered.  

Mike surprised me with a stay right in the heart of an up-and-coming neighborhood, Wicker Park, which we had briefly checked out during a recent visit to the Renegade Craft Fair in that neighborhood.  We've both visited Chicago many times, and last year we had an incredible anniversary trip to downtown Chicago, where we stayed at the amazing Dana Hotel and enjoyed so many fun things, including an architectural river cruise.  So, we decided that our goal this time was to try some things we've never done in Chicago before. 

What can you do in Chicago that you haven't done a million times? This isn't travel guide, nor are any of these companies sponsoring me or expecting my reviews, but, in case it's helpful to you, here's 5 things we tried (and liked) this time around.  (The pictures are not my usual quality, since I just carried my iPhone for simplicity's sake - but they give the idea.)

1. Wicker Park neighborhood


We stayed at The Ruby Room (photo below), an adorable hotel attached to a salon and spa (rated one of the best spas in Chicago).  It's right on West Division street, between Damen and Ashland streets in the heart of the Wicker Park neighborhood.  Right across the street are local bakeries, coffee shops, on the neighboring blocks are several local cafes, barbecue joints, restaurants, tapas bar, a sports bar, most with outdoor seating areas.  (There's even a Starbucks, if you're into that.)  There are 3 Divvy rental bike check-out and return spots along the street, and you're just a few blocks from the Blue Line train station (more on those later in the post).  If you want to get to downtown Chicago, you're only 2 miles away - you can bike, ride the train, or take a taxi ($8-12 depending on traffic).  There is limited parking off Division Street on some neighboring streets, but we happened to find a perfect spot only 2 blocks away - free and available for our whole stay!  

(This part gets a little long, skip if you're not thinking of staying here...  I promise the rest of the post is more interesting!)  We were very happy with the hotel, overall.  There was a fully-stocked kitchen down the hall from our room where you could store and heat up leftovers, make tea or even cook a meal, plus complimentary tea and coffee supplies (including whole beans from a local specialty coffee roaster and a bean grinder).  They had wine glasses you could use, as well as napkins, silverware, salt (a specialty blend from the Ruby Room spa) and other coffee supplies like sugar and cream.  It was a nice touch that allowed you to enjoy the leftovers from all the delicious meals you couldn't finish!  The room didn't have a TV, but there's free wireless so you could always watch a movie on your iPad or laptop if you're so inclined.  Housekeeping only comes in when you request, so it felt more private and secure while we were there.  Our room had a private door that led out to the stairs down to the private patio garden area attached to the spa and hotel.  And while the building is older (with very steep stairs - not for those with mobility issues), it was remodeled very well, with a modern and luxurious bathroom in our room.  My only complaint was it was not very noise-proof, so when our elephant-footed upstairs neighbors got home (late) each night, I could hear every stomp.  And, the loud, obnoxious neighbor down the hall was very audible one night.  But, I've never been in a noise-proof hotel anywhere, so it wasn't enough to ruin the trip.  There's always some partiers or loud late-comers in any hotel....

Our room:

Private patio door:

The shared patio garden area:

In case you're interested, we also checked out some other options for lodging in the area, there are 2 other small hotels/bed and breakfasts nearby (google "Wicker Park hotels"), as well as several options on airbnb.  We've stayed downtown so many times, and this was the best of both worlds.  We had the fun neighborhood feel, and we could easily get downtown any time we wanted.  It was a fun alternative to our usual downtown stay.

Here are some neighborhood shots (including my handsome guy):


There are some cute shops right on Division, and you can walk or bike a few blocks to Milwaukee Avenue (more or less between Division and Damen streets) where there are even more unique shops and restaurants.

Division St
Milk and Honey Cafe:

Orange brioche french toast - to die for...

Huevos Ranchero's "casserole" - SO good, and HUGE.  Two people could easily share it.  (Usually only available on the weekends, thankfully it happened to be the daily special the Monday we visited)

Janik's Cafe:

I think this was also called Huevos Rancheros, it was very different from the version at Milk and Honey, but just as delicious.  The coffee was great, too.

A specialty eggs benedict of some kind (can't remember the name):

Anthem, a sports bar with an outdoor patio:

Can't remember what this was called (it was a wrap with the gluten free option), but it was delicious:

Pizze Metro (if this is a chain, it was still very good...)

"Garbage" pizza:

Salad Rucora, one of several delicious-looking salad options:

Starfruit: kefir smoothies, mmmm....

Milwaukee Street

Cumin, an Indian/Nepalese restaurant:

Chicken tikka masala, my favorite:

Masala Lamb:

Antique Taco - pretty close to the best taco we have ever eaten, ANYWHERE (including Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras):


Milwaukee Street:

Resale and vintage shops, like this one:

And this one:

 (I have always wanted a cape...)

(My mom had these EXACT boots, which I realized were awesome exactly 5 minutes after she got rid of them...)

A cool hat shop, which has been there forever:

Fun eyeglass shops (or are we the only people who try on glasses for fun?)


Easy access to the train (Ashland and Division streets):

Plus, you could use the following for transport.... (another new thing we tried this visit!)

2.  Divvy bikes

These are $7 to rent for 24 hours (try the website if you want more detailed info - google "Divvy bikes").  Here's the deal on these, though.  These need to be locked back into another Divvy bike dock within a half hour (there are TONS of bike stations, and lots of free apps to help you find them) if you want to only pay $7 for the day.  If you keep the bike out longer than 30 minutes per trip, you'll pay an additional $2 for the first half-hour extra, then $8 for each additional half-hour after that.  So, that can obviously add up.  If you're wanting to take a long bike ride along the lakeshore or something, you can rent bikes starting at around $30 a day in Millennium Park.  That's a better deal if that's the kind of biking you had in mind.  But, if you just want to do some easy biking around the neighborhood, or to bike downtown from this neighborhood, you can easily get there and dock your bike within a half-hour.  I downloaded a free app that guided me to the gobs of bike stations you can choose from.  (In the unlikely event you get to a station that is full of already docked bikes, you can easily check in the full station to get an extra 15 minutes of time added so you can get to another bike dock.  There are bound to be several nearby.)  

Chicago has definitely redesigned their bike lanes to make life easier on two wheels.  I was glad we didn't bike around rush hour, but for the quiet Monday evening we rode to Michigan Avenue, we followed a marked bike trail the whole way.  It was so simple, there were even some marked intersections with directions where to turn to get to other popular spots, like United Center or Navy Pier.  The beauty of this system is that we could just dock our bikes anywhere and take as long as we wanted to look around - no worries about stolen bikes or where we parked our original bike.  We could choose any docking station nearby, request a new bike code, and be on our merry way.  Easier than dragging our own bikes along, and all the worry and hassle related to that.  I'm a fan!

3. Segway Tour

This was the most "touristy" part of our trip, but it was so fun!  We used Absolutely Segway tours, and loved all of it.  We reserved a 9 am tour time, and ended up being the only ones on the tour!  So we got, essentially, a private tour of downtown Chicago.  It's such a different view seeing a City from the sidewalk view, and you could cover so much ground as opposed to walking.  There was one part of downtown Chicago I didn't even know about, nor would you really have a reason to go through there, since the streets are all dead ends, but I now know of a great dog park, playground and courtyard area just off Millennium Park with a Mariano's grocery store right next door.  Perfect for a relaxing, budget friendly break in the city.  Next visit!

Here are some of the images we captured during our tour (and the requisite cheesy tourists on Segway photos - enjoy):

Ready for action:


(You could get off your Segway at certain points and look around.  This is our tour guide, Kim, who was great.)

Views of the Lakefront:

Buckingham Fountain:

Museum campus:

4. Art Institute

Ok, we've been here before and it's not exactly "little known", but they've added new areas since we were there last time!  Some of our favorite modern pieces are now housed in even better spaces.  And the coffee shop area in the modern wing was delicious.  It was absolutely worth another trip - I'm so glad we checked it out again.  Another "new" thing was that we actually rented the audio tour option - you just enter the number into a cell-phone-like device and hear the story of that painting and/or artist.  It made the tour even better.  I learned a lot (and loved every minute of it), like the nerd I am...

 (more on this heinous shoe/sock situation in another post...)

Mike checking out our handy-dandy audio tour information: 

The modern wing (new since 2009):

Gorgeous views from the galleries:

Delicious latte (with house-made whipped cream):

5. United Center

Mike surprised me with tickets to a great band, Black Keys.  It was a great show, with a performance by Cage the Elephant, another band we like.  I had never been to this venue, nor seen either of these bands perform live, and it was definitely worth it.  An incredible show!  (Obviously not new or little-known either, but something we'd never done...) 

Cage the Elephant:

Black Keys:

As you can see, we had a great trip.  If anyone's ever interested, I'd be happy to share my thoughts on other things we've tried in Chicago in the past - just let me know.  And if you have any 'off the beaten path' ideas for Chicago, please share them in the comments.  We'd all like to hear!  

Happy anniversary to us, and happy travels to you!

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