It’s always wonderful to host out of town guests in Chicago. For the first time visitor, I’ve compiled my full list of activities and recommendations for you to make the most of your trip. I hope you come back to explore more off the beaten track activities!
Chicago is a foodie’s dream. Make reservations for the best restaurants weeks or months in advance for the best times, but if you don’t have reservations, arriving around 5 pm usually means you’ll get a seat.
The best place to take photos of the skyline (aside from being on a boat in Lake Michigan) is on the Adler Planetarium’s peninsula. It’s easy to get to using the lake shore path.
Many of the boat cruises and kayak tours have sunset or firework options. You may want to consider doing that–booking in advance is recommended.
A hidden gem is the Chicago Cultural Center. Upstairs is the largest Tiffany stained glass dome in the world. The center is free to explore (it used to be a public library) and is right across the street from Millennium Park.
Go to the Signature Room for a cocktail and an amazing view of Chicago.
Garrett’s Popcorn is a wonderful souvenir.
Eat Deep Dish Pizza (I recommend Lou Malnati’s, but Pizzeria Uno claims to have invented the style of pizza)
Eat at Portillo’s
Eat a nice steakhouse
Visit one of the many amazing museums
Take a river cruise
Enjoy the view from the Signature Lounge at the John Hancock building
I live in the middle of the US surrounded by flat lands and no ocean. When I traveled internationally to beach destinations, I always saw dive shops that offered scuba certification courses. Every time I saw those, I vowed to learn to scuba dive…one day.
I decided that to truly experience the Great Barrier Reef, I need to be able to dive. I wanted to experience its beauty. And with that resolution in my mind, I got certified in the middle of the US, doing my open water work in a quarry. It wasn’t pretty but it got the job done. It’s been almost four years since my certification and it’s changed my life. Here’s why you should get scuba certified right now:
The amazing beauty hidden under the water
The sense of soaring when swimming through the ocean
The meditative experience–hearing yourself inhale and exhale, controlling your body in new ways, it’s only you and your thoughts
The excitement of discovery–the hidden flounder, the sand covered rays
The adventure–you never know what you’ll see underwater
The sense of accomplishment–learning to be calm under (water) pressure, doing more challenging dives
The awesome community of scuba divers–they look out for each other, they love to travel, and they have great travel recommendations
If my words aren’t enough to convince you, watch my videos from the Great Barrier Reef, Belize and Bali:
I hiked the Inca Trail and traveled around Peru for two weeks in September 2008. I loved the experience and the country.
The entry rules to Machu Picchu changed in 2017. Please be aware of this when booking your travel, even if you aren’t hiking the Inca Trail.
Choose a responsible tour operator that treats its porters well (here’s a good resource). We went with Peru Treks and they were amazing!
Book your Inca Trail hike far in advance (there are limited spaces available). The trail is closed during February, which is the height of the rainy season. Avoid hiking in the rainy season, which runs from November to April.
The second day is tough. You can hire an extra porter for that day to carry excess stuff if needed.
Bring the appropriate amount of cash to tip your trekking staff (make sure you have the right bills–there’s no change!).
Don’t overpack your daypack for the trail hike
Don’t stay four days in Arequipa unless you are hiking Colca Canyon
Hike the Inca Trail, don’t just take the bus from Aguas Calientes
Spend time in Cusco, a beautiful city
If I had more time:
I would have spent more time in Lima for the food and ended my trip at a beach.
Of the five senses, hearing retains memory the best. This is one of the many reasons that music is so powerful.
And no matter where you travel, there’s always music.
Because music holds memory so well, I put together playlists after most of my trips. It’s pretty easy to remember the songs because there’s a lot of repetition (thanks American music industry!), but I do jot down the names in my journal to help.
As I write this post on the beach in Punta del Este, I’m listening to my South East Asia playlist. It was astonishing how much American pop music we heard through the region. In Vietnam, we couldn’t escape Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance. In the small town of Hoi An, my friend and I happened across a teenager sitting on the floor of a fabric shop, just belting out Bad Romance with her eyes closed and bopping her head like crazy. It was pure enjoyment for her.
Another interesting music moment was when we turned on our TV in Siem Reap and watched a Pitbull music video with Khmer subtitles. Mind blown.
Listening to my playlists brings back so many happy memories from my travels. It’s another way, in addition to photos, videos, books and souvenirs, to keep your trip alive. Make soundtracks of your adventures.
I finished writing this post but kept listening to the SE Asia playlist. Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” came on. Everyone has special songs that they will love forever and have many memories tied to it. This is one of mine.
My friend and I were at Angkor What? Bar in Siem Reap and I spent most of the night talking to the manager and drinking super cheap beer. We bonded over our love of Winamp. I asked him if he could play Hot in Herre for me and let us dance on the bar. He said he would play the song, but we could only dance on the tables. Fair enough. Before the first verse ended, we had jumpstarted the dance party at the bar. I cherish the memory of how we started a dance party in Siem Reap with one of my favorite songs. We danced until the bar closed for a night.
What songs are a must on your travels? Share below!