The Best of Chicago for Tourists

It’s always wonderful to host out of town guests in Chicago. I’ve compiled my full list of activities and recommendations for you to make the most of your trip.

Tips:  

  • 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.
  • During the summer, the Shedd Aquarium has Jazzin’ at the Shedd Nights. There’s live music, cocktails and a great view of the fireworks.
  • 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.

Must Do’s:

  • 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
  • See a show at Second City’s mainstage
  • Do a shot of  Malort!

Download the activities here.

Activities:

Recommended reading: 

  • The Devil and the White City
  • The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream
  • Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul
  • The Warmth of Other Suns

Fellow Chicagoans, did I miss anything?  Please comment below:

Samba in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval!

A week in Rio de Janeiro to celebrate Carnaval in February 2009.

Tips:  

  • Stay in Leblon. We stayed at the Hotel Ritz. It’s a beautiful hotel close to the beach, restaurants and bars.
  • Do the cablecar to Sugerloaf Mountain an hour before sunset and watch the sunset from the bar at the top, drinking caipirinhas
  • Sector 5 is the best value for money for seats in the Sambadromo

Must Do’s:

  • Hang glide
  • March with one of the schools in the Sambadromo

Do overs: 

  • Spend time in the neighborhoods of Santa Teresa & Lapa
  • Visit one of the nearby beach towns (Angra dois Reais or Buzios)
  • Explore more of Brazil!

Itinerary and Packing List:

Download the file here.

Recommended reading: 

  • The War of the End of the World

Why You Need to Learn How To Scuba Dive Right Now

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:

Great Barrier Reef 1

Great Barrier Reef 2

Blue Hole Diving Belize

Diving Half Moon Wall

Soaring with the Manta Rays in Bali

Have I convinced you?  Where do I need to go for the best diving? Leave your comments!

 

How to Hike the Inca Trail in Peru

I hiked the Inca Trail and traveled around Peru for two weeks in September 2008. I loved the experience and the country.

Tips:  

  • 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!).

Must Do’s:

  • Hike the Inca Trail, don’t just take the bus from Aguas Calientes
  • Spend time in Cusco, a beautiful city

Do overs: 

  • Don’t overpack your daypack for the trail hike
  • Use the Camelbak Aventura for Women backpack
  • Don’t stay four days in Arequipa unless you are hiking Colca Canyon
  • Spend time in Lima especially if you are a foodie
  • A day trip from Cusco to see the Rainbow Mountain

Itinerary and Packing List:

Download the file here.

Recommended reading: 

  • Last Days of the Incas
  • The Other Path: The Economic Answer to Terrorism

The Power of the Playlist

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.

Pitbull music video with Khmer subtitles

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.

P.S.

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.

Angkor What? Bar dance party

What songs are a must on your travels? Share below!