Wanderlust Wednesday: Isle of Skye, Scotland

Happy Wanderlust Wednesday!  As stated in this past post, I wanted to start talking about places I want to go to along with the places that I’ve been.  It seems that idea was a good one from the response I got from that post so here we go!  This time around I’m talking about Isle of Sky, Scotland.  Scotland has been on my list since I studied abroad in London in 2010, and missed the chance to do a weekend trip there (I went to Ireland instead).  This beautiful, lush, green land of legends and mythical creatures is calling my name.  The whole country is beautiful, and Isle of Skye seems like epitome of that beauty.  While I don’t have any immediate plans to travel there, I would jump at the chance to jet off to the Isle of Skye.

What I would want to see and do:

  • The Fairy Pools and Fairy Fields – too magical to resist
  • Dunvegan Castle – the oldest, still lived-in castle in Scotland
  • The Old Man of Storr – a beautiful rocky outcropping that looks like something out of Game of Thrones
  • The Waterfalls – oh, all the gorgeous waterfalls in all their mythical glory
  • Hike the hills and spot some sheep
  • Kayak in the beautiful, turquoise sea
  • Walk the streets of Portree

    Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye
    Photo Courtesy of IsleofSkye.com

What I would want to eat:

  • The freshest seafood, sitting at a table overlooking the ocean
  • Haggis – the Scottish delicacy, that I can’t promise that I’ll enjoy, but I will certainly try it anyways
  • Shortbread and tea
  • Fish and chips – a UK favorite
  • The traditional full Scottish Breakfast

Where I would stay:

When I would go:

  • In the late springtime, when the wildflowers are blooming and the weather is mild.  There will be less tourists and maybe a little more rain, but what’s a little rain in the land of rainbows?

How I would get there:

  • Travelling from Chicago, I would need to fly out of O’Hare International Airport into Inverness, Scotland and take a bus or rent a car to get to the Isle of Skye.

Helpful Isle of Skye Blogs:

What do you think? Are you falling in love with The Isle of Skye like I am?  Or, if you have been there, what was your favorite part of The Isle of Skye?  Do you have any tips for what to do or where to stay?

Budgeting, Travel, Top 5

Top Five Friday #10

Tips for Travel Budgeting

Budgeting is a necessary step in the trip planning process.  It may determine the destination, or the type of accommodation, or set a goal for a trip in the far future.  Whatever the case may be, a solid budget is an essential travel accessory.  Below are my top five tips for budgeting for your next trip:

  1. Set a realistic number to start with and stick to it. Research how much the primary expenses will be, this would include your flight/gas/train ticket and your accommodations.  Factor in attraction costs and tours, then add in how much you would ideally spend each day on food and miscellaneous expenses.  The key is to not be stingy with your budget starting out.  If you have more than you thought you might need during your trip, that’s better than the alternative.  (For tips on saving money to add to your travel budget, see this blog).
  2. Add in buffer funds. Whatever you came up with tip #1, add a few hundred to it for emergency expenses.  Keep this buffer fund in a separate savings account, or in cash hidden in your suitcase somewhere.  In other words, somewhere you can’t readily get to unless you absolutely need it.  Hopefully you’ll never need to touch these extra funds, but it’s good to know you have them should anything come up.
  3. Check fees and extra charges before booking. If you have a set budget, you need to account for the fees charged with airline and hotel bookings that might exceed what you’ve budgeted for.  For example, budget airlines like Spirit and Frontier have fees and extra charges for pretty much everything.  $5 to choose your seat ahead of time, $35 for a carry-on bag… these things add up pretty quickly.  There are some hostels charge extra for luggage storage and linens and hotels that will charge for WiFi and parking.  Check all of this ahead of time and factor it into the budget.
  4. Budget for each day using cash only. You already know what you want to spend daily, so make it easier on yourself and have only that much cash on you each day.  It is much easier to keep track of where you’re at when you are using tangible dollars for each purchase rather than swiping a card for everything you buy.  This is a handy way to stay on budget, but you should certainly keep your credit/debit card on hand too in case you’re in need of those buffer funds.
  5. Leave room for last minute adventures. Yes, budgeting is very important for each and every trip, however, I’ve always been of the belief that adventure is nothing without a little spontaneity.  If there is something you really want to do or see, go for it!  Don’t miss an opportunity to do something you’ll never get the chance to try again just because you’re budget might be a little tight for it.  You’re on vacation after all, have a little fun.


What is your best budgeting tip?  What adventure would you splurge on?

Washington Harbor, Washington DC, US Travel

Washington, D.C. – Part 2

On my second full day in Washington, D.C., I awoke early to start another busy day.  My first stop was Founding Farmers, a farm-to-table restaurant downtown.  I ordered the strawberries and cream waffle with a side of sausage and a latte to round it out.  The food was delicious and fresh and the staff was really friendly.  I ate every little bit of my meal, and it was the perfect amount to give me the energy to walk around for the rest of the day.  I intended to head straight to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial, but I took a slight detour to the Renwick Gallery.  I had passed it the day before and the line was down the block; this time there was no line so of course I couldn’t not go in.  This gallery also had free admission, as it is an extension of The National Gallery.
Renwick Gallery6
Once inside, the woman at the information desk handed me a guide and sent me on my way.  Each of the 9 featured artists had their own separate room for their installation, and I walked through them all in awe.  The installations were beyond gorgeous and each had its own thought-provoking message.  My favorite was “In the Midnight Garden” by Jennifer Angus, which was made mostly of insects a la 7th grade bug collection.
Renwick Gallery5.jpg
I also really loved Janet Echelman’s colorful piece in the main room upstairs which consisted of a colorful net strung up from the ceiling.
Renwick Gallery3
Once I spent a sufficient time admiring each room, I headed out into the sunny day and walked towards the U.S. Holocaust Memorial.

The Holocaust Memorial was obviously a very emotional experience.  I choked up immediately upon entering the actual museum, and had to run into the bathroom to fix my face.  Everyone walked through the museum in silence.  There were three levels that moved seamlessly in chronological order.  It took about two hours to make it through, and it was heart wrenching, but also informative.  I certainly left with a different perspective and gratitude.  Next, I went to the National Air and Space Museum to see the Amelia Earhart exhibit.  The whole museum is very impressive.

There are airplanes and miscellaneous space ships and equipment everywhere – hanging from the ceiling, coming out of the walls, stretching from floor to ceiling.  Amelia is one of my favorites and I was surprised to see her exhibit was relatively small compared to others.  It was still great though.  I also really liked the Time and Navigation Exhibit, which detailed compasses and GPS technology in all its stages.  I wandered around the museum, peaking at things that caught my interested, like walking through the full sized Space Station and The Wright Brothers exhibit.  Then I moved on to the Library of Congress.  The outside of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library is gorgeous, much like most of the other buildings in DC, but the inside is stunning.
Library of Congress.jpg

Library of Congress2

I viewed the jealousy-inducing reading room from above and checked out Thomas Jefferson’s personal Library, as well as the Civil Rights exhibit right next to it.  I couldn’t get over how beautiful the ceiling and walls were.  I spent most of my time in the library looking up.  By then, my stomach was telling me it was time to move on to We, The Pizza just down the street.  I wanted to go there because it’s owned by Spike Mendelsohn, one of my favorite contestants on Top Chef.  Sadly, he wasn’t there, but I did thoroughly enjoyed my sausage and sweet pepper pizza.  The restaurant was really cute, with the pizzas all lined up in front and a large seating area upstairs.

From there, I walked the few blocks to Folger’s Shakespeare Library, where I had just missed the last tour of the day.  The section that was open to the public without a tour was interesting, but small.  I’d say it’s worth visiting IF HI Washington DC2.jpgyou do the tour or if you get tickets to see a play in the beautiful theater there.  I took a cab back to the hotel to pick up my luggage and check into the hostel where I was staying that night.  The Hosteling International DC was just a short walk away, and the lovely front desk staff checked me into my private room (shared bathroom).  I noticed that the hostel offered nightly group activities, which I unfortunately had to decline but it did look like a good time!  I took the bus to Georgetown, which was about thirty minutes away.  I was trying to do some off-the-beaten path things in DC, but it seemed that I was stuck firmly on the path.  Oh well, they’re popular for a reason.  I got off the bus at M street and found myself in a very ritzy area.  Shops like Banana Republic, Tory Burch and Lululemon lined the streets.  It
reminded me of the Gold Coast back in Chicago.  I Olivia Macaron.jpgwaltzed around a bit, stopping into Olivia Macaron to grab a latte and a champagne macaron.  The macaron was delicious and the coffee kept me warm as I continued to wander.  The small macaron shop was kiddie corner from Georgetown Cupcakes, a bakery made famous by TLC.  I didn’t go in.  I worked at a cupcake place in college and haven’t Washington Harbor2.jpgbeen able to stomach them since.  The houses in Georgetown were beautiful and I had fun admiring them as I walked.  I wanted to make my way to Washington Harbor so I walked down Wisconsin Street towards the water.  There were some cute stores along the way that I’ve not seen back home, including Redz Trading thrift store and American/Holiday, which had cute clothes, jewelry, and housewares.  As I walked towards the harbor, the sun bean to set and once I arrived at the Potomac River, the sky was a mixture of blue, orange and pink.  There were restaurants and a skating rink at the harbor, but I walked along the river instead of partaking in them.  I had planned on going to Right proper Brewing for Dinner, so I walked along the river and then up through the George Washington University campus to get to the metro.
Washington Harbor
The ride was quick and the brewery was close to the train stop, however, when I arrived I realized it was closed for a private event.  I was pretty bummed because I was looking forward to trying a local brewery, but I moved on anyways.  Shaw’s Tavern was one block away, so that is where I ended up.  The restaurant featured upscale bar food and a lively atmosphere.  I ordered a DC Brau Public Ale and the Shaw’s Burger.

It turned out to be trivia night there, so I stayed and listened to the questions.  The beer and burger were so perfect and the bar crowd was full of good vibes.  I decided to walk home from there, which was a bit of an unnerving experience.  However, I did arrive safely, albeit very sore and tired from walking all day.  I showered in the public girl’s bathroom, which was clean enough, with thin curtains separating the showers from each other.  When I finally lay down on the bed to read, I realized that it squawked every time I moved even a tiny bit.  This set the tone for the rest of the evening; I didn’t get very much sleep, especially because I very stupidly got to thinking about the movie the Babadook (have you seen it? Don’t watch it, it’s scary).  Anyways, the next morning I opted out of the complimentary hostel continental breakfast and walked over to Astro Doughnuts.
Mapple Bacon Doughnut - Astro Doughnuts.jpg
It was rainy and cold, but luckily it was a short walk.  I got a maple bacon doughnut and a coffee and sat under the awning to enjoy it.  The doughnut was a perfect combination of sweet and salty.  It was so good.  The rest of the morning was a chain of unsuccessful attempts to see one more thing before leaving.  Everything was closed, not reopening until it was time for me to head to the airport or under construction until 2017 (thanks a lot Trump).  So I wound up at Momfuku Milk Bar for some of their famous crack pie and yet more coffee.  The pie was aptly named and so delicious.  It was sweet and caramel-y and almost too rich to finish, not that I didn’t.

Soon it was time to check out from the hostel and take the blue line to DCA.  It took only 30 minutes to make the trip, only to be delayed for three hours.  By the time we finally boarded, there were only twenty people who waited it out.  On the other side of the flight, I took a different blue line back home, happy to be home but grateful for a fantastic trip.

Flight Home.jpg

Thank you, DC, for a wonderful time!

Have you been to Washington, D.C.? Where was your favorite place there?

Washington, D.C. – Part 1

I arrived at O’Hare obscenely early as per usual; I’m always early.  I was afraid there would be a long line for security (there wasn’t), so I wound up sitting at a bar near my gate with a mimosa, a full hour before I was due to board.
Airport Mimosa
The plane landed twenty minutes ahead of schedule and it took me forty minutes and two trains (one yellow and one red) to reach Dupont Circle.  I was to walk to my hotel from there.  Unfortunately, I walked to the wrong one.  Who knew there were two Courtyard Marriotts within twenty minutes from each other?  Once I was checked into the correct hotel, I quickly changed out of my plane clothes and headed back out.  The National Geographic Museum was just around the corner from the hotel, so I figured it was a good place to start.  The museums was housed in a large building emblazoned with National Geographic Society above the doors.
National Geographic Building.jpg
The entry fee was $15 and there were three main exhibits.  One was The Photo Ark, which included many photos different species of animals, many of which had been endangered at some point in time.  Another exhibit featured the history and lives of Crocodilians with National Geographic Museumlive reptiles and interactive croc facts.  The last was ocean related and included photography and videos from numerous deep sea exhibitions.  The museum was very visually appealing, but I wish there was a little more to see.  The exhibits were beautiful and informative though, and there was a great gift shop.  From the museum, I walked back over to Dupont Circle to check out Kramerbooks & Café.  They had a great selection and unique layout (plus a lot of travel books which you know I loved!).  I ended up getting an Anthony Bourdain book because I couldn’t help myself.  Though I could have browsed for a few more hours at least, my stomach was telling me it was time for dinner, so I headed down the brown stone lined Q Street towards Le Diplomate.  This French restaurant was everything I wanted it to be.
Washington D.C., Le Deiplomate, French Restaurant
The beautifully lit atmosphere was warm and welcoming.  Despite being decidedly less fancy than the other patrons, I felt 100% at home.  I ordered the Scallops Nicoise and stuck with water to cut costs, their wine list was quite expensive.  A bread basket appeared soon after I placed my order, which I dug right into (the cranberry bread was delicious!).  I happily read “Medium Raw” until my meal arrived and I could no longer concentrate on anything other than the scallops.  They sat atop a bed of orzo, tomatoes, onions and peas, with a pesto sauce underneath.  It was a lemony and salty and the scallops were perfectly cooked.  I loved it so much.  When the waiter came back, I could only nod in blissful silence as he removed my now empty plate from the table.  After I had paid and left, I walked around the area for a while, taking in the pretty houses and cheerful restaurants.
Kramerbooks & Afterwords
Eventually I wandered back to Kramerbooks, this time to try the café.  I ordered a glass of wine and a slice of apple crumble pie, which they served with 2 spoons, making me miss Mike instantly.  The pie was good and I enjoyed it on their covered porch.  Once I was
thoroughly stuffed with pie, I walked back to the hotel.  I was feeling a little melancholy on my first night in this new city, so I Peregrine Coffee Iced Latte.jpgfelt the best way to remedy this was a bubble bath and to make big plans for the next day.  I started early, leaving the hotel at 8:30am and hopped on the blue line towards the Eastern Market.  When I arrived, the market wasn’t quite bustling enough yet, so I grabbed an iced latte from Pelegrine Coffee and walked around the neighborhood.  Fortunately, I ran into the Capitol Hill location of Ted’s Bulletin, a restaurant I really wanted to try.  One may be a loneliest number, but it is certainly a convenient one when trying to be sat at a popular breakfast restaurant on a Sunday Morning.  At my tiny table for one, I ordered coffee, bacon, hash browns and a salted caramel (homemade) pop tart, on the waiter’s recommendation.  The “Ted Tarts” are what drew me to the restaurant in the first place, so I was very excited to try it. The bacon and hash browns were pretty run of the mill, but the ted tart was amazing.  The outside was flakey and delicious and the filling was rich and caramel-y.  It went with the coffee perfectly and I relished every bit.
Teds Tarts - Ted's Bulletin
After I finished, I walked back to the market, which was a little livelier at that point.  I love rummaging, so the flea market portion was exactly what I wanted it to be.  There were knickknacks, art, antiques, clothing, and food stalls both inside and outside.  Inside the market building, there were butchers, fruit stands, bakeries, and fresh flowers.  Locals and tourists alike were doing their grocery shopping and haggling over steaks and dozens of baked goods.

Capitol Hill Books stood next to the market and I was drawn inside by its front window, which was literally stacked with books.  The inside of the shop was no different.  The shelves were chock-full of books, stacked every which way, but somehow still organized.  It was two levels of systematic chaos with nooks for reading and a great used book selection.  I was particularly drawn to their Graham Greene selection, which required patience and a balancing act to get through.

I was only a twenty minute walk from the National Mall and the Smithsonian Museums, so I headed that way.  The first thing I came upon (that was open on a Sunday) was the U.S. Botanical Gardens, so I went in.  One of the best things about D.C. is that all of the Smithsonian Museums and Galleries and all of the Monuments are free.  The Botanical Gardens was no exception.  The gardens were split into categories, my favorites were the orchids and the desert plants.  It really is a gorgeous place to walk around.

US Botanical Gardens.jpg

US Botanical Gardens 4.jpg
As soon as I started to head towards the Mall, it started pouring.  Luckily, I was very near to the National Gallery, which is where I sought shelter from the rain.  What a beautiful place to spend a rainy afternoon!  I’m no art buff, but I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the galleries.  Needless to say, the artwork was breathtaking and the building itself was gorgeous.  I especially loved the Van Gogh paintings, as well as this painting by Hendrik Willem Mesdag:

National Gallery 3.jpg

One of the museum guides pointed me in the direction of sculpture garden, so that is where I headed next.  It was a fun walk through, with a cute café and ice rink at the center.  National Gallery Sculpture Garden.jpgI made my way through, stopping to take in each sculpture.  Once I came to the end, I walked down the street to the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of American History.  One of the benefits of free museum admissions is that you can pick and choose which exhibits you see without feeling like you have to see every single one because you didn’t pay for them.  At the Museum of Natural History, I very much enjoyed the dinosaur exhibit and the “Wilderness Forever” photography exhibit that showed many of the National Parks.  At the American History Museum, many of the exhibits were closed for renovations unfortunately.  However, I did love the First Lady exhibition, which featured fashions and facts about the nation’s great women.  The National Mall is just beyond the Smithsonian Museums, so I kept walking towards the Washington Monument.
Washington Monument.jpg
From the top of the hill where it sits, I took in the city sights, and got my first glimpse of the Lincoln Memorial.  However, by the time I made it over there (it’s a deceptively far walk) I was hungry and getting crabby.  I had been walking for hours at this point, which really is the best way to see a city, but also builds up an appetite.  There were no
restaurants to be seen, so I settled for a hot dog from one of the nearby refreshment stands.  After I stuffed my face, I climbed the marble steps to see Abe.  The upside of travelling to D.C. in the slow season is there aren’t as many tourists, however the downside, for me at least, was that a lot of things were under construction to be ready for the summer.  For example, the reflecting pool was drained, the World War II Monument was under construction, some of the exhibits were roped off, the list goes on.  Luckily, I had seen some of these attractions the first time I was in D.C. in 8th grade, when our teachers dragged us to every single memorial and monument, our disposable cameras in hand.  This time around, I was taking pictures with my iPhone, having strangers get a few shots with me in them.  The Lincoln Memorial was humbling and inspiring.  I walked around the top, taking in the view from all angles.  This was one of the things I really didn’t want to miss, so I’m glad I was able to see Mr. Lincoln.
Lincoln Memorial.jpg
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and FDR Memorial were just a little ways away, so that’s where I headed next.  The MLK Jr. Memorial was simple but moving, including only a statue carved in stone and a single quote on the side: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
MLK Memorial.jpg
I moved on down the path to the FDR Memorial, which was recommended to me by Rebecca of Curiosity and a Carry On.  It was one of my favorites of the day, being less crowded and peaceful.  There were quotes and statues throughout the memorial, including a statue of Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt (the only one dedicated to a first lady).  Unfortunately the supposedly beautiful fountains were turned off for the season, but I still very much enjoyed wandering through the memorial.  My favorite FDR quote was: “In these days of difficulty, we Americans everywhere must and shall choose the path of social justice… the path of faith, the path of hope, and the path of love towards our fellow man.”
FDR Memorial.jpg
I walked back to the hotel from there, passing the gorgeous Eisenhower Executive Office Building, as well as the White House.  It is awe-inspiring to walk through this city of such regal architecture.  Everywhere I turned there was a gorgeous building with columns and flags, or a stately statue depicting men on horses or famous generals.  It made each walk an adventure in itself.
Eisenhower Executive Office Building.jpg
Once I got back to the hotel, I showered and rested up for a night out in Adams Morgan, which was described to me as a hip, up and coming area.  My first stop was Smash Records, a punk record store, where I bought Mike a Bad Brains (a famous DC punk band) Album and browsed their small selection of soul records.

Smash Records
From there, I moved over to Idle Time Bookstore.  This dual level used books store has a great selection of used books and gifts and a friendly staff.  I browsed through their shelves for a while before rushing off to catch the happy hour specials at Mandu.  Mandu is a Korean restaurant, and they have happy hour 7 days a week from 4pm-7pm that offers Chap Chae - Mandu.jpghalf priced beer, wine, sojutinis and mandu dumplings.  I ordered an assortment of the dumplings, 2 each of pork, shrimp and vegetable.  They were pan-fried and so scrumptious.  My entrée was chap chae, potato noodles with vegetables and beef.  It came with a mound of something interesting on top, and when I asked the waiter, he confirmed my worst fears: eggs.  I calmly scraped them to the side and dug into the delicious noodle dish, which was served with traditional Korean condiments.  It was a pretty cheap dinner, thanks to the happy hour, so I decided to take myself out to a jazz bar I spotted back in Adams Morgan, called Columbia Station.  At first, the bar was a little empty.  The band, The Peter Edelman Trio, was on a break, but the bartender assured me they’d be playing until 1am.

Columbia Station 3

I ordered a glass of wine, and he poured it up to the brim, which is precisely how I like it.  It was quiet before the band started playing again, and I could hear the chef watching TV in the kitchen.  Eventually though, once the music started, people filed in and the tables filled up.  The Peter Edelman Trio are at Columbia Station weekly and I completely understand how they earned this regular gig.
Columbia Station 2
They were fun and talented and what started out as a drums, saxophone and organ trio slowly morphed into a piano, drums, saxophone, clarinet and bass as the evening went on.  New instruments magically appeared as the bar grew more crowded.  Fast forward three glasses of wine and I’m making new friends at the bar and grooving to the music.  I left there happy and tipsy, walking back down 18th street, jazz riffs echoing in my brain.

2015 Review & 2016 Goals

We made it; it’s almost a new year, full of new opportunities and adventures!  This year was pretty amazing in terms of travel!  I am by no means a nomad by trade, however, as a part-time traveler, I’m proud of the trips I was able to take in 2015.  There were ups and downs, and lessons to be learned, but I’m very happy with the year I had and am excited for next year as well.  Here are some of the highlights from 2015:

February: I was lucky enough to be able to take my first trip to China early on in the year.  I spent two wonderful weeks exploring Shanghai and cross-training at the Peninsula Hotel there.  Shanghai was full of new experiences and foods, and I loved every minute of it.  Being able to celebrate Chinese New Year in China is an experience I won’t soon forget.

April: My second big trip of the year was my third visit to New York City.  Every time I’m able to go to New York it gets better and better.  I’m so happy to have been able to visit Coney Island, walk along the boardwalk and go on the historic Cyclone roller coaster.  Seeing The Phantom of the Opera was the cherry on top of an amazing trip.
photo (7)

July: July holds a very special place in my heart because it was the month that I took my very first solo road trip to Asheville, North Carolina.  This was an especially big accomplishment for me considering I am not a very comfortable driver.  There were so many things to do, and everyone was so kind and willing to give directions or recommendations.  I loved hiking in Chimney Rock, sampling the brews from the local breweries, and the independence of it all.

August: August was a big Chicago month – Mike and I had an amazing time at Lollapalooza at the beginning of the month and then enjoyed a staycation at The Freehand Chicago.  Lollapalooza was my first ever music festival and I’m happy to say it’s inspired me to want to go to many more.  The Freehand provided a very unique hostel experience and the restaurants there are to die for.  Both experiences were so fun and showed us a new side of our home city.

October: We followed the Foo Fighters south on a little road trip to Memphis, Tennessee.  We had our ups (Sun Studios and Stax Museum, lots of great barbecue, and live music everywhere) and downs (a perpetually deserted downtown and drunkenly falling off a karaoke stage) with this trip, but ultimately we had a wonderful time in Blues City.
Mud Island, Memphis, TN 5
This month brought us to San Francisco, California to celebrate my 26th birthday.  The city was beautiful and the nature surrounding it even more so.  We walked for miles, hiked up mountains, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and ate some amazing food.

So, what’s next?

As I said before, I work full-time and travel whenever I can, as much as possible.  It actually works pretty well for me.  Because I work in the hospitality industry, the first quarter of the year is always the best time for some vacation time.  So right now I have loooong weekends in both January and February that I don’t have any solid plans for, but I do have some ideas.  We’ll see what happens (suggestions always welcome!)  I have a trip to Toronto, ON set for the beginning of April and a pre-planned but not booked road trip to Gatlinburg, TN sometime in Spring.  Due to a work related situation, I’ll be pretty limited on trips in the summertime, so I imagine there will be a lot of weekenders and day trips during that time.  I’ve got my eye on New Buffalo, Michigan, the New Glarus brewery in Wisconsin, Galena, IL and perhaps a weekend trip to Milwaukee, WI.  The fact that I can’t plan anything big for some months actually has a silver lining though, because I am planning a BIG adventure for September.  I am in the very beginning stages of planning, so I’m not quite ready to hash out the details.  It’ll be good though, I promise.  In the meantime, I’ll keep you posted on the adventures as they come!
Top Five Travel Quotes on rebeccawanderlusting.com

In closing, I want to leave you with some words of wisdom from Mr. George Bailey.  Every year during the holidays, I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” with my family.  While the whole film is quotable and emotional and all around, well, wonderful, one particular exchange stuck with me this year:

GB (played by the very handsome Jimmy Stewart, don’t judge): “There she blows! You know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are?”

George’s Uncle Billy: “Uh huh, breakfast is served, lunch is served, dinner….”

GB: “No, no, no, no.  Anchor chains, plane motors and train whistles.”

Now, in some ways I am inclined to agree with both of these gentleman, but I think George Bailey really has a point here.  What’s better than the sound of opportunity and adventures to be had?  Isn’t that why we’re all here?  Is there a more exciting sound than the sound of exploration and travelling to new lands far from home?  I don’t think so.  ON that note, here’s wishing everyone an exciting and exploratory 2016 filled with new adventures and bold decisions!

Happy New Year!


Top 5 Friday, Memphis Attractions

Top Five Friday #6

Memphis Attractions

As you could probably tell from my previous blog posts, I’ve just returned from Memphis. Though my boyfriend and I only spent four days in this Southern city, we enjoyed our time there immensely.  It truly is a magnificently musical city with  history to spare.  There were many aspects of Memphis that we really loved, but below are our top five favorite attractions:
Beale Street, Memphis, TN

  1. Beale Street: Beale Street is the epitome of Memphis’s Blues music scene. Every bar down this strip has music pouring out of it.  It’s one of the main attractions in Memphis and it certainly lives up to the hype.  The street is completely lined with bars, gift shops, restaurants and clubs.  We tried to stop into most places, and hit a lot of them.  Our favorites were: Club 152 (really good music and cheap drinks), Absinthe Room (great second-story dive bar with billiards), King’s Palace Café Patio (home of the Beale Big Ass Beers and amazing Blues music), Rum Boogie Café (we had an excellent lunch here and the staff were awesome) and A. Schwab (a kitschy gift store with three levels of souvenirs).
    Sun Studios, Memphis, TN
  2. Sun Studios: This recording studio/historic music icon was Mike’s favorite place that we visited in Memphis. A lot of amazing artists recorded here and add to its famous history; to name a few: Ike Turner, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Howlin Wolf…the list goes on.  It’s still currently an active recording studio where many big musicians stop by (U2, Bob Dylan…).  The tour is well worth the $13 and includes a history on the studio, information on its big musicians, and a glimpse of the actual recording studio, which still has all its original features.  Our tour guide was amazing and full of fun facts about the studio and the musicians.  The studio/museum is connected to a café and record/gift shop, which is worth a look around.
    Lorraine Motel National Civil Rights, Memphis, TN 2
  3. National Civil Rights Museum: Set in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, this museum is too poignant to pass up. After you pay the $15 entrance fee, you start the tour with a short video outlining the purpose of the museum before heading through the exhibits.  Each exhibit is purposeful and intriguing, and most are interactive as well.  The museum is well laid out, taking you through the history of racial tension in America from the beginning.  It does take quite a while to make it through the entirety of the museum and the boarding house across the street, which focuses on the life and motives of James Earl Ray.  Plan to spend at least two hours here.
    Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Memphis, TN 2
  4. Stax Museum of American Soul Music: It is no secret that I’m a big fan of soul music, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that I instantly fell in love with this museum. The history of Stax Records is so rich, and the musicians connected with the company are too many to name (again, to mention a few: Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Booker T and The MG’s…).  The flow of the museum starts with a short film, and then moves through the exhibits, which range from the influence of Gospel Music in Soul to a video of Chaka Khan singing on Soul Train to Isaac Hayes’s custom gold Cadillac.  The old recording studio is still intact, along with the original mixing console, and is preserved for your viewing pleasure.  It really is worth it to check Stax out, I promise you’ll be glad that you did. (Entrance fee is $13.)
    Otherlands Coffee Bar, Memphis, TN
  5. Mid-Town: I really wish we could have spent more time in this hip slice of Memphis. We had two great meals in this neighborhood: breakfast at Otherlands Coffee Bar, and lunch at The Beauty Shop.  Both restaurants were a joy to be at, and both meals were phenomenal.  We walked past cute shops and boutiques in this area and I really regret not exploring it more.  We also heard from a couple of Memphis locals that this is the place to be for unique bars and restaurants away from downtown.  Unfortunately for us, we received this advice too late in our trip.  Oh well, all the more reason to go back, right?

If you’ve been to Memphis, what was your favorite place to visit? If you haven’t, what would be on your checklist to see there?

Korea has Seoul

Korea has Seoul

Some trips hit you on a deeper level than others, spark big ideas, and stay with you forever.  For me, it was a matter of the right opportunity coming at the exact right time.
creekI traveled to South Korea a little over a year ago.  It was a trip fueled by self-indulgence and a little bit of self-pity.  I had just been passed over for a cross-training opportunity at work and also was just dumped by someone I never had much of a future with anyways.  I needed to get away, and conveniently, my cousin, Katie, was living in Seoul at the time and invited me to visit.  I used my whole tax refund to purchase the round trip ticket, with a little left over for extra expenses.  It felt really good to make the journey to Korea, with a short layover in San Francisco, on my own. The flight was 12 hours from SFO to ICN, and I spent it watching movies and reading the first Game of Thrones book, too excited to sleep.  By the time we landed, I was so exhausted but did my best to keep up with my cousin and her boyfriend, James, who took me out for dinner.
First Night in SeoulOur first meal included Shabu Shabu, a Korean style hot pot, and bibimbap, a vegetable and rice dish.  By the time we made it back to my cousin’s apartment, I was spent.  We talked a little bit about what I wanted to do while I was there and she showed me the guest room before I passed out.  Katie obviously still went to work while I was there, which allowed for a good balance of having her as my Seoul guide and giving me time to explore on my own.  Most days started with a hike through Namsan Park, which was walking distance away from their apartment.
Namsan ParkThe park was gorgeously maintained and every time I walked through it I tried to go a different way.  The walk up toSeoulTower
N Seoul Tower, which was located in the park,was a great hike; it was very steep and provided an
excellent work out.  I didn’t go up in the tower itself, but
walked around the plateau it stood on, which featured a memorial, a gift shop, a café, and a beautiful view of the city.  There was also a chain link fence covered in padlocks, known as “Locks of Love”, similar Locks of Love at Seoul Towerto the Pont des Arts in Paris.  After my walks, I’d head back to the apartment to meet up with Katie and zip around Seoul on her Vespa.  We browsed the markets, ate street food, and saw the sights.  Not many of the locals spoke English, but I found I could get by with knowing just two Korean words: hello (“annyeonghaseyo”) and thank you (“kamsahamnida”).  I picked up a few more as I went, but a hello and a smile went a long way.  I loved browsing through the markets and haggling with the vendors.  We went to Insadong and Namdaemun markets on one of the first days I was there.  They both had their own unique atmospheres. Namdaemun Market, SeoulInsadong was my favorite, with its great mix of new stores and old goods.  I obsessed over the kitschy t-shirts and the traditional Korean masks, the red bean donuts from the street vendors and shoppers walking around with huge, curly ice cream cones (called Jipangi).  My cousin had lived in Seoul for a while at this point, and knew all the best little restaurants with the most authentic Korean cuisine.  We had Mandu dumplings, Tteokbokki (rice noodles in a spicy red sauce), Korean soups, barbecue, and kimchi, so much kimchi.  Of course my favorite meals were the Korean BBQs.
Korean BBQ in Seoul, South KoreaI loved all the banchan served on the side: the pickles, fish cakes, seaweed, bean sprouts, rice… so many little dishes crowding the table.  The wait for the meat to cook at the table made it taste that much more delicious.  All of that chased down with shots of Soju and glasses of beer mixed with sprite (it sounds weird, but it’s actually very refreshing).  One night, we went out with Katie and her boyfriend’s friends for Korean Barbecue and then out on the town.  Our first bar stop served us a plastic-lined picnic basket filled with ice, fruit and an amazing punch, with extra-long straws poking out.
Needless to say, that started our night off right, and we stayed out until the bars were closing.  cocktailOne of my favorite places that Katie took me to was Gyeongbokgung Palace, a beautiful historic site that we wandered through for a full afternoon.
Gyeongbokgung PalaceThe architecture, koi ponds, and gardens were stunning, and with the addition of the blooming cherry blossoms, it was almost impossible to leave without taking about three thousand pictures.  We also walked to the King Sejong statue, which was very close to Gyeongbokgung Palace.
The beautiful gold statue sits in the center of the Main Plaza and has the view of Bukaksan Mountain behind it.  King Sejong Statue, SeoulWhen I had a morning to myself , I took a taxi to Jogyesa Buddhist Temple, with help from a note that Katie wrote in Korean for the driver.  The temple was starting to be decorated for Buddha’s birthday, which is in the beginning of May.  It was absolutely breathtaking.
Jogyesa Buddhist Temple, SeoulThere were lanterns of every color strung up in the trees to form a canopy over the courtyard.  I listened to the prayers and lit incense, and tried to take in the whole scene.  It was a very humbling experience to be in the presence of something so spiritual.
Buddhist2Afterwards, I met Katie at a traditional Korean tea house for a mug of thick, spiced tea with Korean cookies.  The tea house was atop one of the stores in the market, and looked out on the cherry blossoms right outside the window.
010We rode everywhere in Seoul on Katie’s Vespa, which was so exciting and a little scary.  We rode up steep hills in the mountains, and in traffic through the city – everywhere.
It really made the trip that much better to be able to see the city from the back of a scooter, zipping around to wherever Katie wanted to take me next.  Many people use Vespas as their main choice for transportation in Seoul, from businessmen to delivery men.  We did have one scare while we zooming around, when a delivery driver on a scooter slid under the back bumper of a car right in front of us.  The driver was okay, thank goodness, but I definitely wore my helmet a little snugger, and hung onto the scooter a little tighter after that.  That weekend, we, Katie, her fiancé, James, and his daughter, Louie, decided to take a little trip to Nami Island, which was a train and ferry ride away.
Ferry to Nami Island, South KoreaThe Island, a popular destination thanks to a famous Korean Soap Opera: Winter Sonata, was like a fairytale.  The main walk was lined with white, balloon-shaped lanterns.  There Island2were interesting statues at every turn, and a man in what looked like a smiling potato costume acted as a mascot.  We rode a four person bike-mobile around the island, taking in the scenery.  I had one of my favorite delicacies, a red bean bao…ok, more than one.  The island was only a little crowded, and we spent a good amount of time exploring and looking at everything there was to offer.  They did have accommodations on Nami Island, however, they book pretty far in advance so we Islandended up staying elsewhere.  We took the ferry back to the mainland and had a delicious dinner of Dak Galbi, a specialty of the area made with rice cakes, chicken and spicy sauce, then took a taxi to our hotel.  The hotel happened to be in the middle of nowhere, which was weird enough, before you factored in the rave that seemed to be happening next door to the hotel.  It was a long day, we just rolled with it.  We put Louie to sleep in the hotel room, and sat on the porch and drank Cass beer and talked.  It had already been an amazing trip and I still had a few days to go.
Katie's Rooftop View, SeoulWe had a pretty low-key day after Nami Island, taking our time getting back to Seoul.  Katie dazzled us with her fabulous Korean cooking skills for dinner.  After dinner, we planned out what else I should do before I returned to Chicago; referring to the Seoul Bucket List I had made in the beginning of the trip that was now mostly crossed off.  On Katie’s suggestion, I took another solo excursion to the National Museum of Korea, where I spent a few hours learning more about the amazing country I had become so fond of.  The museum was very large, and had an outdoor portion with gardens and statues.  I wandered through these and stumbled upon a waterfall full of very vocal frogs, aptly named Dragon Falls. They were so loud, I ended up staying awhile on a bench, just listening.
National Museum of Korea, SeoulAfter exploring the museum, I, again, met up with Katie and we were off to wander around Bukchon Hanok Village, an area of traditional-style houses.  It was a beautiful time warp in the middle of this bustling city.
Bukchon Hanok VillageFrom there, she very generously allowed me to give in to my shopping addiction and took me to a few cute neighborhoods to browse, including Myeongdong, a hip fashion area.
Red Bean Donut, Seoul, South KoreaShe also had directed me to one of the more famous department stores, Shinsegae, where I fell in love with Korean Fashion and got hopelessly lost in the underground market below.  I walked up and down the aisles, searching Insadong Market, Seoulfor the exit that would lead me to the corner I was supposed to meet Katie at.  While I wandered, I still shopped, of course, and marveled at the interesting, bargain fashions.  I finally made it out, and found my cousin.  It was a moment equivalent to a toddler finding their “lost” mom in a supermarket.  I was so happy to see her.

Earlier on in my trip, Katie had introduced me to her friend and mentor, Okjung, who is a Korean writer.   The first time we met, the three of us shared grilled Okjung in Seoulmackerel and went out for a beer on Hongdae, a popular club-y neighborhood in Seoul.  On one of my last evenings in Seoul, Okjung invited us to her apartment for a home-cooked meal.  She made us Pajeon (scallion pancakes) and other delicacies, and we talked about Korea, writing, and life in general.  We had a lovely time with Okjung and her husband, and I’m happy to have had the opportunity meet them.  On my last day in Seoul, Katie and I rode a tandem bike along the Han River in Hangang Park.  I didn’t want to leave.  I enjoyed everything about this trip: the people I met, all the food, shopping, sights…everything.  Seoul inspired me.  In a way, Korea is the reason I started this blog.  The first picture I posted on RebeccaWanderlusting is me at Gyeongbokgung Palace.  Seoul gave me some soul, and led me to this amazing adventure I’m living now.
Nami Island, Korea***Big, Big THANK YOU to Katie and James for housing me and being amazing tour guides.  Your local expertise made this trip so much more than simple tourism.  I love you both!

10 Tips for Planning a Trip from Scratch

Sometimes when the travel bug bites, you don’t feel pulled in any one direction.  This can prove to be a fantastic opportunity.  To plan a trip from scratch, meaning with no destination in mind, can be a beautiful thing.  Picking a destination through throwing out a wide net and finding what deals are out there is a great way to start planning a trip you may not have been able to imagine before.  I’ve tried this tactic a few times with amazing results.  This is actually how I planned my trip to North Carolina earlier this summer.  Below you can find my top ten tips for completely planning a trip from scratch:

  1. Budget, Budget, Budget: This may be a boring first step, but it’s necessary. Set a budget for how much you want to spend on your airfare and hotels to help narrow your options.  I’m not saying you should shoot for budget travel, but just try spend within your means or credit card limits.
  2. Explore your options: Use the Kayak Explore function, or something like it, and see where you can go within your budget. You can put in your home airport and check flights to anywhere.  Don’t rule out a road trip!  Check mileage with google maps or try roadtrippers.com to help plan the ultimate road trip to wherever you choose.
  3. See what each option has to offer: Once you have options, check out the attractions in the area to see which you find most appealing. I like to use Pinterest to have good visuals and links to the top lists of attractions in each list.
  4. Check Transit: Another thing to check before making any decisions is your destinations transportation options. Is it a walkable city? Is there public transportation? Will you need to rent a car? And those are all things to think about budget-wise, as well.
  5. Lodging: Check hotel prices in the area. I like to use Tripadvisor for reviews and pricing, but I also use websites like Livingsocial or Groupon to find any deals on hotel rooms.  Trivago and TravelZoo also have good deals to be found.
  6. Ulterior Lodging Options: If the hotel prices are too high for your budget, take a gander at Airbnb.com or check out if there are any hostels in the area. For me, hostels are always a great budget option with great locations.
  7. Book it!: Once everything fits the way you want it to (locations, prices, attractions), start booking! I usually book airfare, then hotel and finally choose any additional events or attractions (tours, boat cruises…) later on.
  8. Take note: Be sure to write down all of your important dates and times, as well as cancellation dates to avoid charges should you need to cancel any portion of your travels. Having all the details in one place will help you keep organized.
  9. Loose Itinerary: Make a rough plan of things you want to do while you’re there. You should make sure to take note of any special events happening in the area or days certain attractions may be closed.
  10. ENJOY!: You planned this whole trip from start to end and you deserve to enjoy every minute of it.  Don’t forget to relax and take in all the amazing details.  You earned it.

Have you tried this before? Where did you go?

Dubuque Weekenders

Dubuque Weekenders

Grand River Center Dubuque, Iowa on the Mississippi River

I have to admit, when I think weekend trip, Iowa is never the first thing that comes to mind.  Yet here we are, in beautiful Dubuque after driving three and half hours from Chicago.  My boyfriend and I had come to the industrial city for a friend’s wedding.  Our first choice of hotel was The Hotel Julien, which had been recommended by my parents who absolutely love Dubuque.  They were unfortunately overbooked, so we ended up having to scramble to find Country Inn, Dubuque, Iowasomething else last minute.  We wound up at The Country Inn and Suites which was tragically far away from the downtown area.  Now let me preface my limited review on this hotel by saying, I am not a hotel snob.  I don’t mind staying at budget hotels and I enjoy staying at hostels, but my first instinct when I walked into our hotel room was to Travel Essential Dubuque, Iowa run directly back to Chicago.  There were stains on the carpet, scuffs on the walls, the bathroom was questionable, the GD curtains were torn! Come on Country Inn, have a little pride!  The room did have a few good points, which included a coffee maker in the room, great water pressure in the shower and an individually wrapped make-up remover towlette, which was a very thoughtful touch.  We beautified ourselves for the wedding and inquired about a taxi service in the area.  The front desk agent handed us a business card and told us it would be about $10 for the ride into downtown.  Wrong.  It was actually double that. BUT it was worth every penny because the cab driver turned out to Wedding in Dubuque, Iowabe our personal concierge.  He gave us tons of advice on where to go out after the wedding, where to go for breakfast the next morning, and the maximum level of intoxication that they would allow at the casino across from the wedding venue.  It was great!  The wedding was at The Grand River Center, which as its name suggests, is right on the Mississippi River.  It had a beautifulMississippi River, Dubuque, Iowa glass wall on the river side, and a stone patio that led out onto the river walk.  We spent the cocktail hour out on that patio just taking in the scenery.  The Mississippi isn’t the prettiest river, but it is really a sight to behold.  The wedding reception was beautiful, as they usually are and we danced and abused the photo booth for a good portion of Wedding Cupcake, Dubuque, Iowathe evening.  Earlier on, we had noticed that there was a brewery next door to the venue that looked like it was having some sort of festival with a live band.  When there was a lull, we decided to walk over and check it out.  And that is how I accidentally crashed a wedding for the first time ever.  (Congratulations Travis and Christy! Sorry we barged in on your festivities!)
Stone Cliff Winery, Dubuque, IowaStone Cliff Winery, Dubuque, Iowa

We toasted the happy couple and tested out their photo booth too before we hightailed it back to our own celebrations.  We danced some more, I didn’t catch the bouquet, and there was late night pizza to be had.
Bridal Table, Dubuque IowaAfter the reception ended, we walked over to the Diamond Joe Casino.  Surprisingly, they let us in and we hit the slots.  I tried my hand at blackjack and won a couple of hands, which I’m sure would have made my grandma very proud.  We ended up losing $30 but I guess that’s what we get for gambling while under the influence.  We decided to take the Train Tracks, Dubuque, Iowa9 minute walk to the main drag, which was on the other side of the highway, over a bridge.  The city looked beautiful.  We walked past the hotel we should have stayed at and I instantly vowed to come back solely to stay there; it was gorgeous and grand.  We walked to a bar called The Broken Lift, which our concierge cab driver had recommended.  It was a music venue/bar in the basement of a restaurant called Vinnie Vanucchi’s.  The Broken Lift occupies a cave-The Busted Lift, Dubuque, Iowalike space with two large rooms and limestone covered walls.  I had a John’s Generations White Ale, which was crisp after drinking so much light beer at the wedding.  They had an enthralling game in the backroom that involved swinging a metal hoop at a hook on the wall that completely
captured our attention until last call.  We cabbed home which took us quite some time because our limited The Busted Lift, Dubuque, Iowaknowledge of the city and drunken rambling led our cab driver to believe our hotel was in the opposite direction than where it actually was.  When we finally made it back to the Country Inn, we tried unsuccessfully to order a late night pizza and then passed out from the effort.  The next morning, we checked out early to explore Dubuque a little more before heading home.  We took another cue from our awesome cabbie took his recommendation for brunch.  All we had written down was Quality Inn, so we plugged it into the GPS and off we went.  I was interested to see if it was the same small motel that I thought it was, and as we climbed the hill to our destination, I realized that it was.  For one moment, I was very mad at our cab driver for leading us astray.  That was until my boyfriend, who is a much better listener than I am, pointed out our actual destination, which shared a parking lot with the motel.
Timmerman's Supper Club, Dubuque, IowaTimmerman’s Supper Club was perched on a bluff which overlooked the river.  The décor and architecture were straight out of the seventies with gold chandeliers and wooden bamboo chairs.  I loved the atmosphere and look of Timmerman's Super Club, Dubuque, Iowathe supper club, but the food on the brunch was just ok.  The buffet with many choices, carving stations, omelet stations, and a slew of baked goods.  The clientele seemed like they had been coming there for years, there was a familiarity to the crowd that was very comfortable.  I would like to revisit Timmerman’s, but maybe for dinner or a fancy supper club drink.  Our next stop was the 4th Street Elevator (or the Fenelon Place Elevator), one of the more historic sites in Dubuque.
4th Street Elevator, Dubuque, IowaIt used to transport folks to and from their houses on top of the hill and their jobs at the bottom, downtown.  We were excited to ride this contraption up and down, however they only took cash and had no ATM so we settled for watching it Dubuque, Iowainstead.  It was only $3.00 roundtrip, and I am kind of bummed we didn’t get a chance to experience it.  Another reason to come back, I suppose.  I needed another coffee before we drove back to Chicago, so we stopped at Monk’s Kaffee Pub on Bluff Street.  It is a coffee bar by day and a bar bar by night.  It was such a cozy space, with a dark wooden bar that spanned the length of the front room and mismatched arm chairs and tables Monks Kaffee Pub, Dubuque, Iowathroughout.  The coffee was good too!  It was such a nice departure from the coffee shops that I am used to.  I would gladly return to enjoy a latte in one of those comfy arm chairs.  Our last stop before heading home was a flea market/farmer’s market we spotted by the train tracks.  It was interesting to say the least.  We parked in the grass and browsed through the card tables and tents.  I saw a lot of clip on earrings and dishes and beer signs.
Flea Market, Dubuque, IowaFlea Market, Dubuque, Iowa
Flea Market, Dubuque, IowaFlea Market, Dubuque, Iowa

We didn’t buy anything but we did get a kick out of looking around.  Dubuque was a quaint little industrial city that I would definitely venture to again.  I feel like there are a few other hidden gems to be discovered and I need to stay at The Hotel Julien at some point in the near future.  Dubuque Weekenders Part Two?? Probably.
Dubuque, Iowa

We took our time driving home, stopping at random scenic overlooks and roadside attractions.  There really is beauty everywhere, if you take the time to look for it.  As Roald Dahl said: “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely of places.  Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
Elizabeth, IL Farmland, ILErin, IL Farmer's MarketErin, IL Farmers Market

Staycation at The Freehand Hotel

Staycation at The Freehand Hotel
Front Desk at The Freehand Hotel

I’d first come to The Freehand because my wonderfully talented friend was featured in a pop-up gallery there a month back.  I loved its cute haphazard style so much that I knew I needed to stay there.  The building held a certain mystique for me as it used to house the
ultra-creepy Tokyo Hotel before being renovated into The Freehand.  Front Desk at The Freehand HotelI’d never been inside when it was the Tokyo Hotel, but always passed it and wondered what went on behind its dingy exterior.  A month later, there I was checking in at the upscale hostel/hotel.  I had walked over after work on Friday; it was just a short jaunt over to the River North Neighborhood. The check-in process was casual and easy, and after a brief orientation of the property, I was on my way up to the tenth floor in a painfully slow elevator.  I chose to stay in one of their private rooms, which they offer along with shared and private bunk-bedded rooms.Private Queen Room at The Freehand Chicago

The room was straightforward and charming, with a queen-sized bed, small armoire containing hotel robes and a small safe and a desk facing the city-view window.  The desk had The Freehand Chicagotwo small shelves of books ranging from “The Help” to “The Mammoth of Best New Erotica”, as well as a house phone, hotel guide, and a mini bar in an interior cabinet.  The blue-tiled bathroom featured a stand-up shower, hairdryer, fluffy
white towels, and beautifully packaged toiletries.  After getting settled and changing out of my stuffy work clothes, I met up with my boyfriend to go out on the town, staycation style.  I was dying to try The Purple Pig, which I had never been to, despite living in Chicago for seven years.  We walked over there only to find out they had an hour wait for a table.  We put our name down anyways and went off in search of appetizers.  After pinging back and forth across MicThe Toiletries at The Freehand Chicagohigan Avenue, looking at menus and turning them down, hunger forced us to stop into Doc B’s Fresh Kitchen.  Right off the bat, I wasn’t crazy about this decision.  It seemed like an upscale TGI Fridays, only without the moderate prices.  We sat  down and ordered a couple of beers and decided whether or not we should bail.  Again, hunger won and we had our beers and a kale and artichoke dip which was good in the way that artichoke dip always is.  After we paid, we walked back up to Michigan Avenue just in time to finally be summoned to The Purple Pig because our table was ready.  We were sat at a table inside and immediately made work of reading and translating their extensive menu of share plates.
The Purple Pig ChicagoThe Chorizo Stuffed Olives, Whipped Feta Dip, and Pork Belly Rillon looked best to us.  They brought each dish out separately, which made for optimal enjoyment.  We started with the feta, which was served with thick slices of delicious bread.  The feta had cucumbers and peppers brunoise on top and was so tasty.  For me, there is literally nothing better than cheese and bread so of course I loved this dish.  Next came the olives, which were a little too salty for me, but my boyfriend very much enjoyed them.  Finally, the Pork Belly Rillons, which were the perfect mixture of crispy and melt in your mouth.  I only wish the serving was bigger.
The Chicago RiverAfter we finished the decadent dinner, we walked the few blocks across the river and walked down the steps to the River Walk.  The brightly lit river-adjacent sidewalk was vibrant and teeming with the after-dinner crowd.  We walked down a-ways and doubled back to pop into The Hideout for a beer.
The Hideout, Riverwalk, Chicago

The Hideout, Riverwalk, Chicago

The music venue/bar had an industrial feel; the area it occupied was fenced off by the green tarp covered fence that’s usually reserved for road work.  The furniture was mismatched inside and there were picnic tables and highboys outside.  The bar offered beer, wine, shots and snacks from Bridgeport Pasty.  We sat outside to enjoy our beers before walking back to The Freehand to have a nightcap in their bar, The Broken Shaker.  I immediately wanted whatever drink was encased in the enchanting golden pineapple that I saw other patrons holding.  It turned out to be Chicago Politics, a delectable and spicy cocktail that kicks you right in the throat.
Chicago Politics Cocktail at The Broken Shaker in The Freehand ChicagoThere was an extravagant process to making it that ended with lighting the garnish on fire with a blowtorch.  It was a hefty portion of booze worthy of two cocktails and priced accordingly.  The bar was crowded, but not uncomfortably so.  The bartenders were very attentive and continued to craft creative cocktails without the pretension of other “mixologists”.  We spent a good amount of time enjoying the cozy atmosphere of The Broken Shaker before retiring to our room for the night.

The next morning we rushed down to catch the complimentary breakfast located in the sitting room next to The Broken Shaker.  It was a free-for-all.  There was quite the crowd milling around the tables containing coffee, tea, juice and baked goods.  We fought to get our free muffins and hightailed it over to Café Integral, the in-house coffee bar/café.  I had a latte and my boyfriend ordered an Americano, both were superb.  The apple muffins were also very good, and we were happy to find out they were brought in from Lovely
Bake Shop, which is in our neighborhood.  We also ordered from Café Integral’s “on toast” menu, and chose the Avocado Smash.

The Avocado Smash Toast at Cafe Integral, The Freehand Chicago

I would gladly eat that every day if I could, it was that delicious.  It was served with thinly sliced radishes, pickled shallots and sprouts on top and a slice of lemon on the side.
Cafe Integral, The Freehand ChicagoPart of the beauty of a staycation is that every new thing that you discover and enjoy is easily accessible for revisiting.  And I plan to go back to Café Integral often, specifically for the Avocado Smash.
Cafe Integral, The Freehand ChicagoBefore we checked out, I wanted to explore the basement of the hotel, which is where the guest laundry and kitchen was located.  The kitchen was brightly lit and happily buzzing with a few other guests preparing their meals.  In addition to these in house amenities, The Freehand offers an activity calendar for their guests including workouts, walking tours, and other special events much like the pop-up gallery my friend was featured in.
Event Calendar, The Freehand ChicagoWe left the hotel at noon, after walking around and popping into a few shops in the area.  We walked the two miles back to our apartment, across the river and over the line that separates blissful staycations and real life.
The Freehand ChicagoThe Freehand ChicagoChicago RiverA big thank you to The Freehand for having us and giving us such a wonderful staycation experience.  I will definitely be back!

Have you ever tried a staycation? How did it compare to other vacations?