Last winter, as the polar vortex froze lids to lashes, I was walking miles and miles to eight, 10, sometimes 12 spots a day—hotels, restaurants, shops, museums—in my research for the new Frommer’s EasyGuide to Chicago. Seriously, my pen regularly froze if I tried to write outside, and I learned to embrace hotel lobbies as a free place to sit and work for an hour or so, unnoticed.
During that time, if Neil and I went out to eat with friends, it was never just dinner. There was always a blues lounge, a jazz club, a gay bar, a craft cocktail spot and a second dinner to tack on to the equation. It was a whirlwind, immersing myself in all that is Chicago.
Today, the fruits of my labor have hit shelves! (Or, at least, Amazon). The guidebook is now available, and I’m officially an author.
In honor of the book’s release, I thought it would be appropriate to write a series of blogs surrounding it. During my research, the most common question I got from friends was “What’s been your favorite?” So today, I’m writing about my favorite Chicago discoveries from guidebook research, places that I’ve recommended time and again to friends and family.
Check back in coming weeks for more fun blogs from this virtual Chicago tour guide. (Note: the content on the Frommer’s website hasn’t been updated to reflect the latest content, so buy the book to be in the know!)
Favorite Chicago Spots from a Frommer’s Guide:
My favorite affordable Chicago hotel: Acme Hotel Company. If this is what a hotel that caters to hipster millennials looks like, I approve. “If Acme were a beer, it would be a Pabst Blue Ribbon,” I wrote in the Frommer’s Guide. This place oozes style, but in a fun, quirky, comfortable way. The nightlight in the bathroom is a lighted pair of lips on the mirror, for example. An art display of mannequins floats in the courtyard outside. Coffee is delivered to your room for free in the morning with no bleary-eyed interaction with staff thanks to the “knock and drop” program. Centrally located, (it’s a short walk from Eataly) Acme has everything you need in a Chicago hotel, plus a sense of hipster jazz hands.
My favorite luxury Chicago hotel: The Langham. “If Downton Abbey was transported in time and place to Chicago, it would be The Langham, where a butler is at your service (if you’re a Langham Club member),” I wrote in the guidebook. This place has a team of eight butlers who will do everything from unpack your clothes to draw you a bath. Wandering around the Langham is like visiting an art museum, with more than 100 works around the property that make you want to speak in a hushed voice. Located in the iconic former IBM building, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the rooms are absolutely stunning, with floor-to-ceiling windows, huge bathrooms and décor that feels more like a swanky home than a hotel. A weekend here may well cost the same as a rent/mortgage payment, but if you’re looking for a splurge, you won’t be disappointed (until you go home and realize Jeeves stayed behind).
Restaurant I could eat at seven times a week: Fat Rice. Holy Macau, this place is insane! The food—Macaunese—is phenomenal, and I dream of the squid ink fried rice, the eggplant with peanut, the fat noodle and the veggie curry. One piece of advice: take friends (but keep your party under six, house rules). You’ll want to try everything, but portions are big (and not cheap). More people = more plates.
Sushi that made me realize how good sushi can be: Kai Zan. You know how sometimes, when you’ve been eating a certain food for years, you think you’ve landed on a pretty darn version of that food, only to realize, when you go to a restaurant that does that food perfectly, maybe you never knew how good good can be? That’s how I felt at Kai Zan. This BYOB sushi spot is in Humboldt Park, so it’s a bit of a hike for me, but one bite of their angry crab and I have no complaints.
Swanky drinks in River North/Near North without the obnoxious bro factor: Berkshire Room. Pick a booze, pick a flavor profile, pick a glass, and they’ll customize a drink to your preferences at Berkshire Room. This bar was a revelation to me. It’s upscale enough to feel fancy, but totally comfortable at the same time. And they make a mean Manhattan. It’s in the Acme Hotel, so it’s still at least a little bit of a secret to both tourists and locals, alike.
The tour company to keep on speed dial: Chicago Detours. While doing guidebook research, I took the Loop Interior Architecture walking tour and my mind went kapow from all I learned. Cool stuff—the kind of stuff you don’t find in standard history books, newspapers and some guidebooks. Juicy bits. I was so impressed that a couple of months later, when Neil’s mom was in town, we took another Detours tour that went into Chicago’s skyscraper church, ending with a champagne toast on the pastor’s private balcony overlooking the city (seriously). Then, when his brother and brother’s girlfriend came up, we took the historic bar tour downtown. All were incredible tours, even for us locals who think they know a lot about Chicago.
A few weeks ago, my friend and colleague Maureen Jenkins (aka Urban Travel Girl) asked me if I’d participate in a “blog hop.”
I’d heard about this whole blog hop thing on the blogging circuit, and as I watched it make its way from one blog friend to the next, I was impressed by the momentum I saw chain-linking around the world.
Also, I adore Maureen. We met on a trip to Pamplona, Spain and I am in awe of her travels and her impressive career (check out her bio below and you’ll see why). Plus, knowing that Maureen works a full-time job, while also freelancing and traveling, I knew I had absolutely no excuse not to do a blog hop if she was asking me to do it.
So here we are.
For those who aren’t yet familiar with blog hoppery, here’s the deal. In order to participate, I agreed to recruit three other bloggers to join in and keep the hop going. I’ll be answering a handful of questions about my writing, below. When I’m done bloviating (or would that be blogviating?), you’ll find links to five (yes, five!) blogs. One is Maureen’s, the others belong to four of my favorite bloggers who agreed to keep the hop hopping. (I went above and beyond the requisite three, because why stop at the minimum, right?).
Here are my musings on my muses:
1) What am I working on/writing?
In April, I wrapped up work on my biggest and most challenging project to date: I wrote the Frommer’s Easy Guide to Chicago, which will be out next month (!). It was an enormous amount of work/labor of love, and I’m really proud of the book. I feel like I earned an advanced degree in Chicago studies in the process, as I toured multiple hotels a day (eight was my record) and ate my face off anywhere and everywhere, often sneaking in a double dinner along the way.
Since the book has been put to bed, I’ve been working on all kinds of assignments. Recently, I started writing for the site Schools.com and am working on a couple of pieces for them on great places to go to college, whether majors matter, etc. In other arenas: Last week, I published a piece on a holistic nursing care facility that’s doing some forward-thinking work in Vermont. In the last few months, I’ve been doing quite a bit of writing for Crain’s (most recently this piece on artisinal ice). I’ve been writing up a storm for a site by GM, called DrivetheDistrict.com (to wit: Punch is the New Martini in Chicago) and some other clients I have through Contently, including Chevy, a site by Zillow called Hot Pads, and Ancestry.com. I just wrapped up my first piece for Hemispheres magazine (more on that when it publishes in September) and another super cool travel piece I can’t yet talk about is running soon in the Chicago Tribune. Oh, and I just found out that a piece I wrote recently about a Memphis sno cone stand for the Washington Post ran in New Zealand (I think the editors over there should give me a regular Americana column). And I’ve been working on a couple of books, both of which are ghostwritten, so I can’t go into the details. But I will say that in the future, I’d love to work on more books.
2) How does my work/writing differ from others of its genre?
Genre? Ha! I used to think that I had a particular specialty, but that was more than 7 years ago, when I worked on staff at a magazine, and could just about always write about whatever I wanted. And I did! Highlights from my Vegas years included worm-farm schemes, wedding chapel wars, bike-alongs with Mormon missionaries, testing “safe rooms,” hanging out with a pig farmer, embedding myself in Mary Kay cosmetics and the list goes on. Back then, I considered my genre the “freak beat,” because of my love of subcultures and modern anthropology. But all that’s changed since I went off on my own. It’s harder to sell those pieces as a freelancer, so I feel like I’ve channeled my study of humans into food and travel writing, while also working on culture, education and wellness pieces. My true love, though, will always be in-depth profile pieces that examine what makes someone tick.
3) Why do I write what I do?
I think that all writers share a sense of curiosity and our profession allows us to explore that, dignity in tact (for the most part). So many of my stories have started out with an “I wonder if….” “Why does….” kind of conversation. As a writer, I can explore those questions and answer them, while throwing out a cool word like bloviate along the way. A lot of times, I really think that my reporter’s notepad acts as my security blanket, and lets me into parties and situations where I maybe wouldn’t otherwise be. It keeps me removed, but involved at the same time. But most of all, I can always say “it’s for a story” to make myself seem less weird.
4) How does my writing process work?
A lot of writers love the rush of deadlines. I hate that rush. I do everything I can to avoid it and usually turn assignments in considerably early (example: this is supposed to publish Thursday. I’m putting it up on Tuesday. And this is voluntary/fun). I’m a planner, in general, so if an assignment comes my way, I usually start working on it as soon as humanly possible. I do whatever interviews/research/site visits are necessary, and then I close myself into a completely quiet room, shut out the world and write, write, write. Usually, there are interruptions for carbs–chocolate, chips, whatever is in the house. Sometimes I sneak a nap in. Or maybe a run. But when I’m working on a big story or project, I plan ahead and clear my schedule entirely for the day or two–no phone calls, nothing–and plug away.
Looking back at the guidebook writing, the biggest challenge was the immensity of the work at hand. The research, itself, was challenging enough. And then came the writing. We’re talking in the 70,000+ word range. So day after day, week after week, I would work work work work work, and still not feel like I was making any progress, because there was just so much left still to do. But I did it–ahead of schedule, too (by a couple of days). Today, I’m still amazed at how easy it is to write a 1,500- or 2,000-word feature. Prior to the guidebook, it seemed much more overwhelming.
And now, meet my chosen blog hoppers! Check out their fabulous blogs and revisit soon, they’ll be recruiting their own bloggers and answering these same questions.
Maureen Jenkins is an award-winning writer, freelance Travel and Lifestyles journalist, and global Communications professional who’s visited nearly 35 countries and territories. This citizen of the world also has lived in Florence, Italy, and spent a year living in Samois-sur-Seine, a charming village near Paris. Maureen muses about all things travel-related—whether outside the United States or near her native Chicago—in “TCW Travel Connection,” a blog she writes for Today’s Chicago Woman magazine. A passionate believer in the ability of travel to not only transform the way we see the world, but ourselves, she encourages black women to “live globally through international travel” in her personal blog, UrbanTravelGirl.com. During her career, Maureen’s work has appeared in online and print publications including CNN.com, About.com Luxury Travel, EBONY and Jet Magazines, Ebony.com,
Black Enterprise, Working Mother, Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Crain’s Chicago Business, Today’s Chicago Woman, The Oregonian, Arizona Republic, and the Charlotte Observer.
Lisa Lubin is an established travel/food writer and three-time Emmy® -award winning TV producer. She is a travel industry expert and has appeared on WGN-TV and Good Morning America. After more than a decade in broadcast television she took a sabbatical of sorts which turned into nearly three years traveling and working her way around the world. She documents her (mis)adventures on her blog, LLworldtour.com, with photographs, videos, and articles from the road/train/rickshaw/camel. Her writing and photography has been published by American Way Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, Smithsonian, the Malibu Times, Encyclopedia Britannica, Orbitz, and Huffington Post. Lisa also owns LLmedia, a media & video consulting business. She has spoken about video and journalism at several conferences including the Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX), the World Travel Market in London, the New York Travel Fest, the Women in Travel Summit, and “Visit Russia” in Yaroslavl.
Photo by Neal Niemiec, http://seeyouatthefair.tumblr.com/
It’s that time of year again: the pyromania, the booms, the post-apocalyptic sense of wonder. In other words, the Unsanctioned Fireworks Display at Winnemac Park! This annual tradition of BYOF (bring your own fireworks) will blow you away.
Figuratively, I hope.
It’s far better than anything you’ll ever see, ever, at Navy Pier.
I wrote about it here for the site Drive the District.
One of my more interesting projects of late was writing the story of how a senior residential care facility in Vermont, called Living well, is using a farm-to-table approach to food, a naturopathic approach to medications (when possible), offering art and music therapy, along with yoga and tai chi to improve the lives of its residents and the model of elder care. 15 years ago, this would have seemed radical. Now, it makes a whole lot of sense.
When writing this, I found that I’d arrived at the story at just the right moment. Living Well, a non-profit that’s been operating for 10 years, had just purchased Ethan Allen, a traditionally run residential care facility. So I was able to speak with the nursing staff about what it was like to implement the holistic model, and how the residents responded.
Here’s the story of Living Well in Bristol, Vermont.
If you recently heard a window-shaking vroom! vroom! on the north side of Chicago, that might have been me, riding though town in the back seat of a street-legal Indy Car.
The Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association came to Chicago to promote the new Indy Racing Experience, which puts you in the seat driver or passenger seat of a real race car, zipping around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Riding around Chicago, it was a blast watching people’s reactions. The best moment, hands down, was when a pair of twins asked if they could take a photo of the car, and then carefully positioned themselves in front of it, selfie-style. The worst part was getting stuck in traffic in a race car (sweet home, Chicago). All in all, a once-in-a-lifetime experience that makes me love my travel writing job.
My hands are still slightly sweaty at the memory of standing on the 94th floor of the John Hancock Building, 1,000 feet over Chicago, and doing the last thing a reasonable person would want to do: tilting towards the ground.
This was at the unveiling of TILT, the new enclosed glass and steel movable observation box at 360 Chicago, engineered by the firm Thornton Tomasetti, which opens to the public Saturday, May 10 at 9 a.m.
Here’s what it’s like: I step into one of eight slots. Looking down, Matchbox cars zip along Michigan Avenue. Lake Michigan is a lovely cerulean blue. Then, there’s a whir that sounds like an airplane’s engines firing up. I grab the handles on the floor-to-ceiling windows in front of me, as the platform I’m standing on starts, well, tilting. I grip the bars tighter.
After what seems like an eternity, it pauses. There’s something completely irrational in my mind that is convinced that I’m making it move, and if I don’t stand completely still, all eight of us may fall to our deaths. Which is weird, because I actually didn’t expect the view to freak me out. But, as it moves again, I’m just a smidge freaked.
Pause. I grip the bars tighter, my arms holding me back. “Not such a terrible workout,” I think, gazing at my non-existent arm muscles, looking at my white-knuckled hands, looking at anything by the game of urban Frogger going on below.
And it starts moving again, this time at its fullest angle of about 30 degrees. It may not sound like much, but when you’re in that box, looking 1,000 feet down, hearing that jet-like whir, it’s enough to give those palms a little glaze, for what feels like the longest 30 seconds of your day.
Earlier, I wrote about our spooky New Mexico experience, wherein a stranger got into our car after following us on a hiking trail about an hour outside of Santa Fe.
Lest you think our entire visit to Santa Fe was marked by creepery, it wasn’t! We had a blast, ate our faces off, hiked/ran/explored and all that good stuff. One of the highlights of the visit was a stop at Kakawa Chocolate House, a small cafe that creates historically accurate drinking chocolates. I spoke with the owner as well as the founder and wrote a piece about Kakawa that’s published in this weekend’s Washington Post. Check it out!