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Our Whirlwind Trip to the Windy City


Alternative title to this post: How to Spend 1 ½ days in Chicago

I suppose I should begin with our main reason for going to the Windy City in September 2017: Hamilton. Yes, my friends, the best future husband ever gifted me with the golden ticket last Christmas. While I found it hard to wait nearly a year for the show, it must’ve been much harder on Keith who had to endure me constantly counting down or saying, “I don’t care about (insert whatever we were discussing here). I only care about making it to Hamilton, after which, I can die happy”. Keep in mind, we’re getting married in 2018.

A lot of my focus had been on the musical and rightly so but we were also going to one of the more popular destinations in North America. As amazing as Hamilton was (my review will be up in a separate post), I was blown away by Chicago. Pun very much intended.


Accommodation

I must give a shout-out to our amazing hosts, my uncle, Eric, his wife, Noel, and their effervescent daughter, Sophia. I highly recommend having relatives in Chicago, it makes travelling there so much more convenient and fun. We stayed over at their lovely home on North Lake Shore Drive, just a 10 minute walk to Wrigley and a 10 minute bus ride from Magnificent Mile. It was such a nice neighbourhood, we had a hard time leaving it to explore the rest of the city, or just in general, when it was time to go home.

For those of you who do not have relatives in Chicago, check out Airbnb. The hotel prices for the dates we were there were way too expensive.

​Getting Around

Now Torontonians or Chicagoans might gripe about their respective public transit systems, but let me tell you, after having had to endure the horrific traffic and abysmal state of public transportation in Manila, Philippines, twice this year, you guys have no idea how good you’ve got it. Sure there are delays, but the mere fact that you can get to your destination via bus or subway in less than an hour is a blessing, trust me.

We flew in to Midway Airport from Billy Bishop using Porter Airlines. As soon as we landed, we took full advantage of Chicago’s “L” trains and buses by purchasing a day pass using the machines at Midland station. With that, you can go pretty much anywhere you need to. I loved when the trains passed next to the buildings downtown. I’ve never seen anything like it.


Attractions

Since we were only in Chicago for such a short time, we had to maximize our sightseeing. After clearing customs, we took the Orange line straight to the Loop so we can go on an Architecture Boat Tour of the city. I highly recommend Chicago’s First Lady because it’s the only cruise partnered with the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Our docent was so funny and knowledgeable, it was the perfect introduction to this beautiful city and its rich history. I’ve heard great things about the other cruises as well, but we really loved the tour that focuses on the architecture, the why, where and how things were built. We also were able to walk the Riverfront, which I would advice people to do either before or after your tour.

We did the Magnificent Mile a couple of times by bus since the route going to my uncle’s took us through there. It’s worth seeing and you’d really enjoy it if you loved to shop, but we were saving all our money for Hamilton swag.

The second day, we woke up and walked to Wrigley Field. Despite being a Cardinals fan, even Keith had to agree how awesome it was that the park is very much just part of the neighbourhood. Plus the Starbucks across it had to be the coolest one we’ve ever been to.


The afternoon was devoted to Millenium Park and the Art Institute. We definitely did not have time to explore the park enough but I think we covered all the major works in the museum. Highlights include Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte, Chagall’s American Windows, and the Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room. Do not miss the Thorne Miniature Rooms.


Then it was time for the main event: Hamilton at the Privatebank Theatre. Well worth the trip!

Obviously there are a lot more sights to see but those are what I would recommend for a short trip.

Food Recommendations

The best restaurant in Chicago was definitely my uncle’s kitchen. Him and his wife made us amazing food during our stay. But again, if you don’t have relatives that can serve you delicious free food, then here are some places you can try: For deep dish pizza, we had Lou Malnati’s which my aunt says locals prefer. Although our friend, Julissa, who is a local says she likes Giordano’s. Julissa also took us to Latinicity, an awesome food hall serving everything from $2 tacos on Tuesday to Peruvian Lomo Saltado. Worth a visit. If you’re ever near Wrigley, there’s a Mexican restaurant that we ate at after seeing Hamilton with incredible tacos al pastor, El Burrito Mexicano.


Souvenirs

Three words: Chicago Mix Popcorn


Final Thoughts

We loved our time in Chicago so much, even though it was barely two days, that we started looking at properties there. It was very much the US counterpart to Toronto in my opinion. I had never thought about moving to the States until Chicago. I can’t wait to visit again!

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“How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s thing?!”

img_7282First Impressions

If you understood the reference I made in the title, then you must have seen “In Bruges”. I’m not embarrassed to say that I discovered the magical town of Bruges from that film. It’s a pretty stellar movie and it was the reason I put Bruges on top of my must-visit list. I was afraid that building Bruges up in my head would leave me disappointed and in a way it did and it didn’t. I wanted to get to Bruges early but I was still feeling sick so we couldn’t mobilize until 11 am and got to Bruges at half past noon. The reason I wanted to get there super early was to avoid the crowds, which were the main reason I was a little let down. The Bruges I fell in love with was the one featured in the scenes in the movie that had no tourists. In reality, during the hours of 10 am to 6 pm, the streets are filled with visitors. In my mind, it wouldn’t be as touristy, but being a tourist myself, I couldn’t really complain.

Accommodation

We did not stay in Bruges but I wish we did if only to be able to experience dawn and dusk there, when the tourists have all gone home.

Getting Around

We took the train from Brussels Central Station to Bruges’ Railway Station. Initially we didn’t know which train to board since on the big board at the station, they only show the train’s final destination not all the stops it’s making. We asked a helpful attendant and figured it all out. Once at Bruges’ train station, there are buses or taxis that can take to the main square but we opted to walk and I’m very glad we did because it allowed us to take in and savour all the sights Bruges had to offer.

Attractions

img_7220The walk from the train station to the town center took us through a few of the major landmarks in Bruges: Minnewater park, the Béguinage and the Church of Our Lady. The main event for us was definitely the Belfry and the market square. Unfortunately there was going to be a concert in the square and they had already set up the stage and seats right in the middle so that took away from the view.

The two things we did in Bruges was walk around to all the different places we remembered from the movie and take a canal ride. The canal ride is a must since you get to see a lot of things you wouldn’t otherwise have seen in a short amount of time for very little effort and the captain we had was hilarious.img_7237

Food recommendations

We didn’t stay long enough to have a proper meal. My cold was also getting worse so I couldn’t indulge in all the beer I desperately wanted, but I’ve heard just the best things about Huisbrouwerij De Halve Maan. We did get to sample some chocolate, again from a shop whose name I can’t remember. I would say it was comparable to the chocolate from Brussels, although I also didn’t find the famous chocolatier Dumon that apparently makes the best chocolates in all of Belgium. I definitely need to come back.

Souvenirs

Chocolate would be a good bet. But there is also, if you can afford it (we couldn’t), lace. My boss mentioned to me that Bruges is famous for crocheted lace and I had no idea. Once you get there though a lot of shops showcase the intricate pieces in their windows.

Final Thoughts

img_7152Keith said Bruges seems like what all the other ski towns in the US try to emulate, with the cobbled lanes and colourful buildings. We didn’t go inside the churches and the museums, but at the end of the day we were perfectly happy just being in this charming medieval city that really does look like it leapt out of a storybook.img_7153

Next post we find out if Paris is always a good idea…

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Adventures in Amsterdam + Love in Limburg

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AMSTERDAM

First Impressions

After months of planning and almost a year anticipating, it was finally time for us to fly to Amsterdam from Pearson Airport in Toronto. We landed in Schiphol Airport around 1 pm on Monday, August 22nd. Let me just quickly say that I loved Schiphol airport. I’ve done my fair share of airport hopping (what with travelling to the US & Asia) and Schiphol is probably my favourite so far. It’s super easy to navigate, very well-organized plus it has a ton of cool shops and nice restaurants, some of which are open 24/7.

The number one great thing about Schiphol is that you can take a train from the airport to Amsterdam in 20 minutes. So we did just that and found ourselves in Amsterdam Central Station. As soon as we got out of the station, we got our first glimpse of the city. It was gorgeous. From buildings to the canals, everywhere we turned was picturesque.

Accommodation

We made our way to our base for the next two and a half days: Hotel Die Port van Cleve. For Keith’s very first European destination, I decided to splurge and book us a nice hotel that is central to everything. We can’t say enough great things about the service at this hotel. They went above and beyond to make sure we had everything we needed during our stay. They even helped us when Keith needed to see a tourist doctor for his toe. Long story short: it hurt to walk so he got it checked and the wonderful doctor prescribed a treatment that helped him survive the large portion of our trip spent walking around.

Fun fact about our hotel: it is the site of the first Heineken brewery built in 1864 before it was moved to its present-day location. They have a nice restaurant that we did not try and a more casual bar. Another quirky interesting about this hotel is the Delft blue artwork found everywhere: from the toiletries to above our bed to the world’s largest Delft blue tile tableau in the bar.

Getting Around

Cycling is king in Amsterdam but I had no faith in my biking skills so we decided to walk everywhere. Since I was saving my cell phone roaming for Paris where we were actually meeting up with friends, we had to rely on a physical map of the city to get around. It wasn’t easy because of several factors: a) My not-so-stellar sense of direction, b) Years of relying on Google Maps made me forget how to use an actual map and c) The spider web-like way Amsterdam and its canals are set up did not help. Another thing we quickly realized was that everything was always much closer than we thought. Street blocks weren’t as big as the ones in North America, so on the map it would look like something was very far away when in reality it was right beside you. But as our friend Chris told us, Amsterdam is super compact and after the second day, we were able to navigate the streets comfortably, or at least I was. Keith’s usually good sense of direction was not compatible with the canals.

Attractions

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On our first day there, we had time to go to the Van Gogh museum before they closed. My mom, the biggest Van Gogh fan I know, would have been very disappointed if I hadn’t gone. I enjoyed the Van Gogh museum more than Keith did. His issue was that some of the more famous paintings such as Starry Night and Café Terrance at Night aren’t even housed in it plus it contained paintings that weren’t by Van Gogh. It still houses the largest collection of paintings and drawing by Van Gogh so I consider it a must-see. I really liked the way the museum was laid out. Each floor corresponds to a period in Van Gogh’s life. Some things to keep in mind: the tickets are issued for specific time slots and you cannot take photos of the paintings but there are designated social media areas.

We woke up early on day two to cross out the number one thing on Keith’s list: the Rijksmuseum. The building itself is a work of art from the impressive exterior to the beautiful interior. While all the different works of art inside were super interesting, the main reason we were there can be found in the Gallery of Honour: four of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings. Keith has been fascinated by Vermeers since he watched the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, so we spent a large chunk of our time there. Of course, we had to admire the museum’s pièce de resistance: Rembrandt’s Night Watch. My one regret was not being able to visit the library. Also for such an impressive museum, their gift shop was smaller than the ones at Van Gogh’s.IMG_6751.jpg

After the two museums, we just basically spent the rest of the time just exploring the streets around us to see what we would stumble upon. Our hotel was located right beside the Royal Palace and the Nieuwe Kerk, a 15th-century church. We walked the 9 Streets and the Jordaan neighbourhood for a bit and saw the Westerkerk where Rembrandt is buried. We skipped the Anne Frank House because of the long lines. We passed Leidseplein a lot. We made our way to the 800-year-old Oude Kerk, Amsterdam’s oldest building that just happens to be a church right next to the Red Light District. We also passed by but did not go into the Rembrandt museum right next to the house he lived in.

Food Recommendationsimg_6842

For stroopwafels, we went to the Lanskroon bakery (which also had very good coffee and amazing cinnamon croissants). I bravely sampled and liked the raw herring from Frens Haringhandel near Bloemenmarkt, one of many herring stands in the city, while Keith got and loved their Kibbeling (cod croquettes). We also had traditional Dutch cuisine right beside the canal from Bistro Bij Ons which was tasty but very rich, if not too rich for our taste. We were lucky enough to have De Blauwe Parade as our hotel bar where we drank Heineken (because of course), ate Bitterballen and sampled jenever (Dutch gin). At the airport, go to Dutch and Delicious for their poffertjes (small Dutch pancakes). We found that some places were cash only and some were card only, so be sure to ask beforehand.

Souvenirs

If you love Van Gogh, the museum has multiple gift shops of all sorts of things featuring his artwork, but stroopwafels are definitely the one thing to bring home for yourself or as gifts.

LIMBURG

img_7299I will not be able to cover Limburg as extensively as Amsterdam but I still wanted to give it a special mention here since we did visit it, albeit for a day. It was at the halfway point of our trip after Brussels and Bruges that we made our way to this part of the Netherlands for the wedding. It took us three trains to get there which you think would be a pain in the ass but was actually super easy and efficient. I cannot say enough good things about rail travel in Europe. I’m sure if you live there, you can find things to complain about but as someone who has to rely on the ViaRail in Canada, train travel across the Atlantic is the absolute best. We stayed in Roermond which a small city, close to the border between Germany and the Netherlands that is funnily enough home to a huge outdoor designer outlet mall. Hotel Roermond where we spent the night after the wedding was a gem. They checked us in early so we can leave for the ceremony in nearby Swalmen and had complimentary breakfast. The reception was held at Restaurant De Busjop in Heythuysen. The venues and surrounding countryside were so beautiful. Everyone from the taxi drivers to the wedding guests from there was so friendly. All in all, it was a magical affair.

Final Thoughts

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We fell head over heels in love with the parts of the Netherlands that we were able to see. Everyone spoke English and was super friendly, plus super attractive. Seriously, they all looked like supermodels. And they were not kidding about the bicycles. Rush hour in Amsterdam was a sight to see. But as long as you watched where you were going, you shouldn’t get hit. The service in the Netherlands was hands down the friendliest, most efficient we have received the whole trip. We were really sad to leave Amsterdam and we cannot wait to come back and explore the rest of this beautiful country.

Next post will be on discovering Brussels!

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