Posts Tagged ‘Chicago’

So I know that this is the third post in a row about Chicago attractions, and I have a whole bunch of restaurant posts coming up from various parts of Michigan and Illinois, so I’m sure it’s not very good blog structure to do them all in great clumps like this. But this one is written, and those aren’t, so I’m gonna post this one 🙂

Who’s been to Medieval Times before? Show of hands!

Yeah, it’s awesome, right? We have been going down to Chicago for years and hadn’t gone to the Medieval Times in Schaumburg, which was a shame.

The Medieval Times castle in Schaumburg, Illinois. It's actually much bigger than it looks here.

To be fair, both Sam and I had been to Medieval Times elsewhere, as has my sister Jen (high school orchestra trip to Florida…ahh, good times.)

Anyway, that leaves among our merry band Shaylyn and Andrea who hadn’t been, and both really wanted to. So on this trip, we decided it really was about time we experience this as a group. Besides, everything is more fun with a 9-year-old.

It turned out we didn’t need Shaylyn to invoke a childlike sense of roleplay and wonder at Medieval Times. We sat in the red knight’s section, which was fortunate, because he ended up being the total badass champion. We cheered him on with many shouts, screams, cheers and boos and hisses for his opponents. We even led a toast to our knight, and waved his flags and pennants around wildly.

The key really was entering into the spirit of the thing, cheering for our knight and suspending disbelief for awhile to enjoy the storyline and the feats of equestrian showmanship on display.

We had an awesome server, who said his name was Jelly. Sam took on the role of lord of the table quite readily, calling out for Jelly in a booming voice and hamming it up with medieval-inspired quips throughout the fighting. What fun!

A Medieval Times photo of the "Lord Chancellor," or announcer. I didn't get any good photos during the show; they're all dark and hard to see. But I am pretty sure this is the same guy.

As for the rest of us, we were hoarse from cheering on our knight at the end of the night, and pleasantly full with what was actually a decent meal for being served to hundreds of people at once. They’ve really got the particulars down at that place. Of course, you have to eat it all with your hands, but there are plenty of napkins.

For the more macabre-inclined among us, they also have a medieval torture gallery off the main hall, but it cost extra, and we didn’t feel great about taking Shaylyn through it anyway, so we opted out.

All in all, a worthwhile experience, and—I forgot to mention—we got a great buy one admission, get one free deal on the tickets, which is actually what put it on our radar for this trip in the first place.

If you can get a price break on the tickets, it becomes a pretty good deal, but for medieval enthusiasts or if you have kids who are really into knights or medieval stuff, it’s probably worth the admission whenever you go.

So, what was your Medieval Times experience like? Were you as delighted as we were? Which Medieval Times did you go to? If you haven’t been, are you interested?


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One of the loveliest days of our recent trip to Chicago was the one spent at the Lincoln Park Zoo. The Kid and I went, along with my sister, Jen and her partner, Andrea. Sam took advantage of the time to work at a cafe.

Shaylyn and Andrea with gorilla statues, I believe. They seem to be fitting in well.

The Lincoln Park Zoo is in downtown north (Ed.: This is why I don’t navigate.) Chicago, easily accessible by car, bus, cab or el train. Most remarkable for a major zoo: admission is freaking free, people!

Sure, you’re going to spend $30 on lunch (at least we did with four people) and probably as much in souvenirs (at least you will if you have kids along), but you would in any zoo or similar attraction, and this is a serious attraction.

You might think a free city zoo means aging enclosures, animals you’ve seen a million times, and poor hygiene or signage, but that is nothing like what you find at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

The animal enclosures are mostly very modern, the buildings have the historical elegance of the Chicago Parks District architecture, and the zoo paths and outdoors signage are clean, well-kept and informational.

The barnyard and petting zoo section wasn’t very well populated, because it was so early in the spring, but I bet in summer it’s really great, especially for kids.

One of the lovely Lincoln Park Zoo buildings. (Don't blink!)

We did enjoy the chickens and cows that were out and about, although it was a little surreal to see something we have wandering around in our backyard behind a fence at a zoo. (Did I ever mention we have chickens? Probably not; this isn’t quite the venue. But now you know.)

The one downfall of the place? We seriously did not have enough time in a day to see it all.

Next time, I would take a few minutes at the outset of the visit and plan out what was most important to us to see, because our approach of wandering around from place to place casually inspecting everything meant that when the zoo closed at 5 p.m., there were still things we would have liked to see, but didn’t get to, like the African animals exhibit.

Of course, if you live in or near Chicago, that’s probably not such a problem, cause you can just go back. For us, it was a little disappointing, but on the other hand, we’ll think about going back again next time we’re in town.

Shaylyn is somewhere in this photo... This is the kid play area in the Lincoln Park Zoo. Pretty cool, hey?

Obviously, much of the zoo is outdoors, so walking shoes and comfortable clothes are a must, and choosing a day of nice weather probably can’t hurt. We were lucky to have a nice, cool but sunny spring day, which was really about perfect for walking around the zoo.

Finally, when the kids get tired of walking and listening, and would rather just run and play, there is a whole children’s section to the zoo that has interactive exhibits, and a giant, organic-looking play structure that kids can wind their way through, like a cooperative maze, as far as I could tell from the ground.

Why didn’t they make it big enough for adults to fit? I would totally climb around on that thing, it looks awesome!

Ever been to the LPZ? Will you go now that you’ve read this stellar review of it? Just kidding!

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I’ve mentioned before that we’ve made multiple visits to the Field Museum in Chicago, but that doesn’t stop it from making a good subject; quite the opposite.

I don’t remember the first time I personally went to the Field Museum, but it seems like it was a while ago. Maybe in high school or college. Anyway, in recent years, we’ve made it a regular destination whenever we visit Chicago for any length of time.

That’s because it has the distinction of being the museum that got Shaylyn, a.k.a. The Kid, into Egypt, and history in general. Before that, she would have much rather seen dinosaurs and natural history than archaeology exhibits.

There she is, Sue, the T-rex.

The day was just Sam, Shaylyn and I, although we met up with Jen and Andrea later on. One of the nice things about the Field Museum is that when Sam needed to answer work emails or do a little writing, there’s great Internet connectivity throughout the building, which isn’t always the case in big museums. And, there’s lots of little nooks and quiet areas to sit down in when you need a rest, as you well might.

There’s no shortage of amazing artifacts and information on all of those topics at the Field Museum, which is often known for their Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, affectionately named Sue (She has her own Twitter, people.)

So, Sue and the ancient Egypt exhibit (thankfully a permanent display) are two of the must-see stops at the Field Museum, but there are certainly others, too.

The massive collections of animals make up whole wings of the museum, and deservedly so. It’s easy to get lost examining all the different birds, reptiles, and animals of every continent.

We spent a good chunk of the day doing just that, and took a break for lunch in the museum café, which is surprisingly well-priced considering they have something of a captive audience.

The Kid took a ton of animal photos at the Field Museum, of which this is one. I would say what they are but I really don't know, other than they appear to be some kind of goat.

Later, we made sure to hit the current special exhibit, about horses, which was packed with people, so a little hard to get through, but worthwhile. It explored the historical bond between horses and people, in a scientific yet heartstring-tugging way, which was not lost on The Kid one bit; she’s been campaigning for a horse since then. Ummm, thanks, Field Museum! Anyway, that’s running through mid-August, so check it out if you get a chance.

The special exhibit Underground Adventure also was pretty cool, especially for kids interested in bugs and plants. We had to rush through it a little in order to have enough time in the gift shop, sadly.

Anyway, the other note I have to make here is that they had a spring break membership discount that actually paid for itself on the day, with shopping discounts and a break on the admission price for our little group.

If they offer similar deals at other times of the year, don’t just assume it’s not worthwhile and walk by—do the math! It was a great value for us, and would be for anyone who visits the museum more than once in a year.

What’s your favorite Chicago museum? We might have to expand our repertoire onward from the Field in the future.

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So I already mentioned our afternoon spent in the Hyde Park neighborhood, but I would be really remiss in not covering the awesome lunch we had.

As some of you may know, The Kid also has a chicken wing review blog, which, while it’s not updated currently, has been a big pastime for her and her dad, and she usually won’t turn down a chance to eat some new chicken wings. When we asked my Chicago-dwelling sister, Jen, where we should get some stand-out wings, she led us straight to Harold’s Chicken. (Also called Harold’s Chicken Shack, I gather.)

I didn't take any pictures at Harold's, so here is a sign that may or may not be at the one we visited.

Another bonus to this trip was that when Shaylyn got a chance to cover President Obama’s visit to Marquette earlier this year, she really wanted to ask him where his favorite chicken wings are. We still don’t know the answer to that for sure, but Harold’s is pretty close by to the Obamas’ residence in Hyde Park, and rumor has it that the President had been known to stop in there when he lived in town. (Blame Jen if that’s not true, that’s just what she said.)

So, our visit served to fulfill, at least partly, Shaylyn’s need to answer that question. And if not, she still liked the chicken!

We ordered a good selection among the group, with boneless chicken, wings, white and dark meals all putting in an appearance at the table. Pair that with cold pops, fries and some hot and mild sauces, and all the walking we’d just done, and it was an about perfect lunch. Harold’s fries their chicken simply, with flour and salt and pepper, and simple is good in this case. I’d eat more of that any day. For those who like chicken livers and gizzards, you’re in luck, because unlike a lot of fried chicken places, Harold’s serves those up too.

Mm yum. All that for $3? No complaints here.

The only offputting thing about Harold’s was that the cashier left out several things we ordered, and it was difficult to communicate through the thick glass windows that wall off the kitchen. Typical in urban areas but that doesn’t make it any easier.

There’s nothing fancy about the food, and there’s nothing fancy about the restaurant, but there’s a reason there was a continuous line of take-out customers as we ate. Harold’s Chicken is really good, and really cheap (for us it was right around $3 each) and you can’t ask for a lot more than that.

Afterward, we walked down to see the Obamas’ house, which was quite well posted and patrolled by black SUVs (Secret Service, I suppose), and worked off some of the grease with a stint at a little playground around the corner. (Why are playgrounds away from home always so much better than the ones at home?)

I’m sure there are other great chicken places to eat in Chicagoland — Got any recommendations for us for next time?

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The Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago probably isn’t the most popular travel destination around the City of Big Shoulders. It’s a little far away from the main tourist destinations, and while you’ll find lots of great little shops and restaurants, not to mention the best bookstore in the world, there’s no real attraction to the neighborhood if you don’t have a reason to be there.

Thankfully, over the past decade or so, I’ve had plenty of reason to wander around Hyde Park, since my sister first attended University of Chicago and then lived in something like 20 different apartments in the neighborhood before moving north.

So when we were looking for new things to see in Chicago on our recent trip, the Oriental Institute captured our attention quite thoroughly, with a special exhibit on pre-Pharaonic Egypt. If I haven’t explained already, The Kid’s greatest love and source of imaginings is ancient Egypt.

We’ve been to the Field Museum in Chicago many times to see their Egyptian collection, but here was something we hadn’t seen yet, and in a familiar neighborhood besides.

The statue of King Tut at the Oriental Institute came from Luxor, and is rightly described as "colossal".

We rounded up sister Jen and her partner Andrea, and off to the Oriental Institute we went. It’s on the U of C campus, one of many among the university’s historic Gothic structures. Always feels like you’re walking into a church at that school. But the buttressing and high ceilings are practically a structural need at this museum, which boasts some massive stone artifacts from the Middle East.

It turned out these were the highlight of the tour for Shaylyn, who was captivated by the massive statue of Tutankhamun in the Egyptian Gallery of the museum and later on, the shaggy-headed man-bull statues from ancient Persepolis.

This massive stone statue was meant to inspire awe in ancient Persepolis, which it still does in modern-day Chicago.

Andrea and I got far behind to begin with, as the rest of the gang raced around gasping and pointing… We were reading all the texts and labels.

But that didn’t last; there was just too much to see. The museum is small by some standards, but it’s no trouble to spend several hours examining all the collections.

Walking into the Assyrian gallery, there’s a feeling unfamiliar to most modern Westerners. It’s the urge to kneel, to revere, to acknowledge a hand more powerful than yours.

That’s largely due to the recreation of relief sculptures and statues excavated from the throne room of King Sargon II, who reigned in Khorsabad (now northern Iraq) in the 700s, B.C.E. That guy was not messing around when it came to showing off who was king.

Just one note on the Egypt gallery, since we spent the most time in there; the explanation of the different forms of Egyptian writing was awesome. Easily the most clear and imagination-inspiring I’ve read. These docents obviously have a love for their work and take care in doing it.

The entrance admission is technically free, as are guided tour materials, but there are “suggested donation” boxes aplenty, and by the time you’re through looking, you’ll probably give them more than the suggested amount anyway, just because of the sheer impressiveness of the collections and attractive, educational displays.

The museum store boasts lots of kid- and adult-friendly gifts related to Egypt and the Middle East, and there was no way we could get out of there without several spur-of-the-moment purchases; books and jewelry were among our acquisitions.

Have you been to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago? What did you think? Where else would you go?

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OK, so there are a lot of by-the-roadside things I wanted to mention, but they don’t fit as a destination or review type blog post. So I’m going to try a different idea, and talk about a day trip of interesting things — like the drive from Green Bay to Chicago (or vice versa),  which isn’t all that far but makes for a good outing if you like to drive, like we do.

There are essentially two ways you can approach the drive, depending on what schedule you’re on and what your traveling preferences are. There’s the traditional, quick-and-dirty route of U.S. 41 (Route 41 for you old-time road trippers), which has the advantage of being a freeway, and all the conveniences that entails. However, be prepared to pay some tolls right around Chicago if you’re going in or out of the city on the freeways.

The sign looks like a relic of road-trip days gone by, but thats part of the charm.

There’s one stop, newly renovated and more fantastically touristy than ever, that you don’t want to miss on this route, and it’s the Mars Cheese Castle near Kenosha, between Chicago and Milwaukee. It’s been welcoming visitors to Wisconsin for decades, and it’s got a shiny new exterior with all the castle-y things like crenellations and battlements (love those words!). If you want to make a whole castle theme out of it, there’s also a White Castle in Kenosha which has always treated us right.

We often take the U.S. 41 route, especially if we can time it to hit the wee small hours of morning when you don’t have to worry about traffic, cause it’s just plain faster a lot of the time. High-traffic hours are obviously an exception to this around Chicago.

But, if you’re driving during the day, and prefer lower speed limits and more scenic countryside, do what we did on our most recent trip and take the back way, through Lake County, Illinois. Not too far outside the Chicago suburbs, it suddenly turns all bucolic and pastoral and very lovely. In the right season, you’ll find roadside produce stands or homemade crafts for sale, and in any season, plenty of small towns to fuel up the car and stop for a bite to eat. There are plenty of historic sites to see around there, too.

You can hop back on the highways up around Pleasant Prairie, especially if you have kids in the car — because it’s home to the Jelly Belly Factory, which offers free factory tours, free candy, and a serious gift shop. We didn’t go this time, because we’ve been in the past, but if you haven’t, it’ll soon become a family favorite.

Which way do you like to drive? Or is there another route we missed?

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So this is Sam’s guest post on Al’s Italian Beef. He’s been wanting to find a good Italian beef on each of our trips to Chicago, and from this, it sounds like he did 🙂 Enjoy!

I didn’t know much about Italian beef other than what I had witnessed while watching television—but I did know this: I wanted it spicy and I wanted it dripping with au jus.

Thankfully for me, in just my second time ever having a true Chicago Italian beef sandwich, the company I ordered from knew exactly what I meant.

This is Al's, but we ordered delivery 🙂

Big Al’s is as big of an institution in the world of Italian beef as you’re likely to find. They’re known across the country as the place to stop when you’re in Chicago and you’re looking for some traditional fare. Of course, it helps that they’ve had several magazines say that their namesake sandwich is one of the best in the United States. Don’t believe me? Well, check out this article in Travel & Leisure magazine.

Frankly, I’m not so easily swayed. I’ve been a journalist for over a decade and I know the business fairly well. I’ve seen some of these travel writers swoon just because someone is sliding a free plate of eats across the table to them. So, I always think it’s best if I make a judgment for myself. The reason I decided to try Al’s? Well, it’s simple, actually: They delivered to the location I was at when I decided I wanted one.

So Al’s delivered—and in more ways than one. It was almost immediately after the delivery had been placed in my hand that the first whiff of the Italian beef hit my nose. Talk about a heart-warming experience. At that moment, all of my troubles faded from view. I forgot my name even, or the fact that I don’t like cats. I actually shared my beef with my host’s cat, which had promptly awakened at the smell of Al’s and jumped up on the radiator to get a better view of my chomping. I guess she knows a good meal when she sees one, too.

So the cat and I dined. And we enjoyed. And one of us purred, though I can’t be sure which one it was.

Al (or the people who bought the company back in the 70s) sure knows their beef. It was sloppy and runny and so full of juice you might as well been eating a bowl of soup with meat stacked in it and some bread for sopping up the mess. It’s all good though. The cat and I agreed that it was supposed to be that way. Al would have, too. There’s even an official stance when eating one of these bad boys, which you can see here, on the right-hand side of the page.

I had ordered the Big Al, which is a gigantic 8 inches of stacked, thinly sliced beef. You can get them with sweet peppers or hot (I went with the latter) and they come wrapped to protect you if you ordered it wet. You can, of course, order them dry, too, but I don’t understand why you would.

The famous "wet" Italian beef sandwich,

So the sandwich is pretty much everything you could hope for. Super tasty. Super juicy. Super good. The Big Al is just $7, and it’s well worth it, too. Next time I’m in Chicago, I’ll likely find myself another Al’s to chomp down at, maybe this time with some cheddar fries.

In addition to the Big Al, I did also order the Chargrilled Double Italian Sausage sandwich, which comes with two massive Italian sausage links cooked to absolute perfection. I had sweet peppers put on that bad boy.

To be open and honest, I didn’t eat it until hours later when I got back to my hotel room. It was cold and it had been stashed in my parked car for hours. So, when I say that it was the single best Italian sausage I have ever eaten in my life (and I’m a cudighi fanatic, folks), it’s definitely saying great things. I cannot, at all, wait to try one of these piping hot right off the grill. That may be the moment I experience absolute, utter bliss. This thing was filling, too—there was absolutely no need for a midnight snack after that.

Of course, not all things were perfectly pleasant with Al’s. The soda I ordered was super watery and so full of ice I was surprised they actually fit any soda in there. Thankfully I had ordered two, because I wouldn’t have made it through a single Big Al’s without them.

And, another painful moment, was the price tag with the delivery charge tacked on. Yeah, I know, it’s Chicago and things tend to be pricier, but I ordered $18 worth of food and ended up paying $26—without a tip. So, lesson learned here: I’ll be eating in at Al’s for now on.

In the end, I cannot break my own rule of trying new foods and new places when I’m on the road, but that doesn’t mean I can’t go back to Al’s in between fresh, new stops. And, believe me, the taste alone is worth trying to squeeze them into my schedule.

What’s your favorite place for Italian beef? Is it even in Chicago? Tell us more so we can eat more! 🙂

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