Touring the States eight times over 2018: Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, and New York
14.02.2018 - 18.12.2018
I never expected to visit the US more than once in 2018 (let alone eight times!), but my first trip fared so well that I couldn’t stop myself from revisiting my neighbours to the south. It all started with Chicago in February. Although the trip was family-focused, I decided to spend the last night alone. By alone, I mean going on a date with a handsome local at a pizza joint. To be fair, Chicago is a foodie’s paradise and beyond the delicious grease of a deep-dish pizza (Giordano’s is my go-to), there’s classic Japanese BBQ at Gyu-Kaku (beware it is a chain, though), or brunch at Allis (I’d recommend a cocktail and crème brulee) among a multitude of other options. I picked up more than just a few pounds while eating my way through Chicago, I also met my boyfriend (that handsome local).
Chicago is an architectural gem! After one third of the city burned to the ground in 1871, it was rebuilt even bigger and better. A great way to learn more about its history and edifices is through the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise. Because I took the river cruise alone, it was easier to find a front-row seat… although my view was blocked by a fanny-pack yielding tourist for about half the cruise. I spent that time debating whether I liked fanny-packs, or whether I should defend my view. I decided to keep my opinions to myself: on both the fanny-pack and the selfish view-blocker. In any case, I think the cruise is a must-do, but ensure that you buy your ticket in advance and maybe motion sickness pills - it truly is called the windy city for good reason.
After visiting Chicago three times last year, I’ve realized it’s designed for enjoyment come rain or snow… and there will be lots and lots of snow. Chicago’s climate is very similar to Toronto’s meaning that it experiences two seasons: intense cold and intense heat. One of the difficulties in either climate is the humidity. In the summer I find it worse in Chicago than Toronto because something about the humid heat there seems to function as a wake-up call for all the spiders residing in the continental U.S. As a committed arachnophobe, the summer of spiders in Chicago may be my biggest challenge to completely loving the city. In the summer, if you can make it through all the spider webs, it’s worth trekking to Navy Pier. It’s an entertainment hub beside the water, which is also a great spot to watch fireworks a couple of times a week. Another place I like in the summer is Millenium Park which offers summer concerts at Pritzker Pavilion. The iconic Bean (technically called “Cloud Gate”) is also readily available for all your selfie needs.
If you’re in more of an indoor mood (i.e. it’s too cold outside to breathe), it’s well worth visiting the Art Institute of Chicago which was founded in 1879 and includes art by Georges Seurat, Pablo Picasso and many other esteemed painters and sculptors. Another great thing to do in cold weather is to visit the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) for the breathtaking views and potential for sappy photos. My boyfriend and I went with his friend and girlfriend, and we realized very quickly that you need to have your poses prepared because if it’s busy you only get one minute when you’re on the glass floor. They aren’t messing around – they will usher you out after your allotted time. Quick tip: you get more time if you’re a larger group, so you can use it to split into pairs and do a group shot.
Because Chicago’s neighbourhoods each have their own unique culture, the place you stay will really impact your trip. When I’ve stayed up in the northern suburbs like Highland Park, it’s made my trip more about exploring the Botanic Garden or the shops and restaurants of downtown Highland Park. It’s always more of a family feel, and for that reason we end up shopping more or visiting the beaches (in the summer). If you’re visiting the northern suburbs as a tourist and are looking to incorporate some learning and depth to your trip then it’s worth a trip to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. Although it’s not a typical vacation stop, I think it’s an important time to reflect on how seeds of intolerance have the potential to turn into dangerous movements of death and destruction because it means that we can all equip ourselves with the tools to fight that hatred. We have the potential to learn from our past, and help ensure others don’t experience the same injustice, and traumas.
If you’re looking for a lighter experience then focus on more of the tourist areas, in which case you will want to stay close to the downtown core, a.k.a. Millennium Loop. It’s most convenient if you can stay near Millennium Park or on the Magnificent Mile (I can vouch for the Marriott there) because that way you’re able to walk or commute quickly to most sites of interest. Personally, I like staying in Gold Coast and Lakeview too because I feel close enough to the busy downtown core while still enjoying the sounds of silence. To be fair, I mainly choose to stay where I’m welcome: with my boyfriend or my family. Assuming I haven’t done or said anything stupid that would make me uninvited… which is always a big assumption.
Every time I visit, I feel like there’s something new to explore. In the Gold Coast, I’ve really enjoyed going out for dinner with my boyfriend to Old Town – especially when that means burgers at Small Cheval. In November, we also went to a show at Second City (Chicago is where it originated), which was not only hilarious because of the content but also ridiculous because the audience participation only involved Canadians. Who knew I wasn’t the only Canadian obsessed with Chicago? Actually, I knew because every time I visit the only comment I hear is: “you’re so lucky – it’s my favourite U.S. city”.
Three of my trips to the US in 2018 were for weddings: New Jersey, Minnesota, and Missouri. Minnesota is a fabulous place to visit in August because of the state fair. If you’re ever craving fried food on a stick, art made out of seeds, or pumpkins that need some Weight Watchers then it’s the place for you. Unfortunately, we went on a rainy day; fortunately, even the combined smell of wet goat, cow and sheep isn’t nearly as bad as the smell of wet dog. As long as you’re properly equipped (sunscreen and rain boots), you’ll be ready for the long lines ahead. Surprisingly, catching the bus (from Minnesota’s Mall of America) was easy and didn’t even require waiting in line. Even more surprising was that there was a line for breakfast at the Olde Main Eatery in Elk River (the town where the wedding was held) – although to be fair, the pancakes were well worth the wait.
The wedding was a casual backyard affair with a travel theme because the couple met in Turkey, where they had already held the more formal wedding and civil ceremony. The Minnesota wedding was held in Elk River because that’s where the bride comes from, and it was fun to learn more about her heritage. Visiting a person’s hometown, and meeting their family, is always a great glimpse into what has shaped that person. I hadn’t anticipated that one of my friends and I would be de facto wedding coordinators and help set up the grounds the day of the wedding, but it became an opportunity to get to know the bride’s family on a deeper level. We bonded with them over scotch tape emergencies, and love of the bride. It was a beautiful wedding, and on top of that it was an incredible reunion because it meant I got to see three friends from many years ago. My fellow coordinator friend and I stayed together in the basement of a nearby house and heartily enjoyed our sleepovers. It’s silly to think that slumber parties are for kids. What adult doesn’t want a solid night of silliness with a friend? Of course, the wedding (and all its accompanying friend-time) was the highlight of my trip, but I’d say the locals (particularly at the vintage/antique stores in town) were fantastic too – I’ve never been in a kinder state than Minnesota. It felt like each person I met was paid to please. Although considering most of my interaction with locals was at restaurants, I guess they literally were paid to please. And they did it well.
Missouri gives Minnesota a run for its money when it comes to kind locals though. The second wedding in the “M&M” states was held in St. Louis, and yes – they played Nelly at the reception, and yes, it was hot in therre. The St. Louis wedding came with a harsh reality check: my boyfriend is likely a better dancer than me. Although the wedding we attended in New Jersey came with an even harsher reality check: his father may be a better dancer than both of us combined.
On another note, St. Louis, which was “founded” in 1764, had a key role to play in the history of slavery in the US. Slaves were sometimes sold at the Old Courthouse, while other slaves were emancipated there by their owners and others yet sued their owners for freedom including Dred and Harriet Scott. Their legal action went all the way to the US Supreme Court where they lost the case, which effectively meant the US Supreme Court was sanctioning slavery thus being one of the triggers in the Civil War from what I understand. Full disclosure: I’m nowhere close to a historian – and have never formally studied U.S. history.
St. Louis is clearly an important part of US history for its civil rights implications, but also its symbolism as the gateway to the west (because of its location near the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers) for pioneers going to Oregon and California during the 19th century. This history is represented by its landmark Gateway Arch National Park was built in 1965 and is the tallest human-built monument in the US (height and base width are 630 ft). My boyfriend wanted to ride the elevator that takes you through the arch, but I wasn’t too interested in turning into a sardine trapped in a little rickety tin with five others. I would literally rather eat a tin of sardines.
St. Louis is also an outdoors paradise with Forest Park being a great spot for frisbee, soccer, or picnics and also housing the St. Louis Zoo, a history museum, art museum and science center (which also has an omnimax theatre). If you’re interested in medicine then Forest Park is also a great location to visit because you can check out Washington University on the way. Its medical school is consistently ranked in the top ten in the nation and first for student selectivity, so it may be worth a stroll to see if you can take in a free lecture or educational event. We did nothing quite so intellectual while in that neighbourhood, instead we made a stop at IKEA because clearly that’s a Missouri must-see.
While in St. Louis we stayed in an Airbnb in the Tower Grove South area. I enjoyed strolling the streets and looking at the historic homes. It’s a very quaint neighbourhood with lots of local eateries, and a very calm feel. There’s also a beautiful park (aptly named the Tower Grove Park) that’s located adjacent to the Missouri Botanical Garden. I’d highly recommend staying in this neighbourhood, if you have a car. The most fun I had in the city was without a doubt at the City Museum. It’s a playground for adults – equipped with endless tunnels to climb through, ladders to climb up, and ballpits to jump into! There’s even a ferris wheel on the roof, and then you can take a slide down to the floor below for some post-ride tequila shots. If you’re going to go (and aren’t used to being on your knees for extended periods of time), you should definitely ask for the free kneepads at the entrance. I’d also suggest you dress sporty, unless you’re planning pure photo opps – in which case you may as well just check out the many restaurants and bars around town.
We happened to visit St. Louis in October and the weather was ideal. We were comfortable in t-shirts and shorts, and also got to celebrate some spooky Halloween themed fun at the zoo and at a cute bakery named Chouquette where they roll out a Harry Potter menu for the month (complete with fresh pumpkin juice and all). If you’re more interested in real meals rather than fantasy snacks, across the street you’ll find Olio Mediterranean Restaurant which is absolutely worth making a reservation for – we enjoyed dinner on the back patio. Unfortunately, I felt sick during our dinner so I was only able to stomach a small soup but my boyfriend definitely benefited from my nausea because it meant even more fantastic food for him.
Hands-down the best meal we had last year on all our trips was at Harvest Restaurant in Cambridge (Boston) in the summer. They serve local New England cuisine for a fair price given the fresh food and amazing ambience. I found more past than present in Boston given that the city was “founded” in the 1600s. We literally walked through history as we followed parts of the Freedom Trail visiting Boston Common; Park Street Church where an abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, gave an antislavery speech in 1829; Old South Meeting House (built in 1729) where the Boston Tea Party was launched in 1773 by Samuel Adams; and Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall, which were built in 1742. Faneuil Hall is a great place to find plentiful clam chowder, if you decide to indulge in tourist tropes. Instead, I gorged on mac and cheese. Seemingly, you can take the girl out of Canada, but you can’t take the Canadian Kraft Dinner addiction out of the girl.
Boston and its surrounding areas are well-known for academia, which makes sense given the plethora of post-secondary institutes there. My favourite campuses to wander through were Harvard University, where my sister who’s studying there acted as our de facto tour guide, and Boston College. We had fun pretending to still be students, although it was more fun pretending we were actually fit and attempting to climb the 294 steps of the Bunker Hill Monument. To be fair, we were able to climb all the way to the top which was a step ahead of some of the other visitors. Unfortunately, the stairwell is really narrow so make sure you get your steps in before the trip so that you’re not that tourist who shuts down the monument because you can’t make it all the way up or down. And yes, that actually happened while we were there.
The trip to Boston was also an opportunity for a meet-and-greet with my sister and my boyfriend. We decided to break the ice on the water with a sunset cruise (Charles Riverboat Cruise Company). It was the perfect opportunity to see the sights, and get to know each other (including my quirks, unfortunately). Before the stories went too deep into childhood, the cruise was over and we were en route to Cambridge for more to explore. Although we stayed in Boston, if I were to go back I would stay in Cambridge. I found more to do there at night than in our area of Boston (Dorchester/Codman Square). As well, it’s close enough by train that you can still commute freely.
While we were visiting Boston there was a map exhibit at Harvard University’s library; however, when my mom recommended that I go she just told me to check out the “Boston special maps” but she didn’t specify where (i.e. that it was at Harvard University). Google Maps, in all its wisdom, sent my boyfriend and I instead to the Mary Baker Eddy Library’s Mapparium at the First Church of Christ, Scientist. It turned out to be an excellent detour because we were able to see a snapshot of what the world looked like in 1935 through stained glass. It was also worth it for the look of confusion on my mom’s face when I thanked her for sending us to the place that put Christianity on the map. I’m not sure if she was more taken aback by my awful humour or the fact that we had accidentally discovered this world of colourful Christian stained-glass maps.
Speaking of stained glass, a last-minute trip to New York City for St. Patrick’s Day involved a lot more than just churches and cathedrals, although the St. Patrick’s Day parade was a major highlight. I went on this trip with a close female friend who happens to be very petite, which made it easier for me to sneak her into a VIP section at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the parade. It also made it a lot easier for the Archbishop to presume she was a child and pose with her for a photo-op alongside other children. The highlight had to be when he hugged her and kindly said “I’m just so glad you’re here”. Boy was I glad I was there for that too.
The parade requires considerable planning, and as an attendee it’s important to get there early and remember that the crowds will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It goes without saying that if you’re in New York City over the holidays any of the typical tourist traps are going to be even more full of people. When I went back to New York in December with my boyfriend, Times Square was exactly as I remembered it – so full of people you can’t walk (although not enough people to dissuade me from making it to the M&M store); Central Park felt more like a zoo of people; and Brooklyn was my refuge.
In fact, on both trips I stayed in Brooklyn for one night. It gave me an opportunity to explore Brooklyn Library, Prospect Park, and Crown Heights. I even befriended a local coffee shop owner on the first trip en route to Brooklyn and really enjoyed the vibe at his place: the Breukelen Coffee House. It’s located on a really nice strip replete with other restaurants and cozy bars. My favourite was Chavela’s, which served great Mexican dishes. On the December trip, I also got the chance to explore more of Brooklyn by going to Williamsburg, which is unofficially known as a hipster’s paradise. We started our time there with some fresh and delicious Joe’s Pizza before wandering to the Brooklyn Bridge – which is a great vantage point from which to see the city sights.
Another spot with great views is the lower end of Manhattan. Once you’ve walked by the Charging Bull statue, and visited the Occulus Mall (totally worth it), I recommend heading to the Staten Island ferry for a free roundtrip ride past the Statue of Liberty. You won’t get up close and personal with her, but you’ll be able to get a good view. You may even be surprised by how petite she is – although you wouldn’t mistake her for a child.
New York is loaded with culture and comedy so on our March trip my friend and I decided to visit the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. While in Harlem we also headed to gospel Sunday brunch at Sylvia’s Restaurant – if you do nothing else, do this and make sure you book in advance. It’s a fun experience because you’ll be sweetly serenaded while eating fried food. Or you’ll be roasted while sipping something salty. Either way you’ll have fun.
Any time I’ve been in New York I’ve spent most of my time in Manhattan, and I’d recommend the Blue Note Jazz Club, and the Comedy Cellar. Although the comedians were hilarious (especially Michelle Wolf) at the comedy club, beware that there is a minimum spend on top of the cost of tickets. The amount that I shelled out for a small meal was no laughing matter.
Speaking of high prices, on our romantic getaway in December we met up with some of my boyfriend’s friends who wanted to test out Katz’s Deli – the American equivalent of Montreal’s Schwartz’s Deli. I had been there a few years back and remembered the sandwiches being as high as the prices. Nothing has changed. Just like the gospel brunch, I recommend going with a group because you’ll want to share your food – the portion sizes are wholeheartedly American.
Something else that’s distinctly American is Christmas at the Rockefeller Center. It’s worth checking it out once. Although I can be curmudgeonly when it comes to costs and crowds, there is something magical about New York at Christmas time. Even the walk to the 9/11 Memorial had a slightly mystical feel to it as we walked through parkettes with lights strewn about. Overall, the 9/11 Memorial is an important site to visit because it illustrates the trauma and resilience of the city and its people. From bustling business place to eerily quiet memorial site, there’s something otherworldly about the visit.
The last place of interest I’d recommend visiting in New York (but not in winter), would be the High Line. It’s hard to describe why it’s worth seeing, but picture yourself walking through an elevated garden amidst a sea of concrete, looking down on the grey but looking ahead to green. To me, it felt idyllic. My December trip to New York was spurred by a wedding in my boyfriend’s family in New Jersey. We decided to go to the wedding, but also have a quick romantic getaway in New York City as the wedding was nestled away at a banquet hall in a small town in Aberdeen County, New Jersey – not exactly the epicenter of culture, or cuisine. My snotty attitude aside, I really enjoyed the wedding. It was really inspiring watching how the bride incorporated her Zoroastrian faith and the groom weaved in his Ukrainian Jewish heritage. It was also a good chance for me to practice Russian, and by that, I mean smile, nod my head and repeat “da” over and over.
In terms of accommodation, I wouldn’t recommend staying in New Jersey when visiting New York unless you’re into a long commute. While we were sightseeing in New York my boyfriend and I stayed in Brooklyn at a standard hotel chain, the La Quinta. It worked well for us because we had breakfast in the morning, and were located within walking distance of the subway and bus routes. I was surprised though by the number of missing items: from no telephone in the room, to no water in the breakfast kitchen. But at the end of the day, we had a bed to come back to and a locked door to permit privacy so no real complaints from my end. When we transitioned to New Jersey we stayed at an Airbnb in Matawan, Aberdeen because it saved us time getting to the wedding and cost half as much. Call me old-fashioned but I wasn’t expecting Airbnb prices to be the same as hotels in New York. I also wasn’t expecting the prices in Manhattan to be so high that we had to stay elsewhere. In all honesty, I preferred staying in Brooklyn because it feels like there’s more authentic daily life there while Manhattan, to me, feels more manufactured. I will admit though that staying two nights in Manhattan at the Off Soho Suites Hotel in March was far more convenient for seeing most of the tourist sights, so you have to think hard about what you prefer: convenience and cost, or quirk and cost-savings.
All in all, I feel really lucky to have been able to see so much of the U.S. last year. I feel even more privileged to have been able to meet such wonderful people, my incredible boyfriend included. It’s easy to fall into a pattern of thinking about places and make assumptions about what the people there will be like but the beauty of travel is that you can shatter your preconceived notions over a slice of pizza, or on a rooftop ferris wheel. America is definitely a diverse country with unique histories in each corner of each state, and to me it seems well-worth a visit not only to the big cities like New York and Chicago but also to the smaller towns like Elk River. At the end of the day, travel reminds us that we’re all human, and there’s a lot of beauty in meeting the faces of endless places.