Sometimes you just gotta go. I know, I know. You’d like to travel more but feel like you never have the time. But trust me, you can pack a lot into a long weekend. Sure, the garage might need cleaning. But let’s be honest. It can wait. Would you rather look back on life and remember that great weekend spent organizing your closet or the one you spent hiking a trail in Rocky Mountain National Park? Just go.
It was with this idea in mind that Ann and I headed off to Chicago for a long weekend in February. We hadn’t originally planned to go to to Chicago when I had a rare day off of work after parent-teacher conferences. We’d planned on driving the 80 miles up the road to Omaha after a weekend trip there in January was cut short by an ice storm. But when we went to book a hotel, we found that the price of rooms had skyrocketed due to the state wrestling tournament being in town, so we nixed that idea.
But as middle school principal, long weekends are hard to come by, and I hate to let them go that easily, so we kept looking. Lo and behold, I discovered we could fly from Lincoln (just 22 miles from our home) to Chicago and stay in a nice hotel for a lot less than the weekend in Omaha that particular week.
The Palmer House was a beautiful, historic hotel in the heart of the Windy City.
The Palmer House Hilton, the historic Chicago landmark hotel, was the perfect spot for us to stay. The hotel has hosted many Presidents and boasts the Empire Room, which has been played by some of the biggest names in entertainment history like Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, Sonny and Cher. It’s pretty neat to think of all the people who have come before us who have walked across the hotel’s grand lobby.
Looking up at The Empire Room from the lobby of the historic Palmer House Hilton in downtown Chicago.
The Palmer House was in a perfect location for sightseeing and the room was fantastic.
The hotel had a room available early, so we quickly unpacked, freshened up, and were in a corner cafe eating a light late breakfast by 10 a.m. See how quickly you can get somewhere fun if you just go? It really isn’t as difficult as you might think.
A hall of sculptures at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Although we’ve been there many times, Chicago has so many things to see and do that we can’t get bored. On this particular morning, we first headed to the Art Institute. We have always enjoyed art museums and Chicago’s doesn’t disappoint.
A Sunday Afternoon on La Grand Jatte by Georges Seurat.
We enjoyed looking at some works by Mary Cassatt, including The Child’s Bath, as well as hundreds of pieces by other artists.
This oil painting by Mary Cassatt was one of Ann’s favorites.
One of the most impressive pieces of work at the museum is Chagall’s American Windows. These stained glass windows have recently been restored and are as beautiful as they are impressive.
Marc Chagall’s American Windows was absolutely breathtaking to see in person.
A close up of American Windows.
We also had a great time looking at the Thorne Miniature Rooms. We couldn’t get over the detail packed into these tiny rooms! Parquet flooring, tiny newspapers left folded on the table and even fruit trees outside the windows of these rooms were just some of the amazing details that made these miniatures look just like an actual room.
From there we walked a block to Millennium Park. This stop might not normally be on our itinerary in the middle of February in Chicago, but spring came to town that weekend and temps were pushing 70. In the park, we joined the throng of people and checked out our reflection in the Cloud Gate sculpture — more commonly knows as The Bean.
This art sculpture in Millenium Park is a Chicago landmark.
It was great to be deep in a city, far from home, and able to enjoy the outdoors for a bit after a long winter. By late afternoon, we were back in the hotel changing for dinner having enjoyed a beautiful day together. That evening, we walked a few blocks to dinner at a restaurant that was a previous favorite of ours. While the restaurant wasn’t quite what we remembered, we just enjoyed being together outside in downtown Chicago. What we enjoyed most about walking was that we had the opportunity to stop and admire the Chicago River as we crossed it.
We enjoyed a leisurely walk to dinner through downtown Chicago at sunset.
The next morning we set out from the The Palmer House. Our first stop was the theater where Hamilton was playing. We’d heard that if you get there early enough, you can get tickets at a reasonable price instead of the $800/seat price we’d found online. It turns out, there was some truth to that, as very few seats were available. Sadly, the price was still more than a couple hundred dollars a ticket and we were not there early enough.
Chicago style deep dish pizza with LOTS of cheese.
But we were in Chicago! So many other possibilities — and one of them is pizza! We headed downtown in search of the world-famous Giordano’s. They serve the incredible deep dish style that made pizza in Chicago famous. All the pies are made fresh, so we expected to wait a bit after ordering. However, the wait was worth it as it was some of the best pizza we’d ever had. It was lot of food — Ann and I shared a small, and it was too much for us to eat. When it came, of course Ann wanted to get some video of me lifting a slice to show off all the gooey cheese. That didn’t go quite as planned, as you can see in this video.
After lunch, we waddled down the street and boarded the metro headed for the Garfield Park Conservatory, a place another travel blogger had recommended we see. The train stops a block from the conservatory, and it’s an easy walk to get there. Admission is free, though they do appreciate donations. Inside you’ll find plants from all over the world with water features highlighting the beauty all around you.
The Garfield Park Conservatory was celebrating the Chicago Cubs’ World Series Championship when we were there.
Though it was Saturday, it wasn’t too busy, and Ann and I took our time to stroll the many paths inside, enjoying this hidden botanical treasure in the heart of urban Chicago. Inside its glass walls and curving roof, you’ll find everything from tiny cacti to large palm trees.
We left the conservatory, walked back to the train, and headed back downtown remarking to each other how much we’d enjoyed the conservatory, and how we couldn’t believe it wasn’t busier.
Arriving back downtown, we went to another place we’d read about, the Chicago Athletic Club game room. Located one floor up behind a hotel lobby, the game room was full of table-top shuffle board games and even a bocci ball court. It was pretty busy which affirmed that it was a place people enjoy going. We loved the old wooden tables and floor. If you’re near the Art Institute and would like a refreshing libation in a hopping, fun environment, this might be for you.
The Chicago Athletic Association’s Game Room features a full-size bocce court.
We settled in to our hotel for the night, and, after dinner, thought we’d head to the lobby for a nightcap.
Potter’s bar in The Palmer House hotel in downtown Chicago.
There we met some locals doing the same thing and struck up a conversation. In it, we said that we’d gone to the Garfield Park Conservatory and told them how much we’d loved it and how proud Chicago should be to have such a gem. One gentleman shared fond memories from his youth, memories of days spent wandering the trails of the conservatory with his mother. Later, we said that we’ve heard a lot on the news recently about how unsafe parts of Chicago are, and asked them what area was most dangerous. “Garfield Park,” they replied. It seems we were so excited telling about our experience that they just didn’t have the heart to tell us until we asked.
We are so happy we went to see the Garfield Park Conservatory. It was a real Chicago gem.
Frankly, I’m glad I didn’t know it was an area considered to be more dangerous. Had we known, we probably would not have gone to the conservatory, and our lives would have been a little less enriched. I’d go back again and would recommend it to others, as I never felt unsafe in the broad daylight of a Saturday afternoon.
Overall, we had a great time on our weekend getaway to Chicago. As we’ve traveled more and more, we’ve learned that plans don’t always work out the way we expect them to. We just accept our circumstances, improvise, and usually have a good time, anyway.
As our friend Ben once said, travel is real. Every plan doesn’t always work out. Every neighborhood isn’t always the safest. Every ticket you want isn’t always available. But sometimes you just gotta go.
Recently, we traveled to Chicago for a long weekend. We stayed on the 18th floor of the Palmer House Hilton, a beautiful, historic hotel in the middle of the loop located just a block from Millennium Park and the Art Institute. This 25-story hotel is a great place to stay; we’d recommend it to anyone who is headed to Chicago. In fact, the only issue we had during our stay was trying to get downstairs in the morning.
Waiting for the elevator to open at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago.
In many large hotels (and even cruise ships) the elevators can become very busy at certain times – like in the morning as people head downstairs for breakfast or to check out. If you are on a middle floor, elevators going down often pass by because they are full of people from floors higher up. The wait can be pretty long. Fortunately, I learned a trick while staying in a large hotel in Las Vegas a few years ago: You gotta go up to go down.
We stood in the elevator lobby of the Palmer House for a couple of minutes waiting for the elevator to stop. The lobby was pretty crowded, and people there said they’d been waiting for several minutes. So, I pushed the “up” button. Within 30 seconds or so, an elevator stopped, and we hopped on. We rode up to the top floor and when the doors opened, we stayed inside. We got a few odd looks from the people who got on, but when the doors closed, the elevator was packed. We then rode straight to the lobby, past the crowded 18th floor, and were able to get breakfast and continue on with our day.
The next time you find yourself waiting a long time for an elevator down, remember that it might just be a good idea to head up, instead.
Have you ever used this or some other elevator trick? We’d love to hear about it. Leave us a message in the comments below.
Our first ever Sine Die Adventure was to Chicago in 2012. Our daughter, Meghan, and I planned the trip for Ann and she had no idea where we were going until moments before we boarded our plane. Ann had traveled about 45,000 miles (literally) by car for her job that year and we knew she had no interest going very far. She just wanted to get there, so a 55-minute flight to one of her favorite U.S. cities was ideal.
Meg and I had fun on the way to the airport, and at the airport not telling Ann where we were going. In fact, we sat in the restaurant/bar area of Omaha’s Eppley Airfield (as the terminal isn’t that big), and waited until our flight was called before revealing our destination.
Let me just pause a moment here to let you know that Meghan and I, purely by accident, picked the perfect time to go to Chicago: during the NATO summit. Sure, we faced some inconveniences that changed our schedule (like the Art and Natural History Museum and the aquarium being closed, or snowplows parked on streets blocking any car from ever hoping to pass by) but found a city open in a way not possible to imagine until you come to grips with the fact that the leader of every NATO nation (from President Obama to the president of the Czech Republic) was in town.
We didn’t realize that the summit was even going on until we got a text from United Airlines warning us that rail transportation into the city center would be closed down. Residents of Chicago were told for weeks in advance to not come downtown. Entire office buildings were closed for a 5-day weekend. And here we came, rolling into town, finding a lack of people and lines that no Disney Fast Pass could ever hope to imitate. All for free! Imagine, if you will, Michigan Avenue. Normally teeming with people and traffic — we counted at most six cars as far as the eye could see. And the shopping? Amazing. We had the stores and check outs to ourselves. Just look at the photos!
Empty streets and a great view of the hotel where the President of the United States was staying. Photo by Ann Teget.
We zipped down to the Navy Pier, rode the ferris wheel with nary a wait, ate at restaurants of our choosing at times of our choosing and all without worrying about any reservations or lines.
The view of the Navy Pier from top of the ferris wheel there.
We strolled over to Millennium Park. I’d been before but didn’t realize how beautiful it was because I’d always been dodging so many people on previous trips. That day, however, there were so few people that we could actually take in the park’s beauty.
Next, we hopped on an architectural cruise on the Chicago River. Boats normally overflowing with people now felt spacious. We could hear easily, and, perhaps more importantly, could easily get to the bar. Later, we decided to go to the top of the Hancock Tower. I braced myself for the usual long lines and hour-plus wait. Instead, we walked up to the cash register, bought three tickets, had our picture taken and then went straight to the elevators. We were the only three in the car all the way to the top.
While downtown, I even honored Ann’s request for a very quick stop at the American Girl store on Michigan Avenue, where she and Meghan tried to explain to me why anyone would pay $50 for nightgown for a doll and why mothers and daughters were willing to pay real money to have their dolls’ fake hair styled. I still don’t get it.
Notice we’re the only ones in the store. I guess most world leaders weren’t interested in Addy, Kit, Josefina, and the rest.
Because the idea of the Sine Die Adventure is to pick activities the person not planning the trip would like, Meghan and I did make reservations at Ann’s favorite restaurant, David Burke’s Primehouse at the James Hotel where she could have her favorite cocktail: The James. [Not-so-secret recipe: 3 parts raspberry vodka, 1 part elderflower liquor, and the juice of half a lime. Serve it up with a lemon-sugar rim and garnish with a frozen raspberry.] We also had an amazing steak dinner with excellent service. If you like a good steak, put this place on your list! We also booked time in a spa for massages for the three of us, visited the Museum of Science and Industry, and left time open in our itinerary so that Ann could pick some activities once we got there. It was her trip, after all.
She chose a Chicago-style pizza dinner and a ticket to see Blue Man Group. So before the show, we sat in a small pizzeria eating amazing Chicago-style pizza while watching protesters riot near downtown on TV–an entertaining evening all around.
Watching the riots on TV from an empty pizzeria on the other side of town. Thanks, NATO Summit, for this private dinner!
We really enjoyed our first Sine Die adventure. And while we can probably never re-create the timing and location of the NATO summit (and will have to go back to see the museums we missed) we will always remember the experience of having Chicago to ourselves for a long weekend. Well, us and a a few world leaders, that is.
We’re Steve and Ann Teget. We spent more than two decades in corporate America and public education before Ann’s health and Steve’s aversion to middle school girl drama convinced us to try something new. Now we are making the most of midlife and telling authentic stories about extraordinary travel. And yes, we send ourselves postcards.