Christmas In Chicago

For Christmas this year, my in-laws took G and I on a weekend trip to the Windy City. Only two hours away from our quiet little country town, Chicago is a quick drive to experience city-life every now and then. It was a quick weekend full of memories and festive attractions. A big thanks to “Ma and Pa G” for this great Christmas present! It allowed G and I to get out of the house, away from work, and spend precious moments with his parents. We are incredibly blessed.

If you are visiting Chicago for a weekend around Christmastime, there are a lot of places to visit and things to do in the city. Though we couldn’t squeeze every attraction into our schedule, here is what we were able to see and do:

My friend Saki works for Hilton and has included me in her family and friends list to be able to enjoy discounts through the company while I travel. Thanks to her generosity, our little troupe stayed two nights at the Hilton Garden Inn at McCormick Place on the 21st floor overlooking the city. Our room’s window faced North, so we were able to glimpse Lake Michigan, Soldier Field, and the Wintrust Arena.

We pulled into the hotel relatively late after enjoying dinner en route. Not wanting to go out into the city at a late hour, we instead visited the VU Rooftop Bar and Lounge which was located on the 22nd floor of our hotel. We ordered drinks over conversation to kick off the weekend. I chose a glass of 2015 Carmen Gran Reserva Carmenere from Colchagua Valley, Chile. This wine was one hell of a find! It was full bodied with green pepper, blackberry, and smoked oak aromas. It offered a dark fruit jam palate. Typical to Chilean Carmeneres, there was enough acidity to nicely balance out all the rich flavors with a long spicy finish. Yum!

The next morning we hailed an Uber and made our way to breakfast. I had been told to try the Nutella Cafe on Michigan Avenue by a friend. As we entered to the sweet smells of pastries and coffee, we knew we’d made a good choice. I opted for a Nutella crepe topped with strawberries and a Nutella latte. You know, being as basic as possible for a tourist in the city. *hey girl hey*

Following the delicious breakfast, the majority of our morning and early afternoon was spent shopping on the Magnificent Mile. For those unfamiliar with Chicago, the Magnificent Mile is Chicago’s premier commercial district. A bustling area, this district is home to upscale shops and luxe fashion outlets. And around Christmastime hosts window after window of winter wear and Christmas decorations. We ventured into a few notable retail stores such as Under Armour, Nike, The Disney Store, and Dylan’s Candy Bar. Along the way, we marveled at some of the architecture such as the neo-Gothic Tribune Tower, the terracotta Wrigley Building skyscraper, and the 100-story John Hancock Center.

We ended our journey on Michigan Avenue at the Water Tower Place. Mainly seeking restrooms, we made our way through Macy’s and the crowds of shoppers to the third floor of the 74-story skyscraper which house a huge shopping mall. As we discussed our next plan of action, we moseyed around the mall and looked at some of the unique gift offerings. There was a succulent stand which I loved, and a chocolate seller with some spectacular wares! The Amazing Chocolate Workshop designs chocolate to look like a variety of different tools and gadgets. From scissors to pliers, and teacups to cameras, all of their offerings are made of chocolate. They truly are amazing! I simply had to buy something from their booth, so I bought one of the corkscrews for a gift exchange I had coming up.

Done with shopping, our group decided it was time to eat. Now, Chicago is famous for its food – not only as a gourmet dining epicenter, but as the home of several local specialties. Some of these culinary staples include Chicago deep-dish pizza, the Chicago-style hot dog, and the Italian Beef. As any good tourists would do, we stuck to a classic and went to Giordano’s for some hearty lunch.

Since we visited Chicago on a weekend close to Christmas, the shops and restaurants close to the Magnificent Mile were packed with people. Giordano’s was no different. We were told there would be a half hour wait for a table of four. As we waited, we were able to order our deep dish pizza (sausage, mushroom, green pepper, and onion) so our wait wouldn’t be much longer to eat once we were seated. Deep dish pizzas typically take 45 minutes to an hour to cook completely. Once seated, we enjoyed an appetizer of Wisconsin cheese curds before our gooey pizza came out. It is no wonder Giordano’s is constantly making headlines, both in Chicago and nationally. The pizza’s crust was fluffy perfection, the fillings were plentiful, and the sauce was rich. We nodded our stuffed faces as to why Giordano’s has been acclaimed “Chicago’s Best Pizza” by NBC, CBS Chicago, New York Times, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Eater, Home & Garden Magazine, Concierge Preferred and more!

Upon our departure from the late lunch, we decided to get off the streets and out of the cold. We chose to go to an AMC theater around the corner from the restaurant. Luckily, a movie was beginning within fifteen minutes of our arrival: Ralph Wrecks the Internet. Though not a great recommendation of sight-seeing in Chicago, being able to relax in the hustle-and-bustle of the city was welcomed by us “countryfolk.” And the movie was funny and light-hearted — a great option for our little vacation.

We exited the movie to a dark sky and hundreds of Christmas lights. Calling an Uber, we set our location to our only scheduled event of the weekend: the ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo. I have been to the ZooLights plenty of times in the past, but love to go every year. This one-of-a-kind experience offers a free, family-oriented holiday celebration featuring luminous displays and lots of seasonal activities. There are ice carving shows, carousel and ferris wheel rides, and over 2.5 million Christmas lights set up throughout the zoo. You’ll find lighted animal exhibits in the midst of a beautiful light show set to beloved Christmas music. The ZooLights are a must-see in Chicago during the holiday season!

If you do visit the ZooLights, also know you do not have to take a lot of time out of schedule to do so. We walked through the entire space within a half hour’s time. Though we definitely could have spent more time meandering the zoo, the cold temperatures of a Windy City December left us wanting to be indoors. Thus we looked up a dinner option and walked the short distance out of the zoo to Clark Street to find Green Tea Sushi.

There is nothing I enjoy more for a meal than sushi. Unfortunately, Southwest Michigan does not offer a ton of fresh options. When G and I do decide to go on a sushi date, it’s always a fancier date night than typical as it means we’re having to go out of town or to a formal restaurant.

Therefore, we were looking forward to sushi in Chicago. Green Tea Sushi, by appearance, did not seem to be an ideal place to get a high-quality sushi like we wanted though. It is a small, skinny restaurant thrown into a corner of Chicago’s Lincoln Park. The restaurant only had six seats at its sushi bar and six tables for seating. When our group of four entered, we took up an entire fourth of the guests’ space. However, it was a fun experience and made for an intimate dinner. G and I ordered three rolls to split: a Philly roll, a spicy tuna roll, and the Dragon.

Wow.

Talk about an experience. The sushi was by far the best I’ve ever eaten. Fresh. Flavorful. Gorgeous to look at…

It goes to show that you should never judge a book by its cover. This little gem will forever be a staple for our future Chicago travels. We chose two “safe options” with our typical Philly and spicy tuna rolls, but the Dragon was outside our comfort-zones. The roll featured shrimp tempura, crab, and cucumber wrapped with fresh water eel and avocado. It. Was. Delectable. I am still having dreams about this sushi roll and cannot wait to return and discover new rolls.

All of those attractions and food adventures took place on Saturday. On Sunday we returned home. But not without stopping by the Lighthouse Place Outlet Mall in Michigan City, Indiana on the way home. It was interesting to see some of the same products at the stores in Chicago (namely at Levi and Nike) at half the prices at the outlet mall. G and I were happy we opted not to purchase anything in the city, and instead bought a few Christmas gifts at the mall for a fraction of the cost.

All in all, we loved our short trip to the Windy City with my in-laws but are happy to be home in our little corner of the world. The city is fun to visit. But for this girl, I love my small-town life.

Until next time,

 

 

 

Do you know of any attractions and/or restaurants that are go-to’s in Chicago during the holiday season? I would love to hear from you and add to my list for future trips. Please leave a recommendation below in the comment section. 🙂

Our Honeymoon in Tennessee

This post is back-dated, I wrote this in December 2018 when I realized I had never finished my first draft. Whoops!

G and I spent our honeymoon in the beautiful State of Tennessee. Leaving early Monday morning (June 18, 2018), we drove the twelve hours South to a quaint cabin high in the Smoky Mountains overlooking Gatlinburg. We took advantage of the fresh air and active town for four days before moving onto Music City — Nashville. During our vacation we ate some amazing food, saw even-more-amazing sights, and spent countless hours reveling that the wedding was over and we were finally husband and wife.

We absolutely loved our entire trip, and will cherish the memories for the rest of our lives. The following is a little glimpse into our vacation as well as recommendations for anyone traveling to this area of the United States.

Gatlinburg, TN

Accommodations: Stay in a mountain cabin.

I will not directly say which cabin we stayed in — because we’re going to keep this precious gem a secret so it isn’t packed with reservations when we want to return. Yep. Selfish reason. 🙂 However, I will say we chose a cabin that was about a mile and a half of winding roads up in the mountains overlooking the town of Gatlinburg. Our “driveway” way a single parking space on such a steep incline that I worried even the emergency brake wouldn’t prevent my car from rolling to its doom.

The cabin was bear-themed, and was an open concept with cozy kitchen, sitting area, corner heart-shaped Jacuzzi and king-sized bed. The bed faced large windows and a back door which let out onto a deck. The deck was built on stilts and the tree tops were cut back to allow a view of the Smokies. A hot tub and diner table rested on the deck, and may have been our favorite spot the entire trip. Every evening ended with a glass of wine while relaxing in the hot tub, and each morning began with breakfast and coffee at the table looking out into God’s beautiful nature.

I’m sure hotels in Gatlinburg are nice and all, but if you’re going to spend a week in Tennessee, I highly recommend staying in a cabin. We actually found our cabin to be cheaper than hotel rates in the area. This was partly due to the lack of daily cleaning services and continental breakfasts, but we didn’t much mind. G and I made the bed each morning and were able to make a few meals at the cabin, including a steak dinner. It was perfectly US.

Restaurant Recommendations

We pulled into Gatlinburg relatively late on Monday. After the typical travel stops, we were set to arrive at our cabin on-time, but then we hit the main stretch of Sevierville which led into Gatlinburg. It took nearly an hour and a half to travel through the shopping district of Sevierville which is only about 18 miles. The traffic was horrendous. Stop, go. Stop, go. By the time we navigated the winding highway to Gatlinburg and the mountain roads to our cabin, it was nearly 7’o’clock and we were hungry. Choosing not to go into the actual town of Gatlinburg (we were over the crowds by this point), we instead headed to the outskirts and wandered.

This is a nice way of saying we got lost.

We took a nice little drive around a local high school. We turned around at a closed drive-in diner. Twice. And we noted a little grocery store where we planned to purchase some bottles of wine and whiskey after dinner — we needed a drink or two. After discovering there was no Taco Bell nearby (and a grumbling husband’s retort at this news), it was growing dark. Then we both noticed a glittering tree down the road. As we approached, we saw numerous LED icicles hanging from the tree’s branches, and an OPEN sign flashed beneath it on a bridge. Behind the bridge sat a restaurant with a waterfall flowing over the roof — it was simply spectacular.

Crystelle Creek was our favorite restaurant the entire trip. Sitting behind the bridge along a creek, the dining area was rustic and cozy. Though we arrived only an hour before they closed, our waiter was welcoming and sat us near a live soloist. He provided us recommendations on wine and food, and we ordered: G had a Cajun shrimp Alfredo and I chose a chopped steak. Splitting a bottle of Malbec, we sat back and took a deep breath. We had made it. The soloist was personable, telling us he had visited our hometown several times as he once lived in Michigan. His easy music was beautifully paired with our meals. We were blown away! So much that we debated revisiting Crystelle Creek during our stay.

If it hadn’t been for our desire to try a few other selections in town, we would have gone back for another dinner. However, we enjoyed our other options as well. One night we visited The Peddler Steakhouse and indulged. A peddler comes to each table with a selection of meat cuts and you choose your steak. It was an engaging experience and the food was superb. We also went to a Mexican cuisine restaurant, No Way Jose’s Cantina, and split a burrito beside some margaritas. It was your typical Tex-Mex sort of atmosphere, but we still enjoyed ourselves and the Jose’s we ate at was an ideal locale in Downtown Gatlinburg. So after-dinner activities in town were easy to navigate.

Attractions We Loved

Our first full day in Gatlinburg was a scorcher, but the high temps didn’t deter us from walking the crowded streets downtown and partaking in the local wine and whiskey scene. G fancies whiskey and I, obviously, love me some wine, so tasting the town was a no-brainer for us. After the first distillery (Doc Collier Moonshine Distillery) I decided to tap-out and only do wine tastings, but G and I had a blast. Each distillery offers a $5 tasting of over 10 different whiskies or moonshines, and the wineries offered free tastings. We managed to bounce through four additional stops: Sugarland CellarsOle Smoky Whiskey DistilleryTennessee Homemade Wines, and Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery. I found a few fruit wines as perfect souvenirs for our mothers, and G bought a pint of 128 proof Blue Flame Moonshine. In his words, it’s clear, clean and exactly what moonshine should be.

Getting out of town and away from the crowds was a big reason we loved Gatlinburg as well — you had the option to be a tourist or be alone. On two separate days we ventured into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. First, we chose to hike the Grotto Falls trail. This was a 3-mile trail running through the forested mountains and took us behind a 25-foot waterfall. It was a beautiful trail, and we ended up hiking a bit past the falls until we found a llama “dumping zone.” (I mean that very literally.) Nonetheless, this hiking experience was the best way to get into the Smoky Mountains and see the pristine back-country of Tennessee. I has hoped to catch a glimpse of a black bear — from afar — but unfortunately the heat and daylight seemed to play against us.

Our second outing to the Smokies was to take a driving tour to Cades Cove. It took about an hour of winding roadway to get to this 11-mile, one-way loop that circles the cove. However, once inside the loop, we were able to sight-see at our leisure. Traffic was heavy, so our speeds never went over 20 miles per hour, but this enabled us to enjoy the forests, wildflower-covered meadows, and even a close encounter with a bear! The silly little thing wandered across the road only three cars before us, and then lost its balance on a log and somersaulted out of view. It was a cute interaction while watching nature. One of my favorite parts of this drive was seeing the awe-inspiring mountain views. Michigan is a beautiful state and offers some elevation in terms of dunes and hills, but the Smoky Mountains are simply amazing. If you take the trip to Tennessee, be sure to visit the Smokies — you are guaranteed to find an adventure.

Gatlinburg has a ton of tourist attractions aside from the nature surrounding it. G and I debated purchasing tickets to the Gatlinburg Sky Lift or the Gatlinburg Ziplines, but chose to visit the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies instead. A favorite from G’s childhood, the aquarium boasts a penguin playground (who doesn’t love penguins?!) as well as a shark tank tunnel. There is a moving conveyor-belt where guests can stand and be transported through the tunnel as a variety of sharks swim beside and above them. It was a fun experience! Plus, we opted to go to the aquarium after dinner one night, so it was not nearly as crowded as if we had gone during the day.

We did not spend all our time in town or hiking though. There was numerous hours spent at the cabin playing games and drinking wine on the back porch. We brought a new game we received as a wedding gift, Hogwarts Battle, and had it set up on our dining table inside throughout the whole week. We also brought cards which we played on the porch as we sipped our drinks.

This secluded time together was the best part of the entire trip.

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. We packed our belongings and said goodbye to the cabin on Friday. As we exited Sevierville, Gatlinburg’s sister city, we stopped by the Smoky Mountain Knife Works and picked up a few things. Most notably was a hatchet for our future camping adventures. Then we left that little area of Tennessee behind us as we traveled to our next stop…

Nashville, TN

We stayed at a cute little AirBnB in Nashville. After we dropped our bags off at the cottage, we headed to Opry Mills where we hoped to find somewhere to eat. This giant mall rests beside the Grand Ole Opry which we had tickets to attend that evening. So we ate dinner inside the mall, wandered a bit, and then headed over to the Opry with our tickets in-hand.

Come to find out, we had the wrong night! Our tickets were for the next evening. After shrugging our shoulders, we decided to instead head to the famous Honky Tonk Highway in Downtown Nashville. For those who don’t know, a honky tonk is an establishment that contains at least one stage, cold beverages, and a never-ending party. Nashville’s Honky Tonk Highway offers live music from 10am to 3am every. single. day. And the music is free! Either go into the one of many bars and enjoy a single band, or stand on the streets and listen to the musicians’ chords crashing into one another from the open windows. It is truly a thing to behold!

G and I meandered through a few of the bars: Rippy’s Smokin’ Bar and Grill, Bootleggers Inn, and Tin Roof Broadway. We were blown away by the talent of all the bands we watched throughout the night, and had a blast sipping cheap beers while swaying to the music. As the night progressed, the crowds around us become rowdier and rowdier though, and we realized our age. (Yikes…) So we called an Uber and called it a night.

Our second day in Nashville was much more laid back. We visited The Parthenon in Centennial Park, and stopped by Fork’s Drum Closet to the pure joy of my husband. Then, finally, that evening we attended the Grand Ole Opry.

Now, nothing quite says “Nashville” like a night at the Grand Ole Opry. What began as a simple radio broadcast in 1925 is today an entertainment phenomenon showcasing a mix of country music greats– new stars, superstars, and legends. The tickets are ridiculously inexpensive and guests are promised at least 10 musicians and/or bands each performance. G and I were lucky enough to see John Conlee, Mark Wills, Mike Snider, Jeannie Seely, Tenille Townes, The Steel Woods, Bill Anderson, Bobby Osborne & The Rocky Top X-Press, Chonda Pierce, Ricky Skaggs, The Whites, and Collin Raye. I’m a huge country music fan, and though I didn’t know the majority of these artists, the energy and history of the Opry can be felt deep into your bones.

G and I both expressed a wish to have stayed in Gatlinburg a few days longer, but attending the Opry made our trip to Nashville worth it.

All in all, our honeymoon was the thing dreams are made of. I could not have imagined a better vacation with my favorite person, nor would I change a single aspect of the trip. We were able to explore a new area, experience new adventures, and spend quality time alone. And the best part, every memory was made together.

This is something I will treasure in my memories forever.

Until our next adventure,