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The 6 Best Bakeries in Chicago

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A trip to the Windy City is almost always in order, especially now that they boast the world’s only “David Bowie Day.” From their spectacular museums and architecture to their sports teams and pizza, Chicago offers visitors a wealth of differing experiences that cater to a wide variety of people. But there is one aspect of Chicago that anyone can enjoy. Regardless of whether you’re a Bears fan or an art lover, everyone in Chicago has a great reason to get up in the morning: delectable pastries and other morning delicacies. If you needed another reason to take a trip to the shores of Lake Michigan, here are six bakeries that deserve your time and money.

Cookies

1. Hellas Pastry Shop

This Greek pastry shop is a haven of traditional Greek tastes. Baklava, Honey Cookies, and Finikia cookies are just the tip of the iceberg. A Chicago staple since 1969, Hellas also features a tremendous spinach pie that has just the right amount of dill, ricotta, and sharp, salty feta. Owned and operated by a husband and wife team for the past 25 years, if you’re in the market for sweet or savory Greek pastries, there are few places that can compete with Hellas Pastry Shop.

baklava

2. Bang Bang Pie Shop

A pie shop whose owners believe that keeping things simple is the key to success, Bang Bang only serves a few pies at a time: a fruit pie, a chocolate pie, and a frozen pie. Because they’re able to focus on such a small menu each day, what they make tastes, looks, feels, and smells exceptional.

They also offer buttermilk biscuits that are otherworldly and are served with gravy or a variety of butters and jellies. Plan to sit down with a cup of coffee, biscuits and gravy, and a piece of pie for dessert, and you may consider moving to town, although resolving to keep your eye on fares at Flights.com for a quick weekend trip in the next month or so may also suffice.

chocolate cake

3. Crumbs Bake Shop

With five locations in Chicago, you can easily run into a Crumbs Bake Shop on any number of expeditions in and around the city. This bake shop is known for their cupcakes but they do have other pastries and baked goods. The sheer variety of offerings is enough to leave you speechless, even before you get a bite of one of them in your mouth.

Cappuccino, Chocolate Pecan Pie, Dulce de Leche, Caramel Apple, Peanut Butter Cup, and more — the list numbers over 70. Your best bet is to always enter a Crumbs with a companion, so you can split two cupcakes, which means you could work your way through the entire menu in less than 40 visits — a more than worthy goal.

Mini cakes

4. Vanille Patisserie

A true French bakery, Vanille Patisserie bakes all the traditional French pastries that you long for on dreary days and while watching old movies. Chocolate éclairs compete with tender, buttery croissants for your attention and dollars. The Vanille — a coconut cake wrapped in white chocolate mousse and topped with vanilla bean cream and a delicious coulis — begs to be your next meal. No matter what kind of French treat you need, you can find it and love it at Vanille.

Dessert Extravaganza!

5. Bake

Bake is the brainchild of two Chicagoans with more than 30 years’ combined bakery experience, who wanted to provide the best in American-style pastries and desserts. Giant muffins, scones, banana nut bread, cookies, cupcakes, pumpkin spice bread, and apple pie — if you ever ate it at a church potluck or a school bake sale, you’ll find it at Bake, and it will taste infinitely better.

peanutbutter cake

6. Molly’s Cupcakes

Just like the name implies, this shop specializes in cupcakes. Made each day from scratch, a Molly’s cupcake is a fully customizable experience. Choose your cupcake flavor; select a frosting, and then, pile on a variety of toppings. Watch as it bakes right in front of you, and if you didn’t order the center-filled kind your first time, order a second. If you’re someone who doesn’t like being inundated with too many options on your first trip into a new place, go with one of their signature cupcakes like Blueberry Cheesecake or Boston Cream.

cupcakesPolish off your love for baked goods, and plan a trip to Chi-Town. While the museums and sports teams may be the reason you claim to love this town, after a trip to a few of these bakeries, the treats that await you will be the reason you keep coming back.

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Goodbye 2013: Our year of travel in pictures

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I remember leaving for the airport in London like it was yesterday. Dani kept looking at me with my big, funny backpack, and I at hers (and the extra bag she had filled with magazines she just had to finish before we left the U.S.) as we walked to catch the bus to the airport. We were filled with exhilaration that we were actually free – like high school seniors on the last day of school.

2010 brought us from Europe, through the US and Mexico to Central America, it was an unforgettable 2011 through Central America, Europe, Canada, the US and then Thailand. In 2012 we spent time in South East Asia, India and finally to South America.

Now here we are, this is the FOURTH time that we’re looking back at our year of travel. 2013 was as much a year of city-hopping as it was spent in some of the least populated areas of natural beauty on Earth. Our travel style was mostly on four wheels overland and technically slow, visiting only seven countries, but we covered a huge portion of this planet this year across Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, the US, Germany, Bolivia and Peru.

Follow along as we look back at what we are still able pack in, nearly four years after setting off on this nomadic adventure. Click through on the dozens of links to read in more detail about each of these stops along the way.

The year began in Santiago, where we housesat for two months. We still think often about our two adorable Scottie dogs there.

1 january santiago de chileWe were practically becoming locals, so we had to rip ourselves away at the start of February to start our travels through Chile. We began in Valparaiso, and fell in love with this colorful city on the Pacific.

colorful houses in valparaisoFrom there we headed to the Lake District and the island of Chiloe, before returning to the Argentine side of the Andes to explore Bariloche and Nahuel Huapi National Park with its famous black glacier. Then it was time to hit Patagonia.

2 bariloche cathedralAfter that infamously long 27 hour bus ride, we landed in El Chalten, where Dani set off on some solo hikes, and continued to El Calafate, where we visited the impressive Perito Moreno Glacier.

2 argentina perito moreno glacierThen it was back over the border to Chile to see Torres Del Paine. We opted for a full day tour of the National Park, and it became one of our favorite places in all of Patagonia.

3 chile torres del paineAfter a few days in Puerto Natales, the base town for Torres del Paine, we continued our journey south and traveled to Tierra Del Fuego via the southern Chilean city of Punta Arenas before finally reaching Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, after hitchhiking from Chile back into Argentina.

UshuaiaOur next stop was Uruguay, a quick flight from Ushuaia, where we visited Montevideo (and almost got robbed!) and the dreamy colonial town Colonia del Sacramento.

3 uruguay colonia del sacramentoOf course we couldn’t leave without visiting some of Uruguay’s famous beaches!

3 march uruguay punta del este3 uruguay beach dayAt the end of March, we went from Uruguay to the north of Argentina and spent a lovely week in Rosario, before we made a 48-hour bus detour to the Iguazu Falls – a detour that was well worth it!

4 argentina dani and jess iguazu fallsWe continued our journey through Northern Argentina to Salta, a city we didn’t love as much as we thought we would, but we fell for the small wine town of Cafayate four hours south of there.

4 cafayate streetThe road took us back north through Salta to Jujuy, where we rented a car to road trip through the Quebrada de Humahuaca for two days.

4 purmamarca street and seven color hillHere we also stopped at the first of three sets of salt flats we’d see this year. 4 argentina salinas grandes salt flats salt rainAfter returning the car, we took a bus to San Pedro De Atacama in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

4 san pedro de atacama streetIt turns out that we seriously love this town and the surrounding scenery on this first of two visits to San Pedro in 2013, and were actually excited to know we’d be making our way back up here again later in the year to continue our travels to Bolivia from here.

4 april northern chile atacama desertDuring this first visit, we took a tour that showed us some of the breathtaking landscapes around San Pedro…

4 april chile atacama desert… including salt flats #2.

4 salt flats chile atacama desertBut instead of heading north to Bolivia from here, we broke our South America journey to fly to New York City for a two-month housesitting gig that made our dream of living in New York come true (at least temporarily!). We landed in New York just in time for our third anniversary as nomads and loved ‘our’ two cats and ‘our’ apartment, just a five-minute walk from the Brooklyn Bridge.

6 brooklyn bridge new yorkIn June, we flew straight to Germany to test out five weeks living in Berlin, which is now one of our favorite cities in the world.

7 alexanderplatz at nightWe couldn’t have asked for a more perfect summer in Germany, where we were featured in the Suddeutsche Zeitung, one of the national newspapers and interviewed by a major radio station about our housesitting book before flying back to the US in August.

sueddeutscheIt felt great to jet set in the summer as we flew from Berlin to New York to spend the weekend. We were mainly on a quest to find the best pizza in NYC, but also had time to revisit some of our favorite places off the beaten path and cycle through Manhattan on the Citibikes.

8 best pizza in williamsburg brooklyn new york city white pizza5 dani roosevelt islandOur next stop was Tucson, to a housesit we’ve done three times now for homeowners and a dog, Miss Millie, who we just love! We enjoyed some quality time by the pool and the desertscape that we love so much.

8 Jess and Millie in TucsonIn September, we took off on one of the best adventures of this year: a road trip through New Mexico, which would finally bring us all the way back to Chicago via Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa.

We started at the amazing yet little-visited Gila Cliff Dwellings, followed by the otherworldly White Sands…

9 white sands jess & daniThen we spent Jess’ birthday at Carlsbad Caverns before moving on to the aliens of Roswell, Las Vegas (the small New Mexican town) and Albuquerque…

9 carlsbad cavernsThen we hit Santa Fe, explored Georgia O’Keeffe country, the Bandelier Cliff Dwellings, various Pueblos and then finally spent time in magical little Taos, our last stop in New Mexico. Here we got to trek down into the Rio Grande gorge with llamas and our wonderful guide Stuart of Wild Earth Llama Trekking.

9 bandelier monument new mexicoAfter 19 incredible days on the road, we reached Chicago, where we visited friends and family, hit plenty of our favorite sightseeing spots and ate our way across the city.

10 bean reflections at night chicagoChicago is where Dani got to experience her first ‘real’ Halloween in the U.S.! Look at what we did to her face! 🙂

10 globetrottergirls halloweenIn what now, looking back, seems like our year of New York City, we spent another long weekend in Manhattan before hopping onto the return leg of our flight back down to Santiago, Chile – but not without eating more pizza, spending time in Williamsburg, meeting up with quite a few good friends and watching the New York Marathon.

11 New York sunsetFinally we flew down to enjoy all the things we love about Santiago – and just in time for the perfect spring weather (and escaping the freezing cold New York weather that hit the day after we left!)

11 santiago lastarria churchInstead of pushing through on the 24 hour bus ride to San Pedro De Atacama, we visited three new places on the way: La Serena, a quiet though sizable colonial town with a wide beach seven hours from Santiago by bus. This is the jumping-off point for the beautiful Elqui Valley, which became one of our five favorite places in all of Chile.

11 la serena street with churchThen we traveled 19 hours through the narrow piece of land between the Andes and the Pacific to Iquique, a beach city in the north of Chile. The town grew on us slowly, and we ended up enjoying our fourth visit to the Pacific in 2013. This was our last beach visit of the year, too.

11 sea lions in iquiqueThen we went on to San Pedro and made sure to visit the Tatio geyser fields – an incredible piece of desert nearly 5,000m high where geysers explode, gurgle and spurt. It was well worth the 4am wake-up call to see the geyser field at sunrise.

11 geyser de tatio chileAfter a few days of an obsessive amount of research on good tour companies, we finally jumped on our three day off-roading tour through Bolivia’s South West, otherwise known as the Salar de Uyuni salt flats tour. Our first ever border crossing in a jeep, on a tour and in the middle of absolutely nowhere, there was so much more than the salt flats. We saw more otherworldly landscapes, volcanoes, flamingos, lagoons and rock formations of just about every shape and color imaginable.

11 Bolivia laguna verde11 laguna hedionda flamingos bolivia11 arbol de piedra and mountain boliviaOn the last day of the tour we spent sunrise out on our third set of salt flats for the year, which also just so happen to be the largest salt flats in the world, the Salar De Uyuni.

11 Bolivia salt flatsThen we started our travels through Bolivia, with our first stop in the 4000m-high colonial town of Potosi. For those of you who think in feet, this is 13,500 ft high, or almost three ‘mile-high’ Denver cities stacked on top of one another. This is officially the highest city in the world, and we enjoyed the beautifully maintained historic town center which was a great introduction to the country – although just walking its hilly streets was a massive challenge at that altitude.

12 potosi viewsNext were three weeks in both of Bolivia’s capitals: first in Sucre, the official capital (and a city we spent two weeks battling a massive stomach bug that practically laid us flat for half the time)…

12 sucre street bolivia…and then La Paz, the de facto seat of the government. It was from here that we signed up (read: Dani signed US up!) for the mountain bike trip down the world’s most dangerous road – and survived (barely 🙂 ).

12 death road boliviaOur final stop in 2014 was Lake Titicaca, first on the Bolivian side in Copacabana, where we spent Christmas, then followed by a couple of days on the Isla del Sol and then crossing the border into our first stop in Peru – Puno – where we are celebrating New Year’s Eve.

lake titicaca with boats copacabana bolivia

This was a big year for us as The GlobetrotterGirls as well!

We released a second and much, much sexier version of our book, The Ultimate Guide to Housesitting – check that out here if you want to start housesitting in 2014.

We started the Break Free podcast, where I interview globetrotting women who have created the incredible life balance of running successful businesses while traveling the world. You can listen on the website or subscribe in iTunes.

Then there was the launch of our Escape Route travel planning and consulting service. We seriously love helping people make the most of the travels, and we’ve loved being able to help readers and clients plan their perfectly customized holidays.

Perhaps most exciting for us is the launch of our GlobetrotterGirls Getaways – starting with our seriously epic overland trip from San Francisco to Seattle in May 2014. If you’re interested in joining us on a seriously unique trip (in a custom-converted American school bus!) read more about the Getaways here. Early-Bird pricing ends today, December 31st, so if you’re interested, save $150 and put down your deposit today!

Dani and Jess in Argentina

Thanks so much for following along on our journey in 2013. Stick with us in 2014 for even more epic adventures through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, the US, Europe and who knows where we’ll end 2014!!

Happy New Year!

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Polaroid of the week: Happy Halloween!

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polaroid of the week chicago halloweenWe decided to push back our flights to Chile by a couple of weeks and that meant one great thing – I get to experience her first ever Halloween in the United States! Since we don’t celebrate Halloween in Germany (although it seems to be more and more in style) and in Britain they don’t care too much about it either, I couldn’t wait to finally experience the real thing – although Jess says I’m too old to actually go trick or treating…

Here in Chicago it has been wonderful to see Halloween decorations pop up everywhere over the last few weeks, from spooky cemeteries, ghosts and zombies in front yards to beautifully carved pumpkins in windows and on doorsteps. We even had an early Halloween celebration last weekend when our friends Megan & Kate threw an epic party, turning their apartment into a chamber of horror – with some of the best decorations most of the guests had ever seen, including a bathtub filled with blood and even a flying ghost! I loved my ‘zipper face‘ and all the other fun costumes – there was a troll, a pirate, a mouse, a piñata, several witches, a peacock and last but not least, our awesome hosts who were dressed as the Grady Twins from The Shining.

Today we’re actually on our way to New York City and will get to see the Halloween Parade there tonight – after that, it’s time to head south though. It’s getting a bit too chilly here for our taste.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

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Got five minutes? We’d love to know what you really think of us! Please fill out our 2013 survey and let us know how we can be more helpful for you before and on your travels!

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Polaroid of the week: The Bean, Chicago

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polaroid of the week usa chicago the bean cloudgateWhat an excellent time we’ve been having here in Chicago for the last few weeks!

We love spending time here seeing friends and family and catching new glimpses of the city – like seeing the ‘Bean’ on a perfectly clear Autumn night. We’ve seen it on warm summer mornings and freezing cold winter afternoons, but never quite like this! This sculpture, officially named Cloud Gate, is the vision of British artist Anish Kapoor and was finished in 2006. Set in the city’s famous Millennium Park, this is one of those spots in Chicago that are popular with tourists but make us fall in love with city every time we’re back here with family, too.

The Bean’s surface distorts the iconic buildings of Chicago’s skyline, and you can walk all the way underneath into a chamber which multiplies sound and reflection. During the day, hundreds of people buzz and flitter around and underneath, and their presence affects the photos you can take. At night, with far fewer people, we could take hundreds of photos from dozens of angles with the skyline becoming the true star. It was exactly as we had hoped!

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33 Things We Love About Chicago

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1. The views over the city
You will spend most of the time downtown looking up at mile high skyscrapers in Chicago, but both the Willis Tower and the John Hancock offer excellent views from above as well. These really put the city into perspective.
willis tower skydeck view over chicago & lake michigan2. Cycling along the Lake Shore
From the far northern neighborhoods of Chicago all the way through downtown, the Lake Shore cycling path allows cyclists to sail through 10-15 miles right along the shores of Lake Michigan. This is great for a work-out, and you’ll no doubt share a lot of the space with the hundreds of joggers and walkers out there, but this also keeps you out of Chicago traffic as well. Chicago is a great cycling city in general and with the Bikeway cycling program, cycling is set to be an integral part of transportation in Chicago in the future.
chicago lakeshore3. Chicagoans
The people in Chicago are some of the friendliest ‘big city’ folks we’ve come across. I used to always wonder what people meant about that Midwestern friendliness, but now I see that unlike in New York, L.A. or even Atlanta, the people in Chicago will strike up conversations with strangers, smile at you, help you out if you’re lost and give you change without too much of an attitude.

4. Oak Street Beach
In the summer months, between the palm trees, the joggers and the beach bodies laying out, it would be easy to mistake this beach for somewhere on the coast – except for that giant John Hancock building looming overhead! Yup, this is unmistakably Chicago, and it’s hard to resist a few hours here on the weekend with the sand between your toes.

oak street beach chicago5. The diverse neighborhoods
As soon as you move out of the downtown Loop area, Chicago is home to hundreds of ethnic enclaves bordering one another. I love how, in some parts of the city, you might see bilingual shop or traffic signs, neither language being English. A long walk through the neighborhoods might bring us through Polish, Mexican, El Salvadorian, Korean, German, Greek, Muslim or Jewish areas on a simple wander through town – and all the sights, smells, eats and languages that comes with that.

6. The beautiful  Rosehill Cemetery
Near Andersonville, with its eccentric and unique graves and monuments, Rosehill feels more like an old-world European cemetery than anything in the new United States.

rosehill cemetery chicago illinois7. How the wooden elevated ‘El’  train tracks wind around the roofs of the houses of Chicago.
chicago the el8. Baseball at Wrigley Field
You don’t know a thing about baseball – so what? Head to Wrigleyville during the Spring or Summer months and pick up a pair of tickets to a baseball game. Get a funny hat, drink a few beers and take part in the grand Chicago tradition that stems back to the early 1900s. Make a whole night of it and get there early enough to watch fans, touts and TV crews arriving in en masse and stake out a couple of bar stools at one of the local bars both before and after the game to take part in some crazy drunken festivities. There is nothing like a Cubs game in the summer in Chicago. Hey, Ferris Bueller even cut school to do this!

baseball at wrigley field in chicago9. Lincoln Park Zoo
This zoo, right on the lake, is one of the best free things to do in Chicago, and makes a great jumping off point to test out restaurants in the Lincoln Park area as well.

10. Chicago-style Pizza
The picture says it all, really.
chicago deep dish pizza giordanos11. Boozing in Bucktown’s bars

12. Boystown
Chicago is about as gay-friendly as U.S. cities come, and the Boystown is huge fun. You’ll know you’ve arrived when, driving up Halsted Rd. you start to notice huge gold pillars on the sides of the road marked with beautiful rainbow designs. There are plenty of shops and restaurants here to discover, but if you’re up for a knees up plan for a late night out here on Halsted!

boystown golden pillars chicago13. Nookies restaurant
Also located on Halsted in Boystown, you’ll also find the original Nookies – and a line out the door most weekend mornings. Pancakes, omelets, comfort food to the extreme, Nookies is by far one of my favorite hangover breakfast spots in the city. Since the first time we went back in 2007, Nookies has expanded to four locations including Nookies Old Town, Nookies Lakeview, Nookies Lincoln and Nookies Edgewater.

14. Walking through the streets of downtown Chicago and getting dizzy looking up to the skyscrapers.

chicago skyscrapers15. Lincoln Square with its neighborhood feel and excellent German restaurant
Not to be confused with Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square is much further north and has a neighborhood feel that would make you swear you’ve left the city. Except you’re still well within the city limits. We spent some time here housesitting for a friend last fall in Chicago, and definitely could be persuaded to spent a bit longer here in the future.

16. The vegan restaurant Native Foods Cafe
So far there are three outlets of this California vegan restaurant chain in Chicago, and we could eat here every day and not tire of the selection. Our post on vegan restaurants in Chicago goes into great, gushing detail for our love of this place.
native foods cafe vegan burger with fries17. Peeking into the independent shops on Broadway
Broadway Ave is home to great boutique shopping that out-of-towners might otherwise miss, but even Oprah used to shop here when she lived in town, choosing the wine and cheese shop Pastoral as her preferred artisan bakery. Right next door, one of my oldest and dearest friends runs one of the trendiest little fashion boutiques in Chicago, called Spare Parts. A gorgeous curation of delicious handbags, jewelery made by local Chicago designers, and other fun accessories, stop in for a chat with Vanessa – though you might find it hard not to leave with a little something for yourself! I have a business card holder and a fun little clutch purse along with me on my travels that I picked up at Spare Parts.

18. Playing around with the reflections of the ‘Bean’

chicago the bean cloudgate reflections19. The Map Room
An obvious choice for a couple of world travelers we absolutely love this bar! Intellectuals, poets, and your everyday 20 and 30 something hipster winos, well, technically beerheads all meet here. I mean, at this ‘travelers inn’ you can even attend beer school to sample some of the best beer in the whole wide world.

20. The famous Garretts Popcorn Mix
At Garretts you can get cheese, caramel, or plain. But everyone knows that it’s the popcorn mix of Cheese and Caramel popcorn that tastes the best. If you don’t pick up a bag while downtown, Terminal 3 at O’Hare airport has a stand for last minute bag of Garretts, too!
garretts popcorn21. Blues bars
In the same way we loved the authentic music scene in New Orleans, we love that Chicago maintains its thriving blues scene. In the paraphrased words of one of my favorite Chicago films, nobody should leave this place without singing the blues.

22. Second City
Chicago is also home to some of the funniest people on the planet, who all found their feet at Chicago’s Second City comedy theater. Make sure to stop here on a visit too – you’ll probably see the stars of tomorrow or you can try an improve class there yourself while you’re there.

23. The German Christkindl Market
Taking place in the run up to Christmas each December, you can only feel more like you’re in Germany…in Germany. We spoke German to all the workers, drank Gluhwein, had amazing Kartoffelpuffers (potato pancakes) and just had a great time when we were here last time, despite below zero temperatures.

dani & jess at the christkindl market in chicago24.  Chicago Superfans piling out of Sports bars
Chicago is also a city of sports fans, and there is nothing better than festive Saturday and Sunday afternoons in the Spring, Summer and Fall, when bars and restaurants spill over with fans wearing jerseys – not just from Chicago or Illinois, but from the competition, too.

25.  Art Institute of Chicago
This art museum is such an interesting and intelligent collection, with pieces that even people who hate art museums will enjoy. We paid the full entry price to get in, but check out the Art Institute’s website for details on free nights as well.

26.The fantastic Gay Pride Parade in June

chicago gay pride parade27. Ethnic Restaurants
Chicago is a diverse city, and as a result, we ate our way around the world last time we were in the city. Authentic international cuisine abounds – from Salvadorian pupusas around the corner from a local corner Serbian restaurant, Thai food at PS Bangkok (among many others), original Ethiopian cuisine, loads of Korean food, German (Bavarian) restaurants everywhere, there is even a Costa Rican and a Guatemalan restaurant in the city. Now how’s that for specific Latin American cuisines!

28. Watching beach volleyball on North Ave beach
Do this in the summer and you would swear you’re in California. Each weekend there are major tournaments for both men and women – the best in the world have played here!

29. The tasty-licious Taste of Chicago festival in July
Go hungry or go home! There are hundreds of Chicago restaurants and bars with stands at the Taste each year. Although they are scaling back in size from years past, this is still one of the most delicious food festivals in the world!

jess at the taste of chicago30. The National Museum of Mexican Art
This small museum location in Pilsen, a traditionally Mexican-American neighborhood of Chicago, is home to really great Mexican art, and serves to teach anyone who visits some big lessons about Latino life in Mexico, the United States and specifically Chicago. Considering that over 1.4 million Mexican-Americans live in the Chicagoland area, these are very important insights for a large part of what makes Chicago the city that it is.

31. Seeing Chicago’s stunning architecture from the river on the Architecture Foundation‘s fabulous boat tour

chicago architecture boat tour32. Farmers Markets
Chicago seems to becoming one of the healthiest major cities in the U.S. and in addition to great cycling options, we noticed an influx of famers markets throughout the city – from right downtown on State street to many twice-weekly markets in neighborhoods throughout the city. In fact, there are more than 100 farmers markets in Chicago, according to the Chicago Sun Times.

33. Looking over the frozen Lake Michigan in winter
Despite that California feeling in the summer, man oh man can Chicago get arctic in the Winter. Dani’s first visit to Chicago was during the winter, and we took her out onto the ice on Lake Michigan, which was frozen for many snow-covered feet. She could hardly believe her eyes when we arrived in the summer, and showed her just where she had stood the winter before!

frozen lake michigan in the winter chicagoHave you been to Chicago? What’s your favorite thing about the Windy City? Share in the comments below…

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Going vegan in Chicago

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Our month-long road trip last year was incredibly fun, and also incredibly indulgent. Put simply, we ate like sh*t. Oh, all that Southern food was tasty, but by the time we made it to Chicago, our bodies were screaming for something healthy. Luckily we discovered that in addition to its famous deep-dish pizza and polish sausages, the Windy City has a great selection of vegan restaurants. Normally we are veggies, not entirely vegan, but we tried to fit in as many of these vegan restaurants as possible during our four weeks in town. We sampled old favs like veggie burgers and salads, along with dishes using ingredients like tempeh and seitan, which we hadn’t had much of until then. Here is a round-up of what we loved and what we didn’t at a few of Chicago’s vegan  restaurants.

Note: This is by no means a complete list of vegan restaurants in Chicago and we’ll continue to try more of them every time we’ll visit.

Native Foods Café

We love this place! In fact, the Native Foods Café is the reason why we didn’t make it to more vegan restaurants in Chicago. We kept sneaking back here again and again. Every single dish we tried was delicious, especially the Earth Bowls, which all have brown rice, a selection of veggie and Tanya’s delicious home-made Tempeh. We are seriously addicted to this Tempeh, so not surprisingly it is also the main ingredient of our other favorite dish at Native Foods Cafe – the Scorpion Burger. In our reviews of other vegan hotspots in Chicago below, you’ll see we are not big fans of faux meat, but at Native Foods, we even loved the seitan meatballs on the Meatballs Sub with pesto sauce – absolutely delicious. We don’t love fake (okay, veeeegan) cheese either, but these vegan sweet potato tacos were seriously good.

native foods sweet potato tacos We found out after our first visit to NFC on Belmont Ave that this is actually part of a small chain of vegan restos founded in Palm Springs, California, in 1994 by chef Tanya Petrovna. Until very recently, Tanya operated at a handful of California locations. Chicago was her first city of expansion last year, and those three outlets have been so successful, that there are now plans in the works to roll out several locations nationwide in 2012 (including one in Boulder, Co where will be this summer – we can’t wait to get our NFC fix!).

native foods cafe vegan dishThe menu balances comfort food staples with adventurous options for longer-term vegans. One thing we absolutely loved about Native Foods Cafe is their big sporting event menu. For play-offs and superbowls, they offer a big platter for delivery to your party, filled with veggie burgers and faux meatball subs, plus their un-buh-lieveably yummy french fries that might not be heart-healthy but would easily satisfy even the staunchest steak-lovers.

native foods cafe vegan burger and meatball sub

*Verdict: 10/10
*Address:
1023 W Belmont Ave, (Lakeview); 1484 N Milwaukee Ave (Wicker Park); 218 S Clark St (Loop)
*Opening Times:
Daily 11am – 10pm, Loop: Monday – Friday 10.30am – 8pm, Saturday 10.30am-4pm
*Menu:
Lunch & dinner; salads, soups, burgers, wraps and earth bowls (vegetables, greens, grains and seitan)
*Price range:
Entrees between $8.95 and $9.95, personal pizzas $7.95, sides from $2.95, deserts $2.95

Delicious Café

The Delicious Café is a small neighborhood spot in the Lincoln Square-ish area. The food is a bit ‘meh’, but it really is a quick, cheap and easy way to eat healthy for lunch or breakfast.

delicious cafe vegan grilled cheeseMy genetics control me in a way that I must order a grilled cheese if one is on the menu, so I was basically forced to tried the vegan Grilled Cheese. I liked the baby carrots on the side better than the tasteless faux cheese, but the pumpkin soup and vegan B.L.T. on a whole-wheat bagel were both pretty good. Our bill was under $20 for three of us, including juices, though – not bad at all in this neighborhood.

delicious cafe vegan meat bagelEven though the food is not superb, it is a good place for a quick lunch or even to work during the day, as there is good coffee, free wi-fi and fellow creative types.

*Verdict: 6/10
*Address: 3827 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago (at North Center neighborhood)
*Opening Times: Mon 8am-3pm, Tue-Sat 8am-8pm, Sun 9am-6pm
*Menu: Breakfast & Lunch, Sandwiches and pastries
*Price range: Breakfast items start at $1.50, lunch $5.50, sandwich & soup combo $7.50

delicious cafe chicagoThe Chicago Diner

Our vegan adventure actually started at The Chicago Diner, which is a vegetarian diner but offers plenty of vegan options on the menu. We ate here twice and while we didn’t love the food, the atmosphere is really fun. The restaurant is set right on Halsted in the heart of Boystown, just two blocks from the lake. We would hang out here again, but the food isn’t what would get us back in here as we just don’t enjoy the faux meat items such as the seitan wings with vegan ranch dressing, a BBQ ‘chicken’ salad (with seitan), vegan nachos (where’s the fun in those?!), a vegan meat loaf and a vegan Reuben sandwich.

We would probably try the Bi Bim Bap (a Korean rice dish), the Soul Bowl (Seasoned quinoa, spicy grilled tofu with chimichurri sauce, flashed greens, mashed sweet potatoes & black beans) or the vegan cupcakes, which are rumored to be delish.

*Verdict: 5/10
*Address: 3411 N. Halsted, Chicago
*Opening Times: Mo-Th 11:00-10:00, Fr- 11:00-11:00, Sa 10:00-11:00 , Su 10:00-10:00
*Menu: Breakfast, lunch & dinner, Brunch on the weekends, burgers, salads, sandwiches, soups, desserts & cakes
*Price range: Entrees between $8 and $11.

Karyn’s Cooked

karens vegan meatball burgerKaryn Calabrese is a well-known personality in the holistic health industry (she’s been on Oprah and plenty of other shows) and has three vegan restaurants in Chicago: Karyn’s Raw, Karyn’s Cooked and Karyn’s on the Green (also a holistic beauty center). A big advocate of eating raw, Karen was even named ‘Raw Foodiest of the Year’.

Even though we are big fans of her principles and the raw food philosophy (look at how she looks at 63!),we were dining with friends and went for the ‘safe’ option, choosing Karen’s Cooked over the raw places. Confession: We should have probably opted for her raw restaurant instead.

karens vegan meat loaf

The four of us shared a basket of breaded vegetables (zucchini, tofu and cauliflower) which, as breaded things tend to be, were tasty. Like the other places we tried, the entrees are mostly focused on fake meat items. The vegan meat loaf with broccoli and mashed potatoes was actually very good as was the Buddha Bowl (brown rice with grilled veggies in teriyaki sauce). The meatball sub seemed to be made of the same nut loaf-like ingredients as the meatloaf dish, just without the yummy mashed potatoes, a bit boring. The roast beef sandwich was a total miss, unfortunately. The thin slices looked just like the real thing (which we don’t eat) and tasted like nothing at all (which we don’t like either). karens vegan roast beef sandwichThe dishes were heavy and filling, assuaging a common fear that meat-eaters tend to have about vegan food. For us life-long vegetarians, however, we would have enjoyed more bursts of flavor and risky ingredients over the comfort food. We would like to support Karyn’s work, so next time we are in town, we’ll definitely opt for Karyn’s Raw Cafe instead.

*Verdict: 4/10
*Address:
738 N Wells St, Chicago
*Opening Times:
Sunday-Monday 11.00am- 9.00pm, Tuesday-Wednesday 11:00 am to 9:00 pm, Thursday-Saturday 11am-11:00pm; Saturday Brunch 11.00 am-2.00 pm, Sunday Brunch 11.00 am-3.00 pm
*Menu:
Lunch and dinner, brunch on the weekends
*Price range:
Entrees between $9 and $13, sides between $2 and $4.

For a full listing of vegan restaurants in Chicago, check out Happy Cow.

Have you eaten great vegan food in Chicago? We would love to expand this list, so if you have suggestions for vegan restaurants on our next visit, we would definitely test them out!

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A white lie and a wild ride in the Windy City

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Every single day we are asked where we are from: fellow travelers, bus drivers, restaurant servers. Without hesitation, Dani replies simply, “Germany.”  When I say the United States, however, people want me to be more specific. And so, I answer that I am from Chicago.

But the truth is, I am not from Chicago.

the bean chicago

I am from just outside of the city in one of the many northwest suburbs – from Chicagoland, as we call it. I am from just far enough away to be constantly enamored by this city. In the last two years, we have seen dozens of global cities, hundreds of dusty villages, and everything in between. While I have been home to visit Chicago many times since leaving the U.S. in 2001, on this past visit we were looking at Chicago through the eyes of experienced nomads. From the tops of Chicago’s towers and the tables of some of the city’s trendy and comfort-food-focused restaurants, we had a blast for the four weeks we spent in the city.

However, it was, quite surprisingly, our awesome Segway tour that truly allowed us to see Chicago from its most glamorous angles.

segway tour chicago millennium park
So how did we end up on a Segway tour?

One advantage of being a tourist in your own town is the chance to get personal recommendations from people you actually know and trust, and we didn’t think twice about trying out the frozen yogurt place, the secluded beach, the coffee shop around the corner. My step-dad, a Chi-town local and avid adventure traveler, kept recommending a Segway tour.  It was hard to see ourselves on we considered a clunky machine that put sightseeing in reach for people who are too lazy/overweight/old to walk? Look, it’s not like we are entirely adverse to jumping on tourist bandwagons. After all, we went on a Mediterranean cruise and did a GoCar tour in Lisbon. But us? On Segways?
segway dani &jessIn the end, his soft but persuasive methods won and we were looking up tour companies, choosing City Segway Tours. Although we were initially nervous about our ability to block out judgmental stares about how silly we looked, after our fifteen minute confidence-building training session, we were pumped and ready to ride! Our guide, a native Chicagoan and all of 22 years old, shared loads of interesting Chicago history along the way, as well as keeping us at the right speeds throughout the ride.
chicago lakeshoreAs we quickly learned, the tour is as much about the Segway as it is the city. The machine, a scientific marvel, is a self-balancing, personal transportation device controlled entirely through minuscule motions of the feet; slight leans forward and backward affect the speed, while minimal usage of the ‘handlebars’ allowed us to float along, whiz around, turn on a dime in perfect 360 degree circles.

chicago segway daniThe Segway is not all fun and games, however. Riders have to keep their attention on the machine at all times, as just one momentary attention lapse can mean losing balance and falling off. The injuries could be pretty severe, but that is why our speed is limited to 5mph for the first half of the tour. After an hour, we feel like pros, and our guide bumps up our available speed to 8-9mph – and trust me, that is just as fast as we needed.
chicago wrigley buildingUsing the machine was a blast, but it is the tour aspect of the trip that won us over (and only afterwards, when reviewing the experience on TripAdvisor, we saw that 97% of hundreds of TripAdvisor reviewers all agree that the Chicago City Segway tour is the absolute best way to see the city!)

The tour started started at the City Segway Office, just north of the famous Millennium Park, where we watched an intense safety video that scared the pants off of us (in the name of safety), and outside where we learned to ride. We continued through Grant Park to Buckingham Fountain (which you may recognize from this little TV show) and then over to the Lake Shore, which hugs the coast of Lake Michigan for miles and miles in either direction.
chicago skyline from buckingham fountain
Next it was on to Soldier Field (home of Da Bears) and over to Museum Campus – home Chicago’s impressive Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium. I’ve always said that if someone blindfolded you and set you down facing the waters of Lake Michigan, you would have no way of knowing that this massive body of water was not an ocean. With the impressive lake on one side and the city’s breathtaking skyline on the other, this leg of the tour was one of total enjoyment, pure awe, utter respect, and for this (kind of) Chicago native – swelling pride. It was here, in the back of the Planetarium, where we discovered the most picturesque views of the Chicago skyline I have ever seen. Now ain’t that somethin’?
chicago skyline & lake michiganWith a bit of a buzz, we returned our sleek self-balancing ships back to the office, and noticed all the tours the company runs around the world. We could have already ‘Segwayed’ in Paris, Munich, New Orleans, Washington, DC, San Francisco, Atlanta, Berlin…but we have already been to those places. There is still Vienna and Budapest! Not all cities might work as great as Chicago did for these kinds of tours, but we would definitely do this again.
chicago skyline with willis towerTips for your City Segway Tour in Chicago:
1. Wear good shoes – you are essentially standing in one place for two-three hours (there are a few breaks, of course) so you will want supportive shoes, like gym shoes/trainers.
2. Dress appropriately – riding along the lake front means a strong breeze, but if you do the 10am tour, like we did, the sun will be beating down as well. Night tours will get chilly even in summer, thanks to that good ol’ Chicago ‘lake effect’.  Bring a jacket, wear shades and don’t forget sunscreen. Even in the winter, your nose will burn a bit on a sunny day without it.
3. The Segway has a pouch for 1-2 bottles of water, an iPad and a small camcorder, so it’s tech ready. The office has water bottles for $1.

chicago view from river
We’d like to thank ExploreChicago for providing us with two city passes to enjoy the best views of the city, and City Segway Tours for the great day out. As always, all opinions are our own.

 

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Tops and Flops of 600 days of travel: Days 501 – 600

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We always say that travel ain’t always easy, but it is always exciting. The last 100 days were refreshing, frustrating, active, lazy, a bit embarrassing and entirely gratifying…We went from three weeks in Chicago to a quick stop in Denver and then on to our biggest adventure yet – South East Asia. We traveled through southern Thailand and Northern Laos until finally settling in for the month in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. Read on for our best and worst travel moments in the last 100 days, some serious food porn, and a couple of travel recommendations for Chicago and Laos.

Favorite travel moments

Dani says: Whizzing through Chicago on a Segway
We have seen tourists on Segways in plenty of cities and, we admit, we judged it as being too touristy, not for us and even a little dorky. After five minutes on our Segways from City Segway Tours though, we couldn’t have cared less how we looked – it was so much fun! Our guide spent time teaching us how to use these funny upright machines (which is actually a little tricky but manageable) and then we were off whizzing along Lake Michigan, through Millennium Park, past Buckingham Fountain and Solider Field down to Museum Campus.

segway tour chicagoJess says: Hiking with Tracey and Felix in Colorado
Before heading to Bangkok, we made a stop in Denver, Colorado for a week to visit my best friend Tracey and her fiance Felix.  The weather in Colorado was sunnier and warmer than in Chicago – a marked contrast to the blizzard conditions I experienced last time I was out visiting in early 2010. We took advantage of the weather and took in some of Colorado’s inspiring scenery and went on lots of hikes at Red Rocks, El Dorado Canyon and a long hike near Estes Park – which we followed up with a drink watching the sunset at the nearby Stanley Hotel (where The Shining was filmed!). We can’t wait to be back next June for their wedding!

hiking in coloradoDani says: Learning to cook Thai Food at the beach in Koh Lanta, Thailand
One of our best experience in Thailand so far has been the cooking class we took on Koh Lanta. We signed up for a class at Time for Lime, where our enthusiastic cooking instructor Junie introduced us to the art of Thai cooking in a beautiful setting right at the beach. She taught us about how to cut and prepare the main ingredients, or building blocks, to Thai cuisine, and then we prepared several dishes from Thai Red Curry to Thai fried rice with vegetables. The class was made unforgettable by our great group of seven students, a really high quality cooking facility, and our passionate instructor – plus the fact that our food turned out to taste amazing!

cooking class koh lantaFavorite places

Jess says: Chicago
Alright, alright, this is a bit biased – me being from Chicago and all. Whenever I am home, however, it is just always so apparent what a magnificent city the Windy City truly is. In fact, the more I travel, the more appreciation I have for Chicago. In the past 600 days we’ve been to over 30 major global cities, each with its own great qualities, of course, but Chicago stays right near the top no matter how much of the world I see. We love all the different neighborhoods, the friendly people, and the food! Chicago has such a wealth of international cuisine, and it’s so delicious. You can go to a small El Salvadorian restaurant for authentic Pupusas, or walk ten minutes for an authentic Serbian meal. Between the architecture, the infrastructure and the fact that Chicago is one of America’s greenest big cities – it just isn’t possible for me to leave Chicago off the list of my favorite places we’ve visited in the last 100 days (or ever).

chicago 2011Dani says: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai (population 150,000) is the perfect combination of historic and modern Thailand. Our current ‘home’, we love Chiang Mai for the way it balances new-built apartment complexes, chic restaurants and modern shopping centers with hundreds of remarkable Buddhist temples and traditional night markets bursting with simple, affordable, delicious food. There are two parts to Chiang Mai. There is the sleepy old town center, which is surrounded by a moat and parts of the ancient city walls, and then there is everything outside of the moat – which is a bit faster paced, buzzing, busy city with almost everything you could ever want to eat, drink, buy or do, plus a top university, plenty of great health care options and an international airport, train station and bus stations that will get you wherever you need to go.

chiang mai impressions thailandDani says: Nong Khiew, Laos
Until we arrived in Nong Khiew, neither of us were impressed with Laos. Why were people raving about the beauty of the country, we thought, as we passed through dusty, lackluster towns. From the minute we crossed over the Nam Ou river in Nong Khiew, however, we were sold! Nestled within a mystical mountain range, this sleepy little town sits on either side of the river, mainly a series of small houses and bamboo bungalow huts connected by an impressive road bridge, and dozen of long, wooden boats below. The village is cheap – private riverside bungalows run between $7.50-$12.00 per night, there are plenty of restaurants with Lao, Thai, Indian, French, Italian, even German, cuisine and our first experience in an invigorating herbal steam room. Had we not already put a deposit down on our Chiang Mai apartment, we could possibly be writing this post from Nong Khiew right now….

nong khiew impressionsMost disappointing places

Jess says: The islands in the Andaman Sea, Thailand
We admit that we might well be spoiled by having spent so much time in the Caribbean last year, but I don’t think it is possible to have been more disappointed by the islands in the Andaman Sea. Whenever we had heard about or seen pictures of the Andaman Sea, it was long, deserted white-sand beaches lined with palm trees. We were practically chomping at the bit to get out there, and Dani even booked me a surprise birthday week-long vacation getaway at a resort on Koh Lanta. We loved the resort, the island itself was alright, but the beaches were far from stellar. Ko Phi Phi was even worse. This tiny, over-developed island is under-equipped to manage the deluge of unappreciative drunken tourists that frequent it. Most of the beaches are tiny, there is garbage floating in the water, and even basic, budget backpacker digs are far overpriced. Yuck.

Then it was on to Phuket, the largest of the Thai islands in the Andaman and by far the worst. We stayed on Patong Beach – which is lined with rows of deck chairs just like Europe in high summer and dead fish floated on the water near the shore, which had a stinky is-this-from-the-sewer smell to it. None of this was as disturbing as the droves of old, wrinkly Western men mounted on bar stools while way-too-young Thai girls mounted them. If I never witness sex tourism again it will be too soon. Double Yuck. We are still hoping that we love some of the other Thai islands, like  Ko Lipe further south or Ko Chang in the Gulf of Thailand.

phuket & phi phiDani says: Muang Sing and Luang Nam Tha, Laos
As mentioned above, we didn’t warm up with Laos until we got to Nong Khiew, and this was due, in part, to these two towns. They are not particularly ugly or unsafe or anything like that – they are just unremarkable, with little to impress visitors. We first went to Luang Nam Tha, a town that sits directly on the Laos tourist trail – we couldn’t figure out why. Then we tried to go a bit more local, and drove two hours further up to Muang Sing, a little town just 2 miles from the Chinese border. Although it was interesting to see how strong the Chinese influence was (Chinese supermarkets, Chinese food, mostly Chinese immigrants), Muang Sing also left us with a ‘meh’ feeling.

Best Food Moments

Dani says: Native Foods Cafe, Chicago
After sustaining a terrible diet during our summer road trip, while we were in Chicago we decided to try as many of the vegan restaurants in town as possible. Jess often toys with the idea of going vegan, and this was a great chance to test whether vegan food would satisfy us. Some places were good, some were boring – and then we discovered the Native Foods Cafe. The vegan restaurant is actually a chain from California with three branches in Chicago (and one in Portland). We could have eaten here every.single.day. The dishes are creative, heaping with fresh organic vegetables, and for the quality of the food, it is not too expensive.

native foods cafe vegan burgerJess says: Breakfasts at Mekhara in Nong Khiew, Laos
Obviously located in our favorite little Lao town, the Mekhara Restaurant quickly became our go-to breakfast spot. We could not get enough of all the sticky rice dishes they served, especially the Lao warm bread – this is a sticky rice patty, dipped in egg and cooked on the stove which you then break up and dip into this homemade chili paste. Knowing I was going to order this breakfast literally got me out of bed in the morning!

Dani says: The vegetarian restaurants in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Like we said – one of the things we love about Chiang Mai is the availability of good food, and the many vegetarian restaurants in town. There must be at least 20 vegetarian restaurants in a city of 150,000 and countless other vegetarian-friendly spots to eat at as well. We appreciate it so much that we are able to order a Thai curry and be 100% certain that it does not contain any meat, fish, or fish sauce. The other great thing about veggie restaurants is that we are able to try out the many traditional dishes of Thailand – in meat free form. For example, one of our favorites is the Khow Suey noodle soup – a traditional northern Thai dish that always comes with meat chunks and a beef/chicken broth. We still have a bit of time left here in Chiang Mai and will be testing out as many places as we can – but so far our favorite are the Dada Kafe, Beetroot Stories, Pun Pun and AUM.

veggie heaven chiang maiTravel recommendations

Jess says: Get out of ‘The Loop’ in Chicago
If you visit Chicago, the most obvious place to start is The Loop. This area of the city is the cultural, architectural and financial heart of the city. The Willis Tower is located here, as is the Chicago Board of Trade. You’ll find the Chicago Theatre, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Lyric Opera house, the Goodman Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet and the stretch of lakefront in The Loop includes the Grant Park area – host of the glorious Taste Of Chicago fest each year as well as Millennium Park, which features Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture, known to Chicagoans as The Bean.

But get on a bike (Chicago is one of America’s best cycling cities) and get out and visit cities north of The Loop – ride along the lake shore and visit Lincoln Park Zoo (it’s free) and the Lincoln Park neighborhood, ride up to Lakeview, on to Boystown. Or jump on the El to get out to the very German area of Lincoln Square and Swedish Andersonville , or head west to Bucktown to spot the hipsters in action. Going even further – visit Evanston, just north of Chicago and right on Lake Michigan. The beaches here are less crowded and you’ll see some of the finest homes in the Midwest if you continue driving north from there.

chicago neighborhoodsDani says – Bring lots of Dramamine to Laos
Somebody had mentioned to us that the bus rides in Laos weren’t very pleasant before we went – but we had no idea just how bad the roads really were until we experienced them ourselves. The country is so mountainous, and there are no major bridges. Instead, narrow roads wind up and down the sides of mountains, sometimes without offering the opportunity to drive straight for more than one minute. The rides are long, the buses are not great, and a 400km (250 mile) trip can easily take 12 hours. Even locals spend much of their time with their face in a sick bag – so make sure to pack a lot of Dramamine for your journey. You might also want an iPod to block out the sounds of nausea around you and some toilet paper for the random, on-the-side-of-the-street rest stops throughout your trip.

Worst travel moments

Jess says: Bangkok flight cancellation through Orbitz
We found a great deal from Denver to Bangkok through Orbitz and booked it months in advance of our trip. The amount of money we saved made us giddy and proud. And then just a few weeks before our departure date, Orbitz emails that they have rescheduled our flight itinerary as Air China had re-jigged a few flight schedules. Looking at the new itinerary they issued, however, we realize we would not have enough time to change planes in Beijing. The only option given by Orbitz was for them to issue a refund. But we could never have found a fair price so near to our departure date. Back and forth between Air China and Orbitz, neither will take responsibility. I spend countless hours on the phone with both and in the end, we managed to re-book for two days later at no additional charge. We buy tickets according to price, first and foremost, and for that we are very pro third-party deal sites. However, in this case it would have been much easier had we booked directly with the airline.

air china flight to bangkok
Flying AirChina - hopefully never again.

Dani says: Almost getting robbed on the night bus from Bangkok to Krabi
After a scam in Bangkok that involved a good chunk of change and tickets for a bus down to Krabi that never showed up, another bus drove by on its way to Krabi and we were lucky enough to be able to hop on for the overnight ride. At first we were incredibly happy about this, until the entire bus was woken up in the middle of night. A fellow passenger had caught one of the bus employees trying to steal his bag. Chatter and yelling went back and forth, of course the bus helpers denied everything, but no one could sleep at all after that – instead clutching our bags and waiting for the 12 hour ride to finish. Lesson learned: do not book a cheap bus at one of the travel agencies around Khao San Road. This kind of robbery is apparently very common on these foreigner buses, with people waking up after night rides with valuables missing. Book a public bus (they’re much nicer anyway) and travel with the Thais.

Travel mishaps

Jess says: Not reading up on scams in Bangkok before arrival
Anyone who has traveled with us knows that we are usually very organized and well-informed with our travel. We research destinations, know local taxi and bus prices, book rooms and transport in advance where we should and leave it to chance where it’s been advised. After all that time in the States with a car, we got soft, a bit lazy, and we didn’t prepare like we usually do. Once we got to Bangkok, we were jet-lagged and our bodies were stunned by the humid heat. Plus, on our first morning in Bangkok we were so excited that we ran right out and got exploring, instead of reading up on anything. Had we only read the chapter on ‘Dangers & Annoyances’ in our Lonely Planet or the Bangkok article in Wikitravel.org, we would have known that all of those people who approached us were part of a chain of events that allowed this scam to happen. But we didn’t and so we were sitting ducks. We promise to reveal the whole story soon…we’re still working through the embarrassment of going through our worst travel mishap to date 18 months in to our travels…

bangkok tuktuks
The Tuk-Tuk Scam: Only one of many scams in Bangkok

If you enjoyed this, check out more of our Tops and Flops:

Our Tops and Flops of 500 days of travel: Portugal, Canada, USA
Our Tops and Flops of 400 days of travel: Panama, Germany, Italy, Spain
Our Tops and Flops of 300 days of travel: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica
Our Tops and Flops of 200 days of travel: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador
Our Tops and Flops of 100 days of travel: Las Vegas, California, Arizona, Mexico

 

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600 days of travel: Reflections on the last 100 days

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Six hundred days…if 600 days ago someone would have said that not only would we still be on the road, but that we would be doing everything in our power to maintain this for at least another 600, it would have been a hard sell to convince us.

While these past 100 days have flung us into an entirely different world yet again, we somehow feel more well-rested than we did in our 500 Days Reflections thanks to a relatively quick and essentially effortless adaptation to South East Asian living. The last one hundred days could have not been more filled with contrasts, as we went from enjoying the creature comforts of Chicago to the sweltering heat of Thailand.

600 days travel mapWorlds apart: Chicago to Bangkok

We were exhausted when we finally pulled in to Chicago after 34 days straight on the road through Canada and the U.S. this summer, but there was no resting – we arrived just in time for Jessica’s birthday – the first she had celebrated at home in Chicago since 2000! Our amazing friend Megan threw the perfect birthday bash. From there we did loads of sightseeing, got through loads of work and spent quality time with friends and family. It felt great to be home for Jessica’s Dad’s 60th birthday – a major milestone indeed.

Chicago skyline from buckingham fountainFrom Chicago we stopped for a week in Denver, Colorado, to visit Jessica’s sister from another mother Tracey and her Cuban fiancé Felix before boarding our longest long-haul flight to date – Air China from Denver to Bangkok via San Francisco and Beijing.

Bangkok could not be more different to Chicago. It wasn’t only was the change in climate (roughly 40 degrees warmer over here) that shocked our systems – everything from the food (no cheese, no bread, Thai food day and night!) to the people and the language (Thai – which with its five tones and entirely unfamiliar script is more challenging to learn than training for a marathon) were worlds away from Chicago.

view over bangkok & templeIt turns out that the food could not have been a more welcome change. After months of stuffing too much American food down our ever-unhealthier bellies, the freshly-prepared, nutrient-dense Thai food was good for our bellies and our wallets – for $2-$4 a meal (in a restaurant)! After just a few days, we also became surprisingly accustomed to having monks around every corner. Monks on bikes, monks on their cell phones, monks at the temples, ceremonies involving monks – even making small talk on public transport with monks. It’s hard to imagine a life without them now!

The weather took a bit longer to get used to. We knew it would be hot, but suddenly it was as if we were stuck in a sauna day and night. There is a solution to this – and it is called the mall. Bangkok’s famous MBK Mall is an incredible structure where, short of livestock or airplanes, you can buy just about everything in the world. However, as we quickly learned, a mall in South East Asia is not simply a temple for capitalist worship as it has become in the United States. The mall is a true lifesaver in the fight against the unrelenting heat and humidity of its immediate environs.

mbk bangkokA tough start in Asia…

Truth be told, however, our Asian adventure got off to a rocky start.  We were scammed in Bangkok. Big time. Look for more in a separate post coming soon, but it took weeks for us to get over this slimy, sneaky scammy scheme and we were particularly bitter that it happened in a country known to everyone else as the friendly Land of Smiles. We felt tricked and cheated when we then arrived to the island of Koh Lanta, and just as we recovered from that incident, Dani went head first into a ditch within the first ten seconds of our first motorbike rental.

We planned to do most of South East Asia on a motorbike, so that was discouraging to say the least. Despite that set back, we enjoyed our week on Koh Lanta (and our wonderful little holiday getaway there) but were then terribly, utterly incomparably disappointed with the other islands we visited in the Andaman Sea before flying into Chiang Mai.

dani & jess at doi suthep temple chiang maiGetting our mojo back in Chiang Mai

This northern Thai city is certainly no hidden gem – in fact its smack dab on the tourist map – and we couldn’t care less about that. Chiang Mai is possibly the easiest, most comfortable city to settle down in for a while – and there is no question why so many digital nomads just like us make this city the place where they spend extended periods of time.

In fact, in the city has everything we needed to give us our travel mojo back: every kind of Western and Thai food (including the best Tex-Mex we’ve had outside of America), countless coffee shops, 80 degree sunny days and cool, comfortable evenings and excellent company. We met up with dozens of fellow nomads and bloggers and got started on some bigger projects we’ve been meaning to create for a while now. Our 30-day tourist visas were nearing expiry, but instead of simply moving on to Laos, we decided that we would visit Laos, pick up a longer Thai visa, and head back to Chiang Mai for a month. The day before leaving on our three-week tour of Laos, we booked a nice apartment in a modern building within walking distance of everything in the Old City for $320 a month. Sweet!

chiang mai - impressions 2011Becoming backpackers again in Rural Laos

Ah, Laos…We love it now, but it took a while to warm up to Laos. The first few stops were truly unremarkable, but it seems that we may have sort of snuck in to the back door of the country. That is, until we arrived to Nong Khiew.

This sleepy river town easily became one favorite place in Laos and one of our favorites of all time. We hiked, we cycled, we slept, we ate and we even stayed an extra day. From there we visited a dreamy little place we don’t even want to tell you about (because we love it so much and want to keep it that way), made obligatory stops in larger cities like Luang Prabang and Phonsavan and went through the bizarre loop-hole laden Thai visa process in Vientiane.

impressions of laos 2011Life is good

As much as we have grown to love a bit of stability in this nomadic life, getting our backpacks back on and settling in to weeks of heavy travel re-introduced all those feelings of excitement, exploration, and learning about other cultures that we so loved during our time in Central America last year. The rural villages of Laos were a huge change to well-developed Thailand and we had the opportunity to get to know many people whose lives are so much simpler than what we know from back home.

While we try not to be naive, and not to simplify this too much, we honestly do find that many of these people are much more content and way more friendly than people back home.

Overall, there is less stress (no one in Laos is worried about their credit score or making it to the post office before it closes) and families spend much more time together. From the smallest villages to the capital of Vientiane, families still gather around an outdoor stove or fire where white and sticky rice cook, and around it they eat together as a family each afternoon and evening. While on the one hand we have a huge appreciation for the advantages we have had and the fact that we get to travel and do what we do, we are equally mindful that a simple life is may just be the best kind overall (but with Macbook Airs, iPhones and coffee).

rural laos 2011In a short span of six weeks, we covered nearly 4000 miles (6320km) in Thailand and Laos, so after moving around quite a lot again, we are happier than ever to be enjoying Chiang Mai and celebrating the holidays with like-minded folks – after a lonely Christmas and unspectacular New Year’s in Honduras last year.

What’s next?

We had originally planned to explore Vietnam and Cambodia after our stint in Thailand, but as they have a habit of doing – our plans have again changed unexpectedly. This almost always has to do with a housesitting gig – and this time is no different. We will be watching an apartment and its resident cuddly cat in Kuala Lumpur in January. So we are headed to Malayasia for that and to finally get some quality beach time in again before spending time in Singapore and Indonesia. And then, we guess Vietnam and Cambodia – but as always our plans are ever-evolving…

No matter where we end up – we’re excited to see more of South East Asia and if you have been to Kuala Lumpur, let us know your tips in the comments below.

globetrottergirls 600 days thailand laos
Stay tuned for our Tops and Flops of 600 days of travel…

Looking back:

Reflections of 100 days of travel
Reflections of 200 days of travel

Reflections of 300 days of travel

Reflections of 400 days of travel

Reflections of 500 days of travel

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Polaroid of the week: The ‘L’ in Chicago, Illinois

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.polaroid of the week usa chicago L train

15 meters above ground, Chicago’s ‘L’, or elevated metro, winds above and along the city streets. The eight L lines fan out from the famous downtown loop, in much the same way as when it was built in 1892. Used by 750,000 commuters daily, the L has been voted one of the 7 wonders of Chicago by Chicagoans, who have fought to keep the system standing despite multiple attempts of being torn down due to safety issues (including an accident in 1970s which saw a train fall over and off the tracks!).  Although Chicago’s L trains lumber along steel tracks laid on wooden planks at near-turtle speed, these iconic trains weaving through modern skyscrapers create an atmosphere that is unmistakeably Chicago.

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