Things to do in Chicago

I had heard Chicago was a city for foodies and art lovers, but I did not expect to also find amazing architecture, charming neighbourhoods and interesting history here. It was brilliant spending four days in the ‘Windy City’ last week, exploring with the Choose Chicago tourist board and discovering the diverse and varied range of activities on offer. Wrapped up warm we ventured out on a river boat tour, ate our way round Chinatown and visited a classic blues bar for legendary late night music. Here are a few of my must-do favourites from the trip… though there is plenty more I’d like to go back for!

Chicago

To Stay

Chicago Athletic Association – This centrally located, historic hotel had years of restoration before its reopening in 2015. There are 241 luxury bedrooms along with a host of great facilities. Don’t miss Milk Room, a hidden eight-seat microbar with a carefully crafted cocktail menu made with only the rarest vintage spirits.

Chicago

To Eat

Lost Larson – Andersonville, a neighbourhood on Chicago’s north side, is known for its Swedish roots. Lost Larson draws on this heritage, a charming Swedish bakery and cafe with the best Cardamon buns in town.

Big Star – This lively Wicker Park hangout is the place to go in Chicago if you have a Mexican food craving. With tasty tacos and great margaritas, you will never fail to have a good time at Big Star.

Little Goat Diner – The ‘Goat’ eateries are top of every foodies ‘to try’ list. There are three venues to choose from, all in the Fulton Market district. Each has a slightly different menu but all have the same mission; to present bold vibrant flavours. I tried Little Goat Diner, a favourite for brunch and loved the quirky dish ‘Little Piggy went to China’ (sesame cheddar biscuit with sunny side eggs, sichuan pork sausage and chilli garlic chive sauce).

Doughnut Vault – If the quaint exterior doesn’t convince you in to Doughnut Vault the scent of sugary goodness will. The tiny bakery has limited stock of their freshly made donuts each day, and they close up when they’ve all sold out. Try the Buttermilk Old Fashioned.

Lao Sze Chuan – This beloved Chinese restaurant serves up irresistible Szechuan cuisine. Found in the centre of new Chinatown, the service is attentive and the prices reasonable. Order the Dry Chilli Chicken and the Garlic Eggplant.

Longman and Eagle – A brunch institution, Longman and Eagle is a hipster spot in Logan Square. The kitchen is known for its farm to table fare… opt for the waffles and fried chicken.

Stan’s Donuts – Stan’s Donuts has long been a favourite for donuts in its LA and California branches. The 50 year old donut company now have several branches in Chicago offering an endless range of donuts, in every flavour imaginable. There are vegan and gluten-free options too.

Dove’s Luncheonette – This easy-going Wicker Park diner is a great weekend brunch option. The interiors are classic and nostalgic and the menu is filled with American comfort food. Sit at the bar and soak up the atmosphere.

Lou Malnati’s – Chicago is known for its Deep Dish Pizza. There is lively debate about the ‘best’ establishment, but Lou Malnati’s features on every must try list. The high-edged pastry leaves plenty of space for layers of cheese, tomato sauce and toppings of choice. Filling, gooey and dangerously delicious.

Bang Bang Pie – For the ultimate afternoon treat head to Bang Bang Pie, where the wholesome pies and savoury dishes satisfy every appetite. The interiors are rustic chic and the service is among the friendliest in Chicago. Try a slice of the Key-Lime Pie or the Autumnal pumpkin pie.

Chicago

To Drink

Sawada – This is the first U.S. coffee shop from world renowned barista and latte art expert Hiroshi Sawada. The coffee is delicious and poured to perfection. Stop by the Fulton Market cafe for a donut and drink… Sawada are known for their matcha drinks, mixed with chocolate and coffee.

CC Ferns – A quaint coffee house in Humboldt Park. The vintage interiors make CC Ferns perfect for a cosy afternoon drink, and the venue is always filled with hipster locals. The cafe offers Doughnut Vault donuts and housemade croissants to accompany your coffee.

Intelligentsia Coffee – There are lots of branches of this failsafe speciality coffee brand in Chicago. The coffee is smooth and delicious, and it’s one of the only independent cafe options in Downtown Chicago… the perfect caffeine-kick to go while you go sightseeing.

Cindy’s Rooftop – The rooftop bar at the top of the Chicago Athletic Association, Cindy’s has a menu of great cocktails and the best panoramic views.

Four Letter Word – Heisner, Ria Neri, and Eylem Ozkaya opened their first coffee shop & roastery in Istanbul serving Turkish-style coffee and single-origin coffees from Central & South America. They have recently opened a second cafe in Logan Square in Chicago and serve some of the best coffee in town. (Opposite the brilliant neighbourhood restaurant, Cellar Door Provisions).

Lost Lake – A tropical tiki bar in Logan Square, Lost Lake is recognised as one of the best cocktail bars in Chicago. The menu pays homage to 80 years of exotic cocktail history, order a bourbon based ‘Hazy Lazy, Like, Kinda Crazy’.

Chicago

To Do

The Art Institute of Chicago – The Art Institute of Chicago, located in Grant Park, was founded in 1879 and is regarded as one of the finest art collections in the world. Wander round the many galleries exhibiting old masters and modern works while looking out for paintings by important artists such as Georges Seurat, Edward Hopper and Grant Wood.

Shoreline Sightseeing Architecture River Tour – Chicago is known for its architecture around the world. This 75-minute boat tour is a great way to see 40 city landmarks, while listening to the expert guide explain the engineering and history behind some of the most prominent skyscrapers.

Buddy Guy’s Legends – This classic blues bar is famous in Chicago for its brilliant band line-up. Head to Buddy’s for the best blues music in town and New Orleans inspired grub.

Skydeck – Head up to the 103rd floor of the Skydeck to see incredible views of the whole city, 1,353 feet below. The building is the highest in the Western Hemisphere, if you are brave enough stand in the overhanging glass boxes for an even more immersive experience.

Chinatown tour – The Chicago Food Planet tours are fun and informative. We enjoyed a 3-hour tour of old and new Chinatown, with 5 tasting stops while also learning about the history of the area. For a more general neighbourhood tour I highly recommend ‘Chicago Greeter’, free tours run by enthusiastic volunteers.

Chicago

To Shop

Martha May Art Supplies & Beautiful Things – This little pink shop is found in the charming neighbourhood of Andersonville in the north of the Chicago. Named after owner Jean Cate’s pet dog Martha, this shop is carefully curated with lovely stationery, specialist art supplies and beautiful objects.

Bari Zaki – Bari Zaki is a wondrous emporium of wonderful stationery and creatively bound books. The shop also hosts bookbinding workshops for those keen to learn the skill.

Norcross & Scott – This lovely furniture and design store is found in Andersonville. The selective collection includes accessories from Tom Dixon, Bend Goods and Norcross & Scott’s own range.

Koval – Established in 2008, Koval is Chicago’s first distillery since the mid-1800s. All the Koval organic craft spirits are made from scratch, and the company is particularly well known for their whiskeys, though they also make vodka, gin and liqueurs. The simple packaging is very stylish, making a bottle of Koval a great gift to take home.

I visited Chicago as a guest of Choose Chicago, more information on the destination here.

Things to do in Mexico City

Mexico City is vibrant in every sense of the word. You can find colour, art, food and culture in rich abundance in every neighborhood, and there is an infectious sense of fun. We spent an action-packed few days museum hopping, admiring giant murals and sampling the unique cuisine, from street stalls to fine dining restaurants. Despite its reputation, we found the city safe and the people friendly, and it is easy to explore on foot or by the efficient taxi/uber system which is conveniently cheap. If you have more time, travel outside of the city where there are plenty of ancient wonders to discover and explore.

Mexico City

To Stay

Nima Local House – This charming boutique hotel is located in the buzzy Roma district. There are just 4 bedrooms, each decorated in a luxurious and eclectic way, with modern amenities and thoughtful touches. The stylish communal spaces are a quiet and calm place to relax if you need a break from sightseeing.

Airbnb art deco flat – If you are looking for something more thifty, there are plenty of beautiful Airbnb flats in Mexico City to suit every budget. We loved our art deco flat in the Santa Maria la Ribera district.

Mexico City

To Eat

Pujol – Often named as Mexico’s best restaurant, chef Enrique Olvera’s Pujol reopened at a spacious new venue in 2017. This dynamic fine-dining restaurant offers a magical insight into the country’s best loved flavours and dishes. Guests enjoy a seasonal tasting menu that includes speciality signatures like the ‘Mole Madre’ which has been aged for over 1,000 days. Earlier this year Olvera opened Molino el Pujol, a small taco shop which gives people the chance to try his inspired cuisine without the high pricetag.

El Moro – Churros is a popular snack that is eaten at any time of the day in Mexico. El Moro is a churros institution in Mexico City, the pretty tiled venue sells super light and sugary churros which is paired with chocolate, Dulce de leche or condensed milk dips.

Contramar –  Contramar is the place to go in Mexico City for super fresh and creative seafood by Gabriela Cámara. Expect to wait in line before getting a seat in the stylish marine eatery. Order the raw tuna tostadas washed down with a beer in a salt rimmed glass.

Taqueria los Cocuyos – Often voted as the best tacos in Mexico City, this street stall is unmissable if you are on a quest to try the finest street food on offer. Wait in line and order several of the 50p beef brisket (Suadero) tacos. Taqueria los Cocuyos also do tongue, eye, tripe and cactus. All the fillings are cooked together in a big pot, so the flavour is wonderfully intense.

Lardo – This Condesa restaurant is very popular with both locals and tourists. The menu focusses on Mediterranean small plates, highlights of our lunch were Burata and Nduja Pizza, Zucchini Flowers, and Toasted Lardo bread with capers.

Neveria Roxy – This iconic retro ice-cream venue has several parlours in Mexico City. The first Neveria Roxy opened in the Condesa district in 1946, with a mission to introduce artisan ice-cream to Mexico City. Don’t miss the two most traditional Mexican flavours ‘Mamey’ and ‘Chico Zapote’, both delicious, unusual and refreshing in the summer heat.

Lalo – Everyone seemed to recommend this quirky brunch spot to us. The eatery is named after the wife of owner and acclaimed chef Eduardo Garcia, and the walls are decorated with colourful drawings by Belgian graffiti artist Bue the Warrior. Visit early for a comforting breakfast of Chilaquiles con huevos and Huevos con Chorizo.

Rosetta – This refined restaurant opened in 2010, housed in a spectacular, foliage-filled townhouse in Roma. Rosetta is renowned for its relaxed Italian by Chef Elena Reygadas. We enjoyed flavoursome homemade pasta dishes, matched with special wines. Skip dessert, and head next door to Helados Cometa for their sensational green tea & raspberry ice-cream.

Panaderia Rosetta – The sister venue of Rosetta restaurant, this bakery is without a doubt the best place to buy pastries in Mexico City. We stocked up on croissants and guava & ricotta rolls from Panaderia Rosetta before embarking on a 6 hour coach journey to Oaxaca.

Mexico City

To Drink

Macchiato at Forte – This hip and relaxed little café serves a range of snacks along with great coffee and tea. The industrial minimalist décor is understated and chic, it is a lovely place to relax after a morning of sightseeing.

Buna 42 – This cute coffee shop in the Condesa neighbourhood serves delicious speciality coffee and appetising brunch dishes. Buna roast their own beans and use a high tech Modbar espresso machine.

Tierra Garat – If you are craving hot chocolate in Mexico City there is one place you need to know about. The Tierra Garat café space aims to be authentically Mexican and the team are obsessive about finding the best quality product. The hot chocolate is thick and indulgent, but for something more refreshing they also make sodas in house.

Licoreria Limantour – Licoreria Limantour has won the title of Latin America’s Best Bar three years in a row, thanks to it’s innovative craft cocktail list. The two-storey art-deco inspired space feels international and exciting. We ordered a couple of drinks -– the Margarita al Pastor and the Mezcal Stalk – which were both tasty and unusual.

Cafe Avellaneda – Most people visit the Coyoacan area to visit Frida Kahlo’s blue house and learn about her legacy, but this charming part of town is also home to many coffee pioneers. Café Avellaneda is tiny, with a quaint facade and only a few seats inside. They roast their own Mexican beans and make wonderfully velvety and intense coffee. The master baristas will pour your coffee however you like it, ensuring you get the perfect caffeine kick. Nearby coffee shops Cafe Negro and Cafe El Jarocho are also worth visiting.

Blom Cafe – This hip coffee shop was one of my favourites in Mexico City. The artistic space serves aromatic and flavoursome coffee and small bites, I loved the avocado & pistachio biscuits. Peek into the bathroom to see the creative mural.

Mexico City

To Do

Casa Estudio Luis Barragan – This former residence of renowned Mexican architect Luis Barragan is a feat of modern architecture, recognised by UNESCO World Heritage for its significant use of colour, light, shadow, form and texture. Book 2 months in advance to avoid disappointment, tickets cost £15 pp plus an extra £20 if you want a photography pass.

Museo Tamayo – An inspiring contemporary art museum located in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park. The museum showcases painter Rufino Tamayo’s own work along with his personal innovative international collection, housed in a magnificent brutalist building.

Cooking class – If you want an insight into Mexican cuisine I highly recommend booking onto this brilliant class with chef Raja. The knowledgeable and friendly chef and his wife offer a fun hands-on class. You will visit the local market to pick up ingredients before returning to their home to make your own Tacos al Pastor.

Frida Kahlo Museum – The vibrant blue house (Casa Azul) where renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo lived is now Mexico City’s most visited museum. Marvel at Frida and husband Diego’s beautiful and unusual possessions and get an intimate insight into their life together. There is also a collection of Frida’s artwork on show as well as a wardrobe of her elaborate dresses and corsets. (Book your ticket in advance to skip the queues). For a further insight into the lives of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera visit the Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, to see their studios.

Lucha Libre – Get an introduction to Mexican wrestling at a Lucha Libre show. These are usually held at the Arena Mexico and tickets cost between £2-20 each. Choose a character to support and join in with the chanting and cheering crowd.

Secretary of Public Education – The grand Secretary of Public Education is home to many fantastic Diego Rivera frescoes. It is free to enter, just show your passport or driving licence to gain access.

Mexico City

To Shop

Lordag & Sondag – Visit the Lordag & Sondag workshop/studio to discover some of the most design-conscious bags and accessories in Mexico. With amazing view of Palacio de Bellas Artes, this hidden gem of a studio is home to a creative team who will guide you round the beautiful array of desirable items. We particularly liked the signature felt canvas backpack.

Que Bo! – Que Bo was started by the young Mexican chef Jose Ramon Castillo. He trained in France before returning to Mexico City to open this chocolate emporium. The artisan chocolates are striking and flavoured with unique and special ingredients like passion fruit and cardamom.

Xinu Perfumes – I instantly fell in love with Xinu Perfumes’ shop and story. This high-end niche perfume brand has made four powerful and particular fragrances inspired by key Mexican ingredients like Mezcal and vanilla. The discreet shop is a magical museum and the bottles of perfume are works of art.

Balmoria – This local Mexican skincare brand is found in many of Mexico City’s best hotels and restaurants. Balmoria products are attractively packaged, nourishing for the skin and filled with delicious ingredients… I couldn’t resist buying a couple of products to make my flat in London smell of Mexico.

IKAL Concept Store – This concept store is located in the smart Polanco part of town. The shop floor has a clean and ordered aesthetic featuring a range of Mexico’s most inspiring and interesting local designers. I loved the collection of Yakampot clothing, particularly the ornate cotton crop tops.

Mexico City

To Escape

Pyramid of the Sun – This incredible cultural site is just an hour outside of Mexico City and makes for a great day trip. The Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan were built in about 200 CE by the Aztecs, an important site within the within the Teotihuacan society. Although none of the paintings remain today, visitors can climb the pyramids that offer panoramic views of the beautiful surrounding area. Either book onto a tour or take a taxi to explore solo, which we found easy and unrestrictive.

Frida Kahlo, Making Her Self Up

A few weeks ago I was lucky to visit the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City. Here I discovered the world of Frida and Diego, their home, their collections of art and trinkets, and the incredible artwork they both produced.

Frida Kahlo

It was timely that on the same day I queued outside the vibrant blue La Casa Azul I received an invite to the new London exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up. In this show the V&A focusses on Frida’s personal life, displaying previously unseen photographs, her colourful dresses & shawls and a few artworks. Until 2004 Frida Kahlo’s personal belongings were locked away behind her bathroom door, concealed from the world, this is their first outing outside of Mexico.

Frida KahloFrida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo, died aged 47 in 1954. She lived a courageous and passionate live… she survived a bout of Polio as a child and then, when she was 18, was left disabled after a bad bus crash. In this tightly packed exhibition visitors can observe the corsets and body casts, prosthetic leg and medication that was so much part of her every day life. It is a strangely intimate examination of the private struggle with pain and disability that she endured on a daily basis. In the final room her extensive dress collection is on display… here we see the traditional costumes she used to distract away from her ailments. They are iconic and stylish, a presentation of maximalism, which happens to be very current and on trend.

Frida Kahlo

Aside from the relics and artefacts there are a few special paintings and photographs to admire. Bizarrely Frida’s bold paintings seem to be a bit of an afterthought in this exhibition, hung on the wall behind the memorabilia in cabinets, which takes centre stage. After the accident Frida turned to painting to save her from her agony, and creating art was something she continued to relish throughout her short life. Some paintings stick in your mind long after leaving the V&A, I kept remembering ‘Self Portrait as a Tehuana’; a solemn painting where Frida has painted her face encased in a flower-like headdress. There are also some beautiful photographs on display, which offer an insight into she admiration she felt for her photographer father and the adoration of Diego Riviera, her unfaithful husband.

Frida Kahlo

Frida fanatics will delight in this colourful and characterful exhibition, but art fans may feel cheated to not see more of Frida Kahlo’s amazing artistic brilliance.

Continues until Sunday 4 November, book tickets here.