MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

City weekends

Globe-trotting in Chicago

From Chinatown to Andersonville, these colorful neighborhoods are a window into other worlds.

One Memorial Day weekend, my friend Grace and I went to tour "ethnic'' Chicago. But we'd only been there a few hours before we realized everything about Chicago is ethnic.

Chicago is a mosaic, a city of neighborhoods settled by waves of immigrants who arrived to dig its waterways, build its railroads and work in its slaughterhouses.

One of its first neighborhoods was Bridgeport, settled by Irish canal workers in the 1840s and the stronghold of Mayor Richard J. Daley and his son Richard M. Daley, the current mayor.

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Madison for all ages

Famous for collegians, Wisconsin's capital also fascinates children.

If it wasn't for the climate, Peter Pan would feel right at home in Madison, Wis.

It's the NeverNeverland of the Midwest, a town whose zany exuberance is appreciated by everyone but Republicans, whose outnumbered governor once called it "57 square miles surrounded by reality.''

Inhabited largely by college students whose political zealotry is matched only by their zeal for a party, downtown Madison is a place where it's easy to get in touch with your inner child.

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Summer in Madison

In warm months, head for the brewpubs, bicycle trails and lakes of this exuberant college town.

In summer, it's hard to know what to do first in beer- and bicycle-loving Madison.

Bike along Lake Monona, or on the Capital City State Trail? Have a beer and listen to blues on the lakeside terrace of the Memorial Union, or sit in the Bier Garten of Capital Brewery?

In summer, this college town is in its element. Its Great Taste of the Midwest in August is the largest beer festival in Wisconsin and the second-longest running craft-beer festival in North America.

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On the river in Minneapolis

The energy first created by a waterfall has returned to this Mill City entertainment district.

The Falls of St. Anthony wasn't a very tall waterfall.

But it was broad and thundering, and the only major drop on the Mississippi.

More importantly, it got good PR from two best-selling travel guides, Father Louis Hennepin's 1683 "Description de la Louisiane'' and Jonathan Carver's 1778 "Travels through the Interior Parts of North-America,'' both of which exaggerated its height.

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Rah Rah Rochester

The quiet medical giant may be sterile, but it's also engaging.

In Rochester, a tourist from the Twin Cities is a novelty.

Tourists from anywhere are a novelty, though patients and medical professionals come from around the world.

"This week, I had customers from Guatemala, Panama and India in just a few hours," said Kathy Barnes, a fourth-grade teacher working part-time at the apparel shop Collections.

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Sightseeing in St. Paul

A cluster of family attractions make the city's unsavory origins a distant memory.

It's ironic, considering its past, that St. Paul is such a wholesome destination.

Liquor brought the first white resident to Minnesota's capital; he was Pierre Parrant, a swinish, one-eyed former voyageur named Pig's Eye. He set up his first tavern near Fort Snelling, but was rousted in 1837 by officers who were tired of the trouble it caused.

The hovel he built in a cave down river was St. Paul's first building, and the area around the tavern he built later, in the future downtown, was known briefly as Pig's Eye.

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Party in Milwaukee

Summer is one long festival in this unsung city on Lake Michigan.

Once, I thought of Milwaukee as the ugly duckling of Midwest cities, a colorless runt with the grit of Chicago but none of its allure.

Silly me.

It’s true that downtown Milwaukee, during the day, is not exactly flashy.

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A jolly holiday in Minneapolis

Christmas draws tourists and locals alike into the lively heart of the city.

During the holidays, there's no place like home. In fact, it's the perfect getaway.

Every year, I go to downtown for the festivities. I get tickets for Handel's "Messiah" at Orchestra Hall. I hunt for stocking stuffers on Nicollet Mall.

I don't stay overnight. I live here, after all.

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Chicago at Christmas

During the holidays, this glittering, festive town becomes the City of Broad Smiles.

Visiting Chicago during the holidays, I'm always bowled over by how merry everyone is.

Can it be . . . Chicago Nice? It's either that or pixie dust.

Chicago is an exciting place to be any time, but at Christmas, it pulls out the stops. The Magnificent Mile sparkles. Ice skaters do pirouettes in Millennium Park. There are free concerts everywhere.

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Milwaukee at Christmas

During the holidays, this city shimmers like Cinderella.

No one ever accused Milwaukee of being flashy.

Best known for tractors, motorcycles and beer, it’s a meat-and-potatoes kind of town, stolid and practical like the Germans who built it.

It’s not what you’d call a trendy destination. And yet every time I go there, I have a great time.

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Halloween in Chicago

During scary season, this fun-loving city pulls out all the stops.

In high-spirited Chicago, Halloween is the most spirited weekend of the year.

We didn’t know that before we arrived one Halloween weekend, but then a few thousand Smurfs, zombies and cowboys bicycled past us on the monthly Critical Mass ride through Lincoln Park.

A pirate skull was perched on the turnips the next morning at the farmers market, and we saw oversized ghouls and witches waving from the windows of mansions. Downtown, orange gushers rose from the fountain in Daley Plaza.

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Into the belly of Chicago

A food tour points us toward pizza, spice and everything nice.

Once, Chicago was a meat-and-potatoes town, the City of Broad Shoulders.

Chicagoans still brawl over who has the best deep-dish pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs, which come with no ketchup but so many condiments they're “dragged through the garden.’’

But these days locals are just as likely to seek out the best macarons and gelato, and on special occasions, they dine at Michelin-starred restaurants with avant-garde chefs who are more Jeff Koons than Betty Crocker.

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Cheap Chicago

Here are 10 tips to make a trip to the Windy City easy to afford.

Chicago is on a roll. Millennium Park is wildly popular, and it just keeps getting better, along with the rest of the city.

These days, tourists have to compete with hordes of conventioneers and suburbanites fleeing back to the city. Prices, of course, have gone up.

Still, there's a lot to do for free. Here are 10 tips for making a trip affordable.

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Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis

The lakes, river and creeks that ring this metropolis are a magnet year-round.

Every big city has skyscrapers. Every big city has museums and monuments. But no other city has as many beautiful lakes and parks Minneapolis does.

Early in the city's history, when its lakes still were considered swampy boondocks, city fathers decided to make their shores public property.

Today, the most expensive homes in the city face the lakes, but the public — in-line skaters, bicyclists, dog-walkers — owns the shorelines.

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Chicago as you like it

Beaches or museums, baseball or music? This fun-loving metropolis makes it hard to decide what to do first.

Chicago is like one big theme park. The thing is, you have to bring your own theme.

I have one every time I go there: Blues and bicycling. Museums and dim sum. Skyscrapers and food tours.

That's because the possibilities are endless. There's so much to do in Chicago that it's easy to bounce around like a kid in a candy store, overwhelmed by choices, as time runs out.

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Shopping in Madison

In this colorful college town, materialism and muckraking co-exist.

In Madison, a visitor is exposed to many messages: Resist corporate globalization. Fight for social justice. Housing is a RIGHT!

But when I was there one November, no one said anything against materialism.

Madison — sometimes called the People’s Republic of Madison — is so anti-establishment and anti-corporate that a Starbuck’s caused an uproar when it opened on State Street.

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Skyscraper city

For architecture fans, Chicago is the place to walk and gawk.

In Chicago, there’s great people-watching — but the building-watching is even better.

The city is best known for humongous buildings — the Willis (Sears) Tower, 875 N. Michigan Ave. (the Hancock Center), the Aon Center. But clustered around their knees are others that attract tourists from all over the world, buildings with so much flair it’s tempting to give them personalities.

There’s Helmut Jahn’s Thompson Center, the brassy showgirl with the heart of gold, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Federal Plaza, the geek with the thick black glasses.

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Chicago with kids

For curious children, this inviting city overflows with treasures.

For parents, it's hard to predict what kids will like best about Chicago.

During spring break one year, my friend Rebecca and I took our children to Chicago, with an itinerary that alternated visits to museums with visits to zoos and parks.

Pitting high culture against popular culture, we knew what the biggest hits would be: the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier, Lincoln Park Zoo, the elevated train, deep-dish pizza, perhaps the Museum of Science and Industry.

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Pinching pennies in Chicago

It's easy to save money in this lively town . . . and to spend it, too.

If you love to visit Chicago, as we do, you have a compelling reason to look for discounts when you’re visiting — the more you save, the sooner you can return.

We traveled there one Memorial Day weekend, but we started looking for savings months in advance. First, I arranged a home exchange, so we didn’t have to pay for a hotel.

Then we signed up for local deal listings. Then we started looking for free things to do.

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