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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Its true that downtown Milwaukee, during the day, is not exactly flashy.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 Peoples Republic of Madison is so anti-establishment and anti-corporate that a Starbucks caused an uproar when it opened on State Street.
No one ever accused Milwaukee of being flashy.
Best known for tractors, motorcycles and beer, its a meat-and-potatoes kind of town, stolid and practical like the Germans who built it.
Its not what youd call a trendy destination. And yet every time I go there, I have a great time.
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.
In high-spirited Chicago, Halloween is the most spirited weekend of the year.
We didnt 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.
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.
In Chicago, theres 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 its tempting to give them personalities.
Theres Helmut Jahns Thompson Center, the brassy showgirl with the heart of gold, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohes Federal Plaza, the geek with the thick black glasses.
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.
If you love to visit Chicago, as we do, you have a compelling reason to look for discounts when youre 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 didnt have to pay for a hotel.
Then we signed up for local deal listings. Then we started looking for free things to do.
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.
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.
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.