MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest


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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Tales of the dead

At Chicago's famous Graceland Cemetery, the graves have a lot to say.

It isn't true that dead men tell no tales.

Actually, they can be quite chatty. At Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, their stories keep up to seven tour guides busy, especially during Halloween season.

Graceland's residents are a Who's Who of Chicago society: retailer Marshall Field, meat-packer Philip Armour, hotelier Potter Palmer, piano maker William Kimball.

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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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Chicago by bicycle

On two wheels, visitors can explore every inch of the lovely lakefront.

Everything that’s worth doing, you can do along Chicago’s lakefront.

Seniors in Speedos climb out of Lake Michigan after swimming laps. Chess players hunch over boards in a 1957 pavilion that looks like the Jetsons’ carport. Young people gather for beach volleyball and paddle kayaks in the shadow of yachts.

Overhead, a biplane pulls a flapping beer banner through the sky.

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Marvels of Starved Rock

In northern Illinois, a state park draws crowds to its forest canyons and riverside cliffs.

Like many places, Starved Rock State Park has a name whose origin is lost in the mists of time.

Supposedly, the Potawatomi and Ottawa trapped a band of Illini on a 125-foot butte along the Illinois River. However, anyone who’s actually climbed up Starved Rock — and millions of tourists have — can see that no one could defend it long enough to starve.

“It’s like Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox,’’ says Kathy Higdon of the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center across the river. “It’s a legend, like the Lover’s Leaps we've got all over the place.’’

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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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Towns of the Fox River

An hour west of Chicago, a scenic bicycle trail makes sightseeing easy.

For centuries, people have beaten a path along the Fox River: Pottawatomie Indians, pioneer entrepreneurs, escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad, city-bound commuters . . . and now, bicyclists.

Thanks to a network of abandoned electric railways, this part of northeast Illinois is a hotbed of bicycle trails.

They're all popular, but the 40-mile Fox River Trail past St. Charles, Geneva and Batavia includes an astonishing amount of scenery and attractions: a Dutch windmill, Japanese gardens and a lighthouse plus many forest preserves, gazebos and wildlife sightings, mainly herons and egrets lurking on the shallow river.

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Galena getaway

In northwest Illinois, this historic village is a favorite destination.

In the grand scheme of things, Galena, Ill., was destined to be a flash in the pan.

The flash came from the shiny lead sulfide upon which the town's fortunes were built in the 1830s, '40s and '50s; galena is the Latin word for the ore.

It made many people rich, and in the 1850s, Galena, three miles from the Mississippi, was the busiest port between St. Paul and St. Louis.

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On the Rock River in Illinois

From the town of Oregon, visitors follow in Black Hawk's footsteps.

In the northwest Illinois town of Oregon, a 48-foot concrete figure gazes over a river valley, arms folded.

Over the years, it's been home to many ambitious men. Abraham Lincoln joined the militia here. John Deere forged the first steel plow. Ronald Reagan got his first lifeguard job.

The man who inspired the gigantic blufftop statue also had an ambition: to keep this beautiful valley for his own people.

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Wright in Oak Park

After more than 125 years, the architect's first works still seem stunningly original.

Around Frank Lloyd Wright's old stomping grounds in Oak Park, Ill., 2014 was a big year.

Of course, every year is a big year at the architect's first home and studio, which draws crowds of people from around the world even when it's not celebrating its 125th anniversary.

People come to Oak Park for the sensational stories as well as the architecture. Wright was notoriously ill-behaved, breaking promises and scoffing at rules. He was a genius, and he knew it.

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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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Ghosts of Galena

This sweet town in northwest Illinois is packed with history . . . and mystery.

In the northwest corner of Illinois, there's no more cheerful place than Galena.

Today, it's known for its shops and giggling bands of women on a girlfriend getaway.  But in the 1850s, it was the busiest port between St. Louis and St. Paul, and rows of elegant homes were built with lead-mining fortunes.

Eventually, demand for lead waned, and the river connecting Galena to the Mississippi filled with silt. The town went into a deep sleep until the 1960s, by which point it had become a virtual museum.

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10 great getaways from Chicago

Take a break to lounge on beaches, gawk at river canyons and go on brewery tours.

There's an endless number of fun things to do in Chicago, which is why tourists flock to it from around the world. To paraphrase the English wit Samuel Johnson, "When a man is tired of Chicago, he is tired of life.''

And yet, everyone needs to get out of town once in a while.

The traditional playground of Wisconsin lies to the north, and the beaches of  Michigan to the east. To the west, aim for destinations on rivers: the Fox, the Illinois, the Rock.

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Outdoors in Galena

In an Illinois shopping town, tourists discover life beyond Main Street.

So you've done Galena — the shopping, the wine-tasting, the trolley tours, the historic houses.

What now?

This mining town in northwest Illinois boomed, went bust and came back as a boutique town for urban weekenders. Now, it's returning to nature.

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Chow-down in Chicago

In a city of neighborhoods, cooks from many countries stir the pot.

Chicago has come a long way since it was hog butcher to the world.

There was nothing very appetizing about early Chicago. The factories and slaughterhouses that made it grow also made it stink. Rotting carcasses made the Chicago River bubble; a glass of water came with a side of cholera.

But the city grew up. The immigrants who packed its meat, dug its waterways and built its railroads moved on and were replaced by new immigrants, who settled in places that became known as Little Italy, Andersonville, Polish Village, Ukrainian Village, Chinatown, Greek Town and Pilsen.

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Paddling the Chicago River

After years of neglect, this urban waterway has become a place to play.

The Chicago River never has run clear.

Before settlers arrived, it was a lethargic prairie river that ran through a swamp the Potawatomi called Checaugou — for “swamp weed,’’ or “wild onion.’’

Then factories and slaughterhouses turned it into a sewer. At the confluence of the main branch with the north and south branches, Bubbly Creek was named for the methane gas that rose from decomposing carcasses on the river bottom.

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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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Black Hawk on the Apple River

Near Galena, a fort interprets a Sauk leader who has gripped imaginations since 1832.

Just 15 minutes from the tourist playground of Galena, a young woman scrubs a cast-iron pot with a corncob.

Another woman sews the ticking for a straw mattress. Over an open fire, a man carefully pours molten lead into a mold, which he opens to reveal a shiny new musket ball.

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