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Travelblog Gone with the Wine

Travelblog and lifestyleblog. Life under the Californian sun - Gone with the Wine. Trips, food and wine from all over the world. Solo and family adventures.

Filtering by Tag: Chicago

Vacation in a City - My Top 10 Cities in the World

Paula Gaston

The Internet has made booking trips so much easier that most people book their trips by themselves rather than use tour operators. More and more trips are also made to metropolitan cities. Here are my favorite cities to visit. It was impossible to put them into any specific order since they all are so different from each other. 

1. SAN FRANCISCO

Well, it is almost a must for me to start with the city that I love, and which is very close to my home. San Francisco is colorful, trendy and a little bit crazy too, and it offers something for everyone. When visiting, you definitely need more than just a one day, since there is so much to see and do in the city, and not to mention all the areas surrounding it. You must of course see the Golden Gate Bridge, ride the Cable Cars and visit Pier 39. And don't forget the world's biggest Chinatown outside of China. This is a city where you can walk in a business district one minute and hike on the beach the next. Or you can do a cruise to famous Alcatraz Island. There is nothing that people here haven't seen, so no matter what you look like, they wont be staring at you. No wonder they call it the most European city of the United States. 

Pros: Open minded and colorful city which you will never get bored with!
Cons: Expensive to stay in. Often chilly winds blow from the ocean. Increasing problem with drugs and homeless people can be seen almost everywhere today.

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2. TOKYO

Tokyo is definitely different than any place you have ever been to. Even different sections of the city can be totally different from each others. Tokyo is very hectic and crazy, but they also have beautiful parks where you can go enjoy the silence. The first days were quite confusing to us since the train and metro network is huge and most signs are in Japanese. But at the end we managed to learn how to get around, and even our 4 year old fell in love with Japan. There is tons to do with kids, and for young at heart adults. And we have never felt this safe on any of our travels before. 

Pros: The safest and most different city we have ever been to.
Cons: Hotels are quite expensive and people don’t often speak English.

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3. PARIS

Paris is Paris, what can you say? It has its own atmosphere and you really feel like you are in Europe. Paris feels compact since you can easily see all the sights in one day by using the metro. Beautiful buildings and history is everywhere, not to mention the River Seine. Paris is great for those who love good food and shopping. 

Pros: A mecca for those who love good food. A lot to see and lots of history.
Cons: Hotels are expensive. In many place they don’t speak English. To break the ice it would be good to know a couple words of French. 

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4. LONDON

At the same time modern and old fashioned London needs no introduction. So much to see there, and if you don’t want to tour in a double decker bus around the city, you can always take the Underground (metro). London was my hometown for one summer and there was never a boring day while I was there. You can see and feel the long history of the country all around London. 

Pros: Amazing amount of culture and lots of history. Everyone speaks English. 
Cons: The weather can change quickly so don't go anywhere without an umbrella. 

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5. ST. PETERSBURG

We went to St. Petersburg and I felt like I didn't see quite everything yet. I would like to go back and explore more. There are so many beautiful buildings and museums, good food and many things to see in this city. It would be even better if there was a local guide to show you around. Even though everything on our trip went well, occasionally we felt like people didn't like us. This might not be the best destination with kids since most sights are museums and churches. 

Pros: So much culture, museums and architecture.
Cons: Safety can be a concern. Requires a visa if you want to stay more than 72 hours. 

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6. TALLINN

Tallinn has fast become a very trendy city. People don't go there anymore just because of the cheap shopping, they go there to eat in fine dining restaurants and see the night life. And of course, there is a lot to see in Tallinn, like the best preserved medieval walled old town.

Pros: Still relatively cheap. Lot of historical places.  
Cons: Far away from rest of the Europe. 

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7. STOCKHOLM

Visit the rustic Old Town in Stockholm. I will never get bored of the awesome cafes there. Stockholm is great for shopping, but there is also a lot to do there. It is great with kids and you don't have to leave far from the city center to find cool stuff.  

Pros: A lot to do for both single people and families with kids
Cons:
Staying downtown is quite expensive. Cold and dark during the winter months. 

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8. CHICAGO

Chicago has always been one of my favorites in the U.S. From the downtown with high-rises you can easily get to the beach of Lake Michigan. Also the Chicago River that runs through the city makes it a very unique place. Chicago has some kind of old movie feel, and I even got a closer look at that while I stayed in the Tokyo Hotel which used to be popular among gangsters. During the winter Chicago is cold and it might snow, so summer months are better for vacationing. In recent years the crime rate has increased in Chicago so make sure to stay in safer areas. 

Pros: There is both a lake and a river right by downtown. 
Cons: During the winter it can be cold. Chicago is not called the Windy City for nothing; the flights are often delayed or cancelled due to weather and storms. Some parts of the city are not safe. 

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9. DUBAI

There are many kinds of opinions of Dubai, but I added it to my list since they have most everything there that you could want. They have sun, beach, food and some culture. The local culture is mixed up with this new and fast built city where everything must be bigger and better. It might not feel real but at least it makes Dubai different. Beaches are close by to the city.

Pros: Both beach and city life combined with arab culture. For sure a different sort of place unlike any other.
Cons: Dubai has been questioned for its respect of human rights and for destroying the ocean by building artificial islands. 

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10. REYKJAVIK

Yes I know, it is not exactly a metropolitan city, but at least it is a capital! I really liked Reykjavik. It is known for it's colorful nightlife and many cafes. It is small enough that you can just walk or bike from one place to another while admiring beautiful wall murals. And you can't feel any more safe than you will here!

Pros: Small but full of life. Very safe. People speak English almost everywhere.
Con: The service culture in Iceland is often very stiff and serious. 

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What are your favorite cities?

My Worst Hotel Experience - We Stayed in a Chicago Gangster Hotel

Paula Gaston

In recent weeks I have read many blog postings about bad hotel experiences. That made me think what my worst experience ever was, and I remembered a weekend in Chicago from years ago. We were young, and stupid and tried to save some money in any way we could. Afterwards I have realized that we actually stayed in the home of criminals and prostitutes, in an old mafia headquarters. 

The story begins when I worked in Wisconsin on a Work & Travel visa. Because Illinois and Chicago was only a few hours away, we of course, wanted to explore this famous city. We got some hotel recommendations and tips from other Finns working in the area, and booked our cheap room right in downtown. Perfect! Staying downtown can be very expensive, and this hotel was close to all of the sights that we wanted to see on our trip. 

It has been a while, so my memories of this trip have faded a little bit. But we drove from Wisconsin to Chicago and found our way to the Tokyo Hotel on 19 E. Ohio Street. When we stepped inside the lobby, right away we realized that it was almost straight from the movies, old and run-down. The receptionists, however were very friendly and seemed to be happy to meet Finnish people. They did remember having some Finns before and therefore, we got a "better room" on the top floor. The room might of been one of the better ones in this hotel, but really it was a dump.

In order to get upstairs, we had to take the oldest elevator I had ever seen. It was so old, that it was operated manually by a bellboy. And not just any boy, an old man with bad teeth, a glass eye and a gangster hat. "Welcome to the Godfather movie", I thought. The elevator squeaked and creaked when going up, and I was wondering if we need to tip the guy whom I wanted to stay as far away from as I can. We gave him a couple dollars and went to see our room. 

The room looked like something from decades ago. We did have a bed and a bathroom, so everything you basically need, but during our stay I didn't remove my sandals. Not even in the shower. The room door had a lock, a chain and a wooden plank like a dungeon to keep it closed. I had never seen such a thing in a hotel, and I it felt a little bizarre that we would need something extra besides the lock. I have later read that in the Tokyo Hotel they often had peep holes next to the locks, but we didn't notice one in our room. Instead, the old telephone with rotary dial made us laugh. For some reason, I don't think I will ever forget that turquoise carpet and a big, red spot next to the bed. I was joking about it being blood, but later I have realized that it must of been exactly that. 

Our visit was in the middle of the summer and we were staying on the 15th floor without an air conditioner, so our room soon felt like a sauna. We tried to open the window but it kept falling back down. Eventually we propped it up with an old telephone book. It was difficult to sleep with the window open since in downtown, there is always police cars and fire trucks driving around with sirens on. I later read that one could have gone to the roof of the hotel to get some air and look at the city lights. Oh well, maybe it's better that we didn't know about it, who knows what kind of a gangster we would have ran into. 

Despite the hotel, we had some great times in Chicago. After a few weeks, another Finnish group traveled to Chicago as well, and also stayed in the Tokyo Hotel. Since it was a bigger group, they got a suite with lots of space in it. But they were not alone. A pigeon had found her way in and built a nest inside of the room. Who knows how the bird got into the room. I don't think this group of people realized either what kind of a hotel this was. I only understood it after I spoke with a client at work, and told him where we stayed. He said: "No way, that is a hooker hotel. You didn't stay there!" Later I have read many stories about this legendary hotel, that even Wikipedia mentions because of it's shady reputation. At first, the Tokyo Hotel was called the Devonshire Hotel, and people like Jimmy "The Monk" Allegretti and other mafia men set the rules in the building. You can read more about that, and the life on Ohio Street for example from Mobwriter's blog

If you want to see what the rooms really looked like, you can find a hilarious video showing everything, even the bullet hole from here. It was done by visitors in 2008. The times have sweetened the memories or the place has gotten a lot worse since our visit, since I don't remember it being quite that bad. 

The Tokyo Hotel functioned from 1927 to 2003. After that, it was sold and renovated, and now there is a nice hostel in the building, the Freenhand Chicago. The name Tokyo Hotel is still up at the front door as a reminder of it's history. These walls have seen the colorful history of Chicago and the life of mafiosos.