Hey everybody! I am starting this series called “Travel Better, Expatriate Better” and this is the first one! It’s basically an interview series where I blast people with a set of questions asking them about how’s life like in that city which many dream to go! The aim of this is to let future travellers/ expats have a glimpse how’s life like in that city before they actually travel/ move there.
So the first person up is Lauren! I met Lauren when I was travelling in Bangkok and she is just SOOOO lovely (understatement)! Because of that, when I was travelling in South Korea, I made sure that I will have a full day to spend with here and we basically just ate our way in Seoul! Awww Lauren, I already miss you (and all the Korean food we had)!
Okay so Lauren had lived in Chicago for some time and let’s not waste more time and here is her experience being a Chicagoan!
Who are you, where are you from and how long did you live in Chicago?
Hello! My name is Lauren. I lived in Chicago for university where I got a degree in Fiction Writing and stayed in the city a little bit after university.
Why did you choose to live in Chicago?
I had family that lived outside of Chicago in the suburbs and really wanted to live in a city. The fact the university I went to also had the major I really wanted that I couldn’t find elsewhere was the major factor.
What do you do for a living?
Now I teach ESL to elementary school students in rural South Korea. While I was in Chicago though I was a student, Residential Advisor, and creative writing tutor. I also run a travel blog called wayfaringflaneur and spend a lot of my free time writing.
Do you speak the main language (English) that is spoken in Chicago? If not, what are the main difficulties that you faced while you first lived there?
I did. But I also had difficulty dealing with preconceived notions of Chicago and fear of living someplace that all of the school security and welcome staff noted as unsafe. It was strange being somewhere where I had to constantly keep an eye on my bag and be careful being out at night, let alone getting use to the sounds of traffic and the El. My time in Chicago though was safe without much incident.
Do you like or hate the public transport in Chicago? Why so?
Minus the smell I loved the public transportation in Chicago. I was able to get anywhere without a car, which wasn’t feasible where I grew up. In actuality having a car in Chicago can be counterproductive. Parking fees are insane. Plus depending on the season a lot of it is walkable.
Tell me 1 must-do thing in Chicago.
Eat the pizza. Chicago style pizza is delicious and it’s one of the main things I miss. Chicago is a city broken into tons of different neighborhoods packed with delicious food. Whenever anyone visited, we just ate and ate and ate. Leaving Chicago without trying the food is a missed opportunity you will regret.
Tell me 1 thing that you wish you had done but haven’t done so in Chicago.
Chicago has really interesting architecture, and every year for a weekend many buildings open up for free so you can visit them and see what they look like on the inside. It’s called Open House Chicago and nearly 200 different places are open for you to take a look for a weekend in October. I always ended up being busy the weekend it fell on and never had time. The city also has really cool walking architecture tours that I would’ve loved to go on but didn’t have the time or money when I was in school.
What are your 2 most-loved neighbourhoods in Chicago?
Every neighborhood in Chicago has a different vibe and a draw to it. Picking two is painful. I have to pick Chinatown as one of them. Chinatown was always the easiest place to meet my friends, there were tons of different restaurants everywhere so we could find something for everyone in the group to eat. This was great because a lot of my friends have different allergies. Many of the restaurants could hold large groups and it wasn’t too expensive. There are also a bunch of nice shops in the area.
My other favorite part of the city will have to be the South Loop. The parks are within walking distance as are the museums. During summer, the area is so busy with performances and festivals. Plus it’s where my school was, so there’s nostalgia to it for me.
Tell me your top 3 restaurants in Chicago
I should preface this with the fact that I love brunch and breakfast. I could eat breakfast for any meal. And Chicago takes brunch seriously. On Saturdays and Sundays, brunch restaurants can have a peak wait line of 2-3 hours, and during winter the waiting space is crammed pack with people like you’re in the mosh pit of a concert. It’s one of the things I greatly miss, so if most of my food suggestions are breakfast, well I apologize but I don’t mean it.
My first pick would be a Scandinavian breakfast restaurant called Ann Sathers. I went back last summer and it was on my must-visit list because I missed it so much I was dreaming about going on quests to get their cinnamon rolls. You know how restaurants give you rolls or something as a side when you arrive, well depending on what you order, that side of roll is a side of a giant (big enough for a meal on it’s own) cinnamon roll. The one I like is a short walk outside of the Belmont stop in Boystown. You can get two cinnamon rolls for $3.90 or as a side with an egg breakfast, which is great if you want to split them with someone getting something non-eggy. Price could vary if you decide to just eat off the à la carte menu for less than $5 to upwards of $13 per person.
Another breakfast place I love is Orange. They run a constantly rotating pancake flight menu, where what you get depends on what theme they’re going for that week. The flight includes four different types of pancakes for about $13. They also offer Frushi, which is fruit sushi. You get two with each order, a maki style fruit with sushi rice and a nigiri style one for about $2.59. What it looks like and which fruit is used changes based on season so ask the server. They also do a delicious Chai infused french toast for $12.50 and amazing cinnamon roll pancakes for $12. (They also do eggs and other normal brunch foods, their menu is long and delicious) Price varies from about $4 if you want just a cup of soup to about $18 per person. They currently have two locations, one in Roscoe Village and one in Lincoln Park.
I could keep going for days on my favorite breakfast spots in Chicago but I feel like I have to give a non-breakfast recommendation.
My go-to favorite spot in Chicago to take friends and visitors was always Saint’s Alp Tea House in Chinatown. One thing I love about as much as breakfast is tea. Their food is good and I’ll get into that eventually but the main suggestion I have for you is their tea. They offer a good array of milk teas with boba (tapioca pearls) or without . I tended to fluctuate in which ones I would order, ginger milk tea if I was feeling a bit under the weather, taro milk tea if I wanted something sweet and purple, or almond or coconut milk tea if I wanted something familiar. The milk tea is $3.35 for a regular size and $4.25 for jumbo. They also have a variety of other fun things on their menu from smoothies, regular tea and coffee but with a wide variety of options, to fun agar filled drinks. (agar is like a type of jello made from seaweed, it’s not for everyone) For an appetizer I highly suggest their glazed sweet potatoes ($5.95) or their Saint’s Alp Taste plate which comes with the sweet potatoes as well as yakitori chicken skewers, and some almond shrimps for $6.95. You also can’t go wrong with a scallion pancake ($4.95). They also offer lunch specials that range from $5.95-$10.95. Their noodle dishes as a main were also always a favorite with my friends and I, like their udon and bbq pork noodle soup. ($6.96-$9.25). Saint’s Alp Tea House has a wide variety of Asian American food which is another reason why it was my favorite place to take people, especially for the tea.
Your favourite bar in Chicago?
I’m not a huge bar person. I don’t like having to yell in order to be heard by the people I’m with. I did however really like SFCO when it was the Geek Bar, I’m a bit confused as to whether it’s still open or not. It seems like it is. It’s located in Wicker Park. It offers food and drinks and a wide variety of nerdy events and board games. Though Chicago also has a lot of beer arcades which can be fun to visit too as well as fancy old speakeasies and tons of bars in Wrigglyville to test out. I also suggest trying a jazz bar. There’s a good one in the South Loop that plays live music called Buddy Guy’s Legends.
What is the the cheapest and the best alcohol you can get in Chicago?
Malört is Chicago’s drink, it’s a bitter wormwood drink. However, I’m not sure if it’s the cheapest. Like I said didn’t go drinking too much.
Tell me 3 local specialties that you must get in Chicago.
Frango mints. Some times the city just smells like chocolate, which is a great change from the occasional rotten sewer scent you get. Frango mints, are a chocolate minty truffle that were sold at Marshall Field which has since turned into Macy’s.
And as previously stated you’ve got to try the pizza. Chicago style pizza is eaten with a fork and knife and can take up to an hour to arrive after you order it. It’s like a thick pie, an inside out pizza, with the filling the cheese and toppings and on top is the sauce. It’s delicious. There are two places Chicagoians argue about being the best place to get it, Giordano’s and Lou Malnati’s, though there are other places you can try it.
The other speciality isn’t necessarily my favorite, it’s the Chicago-style hot dog. It comes on a poppy seed bun with mustard, onion, a pickle, relish and tomato. If you ask for ketchup someone will probably look at you crazy. There’s many places you can get it, but a popular spot is Portillo’s and if you go to Portillo’s I suggest also trying their chocolate cake shake.
Where do you normally shop for clothes?
Chicago is packed with places to shop for clothes, it depends on how much you want to pay, the style and what you want. As a college student I mostly went shopping at Target, occasionally popping into H&M or Old Navy or other chain clothing shops. But there are also a ton of boutiques that can be found throughout Chicago, depending on the neighborhood.
Where do you normally shop for food?
Outside of Target the grocery stores tended to be Jewel Osco and Mariano’s.
How much do you spend for a month living in Chicago?
The L (train) in Chicago cost about $2.50 per ride and the buses $2.50. Depending on how much you use them a pass like the Ventra pass or a day pass can be more cost effective. It’s much cheaper though then taking an uber or a taxi, but in the winter it can get very cold and in the summer very hot. For winter the train stops tend to have buttons you can push for heat, but Chicago is very windy and waiting can be miserable.
Housing in Chicago isn’t cheap either and there are taxes that may make your spending on food and drinks a bit more pricy then you were expecting.
When it is sunny, how do you spend your day?
When it’s sunny it depended on season, if it’s summer I wanted to be inside somewhere with air conditioning or at the park or near the lake. This could lead me to the library (the Harold Washington Library is huge and the top floor is an open garden space where you can just sit and chill). There are various parks throughout Chicago that are always fun to check out, all sorts of things could be happening from movies in the park during the summer to ice skating in the winter. I didn’t go to the beach often but it was also a popular spot for my friends to go and hang out when the weather is nice, I burn too easily so shade is needed for me. I also enjoyed visiting the museums and the zoo. But do note that these can get expensive.
When it is rainy, how do you spend your day?
I’m going to also include snowing in this. When the weather wasn’t great I’d usually visit one of the conservatories. The Garfield Park Conservatory is free and it’s gorgeous. It’s warm and beautiful all year round.
Let say you are taking a small trip over a long weekend, where would you go and what would you do?
First I would see if there are any events happening and where and what they are. There is always something happening in Chicago, and a lot of it is free. If I was able to spend the money I’d buy tickets to a performance. There are many places in Chicago to catch a wonderful show. Lifeline theater takes books and makes them into performances. The Looking Glass theater is also usually doing something great and there are tons of small theaters doing performances all over Chicago and of course plenty of musicals to see.
I would for sure get brunch somewhere and visit some independent bookstores and probably eat until I feel sick.
Let say you are taking a small trip over a week-long holiday, where would you go and what would you do?
For a week I’d check out all the touristy spots, the Bean and Navy Pier just to see them, maybe go up to the sky deck for a good view of the city. Probably trying to do these early in the morning or later in the evening in the hopes of avoiding the crowds, I don’t mind doing touristy things. I’d also pop down under the Metra and visit the French Market to see what’s new going on there and visit the independent shops and explore any events that are happening. And for sure book myself a ticket to some performance. And eat everything I could.
What souvenir would you buy for your family or friends from Chicago?
I like to buy loose leaf tea for people at Adagio which can be found on State Street. If you have the time and they aren’t busy you can make your own blend and if you’re in a hurry they sell tins of loose leaf inspired by Chicago called: Chicago Jazz Mint, Chai Town, and Magnificent ChamoMile.
If they like sports, there’s plenty of stuff to get almost anywhere though Wrigleyville would be a good place to look, or some Frango mints.
A habit that you have picked up while living in Chicago?
Before living in Chicago I didn’t have many opportunities to try new things. There wasn’t a lot of new foods to try or events to go to where I grew up, so while living in Chicago I kept an eye out for ads for festivals and events and I tried to go to as many as possible. It made me love trying new things. I also learned to always carry a book on me for the trains or buses, didn’t always work but headphones can help sometimes too if you want to be left alone.
The biggest culture shock that you have seen in Chicago?
There’s a lot of homeless people in Chicago asking for money, or people wanting you to sign their petition or give them money for their organization. Depending on where you are in Chicago they may continue to chase after you asking for money. It was always shocking and surprising.
If not Chicago, where then?
I don’t think I’d want to have lived somewhere other than Chicago during my time in university. I think living in Chicago did a great job in pushing me out of my comfort zone and allowing me to broaden my horizons. It gave me a starting platform to travel and also to form new experiences that I’m not sure if I would’ve gotten otherwise. I am also not sure I’d be who I am if I hadn’t moved to Chicago and immersed myself as much as I did.
What advice would you give to someone who is planning to move to Chicago?
Explore everything. Go to festivals, try new foods, you never know what you’ll find. There’s so much to do in Chicago and a lot of it is free. Sometimes even the museums, if you’re a resident. And keep an eye on your stuff, it may get stolen if you’re not careful, but don’t let fear ruin your time there. Living in South Korea has made me super lax on this and I’m a bit concerned that I’ll just leave my wallet out somewhere when I return and it’ll be gone.
Your worst experience/ memory in Chicago?
I was on the bus once and an elderly lady was waiting to get on, she was getting out her wallet and her bus pass and someone came up to her and I’m pretty sure stole it from her and she screamed but the bus just closed it’s doors and drove off.
Your best experience/ memory in Chicago?
I loved going to the library for readings. Every year the library picks a book and has events throughout the city. Neil Gaiman came for it one summer because the book picked was “Neverwhere” and it was fun to go to his readings and discussions but also Lifeline theater came and did a reading of their performance of “Neverwhere” that they had done years before.
Anything that you would like to add?
To me, Chicago was like an amusement park. There was so much to do and to see and having come from a rural part of Indiana there was so much to try and do. It gave the city magic and gave me a starting point to jump off of to travel more. Whatever it is you like to do, whatever you enjoy I am sure somewhere in Chicago you can find it.
Something from Aaron:
All I know about Chicago was only Broadway, deep dish pizza, musical and it being a landlocked city! Thanks Lauren for providing such detailed info on restaurant recommendations and your overall experience living in that city! I hope our paths cross again, hopefully in the US!
Lauren’s blog: wayfaringflaneur.com