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Across America By Bus: Chicago

This is part two of the “Across America By Bus” series. Click here to read part one, “Greyhound Perks and Pitfalls”.

I have wanted to visit Chicago since I was eight years old. Granted, I wanted to go to Chicago back then because that’s where the Veggie Tales headquarters were. Veggie Tales moved out-of-state several years ago, and most of the attractions I went to didn’t even exist when I was eight, but finally getting the chance to visit Chicago felt like a childhood dream come true. I made sure to make it the first stop of my trip across America.

The first place I visited in Chicago was, of course, the Chicago Greyhound Station. It was probably the nicest bus station I went through on my entire trip, but it still wasn’t anything too special. The next place I visited was the inside of a taxi cab. I was only staying a mile away, and normally I would walk that distance, but because I had several pieces of luggage, it was worth paying the seven dollars for a cab. Besides, riding a taxi through a big city is part of the experience! I wasn’t allowed to call a cab or ride the subway when I went to NYC in high school, and it always felt like I was missing an aspect of the city because of it. The third place in Chicago I visited was the hostel.

Chicago Hostel

Hostelling International Chicago is conveniently located downtown, within walking distance of everything I wanted to visit. It was the only HI-brand hostel I’ve ever stayed at, and by far the largest! This hostel was quite a bit more expensive than any other hostel I’ve visited, plus I had to pay a few more dollars because I wasn’t a Hostelling International member, but it was still a great deal when you consider that any other accommodation within several miles would be at least three times the price. I checked in and went up to my dorm for a tiny bit of shut-eye before I woke up with the excitement of wanting to seize the day. Since I usually travel slowly, cramming Chicago into just one full day was a challenge, but I think I made the best of it.

As I was heading down to the first floor of the hostel, I noticed a sign that said the hostel sold discount tickets for the Willis Tower Skydeck. That was on my agenda, and I’m always up for saving money, so I picked up a ticket from the front desk before heading out.

Chicago Willis Tower

Just a few blocks away was the Willis Tower, although many people still know it as the Sears Tower. It was the tallest building in America up until this year when the new World Trade Center was built. Unfortunately, when I got to the Skydeck entrance, employees were announcing to the crowd that there was a broken elevator and to come back later. I mentally rearranged my itinerary and headed towards what I thought was Lake Michigan.

Chicago Feet Statue

After walking for many, many blocks, I thought I should have been at the lake, but I wasn’t. I finally pulled out my GPS and discovered that I had been walking parallel to the lake the entire time! I turned and began heading the right way. It actually turned out for the better, because I hadn’t planned to go to the Magic Mile, but because I took this route I ended up at the very end of it. A race was going on that day, so I walked by the finish line and visited several of the vendors before continuing on by Lake Michigan.

Lake Michigan Chicago Harbor

I had flown over Lake Michigan before, but this was my first time seeing it up-close. For awhile, I enjoyed walking on the path by the harbor, with a few stops at interesting points like the Buckingham Fountain. Eventually, I made it to my intended destination: the Navy Pier.

Chicago Buckingham Fountain

Before leaving on this trip, I had asked for travel tips from people who had been to Chicago. The Navy Pier was a common recommendation. I enjoyed walking out above the lake, and going through the shops and art features, but I’m still not really sure why so many people told me to go here. I found a pizza shop on the pier where I ate lunch, and on the way out, I saw a Crave Bar truck where I grabbed my dessert. I then headed on to Millennium Park.

Chicago Navy Pier

Millennium Park is interesting in that is was created to celebrate y2k, but it wasn’t opened until several years later. I first found myself in a beautiful outdoor theater, but I was looking for the famous Cloudgate “Bean”. Something reflective across the theater caught the corner of my eye, and sure enough, it was The Bean! It was fun walking around and underneath The Bean for a fun house effect. My favorite part was trying to find myself in the reflection among the hundreds of other visitors!

Chicago Bean

After getting dizzy from the optical illusions of The Bean, I continued through the park’s art, including the Crown Fountain. I then turned back to downtown towards the tallest building I could find. I was going to see if the Willis Tower Skydeck had opened yet.

Chicago 2014 090

When I got there, the staff was still saying that it was closed. I went up to one employee and asked her if it would be open at any point in time that day.

“Nope, come back tomorrow.”

Knowing I wouldn’t have time since my bus left the next morning, I asked if there was any way I could get a refund. She scrunched her face up. “Refund?” I nodded. “Oh, you have a ticket? If you have a ticket, you can go inside!” I pulled out my ticket and went through the doors.

Because the staff hadn’t communicated very well that only ONE elevator wasn’t working, and that people could still come if they had bought a ticket elsewhere, there wasn’t much of a line at all. The trip started by going down to a basement floor, getting a security check, and then watching a video about the history of the tower. I then crammed with several other people on an elevator that went to the 99th floor. It felt really different on this floor. I don’t know if it was just in my head, but I’m convinced that I could feel the building sway! I then got onto another elevator to the 103rd floor, also known as the Skydeck.  It’s the highest the public can get in any building in the United States.

Chicago View from Skydeck

I enjoyed going around the building and looking through the panoramic windows. I was able to locate almost everywhere I went earlier that day. But the highlight of Chicago was definitely “The Ledge”. These are four glass rooms that stick out of the Skydeck, so you can see everything straight below you! Waiting in line allowed me to get the guts to walk out, but as soon as I stepped out, I felt like I was going to fall! I posed for a few pictures, and then stepped back onto solid, opaque ground! It was such a rush, I decided to go out on all four ledges. It never got any easier!

Chicago Skydeck Ledge

After coming back down to Earth, I walked around the Willis Tower and was amazed at how far up I’d gone. Because I was operating all day on only a few hours of sleep, I went back to the hostel to relax for a bit. I realized that I needed to find a Chicago pizza restaurant to eat dinner at, because the pizza I got at the pier wasn’t very good at all. After I had recovered enough, I asked the front desk for pizza recommendations, and I was sent to Lou Malnati’s. I didn’t realize until I got there, but this the most popular place for Chicago pizza! I had to wait outside for 45 minutes with a buzzer, but trust me, it was worth the wait! I ordered a personal pizza of their best deep dish, “The Lou”. I had always heard that traditional Chicago pizza had sausage, but this was vegetarian and featured a divine combination of spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes and three cheeses.

Chicago Lou Malnati

After finishing off with a cookie pizza dessert, I spent the rest of the evening exploring all that the hostel had to offer. After a somewhat restful night’s sleep, I woke up, enjoyed a full breakfast, got ready, and took a taxi back to the Greyhound Station, where I boarded the bus to my next destination!

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A big thank-you goes out to Hostelz.com! I found out about the HI-Chicago Hostel through this site, and there you can find thousands more!

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U.S. vs Canada: Who Has the Better Niagara Falls?

As much as I’ve traveled across the United States, I never seemed to make it to Canada. I had been to New York, but never set foot out of the Big Apple while there. This summer, I took an eight-day trip to Niagara Falls. This means I had the opportunity to see the other side of New York State, as well as finally enter Canada. And since I visited both sides of this international city, people often ask me “Which side is better?”

Now, when it comes to travel, I don’t play favorites. I sometimes say that because I’m not a mother, my trips are like my children, therefore it would be wrong to choose a favorite. And really, I enjoyed both countries very much, but for different reasons. Here are a few highlights from each side:

Transportation:

US: You can take a trolley around Niagara Falls State Park, which is a lot of fun and very inexpensive. Unfortunately, public transportation around the rest of the city isn’t so great.

CA: While there’s nothing fun like a trolley, you can buy a WeGo pass and ride any bus with the WeGo logo. It goes anywhere in town that a tourist would want to visit.

Sights:

US: You can get up-close and personal with the falls. There are spots where you can be about five feet away from the top of the falls. (Naturally there’s railing to keep you a safe distance.)

CA: There’s only one waterfall that spans from the US to Canada, but because you’re not so close, Canada is the best place for viewing the falls and taking scenic pictures.

Attractions:

US: My favorite attraction was Cave of the Winds, where you can walk a deck at the base of Bridal Veil falls and get drenched. Other attractions include the Gorge Discovery Center, Aquarium of Niagara, and the Observation Tower, all of which are packaged in the Discovery Pass. The most famous attraction is the Maid of the Mist boat tour.

CA: My favorite attraction was Journey Behind the Falls, where you literally walk in an underground tunnel where you can see the underside of Horseshoe Falls. Another attraction included on the Adventure Pass is an amazing theater experience called Niagara’s Fury. Canada has an identical tour to Maid of the Mist, but it is called the Hornblower Niagara Cruise.

Down the River:

US: The Gorge Trail system offers miles of paths along the Niagara all the way to Lewiston. I experienced it as a combination of hiking and biking, using a bike I rented from Gorge View. This takes you through three state parks, Niagara Falls (of course), Whirlpool (which is the best place to view the large Niagara whirlpool), and Devil’s Hole (aptly named because of the hundreds of torturous steps, but has a great view of the power plant). If you drive, you can go to Fort Niagara, which is a historic base where the Niagara drains into Lake Ontario.

CA: While you could walk downriver by foot on the sidewalks, the WeGo buses can take you all the way to Queenston Heights, with hop-on-hop-off stops at interesting places such as gift shops, aviaries, and a large floral clock by the power plant. The White Water Walk takes you on a long deck as close to the Whirlpool Rapids as is legal (there is also an Aerocar that takes passengers above the Whirlpool for an outrageous extra fee). This side also has a beautiful site where the Niagara connects with the Great Lake, and you can get there by paying an extra fee for a special WeGo bus.

City Life: 

US: This is the side where you’ll experience the most nature. Wooded forests, walkable islands, and dirt paths are hard to find on the other side of the Niagara. It also seems to be the quieter town, if you go a few blocks away from the park, there are only houses, restaurants, hotels, and one casino. If you’ve never had Indian food before, this is the place to try it. Authentic Indian restaurants are practically on every corner.

CA: This side has a lot more tourist flair. Clifton Hills is a Disney-Vegas mashup filled with quirky museums, flashy tourist traps, and casinos. There are elegant (AKA expensive!) restaurants that beautifully frame views of the falls, most notably the Seattle Space Needle’s twin, Skylon Tower. While the nature aspect is lacking, more tourists mean more shops and services are offered here.

Hostels:

US: I stayed at Gorge View Hostel, which is the closest hostel to Niagara Falls. My favorite aspects were that is was across the street from the aquarium, the bedrooms were spacious and comfortable, and the owner let guests go on the roof to watch fireworks.

CA: I stayed at Niagara Backpackers Hostel in the bed-and-breakfast community, so everything was pretty upscale and historic-looking. I enjoyed this family-run accommodation, and the free breakfast was delicious!

Names and Number of Falls:

US: There are three waterfalls: American, Bridal Veil, and Horseshoe. The American Falls span between mainland New York and Luna Island. From Luna Island to Goat Island is Bridal Veil Falls. Then from Goat Island (still part of New York) to Canada is the Horseshoe Falls.

CA: There are two waterfalls. The American Falls is the collective name for the waterfalls on the US side. Of course the largest waterfall is still a horseshoe, but it is referred to here as the CANADIAN Horseshoe Falls! I just found it funny that each side has different interpretations of what the falls are!

As long as you have a passport, I encourage you to visit both sides of Niagara Falls to get the full experience. After all, perhaps the best part of Niagara Falls is walking across the Rainbow Bridge, where you have one foot in each country! 

Note: This post was made possible in part by two hostels on opposite sides of the Niagara! Gorge View in the States, and Backpacker’s Hostel in Canada.

United States of Hostels

When I mention to people that I enjoy staying in hostels, I expect one of the following responses:

“What’s a hostel?”

“Aren’t those only in Europe?”

“Those are creepy; you shouldn’t stay there!”

For the last two, I’d like to shout a resounding NO! Hostels are found throughout the world, and only horror movies make them creepy. (In fact, I feel a lot safer staying at a hostel than I do anywhere else!) As for the first question, a hostel is an accommodation where, instead of renting a room, you can rent a bed inside a dorm. That means a big savings in money, and also a greater sense of community with others who are also staying in the hostel.

Even though hostels are most popular in Europe, and I hope to visit dozens of hostels there next year, so far I have only stayed in hostels within the United States. (Okay, so I stayed in one in Niagara Falls, Ontario, but it was only a mile away from the U.S.!) Here are a few I have stayed in and recommend:

Music City Hostel, Tennessee: This was the first hostel I had ever stayed in. Music City Hostel is a culmination of everything that the city of Nashville represents. A variety of travelers from all around the world creates this makeshift community that results in spontaneous jam sessions, late-night talks, and memorable experiences.Music City Hostel is located on the West End of Nashville. This is the district where the hospitals are located, so you will often hear ambulance sirens, but other than that it is a very quiet community. It is a few blocks away from the nearest bus stop or main street, yet it is still extremely easy to find. It is less than a mile away from several attractions, including Centennial Park and Vanderbilt University. It is also within walking distance of Downtown Nashville. Overall, Music City Hostel provides an excellent opportunity to meet new friends and experience the Nashville sights and sounds. This unique hostel is recommended to anyone with a love of travel!

Wayfaring Buckeye, Ohio: The staff was amazing, the amenities were more than I expected, and I saved a whole bunch of money compared to if I had stayed anywhere else! I had only had one previous hostel experience, but the staff at The Wayfaring Buckeye made sure I understood everything and made me feel at home.  It did seem to have a fairly quiet atmosphere, which could be a good or bad thing depending on your personality and amount of energy, but if you wanted to talk, there were plenty of people willing to talk! I was especially impressed by the cleanliness. The hostel was conveniently located near the OSU campus. It was just a few miles by bike to get to the heart of Columbus. I was surprised that bikes and locks were provided for free! The Wayfaring Buckeye appears to have once been a duplex, but a wall dividing the two homes was removed. That means twice the kitchen space, living rooms, and everything else!

Gorge View Hostel, New York: Gorge View Hostel is the closest hostel to the Niagara Falls. This building is at least 85 years old and offers an interesting history in addition to its ease of access to Niagara Falls. This fairly new hostel offers a comfortable combination of old-fashioned charm and modern amenities. Gorge View is certainly worth staying at for several days! Perhaps the best part about the Gorge View location is that it’s the perfect place to view fireworks! On nights when Niagara Falls hosts a fireworks show, the rooftop is open for all guests to view the show and the lit-up city skyline. Overall, Gorge View Hostel is an excellent choice for travelers who want to see the wonder of Niagara Falls. This is one of the few hostels where you can interact directly with the owner, and he can definitely provide lots of insider information and fun stories. The hostel is continually improving, so every visit will get better and better!

Niagara Falls Backpackers Hostel, Ontario: Niagara Falls Backpackers Hostel is a charming, family-owned-and-operated accommodation. On the outside, the old Victorian home seems perhaps to fancy to be a hostel, but on the inside, you’ll enjoy many of the amenities that are unique to hostels. Niagara Falls Backpacker’s Hostel lives up to its “international” name by housing travelers from all over the world, many of whom are friendly and great to share experiences with in Niagara Falls. The hosts speak both of Canada’s national languages, English and French.There is so much to do in the Niagara Falls area, and Niagara Falls Backpackers Hostel is in a central location where you can access it all. The young will love to hear about adventures from their global peers, and older folks will appreciate the BnB-style atmosphere and community. All ages will enjoy their stay at Niagara Falls Backpackers Hostel.

Hostelling International Chicago, Illinois: HI-Chicago is one of the largest hostels in one of the largest cities in America. This safe and friendly hostel welcomes travelers around the world from all walks of life. It includes all the standards of Hostelling International, but for just a few dollars more will also provide a great place to stay for non-members. If there is anything you need to know about Chicago, ask the staff on the first or second floor. Need a cab? They’ll call one for you. Need a recommendation for a pizza joint? They’ll give you a map and point out their favorites. Need to explore Chicago on the cheap? They sell discount tickets to many of the popular attractions, including the famous Willis Tower Skydeck.

Note: Links and hostel research provided by Hostelz.com. At this site, you can find out more about hostelling and book and nearly any of the thousands of hostels around the world!