Category Archives: Chicago

Visiting van Gogh’s Bedrooms

Chicago, IL–Vincent van Gogh loved his yellow house in Arles though he lived there only a few months in 1888. He created three paintings of his tiny bedroom there, one while he lived in the house and two after he was institutionalized for mental health issues. Until May 10, 2016, all three versions are on exhibit at The Art Institute of Chicago, in a compelling show that helps inform visitors of his complicated life and fascination with Arles.

The final painting of The Bedroom by Vincent Van Gogh

The final painting of The Bedroom by Vincent Van Gogh

Through letters to his brother Theo, side-by-side detailed video comparisons of the three paintings, a digitally enhanced replica of the bedroom and the entire layout of the small house, as well as many van Gogh masterpieces, the exhibit gives an in-depth study of these famous paintings as well as the troubled life of the painter who killed himself at age 37 in  July 1890.

The original bedroom painting belongs to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the second bedroom painting is on permanent display at The Art Institute of Chicago, and the smallest painting, which he created for his mother, is on loan from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. While lines are inevitably long and time slots limited, the opportunity to see all the paintings in one place side by side, is worth the wait.

And if you’re so enamored with the bedrooms that you want to spend the night, check out Vincent’s bedroom on for just $10 a night. Yes, you can really stay there.

The second painting of The Bedroom by Vincent van Gogh

The second painting of The Bedroom by Vincent van Gogh


Laurie’s Six Best Bakeries in Chicagoland

cannoliChicago, IL—It is pretty audacious for anyone to define the best six bakeries in a metro area this size. But after sampling so many bakeries, I’ve come back to a select few over and over. From south to north, each of these have specialties you won’t want to miss.

Apple croissant1. Medici, 1327 E. 57th, Hyde Park. A 50-year-old institution in the University of Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, Medici is known for its restaurant’s pizza and for its famous guests, the Obama family. But come to the bakery and order the buttery, flaky apple croissants that come loaded with thick slices of real apples, and are not too sweet or gooey. Just croissant, generous pieces of apples, and lightly sweet taste.

biscotti2. Scafuri Bakery, 1337 West Taylor, Little Italy. Taylor Street has loads of great Italian restaurants, and good bakeries, too. But Scafuri has the best biscotti of them all. The biscotti de notte, stuffed with hazelnuts and just the right crunch for dipping into your latte, is breakfast perfection. The plain almond biscotti are also top notch, made by baking just once, not twice.

3. Roeser’s Bakery, 3216 W. North, Humbolt Park. Originally a German neighborhood, Humbolt Park is now home to Puerto Rican families, but Rosiers stays true to its German roots. Great linzer tortes at Christmas, pączkis on Fat Thursday, and cakes of all sorts all year round. German chocolate cake, anyone?

4. Kaufman’s Bakery and Delicatessen, 4905 Dempster, Skokie. All sorts of rugulah cookies, cinnamon bobke, and other treats, including some amazing lox. Just don’t walk out without getting a walnut-raisin pumpernickle bread. No need for butter, it’s so sweet and tasty.

bagel and roll5. Once Upon A Bagel, 1888 First, Highland Park. The assortment of skinny bagels will astound you. Yes, get your everything bagel fix here at half the calories. And the challah rolls are perfect for a small Shabbat dinner for two. Once Upon A Bagel has other locations, and delicious meals, but that’s another story.


wedding cookies6. Tina’s Italian Cafe and Bake Shop, 1501 Washington, Gurnee. The crowds often flow out the door here, and for good reason. This is the genuine article. Italian wedding cookies, tiramisu, and delicious homemade breads compete with homemade Italian meals for space in your tummy. Save room for the cannoli, though.





Chicago Lakeshore Biking Southside Style


View north from the green roof of the parking structure at 31st Street Beach on Chicago’s south side


Chicago, IL–On a beautiful sunny Chicago weekend, lots of people bike parts of the 18.5 mile Chicago Lakefront Trail. If you want to avoid the crowds that jam the north end of the trail, head south from Museum Campus. The trail winds through trees and prairie to the South Shore Cultural Center at Jackson Park. You can extend your ride along a bike path almost to the squarelsouthpathIndiana border. At the Adler Planetarium, a gorgeous skyline view awaits–the spot that most of the TV stations broadcast the weather. Just south of the planetarium, the 12th Street Beach offers warm sand, gentle water, restrooms and an inexpensive taco stand where you can fuel up for the ride.

If the 12th Street Beach is crowded, a bigger and newer sandy beach awaits at 31st St. Beach and harbor. There, a green roof atop the parking garage offers picnic tables and sunscreens that look like sails, with an ample view to Navy Pier’s fireworks. Further south, the trail cuts through Burnham Centennial Prairie, a birding nature preserve shaded by trees and chirring red-winged blackbirds that will make you feel you’re off in a rural area.

Keep pedaling on to 57th Street Beach, and veer off to visit Hyde Park and the stately elegance of the University of Chicago’s buildings, or continue on to the historic South Shore Cultural Center, built in 1905 for the South Shore Country Club and designated a Chicago landmark in 2004.

If you’re really ambitious, the road continues on US41 South/Lake Shore Drive through the former grounds of  U.S. Steel’s South Works, 470 acres of property that has yet to be developed, though the old steel mill is gone. When the road ends at US 12/20, turn left and tiny Calumet Fisheries at 3259 E. 95th is on your right just at the bridge. Family owned and operated since 1948, Calumet Fisheries offers real oak-smoked salmon, trout, eel, sable, catfish, sturgeon, and whitefish, as well as fried shrimp, fish, crab cakes, and other goodies–enough to earn this simple stand with only a couple of outdoor picnic tables a James Beard Foundation “American Classic” award in 2010. Mmmm. Now that’s a perfect end to a beautiful ride



Having a Chicago Field (Museum) Day

The great hall of the Field Museum

The Stanley Field Hall of the Field Museum

Chicago, IL–The wealth of museums in Chicago make it difficult to decide which to explore first. One of the original city museums, the Field Museum of Natural History, founded right after the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in one of the fair buildings. It was later moved to its current site at 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive. The Field Museum is one of the largest natural history museums in the world, making it a multi-day destination.

20140419_112411Most visitors are attracted in the main hall to Sue, at 42-feet-long and 13 feet high, the most complete and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex fossil. It’s only 67 million years old!

Be sure to check out Sue’s enormous actual fossil head upstairs in a glass case, which couldn’t be put on the model downstairs due to its 600-pound weight.

Dioramas in the Hall of Mammals feature taxidermied animals in their natural habitat. The Field’s first taxidermist, Carl Akeley, revolutionized the art of preserving animals in natural poses. The elephants in the main hall are his work, as well as the famed man-eating lions of Tsavo, a pride of lions that ate 35 people in Kenya, stopping construction in 1898 of a railroad project over the Tsavo River. Chicago’s WGN TV featured the dioramas and their continued effect on education this video.

Lovers of gems and minerals will want to check out the Grainger Hall of Gems, highlighted by a Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass window. The hall was renovated in 2009 and features 600 gems: diamonds, rubies, emeralds, opals and others from around the world, as well as 150 pieces of jewelry.

Open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Field Museum’s basic admission is $18 for adults, $13 for children ages 3-11.

Of course, for Chicagoans, the Field is a source of pride, especially during playoff season. In late April and early May, a dinosaur displays his Blackhawks pride. 20140419_120238


Snowshoeing at Chicago’s Northerly Island

Sculpture at Northerly Island in the winter

Sculpture at Northerly Island in the winter

Chicago, IL–It’s a very snowy, cold winter, but that doesn’t mean you need to stay inside. Bundle up and head over to Chicago’s Northerly Island (yep, the former Miegs Field way over there by the Adler Planetarium) and rent snowshoes or cross-country skis for a little tromp along the lake. Rentals are available for $5 for two hours on weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the fieldhouse, the former airport terminal. With the snow falling and traffic noise minimal, it’s very peaceful. Afterward, learn more about the park’s trail construction, which is due to be completed this year.

Don’t miss Polar Adventure Days–the next one is Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014–to participate in ice fishing, checking out live animals, and watch dog-sledding demonstrations. Snowshoe rental is free during the event, too.

All those folks who were mad at Mayor Richard M. Daley for bulldozing the old Meigs Field runway in the middle of the night in 2003 need to see how beautiful it is in the winter. Before it hosted Meigs Field, it was part of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago as a lakefront park, and hosted the World’s Century of Progress World’s Fair 1933-34. It’s good it’s come back to its roots.

Snowshoes and skis available for rental.

Snowshoes and skis available for rental.

Chicago’s Ferrara Bakery: Original Italian Pasticceria

Outside Ferrara

Chicago, IL–Back in the 60s and 70s, you wouldn’t want to come as far as 2210 W. Taylor St., where Ferrara Bakery  is located. But that was then and this is now. The ever-westward march of the University of Illinois at Chicago and medical campuses have made the west edges of Taylor Street a safer place again.

The downside to this delightful bakery, established in 1908, are those pesky “pay to park” meters in front. If you come on Sunday (hours 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) the parking is free, however, and you can stock up on biscotti, fresh cannoli, and Italian cookies– even frozen soups and lasagna. But lunch is not served on Sundays. You’ll just have to come back on another day for the inventive salads and sandwiches, including their own handmade pastrami.

I tried a mix of the Italian specialty cookies, including frosted cucidadi, a fig-filled confection that should never be used in the same breath as fig newtons. The vanilla almond raisin biscotti are divine, as is the lemon-custard-filled pasticiotto.pasticiottoFerrara is a familiar name to Chicagoans, as the bakery’s founder, Salvatore Ferrara and his brothers-in-law established the Ferrara Pan Candy Company in nearby Forest Park. They make Lemonheads, Atomic Fireballs, and other delicious treats, which are also for sale at the bakery. It’s a double unique Chicago experience!Candy at Ferrara

Counter at Ferrera Bakery

Rebuilding Chicago’s Wells Street Bridge

Wells Street Bridge rebuilding

Wells Street Bridge rebuilding

Chicago, IL–By the time the summer visitors arrive, work on the Wells Street Bridge over the Chicago River will be history. The bridge carries the city’s famous El trains over the river to and from the Loop, road traffic over it, foot traffic alongside. And of course ferry and other river traffic flows beneath it. For those of us who have watched this fascinating rebuilding, it’s a feat of engineering.

New sections were built offsite, then floated on huge platforms to the old bridge. The original 1922 sections were cut away in two phases, and the final new section is being installed now. While Wells Street Bridge construction is not as famous  as the 1883 Brooklyn Bridge, it evokes similar reactions of amazement from passersby.

Next time you’re in the city, you might want to take a moment to reflect on the amazing architecture over the river as well as alongside it.

Cut off old section of Wells Street bridge.

Cut off old section of Wells Street bridge.

Opportunity Knocks at openhousechicago2012

A view of the old Sears Tower from the original Sears Tower

La Casita de don Pedro

St. Adalbert’s in Pilsen

Chicago, IL--This weekend’s openhousechicago was a rare chance to see the original Sears Tower of Homan Square in Lawndale, a peek into the dusty projector room at a former vaudeville and movie house in Pilsen, and Jens Jensen’s office in Humboldt Park, among 150 sites open and free to the public. You just had to show up.

Even spitting rain wouldn’t deter me from heading to Homan Square, and take a tour of the yet-to-be-restored brick tower landmark at 900 S. Homan Ave. From the 14th floor, I could easily see the second Sears Tower (now Willis Tower), site of my first job out of college. Across the street, students offered guided tours of Power House High, in a building that once housed the power generators for the Sears campus. The school preserved a few of the ash ovens and conveyer belts that men worked in front of, as the enormous chimney burned coal to fire the plant.

From Lawndale, it was a short drive to Pilsen and home to Apollo 2000 Theater at 2875 W. Cermak Road. The Mexican community hosts lavish parties in the former vaudeville and movie house, but a tight stairway up to the projector room shows a world left behind–large projectors still sitting, empty film cannisters and boxes marked “trailer” sit waiting for the last picture show. Los Corrales, a restaurant next door to the theater, made a great lunch stop with reasonably priced food and excellent service.

St. Adalbert’s Church, 1650 W. 17th St., an Italian Renaissance style church originally built for the Poles who once lived in Pilsen, still offers a mass in Polish. Polish words are inscribed above the magnificent white marble altar. But Mexican families were there with babies on this weekend, as well as tourists like me taking photos of the artwork and the replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Heading northwest, the next stop was La Casita de don Pedro at 2625 W. Division. It’s a traditional Puerto Rican home with tin roof and front porch, and local residents gather for drumming workshops. The courtyard statue of Don Pedro Albizu Campos, honors the Puerto Rican who fought for independence and died shortly after release from a U.S. federal prison. Farther west, Humboldt Park’s restored 1896 stables building at 3015 W. Division, is home to the Institute of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture. The former office of famed landscape architect Jens Jensen is still being restored, but the panoramic views from the semi-circle shaped room span the park and even over to his former home, a greystone across the street.

Also in the 219-acre Humboldt Park: the Refectory and Boat House at 1440 N. Humboldt Drive, a Prairie-style building on the National Register of Historic Places  overlooking a lake, and well as the Humboldt Park Field House at 1440 N. Sacramento, featuring two gyms and a ballroom, flanked by marble columns.

North and east of Humboldt Park, Uptown hosted a number of venues, but time was running short. I ended my tour of the day at Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation at 5029 N. Kenmore Ave.. The last extant cathedral-style synagogue in the city, closed since 2008, reopened for this event. Climbing the old marble stairs to the sanctuary, where a glittering Italian mosaic ark stood, as rain dripped through the ceiling and left puddles on the floor. Rotting sills leaked air and light around the stained glass windows. Pigeons perched on the women’s balcony. Agudas Achim, an Orthodox congregation that serves an immigrant population in the nearby neighborhood, still hopes to save the building.

So many sites and so little time. Next year, I’ll be starting my tours of openhousechicago a little earlier.

Apollo 2000 Theater projection room

Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation’s mosaic ark


Chicago’s Bald Eagles Hatch

Palos Township, IL–Chicago Blackhawks aren’t the only celebrated birds in town. A pair of American bald eagles recently built a nest in a cottonwood tree in the a southwest suburban part of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and are raising a clutch of hatchlings there. It marks the first time in more than 100 years that a nest could be seen in Cook County. There are about 7060 nesting bald eagles throughout the country.

The eaglets haven’t left the nest, and it will be mid-May before they depart their aerie. The family is expected to stay in the area through the summer, and should return next spring.

To keep the family safe, visitors need to keep a 500 yard distance from the nest. Like any nesting bird, they can be very territorial. It can be seen by looking north across Tampier Slough from 131st Street, between Wolf Road to the east and Will-Cook Road to the west.

The forest preserve offers regular updates and video if you can’t wait.