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Classy, Clean, Charismatic Chicago

Step aside New York City and San Francisco… Chicago is the best well-rounded metropolis in the USA!

There are 3 metropolises that I’ve always wanted to visit in the US: New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago… and finally I’ve visited all three!  It is important to note that while Chicago is my favorite city of the big 3 (and I love NYC & San Fran too), my opinions are derived from limited exposure of each cities as a tourist/photographer.

Long time readers of this blog know that I generally travel at a more leisurely pace compared to most tourists (partly because I enjoy photography and photography takes time & patience), but we were downright LETHARGIC in terms of pacing throughout this adventure!  The main objective of this trip was to get some much needed R & R and we also had our 15 month old daughter in tow (thanks mom & dad for babysitting our 3 year old back at home!!)… The truth be told we probably visited in 4 days what normal visitors could cover in a day and a half!… thus… instead of sharing my detailed itinerary I will simply offer my photographs (to the right) and random impressions of Chicago below:

  • Chicago is the cleanest metropolitan I’ve ever been to.  From the moment we arrived at O’Hare International Airport… the train… the city… even its back alleys… are garbage free.  This is a high praise coming from a Vancouverite…. For some reason I expected the city to be more rugged and its cleanliness really surprised me.
  • DEEP DISH PIZZA!!!! (especially from Lou Malnati’s)
  • Both NYC and Chicago have an amazing metro system (the trains even look similar!) and I wouldn’t hesitate to say that they are both charismatic but they cannot be further apart:  NYC’s metro system is charismatic in a sense that it is rugged/no BS/all business; while Chicago’s elevated metro system is elegant/well-maintained/industrial.  The elevated trains are more than just a mode of transport in this town… It is part of Chicago’s architecture/urban landscape.
  • All the tourist attractions (even parks) are closed at 11 PM and it makes night photography difficult
  • Unlike Vancouver where all buildings look similar (floor-to-ceiling glass), Chicago’s skyline is infinitely more appealing due to its diversity and variations.
  • There seems to be an additional tax for everything in Chicago… sweetened beverage tax? Seriously?
  • Every fourth car on the street is either an Uber or a Lyft
  • Homelessness:  I am sure homelessness is an issue for most metropolitan cities but Chicago seems to have a higher-than-most panhandler population (they are mostly friendly and not intrusive)
  • Chicagoans are a bunch of friendly people!  We’ve had locals stop and ask whether we would like a family picture taken at the Riverwalk, or locals giving us directions when Google Maps/GPS went wonky, etc.
  • Chicago is nicknamed the Windy City for a reason… pack a windbreaker!
Parliament Building BC sunset

Victoria: the Quaint Picturesque Capital

Since having my second child I’ve put my hobbies on hold (thus this website still seem like a work in progress haha) and I’ve been MIA for the past 2 months or so.  My wife and I grew up in Victoria and most of our families still call Victoria home… On our most recent trip back home I was able to sneak out for an evening photo session with just me and my trusty D7000 (luckily the weather god was on my side too!).

Victoria is the capital of British Columbia while Vancouver is the biggest and most well known city (I worked in the tourism industry throughout high school and it seemed like a significant portion of tourists assume Vancouver as the capital of BC).  Victoria is not connected to the mainland of British Columbia so in order to get there one must travel 1) by sea (BC Ferries: Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay)  or 2) by air (Helijet or other float planes departing from downtown Vancouver).  Most commoners like myself choose option 1 and it takes around 3 hours to get from downtown Vancouver to downtown Victoria (check ferry schedule here).  I highly recommend taking your own vehicle as public transit in Victoria is… sub-optimal.

Most tourist attractions in Victoria are within walking distances from each other and they are clustered around “Inner Harbor” with the exception of a beautifully curated garden called “the Butchart Gardens” (where I spent an entire summer selling flower seeds from its gift shop so you probably won’t find me there anytime soon, or ever… but it is worth a visit IMHO).  Victoria is absolutely stunning visually anytime of the year but I would visit during spring/summer because that’s when its tourist charm is at its peak… don’t worry even at peak tourist season Victoria is still a small city and parking/traffic is still negligible when compared to any major cities.  At the end of the day if you have a couple days on your itinerary Victoria really is a must-visit (2 days 1 night should be sufficient as it is a small city after all)… but be forewarned, when the speed limit says 40 km/hr Victorians really drive below 40 km/hr.

Quick random thoughts: Consider visiting the Parliament Building, the Empress Hotel for its famous afternoon tea if that is your thing, and the Royal Museum nearby.  Also consider visiting the inner harbor during evenings (summer time only) for some truly talented street performers.  Take a casual stroll through Government Street and downtown nearby (for a quick cheap bite consider “Red Fish Blue Fish” for some tasty fish and chips/chowder by the water).  Visit Butchart Gardens either on the way to Victoria or on the way back to the ferries (2 hrs should be sufficient unless you are  a garden/flower aficionado).  Skip Undersea Gardens unless you really love the opportunity to maybe spot an ordinary octopus…

Beautiful Seattle Skyline with Space Needle at night from Kerry Park

Seattle: Sparkling Northwest Gem

Introduction

I have always considered Seattle as Vancouver’s twin because these two cities are so close geographically from each other (~2 hours by car excluding the border wait).  In typical northwest fashion Seattleites are polite, laid-back, and generally fit (who can blame them? Northwest’s natural beauty = outdoor activities).

I have been to/through Seattle many times before but I have never “toured” around the city (like many Vancouverites, Seattle’s existence was purely for cross-border shopping at Seattle Premium Outlet).  With the entire northwest enjoying a history-setting fantastic summer and the Toronto Blue Jays coming to Seattle… Seattle here I come!

Itinerary: (I might have lied a little bit because we actually spent 2 nights/3 days in Seattle but since we spent 1.5 days shopping… I will not be writing on that lol)

DAY 1: (driving) Vancouver to Seattle (shopped at Seattle Premium Outlets)
DAY 2: Kerry Park, Seattle Center/Space Needle, Downtown, Safeco Field, Kerry Park
DAY 3: Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, back to Vancouver

One day Whirlwind Tour Around Seattle

After I dropped my wife off for some official business stuff I was off to tour Seattle on my own!  We stayed slightly outside the city (closer to where my wife had to be for the day) per Google Maps (~20 minutes) and I had one goal in mind upon departure… Get to the 7th Ave parkade by 10:00AM to avoid being slaughtered with downtown parking charges.  With my extensive first-hand knowledge about Seattle’s propensity for traffic jams from prior pass throughs, I left our B&B at 9:20AM for a 20 minute drive (non rush-hour)… Even with my self-proclaimed fantastic foresight I arrived at the parkade at 10:10AM (so much to the early bird special!) and it would cost ~$30-40 for the day.  My 20 year old car was probably worth ~$500 (way more in terms of emotional attachment though)… “Do I really want to pay 10% of what my car is worth to park for a few hours?”… “Fuck no!” replied my cheap inner Asian and off to Kerry Park I went.

The traffic god in Seattle must’ve laughed his/her ass off because there were literally no traffic out of downtown Seattle as I journeyed to Kerry Park. Luckily enough I caught a glimpse of cheap parking around Seattle Center (where the Space Needle is located which was slightly outside of the downtown core) as I drove past.  My trusty old Civic struggled to climb up the steep hill leading to Kerry Park but at last I arrived in one piece and there were ample street parking available!

This little patch of grass called “Kerry Park” was by far the best place to enjoy the Seattle skyline.  It was a very tiny viewpoint in the middle of a residential area so it was probably off-limits to large tour buses and thus remained relatively quiet (I was able to take a few photos of Stuart the Minion without looking too ridiculous lol).  From the viewpoint I could see the multicolored Seattle Center and the iconic Space Needle with downtown Seattle as a backdrop…  Furthermore, Mount Rainier was easily visible in the distance because of the fantastic weather!  I knew it was unfair for my wife to miss this marvelous view because of work and I decided I would return to this park after the baseball game that night to enjoy the night lights of Seattle.

Seattle Center & the Space Needle was only 5 minutes away by car and there were ample of parking available (by around 10:45AM)… $18 for the day “only”!  The main building housed the Experience Music Project (EMP) which was basically a music museum.  The most interesting aspect of this attraction was not of the content or the music museum inside, but of the architecture of the building itself.  I had visited Seattle Center numerous times before and I still have no idea what the building was supposed to represent.  The curvy, multicolored, reflective structure provided many interesting perspective for photographs (oh yeah, the monorail also passed through the structure) such as a reflection of the Space Needle that was directly adjacent.  The iconic Space Needle offered a fantastic unobstructed view of the city as well as its surrounding the Puget Sound, but due to the long queue I decided against going up to the top (I have already been on previous visits – the night view was far more spectacular in my opinion).  Toronto Blue Jays memorabilia (jerseys, hats, etc) could be found on many visitors during the visit (including myself).

The monorail station was located within a 30 second walk opposite to the Space Needle and there were only 2 stations for the monorail: Space Needle (Alweg Station) and downtown Seattle (Westlake Center).  This uneventful ride cost only $2.50 one-way and I arrived at the downtown core in just 5 minutes (take that $40 parking!).  Following tourist signs and a short stroll later I arrived at another Seattle icon: Pike Place Market.

Pike Place Market was beyond packed with tourists and like Seattle Center there were copious Blue Jays supporters among the crowd.  Pike Place Market was an old and damp building buzzing with activity with various vendors selling the freshest local seafood, produce, or flowers money can buy.  Once in a while there would be actual customers but those freshest ingredients certainly demanded a premium price!  As an amateur photographer I was overwhelmed by the colors and arrangements of various items and it was difficult to take time to compose various photographs without interrupting the constant foot traffic. [if you feel overwhelmed by the amount of people at the Market… which you likely will on a prolonged stay… consider going down a level where numerous art studios/stores are located… the difference in traffic between the main floor and the floor below was insane].  Immediately opposite the Pike Place Market was the original Starbucks (often mentioned in guide books)… Please be aware that there are TWO Starbucks across Pike Place (an modern looking Starbucks vs ancient-looking Starbucks which is the original).

From Pike Market I walked to University and 4th Ave for lunch (colleague recommended) because my stomach was revolting from my a lack of nutrition.  The Seattle Public Library was only 5 minutes away from the restaurant and it came highly recommended by photographers on Flickr and I was glad I listened to their advice!  I spent more than an hour in this beautiful, modern, asymmetrical piece of art.  The last time I spent more than 10 seconds in a library I was cramming for my licensing exam during university (I can’t believe I willingly stayed in another library for so long!)  The entire structure was encased in diamond shaped glasses with a minimalist interior… I was so mesmerized by the diamond-patterned shadows cast from the windows and I stopped on every floor looking for inspirations in this 10-story architectural masterpiece.  Luckily I was rewarded with a few keepers.

After another hour of casual street photography I found myself near the waterfront again walking towards one of the newest waterfront attraction: The Seattle Great Wheel.  It was basically a big Ferris Wheel almost identical to the London Eye.  Again I did not queue up for the ride because I didn’t think I would get a better vantage point of the Seattle skyline from the ride (it was dwarfed by the first row of downtown Seattle’s waterfront buildings).  I made my way back to Westlake Center (adjacent to Nordstrom’s) for my monorail return trip to Seattle Center to pick up my vehicle since it was already past 4:00PM (wifey needed a pickup lol).  In typical Seattle fashion it took me 40 minutes to cover a 15 minute distance (ARRGGHH!).

It was around 5-6PM and we were in the peak of rush hour traffic attempting to reach Safeco Field where the Seattle Mariners played host to the Toronto Blue Jays.  I had never been to a professional baseball game before and I had no idea what to expect… the only thing I knew was the amount of Blue Jays fans roaming around Seattle.  We were stuck in traffic for over an hour and by the time we reached the venue the game was already underway (3rd inning)… we missed the national anthems and a Blue Jays’ home-run (ARRRGGG!).  Safeco Field was way grander than I imagined and the atmosphere was fantastic with a near-full stadium… funny enough, the stadium was filled with Toronto fans and we easily outnumbered the home team fans by about 3:1 = Blue Jays took over Seattle’s home field hahahaha (see all the blue in the crowd?).  After a pleasing Blue Jays victory we ended our night at Kerry Park marveling at the sparkling night lights of Seattle… fulfilling day indeed!

Itinerary/Gallery

Seattle Road Trip

Overview of attractions visited in Seattle