Round-the-World Travel in One Windy City

world travel via chicago graphic

Diversity. /dɪ.ˈvɹ̩ː.sɪ.ti/ n. Varying cultural and linguistic backgrounds, skin tones and body piercings; the reason to travel, or, in cases like Chicago, to never set foot outside the city.   

Although my re-entry into the U.S. was a gradual process of confusion and burritos, what I was most taken aback by was the diversity in my home country.

I’d forgotten, living in a relatively homogenous society as Spain, that varying skin tones, languages, cuisines, and cultures coexist.

In Spain, you see Spaniards. Lots of them. In Madrid and Barcelona, and to a lesser extent in some Southern capitals, you’ll see Americans, and on the Mediterranean coastline you’ll encounter many Brits and Germans. There are growing African immigrant populations, particularly in Andalucia, and a large Pakistani presence in Barcelona.

But what I’ve gleaned after two years in the country: Spain is pretty Spanish.

This isn’t to say that homogeny is inherently bad. Just like diversity, it can help define a place. When you think of Spanish food, ham and paella come to mind—but just what exactly is American food? People travel to Spain specifically because of its strong cultural identity, or basically, its Spanishness.

But after a year, I was ready to dip back into the melting pot.

So when I planned to visit Chicago for BlogHouse between Spain and home in California, I knew I’d love the Windy City—I haven’t heard of anyone who’s set foot there and not fell for it. What I didn’t realize was that after a grueling 10-hour flight, I’d not only be arriving in the Midwest, but also every single continent (ok, sans Antarctica), all via the neighborhoods of Chicago.

World travel, for the price of one transatlantic ticket.

Chicago sunset

A Chicago sunset

When I was fresh off the airplane and riding the El train to the city center, I blessedly heard English conversations all around me. And I’m not talking about the broken kind from my much-missed students, along the lines of “I has girlfriend who his favorite thing be Playstation.” I’m talking fluent, native English. With a bit of a Chicago accent.

But I also heard German, Mandarin, French, Spanish, Russian, Italian, Arabic, and a slew of other languages that I won’t pretend I could identify, even as a linguistics freak.

(#FunFact: Did you know that the U.S. has NO official language? English ISN’T our national language! Though some people campaign too hard to make it so.)

And while most U.S. cities boast diversity, it’s the neighborhoods of Chicago that make the midwest metropolis stand out. Not all of them are ethnic districts—Wicker Park’s boutiques and cafés could fit in most cultures, and Old Town’s stately homes could be anywhere with millionaires—but a great proportion are, and it’s those districts that make your round-the-world-tour doable in a few short days.

My mom came and met me in Chicago, and as we rejoiced in each other’s company after nine months apart, we also saw the greater part of the globe in four days, with just our own two legs, a Divvy bicycle rental, and an El pass. Of course there is still so much left to do, and I feel like I barely grazed the surface, but I secretly planned it this way so I’d have an excuse to revisit Chicago.

Globetrotting Through the Neighborhoods of Chicago

During my stay in Chicago, it was clear that I was in the U.S.—thanks to donuts the size of truck tires, getting carded for beer, and interactions with some of the most overwhelmingly friendly people I’ve ever come across. (They’re not kidding about Midwestern cheer.)

But then, at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, I walked 2 blocks out of our AirBnB rental and into Greece. I could tell I’d arrived because a Walgreens sign was written in an alphabet I didn’t understand. I was reminded of my stay in Ithaca seven years ago, where I developed an unhealthy reliance on stuffed tomatoes.

My mom and I then crossed border control into (Little) Italy, where I inwardly cried that I didn’t grow up with an Italian grandmother pressing fresh pasta every weekend. (Though at least I’ve been taught the secrets to Italian cooking.)

After that a quick jaunt to Mexico, via the neighborhood of Pilsen. There I goggled at the street art and heard slang like “güey” and “¿qué onda?” I also embarrassed myself while speaking Spanish with a waiter, when I let my lisp squeak out in the form of “GraTHias.” Not so sexy this side of the Atlantic.

In the afternoon, after a pristine bike ride around Lake Geneva (which looked a whole lot like Lake Michigan), we got hot and hungry. So we had ice cream in Sweden, via the nordic neighborhood of Andersonville. Quick question, are you really not going to visit a place with a name like Andersonville? Although it didn’t quite compare to Stockholm’s charm, this neighborhood of Chicago boasted adorable vintage shops, quirky beer halls, and elm-lined streets where I would want to raise my hypothetical half-Swede child.

We thought about jetting over to China (town) the next day, but the El train took too long and we weren’t going to walk trans-continentally to Asia. We could have also gone to the Ukraine, as Ukranian Village was just to the West of our apartment, and to Germany via Lincoln Square (but been there, done that ;) Instead, we headed to the Polish Triange, where I satisfied a craving of Pierogies and sausage that I’ve had ever since my Easter trip to Krakow.

On our final day we took a brief African Safari through the Lincoln Park Zoo, because lions are photogenic and it was free. (Unspoken rule: if something is free in the U.S., you have to do it, because nothing in the U.S. is ever free.)

Lion at Lincoln Park Zoo

Mufasa reigns over all other beasts at the Lincoln Park Zoo

But just to remind myself I really had returned to the U.S., we did a few iconic Chicago things.

Like navigating electric boats on the Chicago river.

Or contemplating the reflections on a very large legume, the Chicago Bean.

And standing over glass at the Skydeck of the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, the Sears Tower—because round-the-world travel is great and all, but on-top-of-the-world travel is the new it thing.

Experiencing such diversity through the neighborhoods of Chicago gave me a renewed pride in my home country. We have a long way to go in terms of immigration policy and opening our doors. But I was reminded of what a rarity it is to get such a worldly blend in one nation. It’s the U.S.’s biggest selling point, and I’m happy Chicago could host my re-entry from the world abroad to the world back home.

Have you ever been to Chicago? What’s your favorite neighborhood? I’ll be back someday to check them all out (and also because I never tried deep-dish, oops). 

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  • Gemma Two Scots Abroad

    Wicker Park! Hipster central!

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  • I’m planning on visiting Chicago in early September and checking out the Ukrainian Village is on my list (after the skyscrapers, the museums, the parks, the food, and Frank Lloyd Wright haha). America is a stronger, more interesting place because we have the entire world all in one place ^_^

    • Completely agree! I’ve heard mixed reviews on Ukranian village—some say it’s a must, others say skip it—but it’s pretty central so no harm in checking it out! Enjoy your time there, September should be a great time of year for a visit :)

  • Jessica

    What a cool post! I actually might be going to Chicago this summer if things work out, so I’ll keep it handy.

    I really like your comment about how people visit Spain for its Spanishness – I hadn’t thought of it that way before. Sometimes I miss the melting pot of California. It’s not much fun to walk down the street and have people stare at you because you stick out like a sore thumb. And that’s in Barcelona too, where there are lots of foreigners! It can feel like being a zoo animal on display at times.

    • I definitely felt like a bit of a zoo animal in both Granada and Bilbao. Such a good analogy! I’ll be in Barcelona next year (will you still be??) and I’m looking forward to the fact that there will be more foreigners, but you’re right, I know I’ll still stick out. The fun part is, though, that people are always game for a chat about California! (I’m from the Bay Area, what about you?)

      • Jessica

        As far as I know, yes! Hit me up when you come. :)

        I grew up in the far less glamorous Inland Empire haha.

  • I too love the diversity in Chicago! What a great place :) You certainly covered A LOT of ground in a couple of days :)

    P.S. – I did not know English was not the official language! Great fun fact :)

  • Pedro1312

    you mention “burritos”, haha! it makes me smile as soon as i hear it.

    i know that it is a food in Mexico, but in Spain if i were told to eat such a thing i would say: “i am sorry sir, i do not eat donkeys, much less the poor little ones”, you know, “burro” is a donkey and “burrito” a little one :)

    • Hahaha would be a strange type of burrito indeed :)

      • Pedro1312

        differences between European Spanish and Latin American Spanish are sometimes funny and confusing, just like between British and North American English….i have had a quick look at your blog, but i have not found a blogpost about such a thing, whereas other bloggers do comment about it.

        if you ever talked about it i would fain add my points of view as i truly love languages.

  • One of my favorite things about my city is the diversity! Can’t wait to be back home next week. Spain is waring on me.

    • Oh no! It can’t be waring on you, you just bought a house!!
      What part of Chicago are you from?

      • It’s been two years since I’ve been home, and I just bought a house. Spain is driving me insane these days! I’m from the Western Suburbs but spend a lot of time downtown. I love Chicago!!

  • lindsaypunk

    I adore this post! And like you, I adored Chicago and its diversity. You’ve totally inspired me to do some sort of around-the-world-in-NYC post in the future! ;) (don’t worry, you’ll get allllllllll the props! :P)

    • Anne

      I’m totally going to do the same in SF. Props will be given. Heck, Jenny will likely come with me to half the spots I write about anyways! :P Can’t wait to see your NYC RTW post!

      • Anne, not if I get to SF’s post first. Muaahaahaa. No just kidding, you know more. I just go in to mooch your couch and blogging knowledge :)

    • Oh, good! Can’t wait to read that post about NYC! I should have done one when I visited last year, but I’m SURE you’re more the resident expert ;)

  • Nikita

    Love this! And as a Canadian, I completely relate. When I leave home, it’s not the “traditional” Candian food that I miss, it’s the curries, the pad thai, the pho, the burritos, the falafel… And I love being able to satisfy my wanderlust from pretty much anywhere in some bar or restaurant or festival in my own city. When I’m grumpy, I take it as a lack of culture… But once my mood brightens a bit, I realize that it’s because we have ALL the cultures!

    • I agree, Nikita! My students were always asking me what I eat back home, if not fries and hamburgers 24/7, and the answer is more what I did NOT eat. So much good stuff that I constantly miss abroad.

  • Susie @DabbleInTravel

    We are returning home to Chicago from our RTW trip tomorrow, so this was perfect to get us excited…mostly for the food! Next time, you’ll need to check out Argyle Street for a trip to Vietnam ;)

    • Returning from one RTW trip and embarking on another! Welcome back to the U.S., hopefully a dish-deep awaits you.
      And WHAT, how did I miss Argyle Street? I crave pho on a daily basis.

      • Susie @DabbleInTravel

        Our recommendations are Pho 888 for pho (obviously), Ba Le for banh mi, and Sun Wah for Peking duck (there are also some Chinese restaurants there). Bonus – Pho 888 and Sun Wah are BYOB!

        • Ooooh I thought that was so cool about Chicago, how so many places are BYOB! Helps negate the shock of alcohol places in U.S. restaurants. Thanks for the tips!

  • Katie Aune

    As a Chicago resident, love, love, love this post! I always tell people the ethnic neighborhoods here are one of the best things about the city and so few tourists venture outside of downtown to experience them! Glad you got to see so much!

    • Thanks, Katie! I’m glad I got resident approval :) You’re so lucky to live in such a wonderful city! I’m surprised you ever leave it to go travel, haha

  • Chicago really is a melting pot of a city. It sounds like you did a lot in just four days, deep-dish or no deep-dish.

    • It’s incredible how much there is to do! We certainly saw a fair share, but I really want to return and see Lincoln Square, Bucktown and Hyde Park.

  • Anne

    Okay, first: you really didn’t try deep-dish!? And I believed we were twins…
    Also, are you in danger of becoming a #parttimetraveler? Love this piece and the idea behind it… :)

    • First: I am a crust fanatic, not a sauce and cheese girl. (Remember how much I love bread?) Second, I am already a #parttimetraveler!! I could never hack the nomad life.

      • Anne

        Deep-dish is a plethora of crust. Let’s go back.
        Re: part-time travel, I smell a guest post.