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Wednesday
Jul062011

A Go West Getaway to Madison, Wisconsin

Madison, Wisconsin, has the benefit of being home not only to Wisconsin’s state government but also a Big Ten university -- and that combination gives the city of 230,000 a real vibrancy. Madison is always showing up on various “best places to live” lists, and  it makes a wonderful spot for a weekend getaway, too. Plus, it’s just a couple hours’ drive from much of the Fox Valley. We’re lucky to have family and friends there, and everytime we visit, we find something new to experience. 

Before you plan your trip, it will help to understand a bit about how Madison is set up. It is home to five lakes, with Lake Mendota and Lake Monona flanking both sides of downtown, resulting in downtown being located on an “isthmus.” (That’s a word you never thought you’d use after 8th grade geography, right?)  The university campus is less than a mile away from the Wisconsin State Capitol, and the State Street pedestrian mall links the two, resulting in a downtown area that is lively and full of restaurants, bars and boutiques.

A view of the famous colorful tables and chairs on the Memorial Terrace at the University of Wisconsin. Photo by Greg Timm on Flickr.

WHAT TO DO

Depending on what day you arrive, you might want to make your first stop the Welcome Center (21 N. Park St., 608-262-4636), located on the university’s campus. There, you can pick up maps, guides and see if there are any special events you’ll want to check out. The center closes at 4:30 p.m. on weekdays, and is unfortuantely closed on weekends.

While on campus, you can stop by the Student Union to check out the lively, scenic Memorial Union Terrace overlooking Lake Mendota. You can grab a snack in the union and rest a bit in one of the terrace’s famous colorful sunburst chairs -- make sure to bring the camera to take a photo of your kids in the oversized version.

Also on campus is the Babcock Hall Dairy Store (1605 Linden Drive, 608-262-3045). This dairy and store has an observation window where kids can watch ice cream and cheese being made and packaged. Visit the dairy store after for yummy treats. It is open til 5:30 p.m. on weekdays and from 11 a.m to 4 p.m on Saturday, but closed on Sundays. (The food is also available in the union and Wisconsin House of Cheese on State Street.) 

The Madison Children’s Museum (100 N. Hamilton St., 608-256-6445) is located downtown, across the street from the State Capitol. It’s honestly worth a trip to Madison just to check out this museum. It was named one of Parents magazine’s “!0 Best Children’s Museums” for 2011. My daughter and I spent an afternoon there on a recent trip to Madison and only saw about half of the exhibits. The art studio was especially impressive, and we spent a lot of time in the “Wildernest” designed especially for children from birth through age 5.

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Tuesday
Feb152011

A Go West Getaway to St. Louis, Missouri

So, why would someone who lives in the Chicago area want to visit St. Louis? St. Louis has professional baseball, hockey and football teams, an exciting children’s museum, an amazing botanic garden, a world-class zoo and tons of delicious Italian restaurants -- but Chicago possess all those things, too.

The Arch and the Old Courthouse. Photo by Frank Peters on Flickr.Of course, I could point out that St. Louis’ baseball team actually has winning seasons most of the time, but ... Hey! That’s just a good-natured joke from a Cardinals fan.

St. Louis is definitely worth a visit, however, for any family looking for an easy getaway, located about a five-hour drive from the Fox Valley. Many of the attractions are inexpensive, and while public transit is very limited, with a car you can get from downtown to its near suburbs in less than 20 minutes outside of rush hour.

WHAT TO SEE:

St. Louis is located on the Mississippi River just south of where it meets up with the Missouri River. It was founded by French traders in 1764, about 70-some years before the city of Chicago was incorporated. Its position as the “Gateway to the West” lends it a different sort of history than the brawny, blue-collar tales of Chicago.

Its most famous feature, of course, is the Gateway Arch, which is located in downtown in a park called the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, part of the National Park Service. In addition to the arch, this area includes paved paths overlooking the river and a building called the “Old Courthouse,” where slave Dred Scott unsuccessfully sued for his freedom. 

Once you see the Arch, you’ll likely want to board a tram for a trip top of this 630-foot stainless steel monument during your stay. But so does everyone else visiting St. Louis, so this one requires some advanced planning. I was at the visitor’s center (located underneath the arch) on a dreary weekday in mid-May at 11 a.m. and the next available tram ticket wasn’t until after 3 p.m. Tickets often sell out. So either plan to stop at the visitor’s center very early in the day, very early in your stay, to buy your timed-entry tickets. Or buy them ahead of time via phone (877-982-1410) or on the web at gatewayarch.com. You’ll have to pass through a security check-point for going up in the Arch, always a fun proposition with kids, so make sure to allow plenty of time before your tram time if you have pre-purchased tickets.

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Tuesday
Sep072010

A Family-Friendly Weekend Trip to Charming Galena

Illinois is a wonderful state, but it lacks a certain topographic charm. In other words, it is really, really flat. 

Downtown Galena is lined with historic brick buildings.That’s not the case, however, in Galena, a town of about 3,400 people tucked in the state’s northwestern corner, one of the few areas of Illinois not flattened like a panini when the glaciers rolled on through during the Ice Age. As you wind your way along the area’s twisty, hill-hugging roads -- looking into valleys populated by trees and grazing farm animals -- you might be inspired to wonder, “Am I still really in Illinois?”

You are, and it turns out that this town -- located a 2 1/2 to 3-hour drive west of the Fox Valley -- has even more going for it than its geographic beauty. With a historic downtown that looks straight out of a sepia photograph, family-friendly shops and restaurants, and plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation, Galena makes for a fun, unique place for a weekend trip or short vacation. 

With fall just around the corner, those rolling hills and valleys will also make for a beautiful spot to appreciate the changing colors of the leaves. And while this article makes recommendations for a family-friendly trip to Galena, it also is a great spot for a girlfriend getaway or romantic weekend. Just read to the end for some tips on planning those types of trips.

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Sunday
Jul042010

A weekend in Springfield, the city that Lincoln loved

With the recent celebrations to mark the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, all things Abe are all the rage. But I’ve always been a big fan of our 16th president, which is a good thing, since I grew up just outside Springfield, Ill. Many of my grade-school classmates used to roll their eyes at yet another Lincoln-centric field trip. But all that history makes Illinois’ capital city a wonderful spot for an economical and family-friendly weekend getaway.
 
Jenna Fischer Lincoln SpringfieldYou can pose with the Lincolns like "The Office" actress Jenna Fischer.The Abraham Lincoln National Library and Museum (212 North Sixth St., 800-610-2094) has attracted more than 1 million visitors since the dedication of its museum portion in 2005. Billed as the first “experience museum” of its kind, it has technological innovations that should wow even the most jaded of tweens. Make plans to spend at least three hours there, and don’t forget the camera: You’ll want a portrait of your family posing with the life-sized replicas of the Lincolns in front of the White House. (It would make for a great holiday card!) If you are bringing a stroller, an umbrella version would be best -- this place can get crowded, and some of the spaces are a bit narrow. Afterward, cross Sixth Street to treat yourself to ice cream or a chocolate at a local institution, Peases’s Fine Candies & Salted Nuts (Sixth and Washington streets, 217-241-3091).
 
In my opinion, nothing beats walking in Lincoln’s steps in the only home he ever owned. It's been meticulously restored to its 1860 appearance, and some of the furniture inside actually was used by the Lincolns. Now called the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, you’ll want to stop at the Visitor Center at 426 South Seventh Street soon after your arrival in town to collect your (free!) timed tickets to tour the home in the company of a National Park Service ranger. The Park Service advises visitors to arrive as early in the day as possible to receive the tour tickets. While the last tour begins at 4:30 p.m., all the tickets will likely be snapped up before then on busy days. 

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