11 days spent exploring some of the USA’s most culturally rich, historically important and fun-loving cities: sounds pretty good right? We chatted with fellow Topdecker, Miles Walker, to get the low-down on his experience of our BBQ and Blues tour.
Chicago, Bean-Town or the Windy City – whatever you call it, the bottom line is this city is very special and filled with a style all its own. Our itinerary was so well thought out and really helped us each to get to the heart of what makes this city so unique. We started our trip with a welcome walk and a trip up the John Hancock Building to catch the sunset and an opportunity to experience the ‘Tilt’ of Chicago. Imagine windows that actually lean straight out over the city at a 30-degree angle: not for those who are afraid of heights but an amazing experience none the less! Next up? Pizza time! And it’s gotta be the world-famous Chicago Deep Dish Pizza experience at the beloved Gino’s East Pizza. Unique to Chicago, the deep dish is very different from the 100s, if not 1000s, of pizzas I have eaten in my pizza-filled past. Prepared with a super high edge that allows for huge amounts of cheese and delicious chunky tomato sauce, it’s kinda like what would happen if a pizza and calzone had a baby. We rounded off night one with a few drinks at a Blues Bar. Cheers to a great trip!
After a delicious breakfast we had the chance to join the optional Architecture Boat Tour. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one but it was maybe the biggest surprise of the whole trip, and one of my major highlights. After a quick trip out around Lake Michigan we cruised around Chicago’s intricate ‘loch’ system and headed into the downtown core. We got to see all the extraordinary buildings and as there were only three other boats on the river that morning, we really had it all to ourselves. Our guide was awesome and full of insider info about everywhere we passed. If I had to pick one ‘must-do’ activity in Chicago, the Architectural Boat Tour is it.
After that we headed over to Portillo’s – which happens to hold the Trip Advisor title as “The Best Fast Casual Restaurant’ in all of the USA – where we tried some more Chicago favourites like the famous Chicago Dog (with pickles and no ketchup) as well as my favourite: the Italian Beef sandwich (wet style), which means entirely dipped in the gravy that the meat was cooked in. And all dishes came in what we came to identify as ‘American-sized portions’ – absolutely enormous servings which were, of course, worth every calorie.
Next up, it was the ‘Untouchables’ Gangster Tour. Chicago was a hot bed for all things gangster in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. John Dillinger, Bugs Moran and the most famous gangster of them all – Al Capone – all spent considerable time here, making the city a base for their nefarious activities. If you fancy yourself a bit of a Soprano aficionado, then the Gangster Tour is another ‘must-do’ in Chicago! That evening we followed the advice of our guide and took in a comedy show at the Laugh Factory, which was the best way to end the evening!
Day 3 was our free day and half of the group opted for a bike ride around the city, but I wanted to pack my day with culture culture culture! So, my first stop was The Field Museum of Chicago (which also happens to look like the Pantheon in Ancient Rome). The main reason for my visit was to see the famous T-Rex Skeleton of Sue (the largest and best-preserved skeleton of a T-Rex ever found) and let me tell you it does not disappoint. Being a bit of a museum nerd, this place ranks up there with the British Museum and the Natural History Museum in NYC. After a quick lunch, it was off to the Art Institute of Chicago which is a ‘must-see’ for any art fans – up there with the Louvre, the Hermitage and the Rijks Museum.
We finished with a meal at the world-renowned Billy Goat’s Tavern. This is a real ‘Locals Spot’ known for its iconic Cheeseburger, which certainly lived up to its formidable rep. Fun fact: several scenes from Batman and the Dark Knight were filmed there. It was famous for its location between the Chicago Tribune building and the Chicago Sun-Times building and was a popular hangout for reporters, comedians (like Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd and John Belushi) and obviously, locals and tourists alike.
Today it was up early and onto the bus – we were Nashville-bound! Armed with movies and Netflix downloads (our coach had a DVD player too) there was plenty to keep us busy, or you could kick back and catch some zs. This evening we had our first chance to try out some of that Southern Hospitality. The portions are (even) bigger than we had in Chicago, people speak slower, and they actually look into your eyes when they talk to you – what a change! Tonight’s included meal was at the Acme Seed and Feed, where there was a great local band and the chance to try out some line-dancing. Nashville is the live music capital of the world and it’s not just country: Soul, Blues, Rock, Pop and Country can all be heard wafting through the air in the area casually known as ‘The District’, or to locals as ‘Broadway’. We checked out Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk Rock N’ Roll Steakhouse for maybe the single greatest cover band we all had ever seen, followed by several floors of fun at Tootsies, the most famous honky tonk on downtown Nashville’s Broadway. This is where Willie Nelson received his first song writing gig after performing live – and where we danced till the early hours of the morning (of course). As you might have guessed, day 5 of our trip was a rough one for many of us!
After an extremely late night for us all, we headed back into Nashville and this time, country music was the theme. I’m not gunna lie, I’m not the biggest country music fan but I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed this! I didn’t know how much influence country had on the music world in general (case in point: Jonny Cash, Elvis and Taylor Swift all had their start in country music or Honky Tonk as it used to be called). The Country Music Hall of Fame Museum was incredible, and I was surprised by how fast a few hours flew by! It was also a great opportunity to see Broadway (the main street in Nashville) minus the neon and drunk people. For most of us, this was a free afternoon/evening and was very relaxed. We dined on some more southern fried food (the perfect hangover cure) and took in yet more great live music.
Nashville to Memphis today so we were on the coach for much of the day. We chilled out, watched movies and after a quick stop at the Memphis Pyramid (seriously, Google it) we arrived in Memphis.
First on the list was a tour of the one and only Sun Studio, which is popularized as the birthplace of Rock and Roll. Everyone from Johnny Cash, to Elvis, to Jerry Lee Lewis and U2 have recorded there! History literally oozes out of the walls here and the gift shop sells great original records. After checking into our amazing upgraded hotel, we went out for some ‘BBQ’ as the locals call it at Rendevous, which was perhaps the best restaurant meal we had during the trip. My eyes were opened to the joys of dipping both cheese and pickles in BBQ sauce (it’s a must!) and the service was incredible. With our waistlines suitably expanded, we headed back to the hotel for an early night as the next day was a big one… it was time for the world famous Graceland.
Graceland, Graceland, Graceland! This was something that everyone had circled on their list and at $60 it was well worth it and beat all my expectations. His house, his cars, his planes, his lounge room, his pictures – everything Elvis. We spent three hours there and I probably could have spent another three but we had to get back to downtown Memphis with a stop at the Rock and Soul Hall of Fame as well as a visit to the Lorraine Motel (where Martin Luther King tragically lost his life) and the famous Beale Street, where the Memphis Blues were born. Memphis spills over with great music, important Civil Rights History and mouth-watering food – one of my favourite destinations for sure!
En route to New Orleans we had a good lunch stop and got to see the biggest Walmart on earth (well, in my humble opinion at least) which is pretty mind-blowing if you haven’t been to one before! We even had a stop in the small town of Kentwood, Louisiana: the hometown of none other than Britney Spears which boasts a museum dedicated to the pop songtress! About half the group popped in here while the others tried some local southern snacks. The night, as most had come to expect, got a little wild. We started with another gargantuan included meal after which I felt like someone was going to have to roll me out of the restaurant – it was amazing. Mmm tip of the day? Share a main! It will still be more than enough to fill two (or three) people.
The night started at Oceana where we tried Gumbo, Grits and some Cajun Style cooking – one word: wow! Then it was off to hit Bourbon Street and (of course) try a Hand Grenade and Shark Bite or two. Trust me, we did. After meeting with another Topdeck group who were travelling from the East to the West coast, we sampled all the fun and chaos that Bourbon Street has to offer! Our first night in NOLA was a late one…
Today was a big day with lots of optionals to squeeze in. We started with a trip out to the Old Bayou to wrestle some gators. Okay, we didn’t actually wrestle gators but we did get to spot about seven or eight of them and hold a baby one (which was brave enough for me). This trip was only $20 and it was one of the best experiences I had. We were all feeling pretty rough this morning but we put on our happy faces and the beautiful swampy air and river views picked up our spirits for sure.
After getting back into town, we had less than an hour before we walked on over to the famous Mississippi for a Paddleboat Experience and lunch. This was a great way to spend the afternoon, in true Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer style. Any chance to get out on the water is a plus and we thoroughly enjoyed it. To finish out the early evening we took in some local street art and hit up the iconic Café Du Monde for their famous Beignets. They were worth the 45-minute wait for sure!
Football, Football, Football was the order of the day. We’re talking American Football (or Gridiron for all you Aussies!). We started off early, just after 10am. Nikki, our incredible guide, had gone out and bought us a big supply of snacks, pop, and fried chicken with all the fixings for a real tailgate party! About half of us actually went to the game, joining 70,000 fans for a pretty raucous time. I have been to sports events all over the world: football games in England, AFL games in Aus and NBA games in the USA – but NFL parties are by far the best of them all, and absolute chaos. The New Orleans Saints faced off against the Arizona Cardinals and even though the game was a bit one sided, it still provided hours of entertainment for the group of us! Good times for sure.
The evening saw half the group staying in and relaxing, enjoying the fantastic pool at the hotel, while others hit up Frenchman’s Street which is the ‘locals’ area’ of New Orleans. It is filled with boutique bars with live music, lots of shops and restaurants of all types – a must-see in the Big Easy and the perfect way to round off an unforgettable trip.
After our last breakfast together, people bid farewell to our guide and group and about half of us made our way to the airport. For music lovers, foodies or those simply in search of laid-back fun: it really has it all. This tour dives into the ‘heart’ of America and leaves no stone unturned. An amazing trip, filled with good people, great food, incredible music and some real southern hospitality. Nikki was great; her wit, jokes and vibrant personality really added to the atmosphere and made the trip for me.
It was neat to see how the further south you went, the temperature would rise, the food portions would get bigger, the accents would get more pronounced and the people would get friendlier. As someone who has travelled extensively up and down the west coast from Washington to California, the east coast from Boston to NYC as well as a lot of Florida, this is one area that had been on my list for years and I was super excited that I got the chance to experience it.