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17 June 2019

The Caffeine Chronicles: Nkora, Shoreditch

Over the past few months, I've made a few trips to Columbia Road Flower Market to replenish my small balcony garden and to buy several new plants for inside my flat (bonus tip: Pot Luck is my favourite shop for plant pots). The busy flower and plant market is very busy year round, but particularly on sunny Sundays in the spring and summer, when even just reaching the end of the stalls can feel like a real endurance test. To psych myself up, I like to go for coffee first at Nkora on Hackney Road, a five-minute walk away.

Nkora takes its name from a region in Rwanda — not a colloquial pronunciation of the Italian word ancora (still/yet), which was my first guess! — and there are now three locations: Shoreditch, Cambridge Heath and St Albans. So far, I've only visited the Shoreditch cafe, but have been a handful of times over the past year or so.

The coffee shop is located on a bustling section of the Hackney Road, just east of the northern end of Shoreditch High Street. The décor is rustic and minimalist, with a few pops of colour and works from local artists on the walls. Most of the main room is taken up with the large, slate-grey counter that matches the storefront. There are three seats at the slim table in front of the large window, several more small tables inside the shop and in the small courtyard at the rear, and a bench out on the pavement. On my two most recent visits, when I took some photographs, the sun streamed in through the windows, bathing the cafe in beautiful afternoon light.

Nkora serves coffee from a variety of roasters, but there's usually coffee from Union on offer. The menu includes standard espresso-based drinks and batch-brew filter coffee (as well as matcha, chai, tea and hot chocolate). When I visited in April, I sampled an impeccably brewed Guatemalan Xejuyu single-origin espresso roasted by Union served as a piccolo. It tasted great and I enjoyed sitting in the window seat watching the world go by.

On my most recent visit, a couple of weeks ago, I tried the filter coffee. It was a hot day and a lot of customers were ordering cold brew and iced lattes, but I found natural-processed coffee from Round Hill Roastery to be very refreshing indeed when served hot. I don't recall the origin, but the brew was bright, fruity and very jazzy. All too often, batch-brew filter coffee can be disappointing, but this was excellent.

I'd already had lunch, and so didn't have room to try the all-day breakfast menu or the sandwiches. I did, however, find room for a peanut butter brownie, which came topped with half of a Reese's peanut butter cup — just to make sure there was sufficient peanut butter. My sweet treat was delicious, and paired nicely with my coffee.

The baristas are friendly and knowledgeable and despite its busy location, I found Nkora a very relaxing place to sit and enjoy my coffee — and not just in comparison to the hustle and bustle of the flower market!

Nkora. 21 Hackney Road, London, E2 7NX (Shoreditch High Street or Hoxton Overground). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

For 100+ more of my favourite coffee shops in London, please check out my speciality coffee guide.

7 June 2019

A Long Weekend in Berlin: Bex's Guide

While exploring last-minute city breaks just before the recent UK bank-holiday-weekend, I found a great deal on a two-night trip to Berlin on astminute.com, a site I've never used before. Return flights with BA (going out on Saturday lunchtime, returning on Monday night) and two nights at a boutique hotel in Alexanderplatz cost me about £325; the same flights alone were £100 more on the BA website. I'm not usually very spontaneous when it comes to travel, preferring to research and plan every last detail, but I hit the purchase button on Friday morning, and just over 24 hours later, I was on my way to Berlin.

I last visited the German capital on a brief and frosty work trip in December, and before that, I was last there on a school trip in 1998. My main memories of the latter are: stumbling upon the Love Parade with our history teachers; sneaking out to see Sylvester Stallone at Planet Hollywood; and, perched on the window sill of my hotel room, watching celebrations of France's World Cup victory. I was a vegetarian at the time and the veggie options were pretty poor; happily, Berlin is now one of the most veggie- and vegan-friendly cities in the world, according to the guide of the walking tour I took.

Forty-eight hours in Berlin is nowhere near enough time, but I made good use of the U-Bahn and managed to see a lot of the city and its diverse — and dispersed — neighbourhoods. I've already written about the speciality coffee shops I visited, but here are some of the other things I enjoyed.

Discover Berlin walking tour. Last time, I squeezed in a free tour of the Reichstag dome, and briefly visited the Brandenburg Gate and the chilling and thought-provoking Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. For a more comprehensive overview of central Berlin's sights and history this time, I booked a four-hour Discover Berlin walking tour with Berlin Walks (€14). Our guide Sam Z, a wry Scot expat, was informative, entertaining and very knowledgeable. We covered a lot of ground — and a lot of Berlin's history — but the route allowed Sam to walk us through the city's history (literally) from its early origins, through the Prussian era and the darker times of the 20th century, to its regeneration since 1989. If you're short on time and want to see many of the city's key historic sights, I would recommend this tour.

Berlin Wall Memorial. This interactive outdoor memorial extends for 1.4 km on Bernauer Strasse and includes photographs, audio and displays that describe the history of the Berlin Wall, from its construction in 1961 until it was taken down 28 years later, as well as various pieces of public art. I started at the eastern end, near Mauerpark, and walked west almost all the way to the end, stopping to climb the viewing platform for an aerial view of the site border strip. If you're further east, in Friedrichshain, you can also visit the East Side Gallery, a long remaining section of the wall painted with many murals.

Exploring Prenzlauer Berg. I spent several hours in the Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood, with its beautiful, colourful buildings. Although the excellent shops in the area are closed on Sundays (like most shops in Berlin), the craft and flea markets in Mauerpark are in full swing, while many of the eateries are bustling with the weekend brunch crowd. I really enjoyed browsing the markets, and had my first currywurst at one of the street-food vendors. The sun was out and there were buskers and street performers entertaining visitors of all ages. I also stopped by Kulturbrauerei, a brewery turned arts and street food venue.

Bergmannkiez and Tempelhof. Soon after arriving in Berlin on Saturday afternoon, I took the U-Bahn to Bergmannkiez, a small neighbourhood with many independent shops and interesting eateries, south of the central Mitte district. Bergmannstrasse, the main drag, is a particularly good spot for wandering, and the gorgeous architecture on Chamissoplatz is also worth a visit. A few minutes' walk to the south is Tempelhofer Feld, a former airport that is now a large public park. There were many Berliners soaking up the evening sunshine in the park, and if you're an airport aficionado, you'll enjoy the disused buildings too. Just outside the park is the Luftbrückendenkmal — the memorial to the Berlin Airlift.

Tiergarten. Speaking of parks, the sprawling, 520-acre Tiergarten runs from the Brandenburg Gate west to the Berlin Zoo. I wasn't staying close enough to go running there, but I did enjoy strolling through on Monday afternoon. The park was in fine form, with pink and purple flowers in bloom, birds singing and even some bunnies hopping across a tranquil lawn (well, Tiergarten does mean 'animal garden'). If you'd like to peek into the zoo without paying the entrance fee, head to the rooftop of neighbouring Bikini Berlin, a shopping complex with pop-up stores, for a great view of various primates.

A colleague recommended that I visit Peter Schlemihl, a cosy neighbourhood restaurant just opposite Chamissoplatz in Bergmannkiez. With great cocktails, very reasonably priced modern takes on classic German dishes and friendly staff, it is a lovely spot. Do note that there are no English menus, so you may need a bit of help from Google Translate. And it can get busy on weekend evenings, so try to book, if possible; they do also have tables available for walk-ins, though. I had some meatballs, served with a spicy condiment and a sweeter one, followed by a pork belly burger with two salads. The food was tasty and the portion sizes generous.

After Peter Schlemihl, I had a couple of hours to kill before my 10:30 pm reservation at CODA, a fine-dining dessert bar in Kreuzberg. During the late-night shift, diners can order either a three- or four-course dessert menu with drinks pairings. I limited myself to three courses (€54) and each dish was delicious, with creative combinations of flavours, textures and tastes. I started with a tarragon ice cream with poached rhubarb, tofu and biscotti (paired with a drink that combined sherry, a distilled-juniper liquor, lemon and celery). Next up was the baked apple with apple and shallot jam, smoked salt ice cream and biscuit crunch. Finally came the Amelonado cacao with cashew and a sort of sweet, congee rice. "I'm just going to grate some bonito on top," the server said, "but don't worry, it won't taste of fish; it just adds some umami." He was not wrong and this was my favourite course, although the apple and shallot jam was my favourite element. Impeccable service and wonderful presentation make this is a special and unique place to dine.

While shopping in Mitte on Monday, I stopped for lunch at Mädchenitaliener, a casual modern Italian spot on Alte Schönhauser Strasse. I enjoyed the fried gnocchi with sage butter I ate at one of the pavement tables — great for people-watching. There are plenty of eateries on this street, so if you're in the mood for a different cuisine, you'll have no problem finding something tasty.

Out in West Berlin, the unassuming Preussenpark turns into ThaiPark on weekends from April to October. For many years, Berlin's Thai community have gathered here at weekends to cook, eat and be merry. Although I arrived slightly late on Sunday evening, there were still several stalls in place and I was able to purchase a huge and delicious bowl of pad thai and watch the sun set over the city.

For lighter bites and cakes, the coffee shops I visited had a great selection of sweet treats. I also stopped by Black Isle Bakery, a minimalist cafe on Linienstrasse in southern Prenzlauer Berg, for breakfast one morning. The hazelnut banana bread really hit the spot. I just had a pretzel at the luxurious food hall at the KaDeWe department store, but there were also many sweeter, richer and generally more decadent options too.

Although I was travelling light — and saving space in my small backpack for coffee beans — I did plenty of window shopping in Berlin, and ended up buying two large cushion covers that I managed to squeeze into my bag. Do note that almost all shops are closed on Sundays in Berlin — even many larger grocery and food shops.

My favourite area to shop was the northern part of Mitte and southern part of Prenzlauer Berg, where there were lots of independent stores, including plenty of design and lifestyle shops, and fashion boutiques. My favourites included: Amazing Crocodile Design Store (design concept store; pictured below); Atheist Shoes (handmade shoes); Blumenfisch (unique, Berlin-themed souvenirs); Broke + Schön (fashion); Fundamental Berlin (furniture and homewares); Motel a Miio (gorgeous ceramics; pictured below); S.Wert (stylish Berlin-themed gifts); Schee (homewares); and Spreeheidi (clothes and homewares).

Bergmannkiez, as I mentioned above, is also a good place to shop. There's a branch of Picknweight, a pay-by-the-kilo vintage store, and a nice gift / homewares store called Herrlich ('gloriously').

Further west, the historic Kaufhaus des Westens department store (AKA KaDeWe) reminded me a lot of Selfridges and had a similarly good food hall. A few minutes' walk away is a newer development: Bikini Berlin. The complex of pop-up shops and eateries is a bit like Shoreditch's Boxpark, but with a view from the rooftop of excited young primates strutting their stuff in Berlin Zoo.

I stayed at the Hotel Indigo Alexanderplatz, a small boutique hotel a short walk from Alexanderplatz. My room was on the small side but comfortable, stylish and quiet and the hotel staff very friendly and helpful. Although Alexanderplatz is very commercialised, I was ten minutes' walk from several excellent speciality coffee shops, and the area is very well connected with several bus, tram and U-Bahn lines, which makes it easy to zip across the city. Last time, I stayed at Fjord Hotel, which is sort of near Potsdamerplatz. The hotel itself was fine but I made the mistake of assuming that because it was in the middle of lots of interesting neighbourhoods it would be a good place to stay; instead, it was mainly residential and very quiet.

Arriving and getting around
From Tegel airport, you can take the frequent TXL bus to Alexanderplatz, which takes about 40 minutes. On my previous trip, I took the 109 bus and then transferred to the U-Bahn to get to the area just south of the Tiergarten where I was staying. In both cases, you can buy a single AB zone ticket (€2.80), which lasts two hours and includes transfers onto all public transport types. You can pay with a credit card at the machines at the airport; just don't forget to validate your ticket before boarding (on my way back to the airport, I witnessed a rather unpleasant encounter between a ticket inspector and a ticketless passenger — there is a hefty fine even if you have a ticket but forget to validate it). I bought one-day tickets (€7) on Saturday and Sunday, which are worth it if you make more than two journeys per day. I walked a lot (about 15 miles per day!), but Berlin is a big city and so I took the U-Bahn several times each day.

I speak a little German and understand a bit more, but many Berliners, especially those in the tourism and hospitality industries, speak excellent English.

Germany's currency is the Euro and although credit cards and contactless are becoming more common, especially in the hipper establishments, cash is still king. I was able to pay by card in most places but was glad I had cash with me for smaller shops and casual eateries.

3 June 2019

Berlin Speciality Coffee Guide: Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg

For more Berlin speciality coffee recommendations, check out my coffee guide to Kreuzberg and Neukölln.

A great (very) last-minute deal saw me spending the last bank holiday weekend in Berlin. I visited the German capital in December for the first time in more than 20 years, but as I was there for work, I only had one day of free time and spent most of it exploring the speciality coffee scene in Kreuzberg and Neukölln. This time, I saw a bit more of the city and visited a number of different speciality coffee shops and roasters in the sprawling Mitte (city centre) district — especially around Alexanderplatz, where I stayed — and the pretty and historic Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood. The map below covers coffee spots I visited on both this trip and my penultimate visit.

19 Grams (Mitte)
A few minutes' walk from the busy Alexanderplatz station, you can find the 19 Grams cafe and roastery. Launched under the Tres Cabezas name in 2002, the company underwent a rebrand last year and now has four cafes in Berlin, the original Friedrichshain location retaining the Tres Cabezas name. The Alexanderplatz cafe is large and airy with plenty of seating inside and on the pavement outside. The roastery is at the back, and there was a wide selection of bags of retail beans available when I visited. There are sandwiches, cakes and breakfast/brunch dishes too.

I stopped by practically as soon as I arrived in the city on Saturday afternoon; my hotel was only ten minutes' walk away. I ordered a piccolo, which was made with the Wild at Heart espresso — a sweet blend of Costa Rican and Colombian varieties that worked beautifully with a little milk.

I returned on my last day to buy some beans and I was in luck because they'd just finished roasting some Costa Rican Black Punch beans from Finca Las Lajas, which the friendly barista recommended to me after I described my coffee preferences. The coffee was naturally processed and then sun dried, and as soon as I smelt the sample as a filter coffee, I knew it would be my kind of coffee and I bought a bag. As I got a free coffee with the beans, I also got a cup of the Black Punch to go, and the dark chocolate and strawberry notes came through very nicely. The coffee has also been tasting great brewed through my V60 at home.

19 Grams is located at Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 13 (and other locations). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

The Barn Roastery (Prenzlauer Berg)
Last time I was in Berlin, I visited Berlin roaster The Barn's then-newest location, in Neukölln. This time, I hit the roastery–cafe on Schönhauser Allee, a leafy boulevard in Prenzlauer Berg. Were it not for the A-board, you might miss The Barn altogether but luckily, I knew what I was looking for. Inside, the centrepiece is a huge, wooden L-shaped counter, one 'arm' of which holds the espresso machine and the other acts as the brew bar for hand-brewed filter coffee. The roastery, meanwhile, is at the back. There are lots of small wooden tables across from the counter, and a bigger high table next to the roaster.

As usual, there was an impressive pourover menu but I was soon sold on the newly arrived Ethiopian Dambi Uddo natural coffee, whose strawberry and bergamot flavour notes made for a delicious brew. This is a relaxing place for a coffee, and the knowledgeable, welcoming baristas made the experience very enjoyable. They also serve more creative seasonal drinks, and sell sweet treats, coffee kit and retail bags of beans.

Although I was coffee-d out by the time I got there, I did also pass by The Barn's newest branch in Potsdamer Platz. The small cafe in the historic Haus Huth is a lovely location for an espresso-based drink or filter coffee. It would also have been perfect for my last trip, when I was staying close by and couldn't find much in the way of speciality coffee in close proximity.

The Barn is located at Schönhauser Allee 8, Haus Huth — Alte Potsdamer Str. 5, (and other locations). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Ben Rahim (Mitte)
You can find most of the big names in Berlin speciality coffee in Mitte, but I was keen to try some of the less well-known (internationally, at least) places too. Ben Rahim was one such spot that came highly recommended. The tiny coffee shop is tucked away in a quiet alley off Sophienstraße, a Mitte street that boasts a number of artisan and other independent shops. Ben Rahim serves speciality coffee with an Arabian influence. This means that you can have your coffee brewed in an ibrik, if you like, and the influences continue in the décor and in the sweet treats they serve (baklava).

Ben Rahim's house roaster is London-based Square Mile but because one of the coffees available on filter — a Tanzanian Magwila — was one I'd had at home, I decided to go for a Kenyan from April, a Copenhagen coffee roaster. Brewed through the V60, the coffee tasted very good with lovely fruity notes. I also ordered a baklava (it would be rude not to), which was crisp, sticky and sweet, exactly a it should be. The baristas were great too, providing a welcoming atmosphere and putting a lot of care into each cup of coffee that they brewed.

Ben Rahim is located at Sophienstraße 7. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Bonanza Coffee Heroes (Prenzlauer Berg)
Bonanza's roastery in Kreuzberg was one of my favourites of my last Berlin trip. Their Prenzlauer Berg coffee bar is smaller, but on a sunny Sunday lunchtime, it was bustling, with most of the seats outside fully occupied. I nabbed a stool at the window, and then went to choose some beans to take home. I decided to go for the Rwandan Bumbogo #2 honey-processed beans, which promised an unusual combination of bananas, berries and boiled sweets. I'm not sure I've managed to taste the bananas in my extractions at home, but the latter two flavours have been evident.

I also ordered a piccolo, which was brewed with a Colombian El Carmen espresso. The coffee was brewed immaculately and tasted fantastic. Just what I needed to energise myself ahead of a walk through the flea, craft and street food markets of Mauerpark, just across the road.

Bonanza Coffee Heroes is located at Oderberger Str. 35 (and Kreuzberg). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Brammibal's Donuts (Mitte)
In Kreuzberg last year, I enjoyed an excellent vegan doughnut at Brammibal's, but because there was no off-menu coffee ordering — and no macchiato, piccolo or cortado on the menu — I didn't sample a Populus coffee with Oatly milk. The same is true at the Potsdamer location of Brammibal's, whose gorgeous, millennial pink bar — and coordinating coffee cups — is quite something.

I can't drink large quantities of cow's milk, and I'm not a huge fan of oat milk in my coffee, but I decided to go for a flat white made with Populus's Fazenda Sertao espresso from Brazil. The flat white was well brewed and the milk didn't overpower the taste of the coffee, although I still would have preferred a piccolo or macchiato. They do serve batch-brew filter coffee too. Brammibal's other main draw is the doughnuts and I had a brown butter and rosemary doughnuts — one of their seasonal selection — which was delicious.

Brammibal's Donuts is located at Alte Potsdamer Str. 7 (and Kreuzberg). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Five Elephant (Mitte)
I get to try Five Elephant coffee from time to time in London and on my travels but I was still keen to visit their Mitte location, a slim coffee bar on Alte Schönhauser Strasse. It was pretty close to my hotel so I decided to stop by for breakfast after a run around Friedrichshain park. The design of this cafe is particularly lovely, with a long counter made of the same material as you can see underneath my coffee in the second photo, and the sweet treats on display in an elegant glass display. There are stools perched at the front window and along the wall opposite the coffee bar, plus a few seats outside, which are great for people-watching.

I had an excellent macchiato, brewed with a Brazilian espresso, as well as a raspberry baked good that seemed to be a hybrid of a muffin and a scone.  It was very good, and if you have a sweeter tooth than me, you should be well-served by Five Elephant's food offering. Colourful bags of coffee beans are also for sale.

Five Elephant is located at Alte Schönhauser Str. 14 (and Kreuzberg). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

No Fire No Glory (Prenzlauer Berg)
In the heart of Prenzlauer Berg, No Fire No Glory is a large, laid-back cafe that was positively bustling on the Sunday afternoon I visited. Most of the outdoor tables, on the broad pavement, were full, but I managed to find a space inside, just opposite the coffee bar. As well as coffee and drinks, they serve brunch until 2 pm and the brunch crowd was out in full force during my visit.

Their espresso is a custom Brazilian and Colombian blend, roasted by Bonanza. As I was pressed for time, I ordered a macchiato, which I just about had time to drink before dashing off for a walking tour. The coffee was very good, but next time, I'd like to linger a little longer at No Fire No Glory to soak up the atmosphere — and sample the brunch.

No Fire No Glory is located at Rykestraße 45. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

24 May 2019

A Long Weekend in Chicago: Bex's Guide

It's taken me too long to visit Chicago — the Midwestern city, on the shores of Lake Michigan, has been in my sights for some time. I missed out on a work trip a few years ago, but as it would have been during a particularly cold and snowy February, that may have been for the best.

I snapped up a good flight plus hotel deal on BA Holidays, arriving on a Friday afternoon and flying home late on Monday night, giving me three-and-a-half days in the city. As I had to pre-book so many restaurants and activities, my schedule was tightly packed and I wished I had stayed at least one extra day, so that I could have spent more time in the Lincoln Park and Logan Square neighbourhoods and visited the Field Museum. As for the weather, it was mixed; Friday and Monday were beautifully sunny and fairly mild, while Saturday and Sunday were grey, cool and intermittently rainy. As a recent episode of The Good Fight (a favourite Chicago-set but New York-filmed legal drama of mine) demonstrated, that's May in Chicago for you.

Downtown art and architecture. I chose to stay in The Loop so that I could be fairly central, but also because I wanted to explore the public art and architecture in the skyscraper-filled area. I loved seeing the mix of architectural styles, and watching the L train rumbling over the elevated railway tracks.

I took an architecture boat tour with the Chicago Architecture Center, an extremely informative and interesting 90-minute ride along the vibrant turquoise Chicago River and each of its three arms that hug The Loop. I learned that Chicago's 'Second City' nickname comes from the fact that most of the city had to be rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1871. Meanwhile, in the second photo below, the base of the shiny high-rise building (150 North Riverside) had to be designed like the base of a Kalita Wave dripper because of ownership of the land in the 'missing' segments. Unfortunately, my tour was on a cloudy day and my photos weren't great but I'd still highly recommend it.

I also spent a lot of time admiring the views from the Riverwalk and the various bridges, including the brutalist cylinders of Marina City and the grand, Spanish colonial revival Wrigley Building. The after-dark visual art projections on the Merchandise Mart, AKA Art on the Mart, were fun to watch too.

Millennium Park. My hotel was just one block from Millennium Park and I visited the 25-acre green space several times. There are several public artworks inside, perhaps the most famous being Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate (AKA The Bean). I first visited on a sunny Friday afternoon when it was extremely busy, but took some better photos early on Saturday morning before my run (my leaping photo was taken by a kind fellow tourist).

Lakefront Trail. Chicago's 18.5-mile Lakefront Trail is another good way to enjoy the great outdoors in the city (weather permitting). I ran south to Northerly Island one morning, and north past the Navy Pier to Oak Street Beach on the other. Both routes yielded great views of the skyline and of the vast blueness of Lake Michigan.

360 Chicago Observation Deck. I like to visit an observation deck when I first arrive in a new city to help me get my bearings (cf Tokyo), and as the skies were clear on my first day, I decided to catch the sunset at 360 Chicago inside the John Hancock Building. If you don't want to pay for a ticket, you can go to the Signature Lounge one floor up, but there was a longer line for the latter and I was worried I'd miss the sunset. 360 Chicago wasn't overly crowded either and I took dozens of photos as the sun went down and the city's lights came on. The Willis Tower's Skydeck is another, slightly taller option for great panoramic views.

Hamilton: The Exhibition. I'm a huge fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda's insanely clever and engaging Hamilton, the musical about the life of US Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, which I saw in London last summer. When I heard that there would be an exhibition about the man, the history and the musical in Chicago during my trip, I knew I had to go. The tickets were, I would say, cynically priced but I spent over 90 minutes exploring the exhibition, which had many interactive features and impressive audiovisual displays. The Northerly Island location is a little inconvenient if you are sans car.

The Second City e.t.c. stage. A friend of a friend recommended that I try to get tickets for the e.t.c. stage of Chicago's premier comedy club rather than the main stage. And the show I saw, Grinning from Fear to Fear, was brilliant: by turns bitingly clever and surprisingly warm. The show includes two scripted sets, plus a bonus improv set for those who want to stay.

Logan Square. This leafy neighbourhood, six miles northwest of the downtown area, feels almost suburban in parts, with grand houses and plenty of green space, although there are also many cool eateries and bars. As well as exploring some of the speciality coffee in the area, I also enjoyed walking through the bustling Sunday afternoon farmers' market, which had produce, street food and live music.

For my speciality coffee recommendations for Chicago, check out this post.

When researching restaurants for this trip, I quickly realised that booking in advance was either necessary or crucial to avoiding a long wait — especially during weekend brunch slots. As such, I made bookings for many of the eateries below. Unfortunately, I was too late to get a table at one of the fine-dining establishments I identified, most notably Grant Achatz's Alinea (for which you purchase a pre-paid ticket for the multi-course tasting menu), but also The Smyth and Acadia. As you will see, I mostly ate in the meatpacking district, the West Loop, which is also an interesting area to explore if you like murals and street art.

Au Cheval (West Loop)
As soon as I read about this diner-style bar with its much-fêted burgers, I was determined to eat there, even though I'd heard that the waitlist could be over three hours' long at busy times. Somehow, I struck it lucky and walked right in to a seat at the counter (for prime viewing of the excellent hamburgerology skills) when I arrived just after 6 pm on a Saturday. I had the single cheeseburger (two patties with cheese) with bacon, rather than au cheval (with a fried egg). It was delicious: the burger was meaty, juicy and flavoursome. The staff were very friendly too. The advice I read suggested that mornings (arrive before opening) and early afternoons or very early evenings on weekdays were the best times to go to slightly minimise wait times.

If I hadn't got into Au Cheval right away, my plan was to go to The Loyalist (the cocktail bar at The Smyth) for a drink and nibbles. Instead, I headed over after dinner. It's a sleek spot for creative and expertly mixed cocktails.

Blackbird (West Loop)
Another legendary Chicago spot, Blackbird is famed for its bargainous $28 three-course prix fixe lunch, which is only available on weekdays. I had: shrimp confit with kohlrabi, chilli and cashews; chicken schnitzel with nori honey and pickled radish; and white chocolate lime mousse with almond, and lemon-verbena and strawberry sorbet. The flavour pairings worked perfectly, the food was beautifully presented, and the attentive staff gave great service.

Little Goat Diner (West Loop)
Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard owns two restaurants that face each other on West Randolph Street: Girl and the Goat and Little Goat Diner. I had a Saturday brunch reservation at the latter and promptly dived into the extensive menu of all-day breakfast and comfort food. Deciding what to order was difficult but I decided to go for the sweet onion brioche French toast with fried chicken, eggs, BBQ maple syrup and strawberries. I usually prefer savoury brunch dishes but this had just the right sweet–salty balance and was so good. Alas, it left no room for more doughnuts later on!

Roister (West Loop)
Although I couldn't eat at Grant Achatz's Alinea, I did get a brunch reservation at his casual eatery in the West Loop (casual, in this context, means just one Michelin star). The staff at Roister were warm and very welcoming and there was a relaxed atmosphere on Sunday morning. Somehow, I ended up eating fried chicken in various forms of three occasions this trip, but the fried chicken sandwich with hot sauce and chamomile mayo on the Roister brunch menu was brilliant. I perched at the 'hearth' bar where I watched the chefs at work, and the kitchen even sent me a complimentary dish: a refreshing mango, cucumber, peanut and mint salad.

Pacific Standard Time (Near North)
You know you're a jet lag pro when you've only just arrived from London into Central Time when you head right to Pacific Standard Time. This large, stylish restaurant focuses on creative California fare. You can opt for smaller, sharing plates or larger entrées. I had an avocado salad with blood orange and quinoa, followed by a strip steak, and accompanied by a very fine gimlet. They did also have pizzas on the menu, which looked great, but they weren't Chicago-style, and as I knew I probably wouldn't try a deep-dish pizza (not my thing), I thought it would be disloyal to eat another pizza style in the city.

Two Lights (Old Town)
Ahead of my 7 pm show at The Second City on Sunday evening, I needed to find somewhere to eat in Old Town. This proved quite difficult until I came across this new seafood restaurant, just opposite the theatre. The restaurant's décor is minimalist and beautiful, with a long, L-shaped counter at the centre of the action. I've visited the Maine lobster shack for which Two Lights is named and other than both serving lobster rolls, the two eateries don't have a huge amount in common. But the food, cocktails and service was all very good at Two Lights; as well as an excellent bourbon cocktail, I had a pan-seared halibut with mash for my main course, and it was lovely, albeit a little pricey given the portion size.

Lincoln Park. My favourite neighbourhood to shop was Armitage Avenue, a neighbourhood with pretty, historic buildings between Lincoln Park and Old Town. I was on an Allbirds and Marine Layer mission, but also enjoyed visiting some of the many independent stores in the area, such as Art Effect (fashion, accessories and gifts) and Top Drawer ('tools for nomads', i.e. lifestyle, homewares and stationery).

I also walked south to the area near the North / Clybourn L station, where I found a lot of my favourite US chains, like J. Crew, The Container Store, Banana Republic, Athleta and Anthropologie. The shopping experience wasn't particularly exciting, unless you like large parking lots, but it was convenient to visit a lot of my favourite stores in one place.

North Michigan Avenue. I enjoyed strolling along the 'Magnificent Mile' stretch of North Michigan Avenue — reminiscent of Manhattan's Fifth Avenue on account of the large department stores, high-end stores and grand buildings. Again, the shopping wasn't particularly interesting for me, although I did get another chance to visit J. Crew and Lululemon. I also enjoyed visiting my namesake: Walton Street.

I stayed at the Fairmont Chicago, a large luxury hotel in the heart of The Loop, near Millennium Park. I usually prefer boutique hotels and had hoped to stay in the West Loop, but there was such a good deal on the BA Holidays website, that I went ahead and booked. My room on the 30th floor was large and comfortable with a nice city view. There's a small gym and spa in the basement and there are several eateries. I didn't make use of any of the hotel's other services, but I had no complaints about my stay and would recommend it to anyone wanting a high-quality, centrally located hotel.

Hoxton Chicago
Unfortunately, just after I'd booked my holiday, I got an email from the Hoxton to tell me their hip new hotel in Chicago was open for booking — and as it was their seventh site, they were offering rooms at $77 per night. As the Hoxton is located in the West Loop, this would have been perfect me; I really enjoyed my stay at the Hoxton Amsterdam and I've eaten and drank at both the London and Paris Hoxton hotels too.

Arriving and getting around...
Like most international travellers, I arrived at Terminal 5 of O'Hare. There was a bit of a delay getting us to the gate and I'd thought I could just hop on the L and ride into the city. First, though, you have to get to Terminal 2, and after following the airport signs to the trains, I kept hitting dead ends. It turns out that the transit between the terminals is currently closed and you need to take a small, ill-equipped shuttle bus to get to Terminal 2. I soon realised that the queue running the length of the arrivals hall was for the said shuttle bus. Eventually, I got to the L station and the blue line got me into the Loop 45 minutes later. Do factor the terminal change (15-30 minutes, depending on timing) in to your journey time.

On the positive side, you can pay with a contactless credit card or Apple Pay to use the L and local buses, rather than having to buy a Ventra card. The fare is $5 from O'Hare. I then added a three-day unlimited pass ($15) to my Apple Watch, which I used for the rest of the trip, including the return journey to O'Hare. I used the L a lot during my time in Chicago, as well as walking a great deal and taking the occasional bus when in areas poorly served by the train. As I was a little short on time, I did consider Ubering on occasions, but as I was travelling alone, I preferred to use public transport and save my money for cocktails.

Speaking of money, the currency is, of course, the US dollar, and during my trip, the exchange rate was $1.30 to £1, fairly similar to the dismal rates we've had for the past few years. I paid with my credit card — and increasingly with Apple Pay or contactless — everywhere, and only needed to use cash to tip hotel staff.

When to go...
For the best weather, May to October is the best time of year to visit. I'd hoped to visit in June or September, when it tends to be warmer than May, but flights and hotels were also more expensive. If you really like really cold weather and lots of snow, Chicago winters are ideal. Brian from Brian's Coffee Spot can tell you all about that!