Friday, September 21, 2018

Cinnamon Basil Sugar Cookies

Don't let the basil in the name scare you. It actually tastes really good! I was inspired to create this recipe by Albion Gould's lemon basil sugar cookies (also delicious, especially when topped with a lemon glaze)... and by the Mexican Basil (otherwise known as cinnamon basil) growing in my herb garden. One recipe makes a few dozen, which is technically bad news. That many cookies hanging out on my counter will definitely go to waist. ;) The good news is that they freeze fantastically well and the neighbors love occasional plates of cookies.

Now, for a confession. You know how all the other recipes on this blog are healthy? Yeah... well, there is nothing for the good of mankind in these cookies. Nada. Plus, I make them deceptively small, so you don't even realize you've eaten five (did I say five? I meant fifteen) until you start to see alarming gaps on the cooling rack. But, hey, what's life without an occasional yummalicious cookie binge?

One quick note about the basil before I give you the recipe. When the recipe says to chop it finely, I mean VERY finely. When I made it, I wasn't so diligent about that little detail, which resulted in some cookies being strong on basil and others with a decent balance of basil and cinnamon. I also leave it up to you to decide whether you want to add two tablespoons or three. If you want a mild basil flavor, stick with two. If you're feeling adventurous, add another spoonful. I wouldn't do much over three, though. The goal is a cookie with a friendly flavor with a suggestion of piquancy, not one with an overly strong "personality."

Cinnamon Basil Sugar Cookies
1 c. butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 c. sugar
1 egg
3 drops cinnamon essential oil
2 tsp. water
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 pinch each of cardamon and allspice
2 1/2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
2-3 tbsp. Mexican Basil, FINELY chopped.
Sugar (for coating)

  1. Preheat the oven to 375*F.
  2. Thoroughly cream the butter and the sugar. Add the egg.
  3. Add the essential oil, water, cinnamon, cardamon, and allspice. Blend well.
  4. Mix in flour and baking powder until dough has formed and all the flour is mixed in.
  5. Add the Mexican Basil and stir until well-blended.
  6. Form dough into 1" balls and roll in sugar until cookies are well-coated. 
  7. Place on a greased cookie sheet with a little room to spread and slightly flatten each dough ball.
  8. Bake for 9-10 minutes.
  9. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Banana Date Chocolate Cake

Dessert. Love it! But... my waistline doesn't. :(

Unless, of course, it's a healthy dessert. Oxymoron? Yeah. But surprisingly enough, they exist and they're delicious!

I found this recipe for Crazy Fruity Carob Pudding Cake by the Unconventional Baker last January and thought to myself, "Hmm. Next time I have a ton of bananas that need to be used, I'm going to make this" (It calls for 9 ripe bananas). That wasn't the only thing about it that impressed me. It's also gluten-free, sugar-free, egg-free, and dairy-free!

Since I cook like Remmy from the movie Ratatouille, I rarely cook a recipe exactly. So, here's my version of the Unconventional Baker's wonderful dessert.


Cake Ingredients:
  • 6 ripe bananas
  • 1½ cups soft medjool dates, chopped finely
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp sea salt
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • ½ cup roasted carob (or cocoa) powder
  • 1 cup flour
Frosting Ingredients:
  • 3 ripe bananas
  • 12 soft medjool dates, chopped finely
  • 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • ½ cup coconut milk
  • dash of sea salt
  • ½ cup carob (or cocoa) powder
  • flour
  • shredded coconut and almonds for garnish (optional)
  1. Preheat oven to 350*F. Grease a 9" cake pan (or 2--6" cake pans for a layered cake) and line the bottom with parchment paper. Set aside.
  2. Blend bananas, dates, vanilla, cinnamon, salt, and coconut milk until it's smooth. Add remaining ingredients and blend, scraping down the sides as necessary until well-mixed.
  3. Transfer the batter into prepared pan, level out the tops and press the mixture in using a spatula. Tap the pan on the counter a few times to get rid of any air bubbles. Bake in a preheated oven for 1 hour. Remove from oven and allow the cake to cool completely before frosting.
  4. When ready to frost, place bananas, dates, vanilla, lemon juice, coconut milk, and sea salt into a blender and blend into a smooth consistency, add carob powder and enough flour to make a thick frosting (approximately 1 cup) and blend until mixture is uniform. Frost the cake and garnish. Chill until the frosting is set.

The St. Louis Vacation, pt. 5: Southwest

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

There's one more part of St. Louis to highlight, and that's the southwest. Just like the rest of the area, there are several places that your family will thoroughly enjoy visiting!

#1: Grant's Farm

Grant's Farm is one of St. Louis' most popular sites, and for good reason! As a prime example of agri-tourism, they have enough to keep your family busy for hours. Take a ride on a camel, or let your kids ride a pony. Bottle feed baby goats and visit Deer Park, where you can see all sorts of rare animals from North American Bison to European Black Buck Antelope. Whatever you do, you won't want to miss the incredible shows! These informative, exhilarating demonstrations teach about the incredible creatures on the property.

When you get tired, take a spin on the carousel or visit the cabin where Ulysses S. Grant stayed when he worked at the farm. This is also the home of the Budweiser Clydesdales, so take a tour to meet them and figure out everything that makes them so special, besides being featured on the cutest Christmas beer commercials.

However you spend your time on the farm, it will be time well spent!

#2: The Magic House

The Magic House is another fun, hands-on museum that is designed to ignite your kids' curiosity, creativity, and problem-solving abilities. In a day and age when imagination isn't quite as plentiful in younger generations, there has never been a greater need for a place like this. Your younger kids can learn from different displays about static electricity and the science behind music. Your older kids will be enthralled by a room dedicated to forensics where they can solve a mystery while studying fingerprints, crawl through ductwork to spy on suspects, and discover secret passageways. There are also temporary exhibits that you'll definitely want to check out. There are so many displays and exhibits intended for children of all ages, making this another place where you can spend several hours and it feels like minutes. Admission is $10 per person.

#3: World Bird Sanctuary

If you like wildlife, and specifically like birds, you really need to check out World Bird Sanctuary. They have over 200 species, and have special displays on birds of prey from all over the world, featuring owls, falcons, and hawks. But they also have exotic birds, like parrots, and other birds from around the world, like an Egyptian Vulture! Their mission is to preserve animals, especially endangered birds, in their natural environment, and they do so quite skillfully, but they don't feature birds only. You can also view an impressive display of snakes, insects from Madagascar, and mammals like armadillos and bats. This is a great way to expose your kids to the natural world in a safe and educational setting.

#4: Broemmelsiek Park Stargazing

Although this one is a bit of a drive from St. Louis, your family will definitely have to check out is Broemmelsiek Park’s Friday Night Star Gazing, which is hosted on every Friday evening throughout the year, weather permitting. Using complex telescopes as well as the naked eye, participants can view the night sky like never before. This free program is run by trained facilitators who will point out specific constellations and other cosmic features that will make you appreciate the wonder and majesty of our universe just before hitting the hay.

Details: Starts at dusk. Location: Broemmelsiek Park Main Entrance (1615 Schwede Rd., Wentzville, MO 63385)

#5: Wabash, Frisco and Pacific Railroad Association

The WF&P Railroad is one of the top family attraction in the Greater St. Louis area. Located in Glencoe, MO, this attraction's purpose is to keep the history of steam trains alive and well. This park has several ride-able model trains... and they aren't like the cutesy kid-sized cars disguised as trains that you'll find in your local mall. These actually require tracks and truly run on steam. Mom and dad can ride them too! Each ride, which last about 30 minutes, costs only $4 and travels along the beautiful Meramec River. However, they're only open on Sundays from 11 AM - 4:15 PM.

#6: Six Flags

There are very few people in the world who don't like amusement parks at all. There's just something about all the rides, the energy, and the constantly available carny food that's attractive to the modern American mindset.

While you're there, be sure to check out the best attraction, Hurricane Harbor which is a massive water park. For those in your family who prefer the adrenaline rush, check out the Tornado, where you can ride down a 132 ft. (40.2 m) long funnel, or the Dive Bomber, which is a 5-story slide that is practically a free-fall! But that's not the end of the ride! After that, you have some serious twists and turns to reckon with before hitting the pool at the bottom. But, if you prefer saner rides, check out the Hurricane Bay wave pool or the Surf Rider, a simulator that can give you a taste of what surfing the waves really feels like!

This post originally appeared on Daring Penguin Travel Blog, published January 10, 2016. It was part of a larger article, 30+ Places to Check Out in St. Louis.

The St. Louis Vacation, pt. 4: Forest Park

photo credit: Forest Park Forever
Forest Park, located fifteen minutes due west of downtown St. Louis, was the location of the 1904 World's Fair. Ever since, the St. Louis Park District has been adding tourist attractions to the grounds. Besides the museums and zoo, it is also home to hiking trails, monuments, natural highlights, indoor/outdoor recreational centers, and landmarks. Any honest tourist would admit that there's enough to do here to keep a family busy for many days.

#1: The St. Louis Art Museum

If you want to get exposed to worldwide, local, and ancient art, but don't want to drive all the way to the Smithsonians in Washington D.C., then drop by the St. Louis Art Museum. This incredible place has over a dozen permanent collections, boasting over 30,000 works! Take the Ancient Egyptian Collection, for instance. This display highlights hieroglyphics, explains the mummification process, and even has a real sarcophagus! Or, if you prefer the art of war, check out the Arms and Armor display, which has suits of armor and weapons from the 15th through the 18th centuries. Maybe you'd like to see art from around the world, like African headdresses, weapons from the South Pacific, and pottery from Asia, and other exhibits that hail from literally every continent on earth. These are just a few of the permanent displays in this three-story building.

Nor are all the collections indoors! The Grace Taylor Broughton Sculpture Garden is a beautiful array of outside artwork. There's enough to do here to keep an art or history lover busy all day; but if you just want to do something different to de-stress for a couple of hours, this is a classy way to do it. Tickets are recommended, but admission is free.

#2: The Missouri History Museum

Much like an art museum, the Missouri History Museum is a great way to spend the last couple of hours of the day. They have some fascinating permanent exhibits about St. Louis through the ages, the Spirit of St. Louis (an airplane that Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris in 1919) and the 1904 World's Fair.

Another permanent display is the History Clubhouse. This section of the museum is dedicated to instilling the love of learning, history, and museums inside children and their families. Please keep in mind that viewing the History Clubhouse is free, but requires a ticket to enter.

If you're still around in the evening, check out Twilight Tuesday, a seasonal outdoor concert series that takes place on the front lawn of the museum. The public is more than welcome to come out with lawn chairs, drinks, and bug repellent to enjoy the lineup under the St. Louis sunset.

#3: The St. Louis Science Center

The Science Museum is an interactive playground that features anything that could be remotely considered scientific. The best thing is, your kids will have so much fun that they won't even realize that they're learning! They have entire rooms dedicated to forensics, technology, DNA, and agriculture. Children of all ages can explore the environment and ecology exhibits. Watch your child's eyes widen in wonder as they feel what an earthquake feels like, watch a simulator create a tornado, or dig out dinosaur bones in the paleontology display.

Every hour, there are science demonstrations on the lower level with incredible themes like "Creepy Chemistry" and "Boiling Hot... Boiling Cold." You'll definitely want to pace yourself, however, because it's very easy to spend all day here and not really want to leave at closing time.

Then again, why not make your visit a weekend trip? The Science Center and Drury Hotels has a package deal to make your stay that much more affordable and enjoyable.

#4: The St. Louis Zoo

If you like animals, you need to check out the St. Louis Zoo. Although general admission is free, there are some attractions that require purchased tickets to enjoy, such as the sea lion show, zooline train, and the conservation carousel.

Enter by the north entrance, so you will see Living World first. This center is a marvelous welcome/information center where you can get a good overview of the park and plan your visit. And while you're there, look through the Insectarium, which offers a good look at some spectacular bees, bugs (behind glass of course), and butterflies. Also in the Discovery Center is a display of some of the rare, smaller creatures, like naked mole rats, meerkats, and tree kangaroos. But that's only the beginning. Throughout the zoo's 89 acres, there are literally thousands of critters, and more are arriving all the time!

If by the end of your visit, your kids are singing the Gayla Peevey's classic song "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas," or inserting some other animal into the lyrics like "baby tiger" or "dolphin," stop by one of the gift shops, which are located at different places around the zoo.

 #5: The Muny

Enjoy a good theater production? Check out the Muny, one of the finest outdoor theaters in the world! They host all sorts of fun, locally and nationally cast musicals, ranging in style from The Little Mermaid to Gypsy and Legally Blonde. Check out their season schedules to determine which show you want to see and to get tickets!

This post originally appeared on Daring Penguin Travel Blog, published January 10, 2016. It was part of a larger article, 30+ Places to Check Out in St. Louis.

10 Reasons to Visit Frankenmuth, Michigan

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Some places bring a whole new meaning to the word “Christmas." Take historic St. Charles, Missouri, for instance. This town reminds visitors of Christmases gone by with booths selling chestnuts roasted on an open fire and costumed volunteers who make you feel like you just stepped into A Christmas Carol. Other towns, like downtown Chicago, are perfect if you want to see an incredible light display and feel the season's jolly hustle and bustle.

But if you’re interested in starting a new tradition for your family where you can see awe-inspiring Christmas lights and decoration displays, eat incredible food, and experience the Christmas rush with other shoppers, then you should check out Frankenmuth, Michigan.

Reason #1: A Variety of Boutiques

Frankenmuth may as well have a corner on the market in boutiques. Dozens of these locally owned shops line Main Street and sell items such as clothing, figurines, kilts, leatherwork, specialty cheeses, and Frankenmuth souvenirs.

When you’re done visiting Main Street, check out River Place Shops, which contain over 40 shops and attractions. Take a stroll along a cobblestone sidewalk and enjoy the Bavarian architecture and landscaping while popping in-and-out of incredible shops, drinking hot chocolate, or eating fudge and other locally produced delectables.

Reason #2: Fantastic Family Restaurants

If you like incredible meal experiences, then Frankenmuth is the place to visit—take The Bavarian Inn, for instance. They specialize in beautiful, family-style dinners served by a wait staff dressed in lederhosen and dirndl. And right across the street is Zehnder's Restaurant, which opened over 150 years ago and is as classy as it is old. They also have multiple venues, so if you don’t want to eat in the classic restaurant, you could eat at Z Chef’s Café or the Elf Hollow Café.

Or perhaps you want to travel further from the beaten track and try The Old Christmas Station, which serves some of Europe’s finest traditional Christmas dishes all year long. While you’re waiting for your food, you can browse the antique Christmas ornaments museum located inside the restaurant. But these aren’t the only places to eat in town. Check out the other unique eateries just waiting to tempt your taste buds.

Reason #3: A Town Rich in History

Frankenmuth was originally established by German immigrants who were escaping persecution and poor living conditions. Their story, beginning with their escape and ending with an established life in the American wilderness, is one fraught with danger and excitement. But why read an article about it when you could walk through the Frankenmuth Historical Museum that brings that history to life? Don’t stop there—places like Grandpa's Tiny Farm and Zeilinger Wool Company, which sells handcrafted wool products and offers hands-on tours of their wool processing plant, has a unique view of the city and its heritage from more personal perspectives. A quick glance through Frankenmuth’s museums and history web page will reveal enough to keep your family busy for quite some time.

Reason #4: The Best Fudge Shops

Have you ever watched the fudge making process? Not many have. In Frankenmuth, fudge is made right in front of the customers. And trust me, such a mesmerizing sight is not easily forgotten! Even children are enthralled by the show, to the point that it can be difficult to pull them away. The experience is more than visual: nothing is quite like the smell of warm chocolate, vanilla, and peanut butter wafting through the air in a fudge shop. Oh, and did I mention that almost all of these shops offer free samples? Seriously, you haven’t experienced Frankenmuth until you’ve had a piece (or two or three) of their delicious fudge!

Reason #5: Breweries and Wineries

Exclusively for older audiences, Frankenmuth has a few generations-old wineries and breweries that offer tours and wine tastings for reasonable prices. Whether you’re interested in the award winning Solera Cream Sherry or you’re more interested in regionally-grown drinks, Frankenmuth breweries have something for you. However, if you're just interested in a more in-depth history of brewing, check out the historic Lager Mill, where Frankenmuth’s social drinking heritage is discussed.

Reason #6: Local Carriage Companies

The Frankenmuth Carriage Company offers tourists a 15 or 30-minute drive around downtown Frankenmuth. From the carriage window, you’ll see sights like the covered bridge and the best of Frankenmuth’s shops and beautiful Bavarian-styled buildings. You don’t even have to schedule the ride ahead of time! Head over to the Bavarian Inn Restaurant Glockenspiel Clock Tower, where the carriages congregate. Just walk up to one and tell them you want a ride, and they’ll take you from there.

Another company is the Fantasy Carriage Company. This carriage ride, which starts from just south of Zehnder’s Restaurant, will take you through the most nostalgic parts of town, including the historic district and Main Street attractions. If you schedule ahead of time, you won’t have to worry about a long wait. Don’t mind being patient? That’s fine. They take spontaneous customers as well.

Reason #7: The largest Christmas store in the world

Frankenmuth has earned every letter of the title “Christmas Capital of the World.” A large part of that is due to Bronner's Christmas Wonderland, which supplies Christmas decorations to stores and towns all over the world and can definitely be classified as a "Christmas village under one roof." Open 361 days a year and hosting a year-long outdoors light display, this store is a must-see. They don't just cater to towns and malls; they have Christmas decorations for your home, too. They feature all sorts of incredible Christmas decorations: Christmas trees, ornaments, lights, wrapping, nativity sets, Santa Clauses in all shapes and sizes, garland, lawn ornaments - you name it, they've got it. And if you don’t find the exact tree ornament you’re looking for, Bronner’s employs artists who will hand-decorate an ornament for you.

Reason #8: Family Resorts

Zehnder's Splash Village Hotel and Waterpark boasts 50,000 square feet of indoor water fun. Their attractions include two slides, one of which is four stories high and the other is six! But if you’re not exactly a heights type of person, try out one of their other fantastic ground features, like water basketball and volleyball, Splash Landing play area, a dumping bucket, hot tub, and a lazy river. Although the water park is this hotel’s most impressive feature, it's not the only one. The hotel also has a 2,000 square foot arcade, a fitness center, and an in-house café!

Although the Bavarian Inn is smaller, guests automatically receive a pass to the water park, which has four indoor pools, three whirlpools, and two slides. This hotel also has an 18-hole miniature golf course, tennis courts, exercise room, a two-story children’s play area, and numerous in-house restaurants, lounges, and gift shops. This hotel, located right next to the ever active Heritage Park, offers fun events such as biweekly family karaoke nights.

Reason #9: The Frankenmuth Guided Tour

Not sure what to check out first? Well, go on a guided tour of the town. Two are available: Frankenmuth FunShips and the Bavarian Belle Riverboat. FunShips offers several trip options, ranging from 35 minutes to an hour. Or, you can take their daily Wine and Chocolate Tasting Cruise and get a view of the town from your taste buds’ perspective.

Bavarian Belle Riverboat, on the other hand, offers an hour-long family-oriented tour that tells the town’s history while you sit an authentic paddlewheel riverboat. However, the Bavarian Belle only runs from May through October.

Reason #10: A Busy Town...All Year Long!

Can’t make it up this month? No worries! Frankenmuth has attractions year-round. This town celebrates multiple festivals every year, like the Launch to the Summer Festival, Auto Fest, and the oldest Oktoberfest in the nation. And since Frankenmuth is the “Christmas Capital of the World,” there will always be Christmas displays in town (especially in places like Bronner’s) - this makes Frankenmuth the perfect spot for celebrating the most festive holiday of the year - even in July!

This post originally appeared on Daring Penguin Travel Blog, published December, 2015.

The St. Louis Vacation, pt. 3: Delmar Loop

photo credit: Joe Edwards

Shopping + hipster culture = the Delmar Loop.

In other words, if you like the latest fashions or if you enjoy shopping, this is the neighborhood to visit. They have a little bit of everything, too. Coffee shops, boutiques, spas, specialty restaurants, open-air music, studios and art galleries, Ben & Jerry's, a soda-pop factory... Seriously, when I said "everything," I wasn't exaggerating.

Even this section of the city does its share of commemorating. While you're popping in and out of shops, check out the three-block long Walk of Fame, which celebrates celebrities who claim the Greater St. Louis area as their home turf with a brass or bronze star bearing their name and a plaque explaining their accomplishments. This stretch of sidewalk contains names like Tennessee Williams, Ulysses S. Grant, Maya Angelou, Joseph Pulitzer, Chic Young, and 139 others.

#1: The Scott Joplin House

One of the quieter attractions in the Loop is the Scott Joplin House. Scott Joplin was once a household name as the father of ragtime, a music style popular in the early 1900's until the 1960's. Although it's not very large, this museum tells Joplin's story and shows what the area looked like during his time. It features a player piano, which can either be played by a person or by one of the piano rolls, some of which were written by Joplin himself. Especially if your family appreciate music, this step into the past is one you'll definitely appreciate.

#2: Blueberry Hill

The best way to describe Blueberry Hill, a primary feature on Delmar Blvd., is to say a toy shop and a classic arcade exploded inside a music-enthusiast's burger joint. This establishment is a vibrant restaurant that frequently hosts live bands. Between songs and while you wait for your food to be delivered to you, go ahead and wander around the pop-culture museum. Founder Joe Edwards personally keeps the display cases full of toys and memorabilia that will remind you of years gone by.

#3: The City Museum

You know the old adage, "don't judge a book by its cover?" Well, it could also be said: "don't judge a museum by its name." Although this particular attraction has a rather boring name, its premises more than make up for it. Built inside a 600,000 square foot former shoe factory and comprised of parts and pieces of salvaged materials, this museum exudes creativity from the first to the tenth floor. From the time you first set eyes on the gigantic outdoor playground/interactive sculpture (that is several stories high and contains items like salvaged airplanes, firetrucks, and an all-ages-allowed ball pit), you will be enthralled with the attractions this museum offers!

Each floor is cram-packed with attention grabbing features. For instance, take the life-size model of a Bowhead Whale on the first floor, or the "skateless park" (no skateboards, please, but every visitor is given free reign to run, swing, slide, and otherwise enjoy the attraction). Don't forget to look for all the random hidey-holes, secret passages, and slides that make you feel like you're on a life-size version of the classic game Chutes and Ladders. The roof is an amusement park with a ferris wheel, a giant praying mantis and a pond that you cross by jumping from stone to stone. As a museum dedicated to creativity in all its best forms, there's something here for everyone. And as far as vacation memories go, this one is sure to be a favorite.

This post originally appeared on Daring Penguin Travel Blog, published January 10, 2016. It was part of a larger article, 30+ Places to Check Out in St. Louis.

6 Free Things to Do in Chicago to Guarantee Great Times on a Budget

Photo credit: Scott Hoffman

Times are hard. Believe me, I get it. But why on earth does that mean that you can't take a vacation this year? Yes, you read correctly. Not "staycation." Not "No-cation." Vacation. A chance for you to get away and enjoy the sights and experiences of somewhere besides home and work. Take it from a cheapskate: there are all sorts of amazing experiences just begging to be had that don't cost a dime, even in a cool, classy town like Chicago. So go ahead and pull up your budget to take a second look at those numbers, 'cause it's totally doable for your family this year with these free activities.

Lincoln Park Zoo

Most people like a good zoo. After all, what's not to like? Like most zoos, Lincoln Park strives to have a variety of animals for patrons' viewing pleasure with interactive, educational displays that give interesting facts about that cute and fuzzy (or scaly and ugly) critter on the other side of the glass. And what's a creature-filled park without a gift shop and restaurant? But Lincoln Park Zoo goes beyond the typical and well into the exceptional, to the point that they made #3 on Fodor's Top 10 Zoos list in 2015.

Not only do they have over 1,000 animals (representing over 200 species), but they also have 16 exhibits and animal houses containing some of their most exotic creatures. And when you're tired of looking at the animals, check out one of their daily shows, like "Snow Monkey Science," which demonstrates some of the latest scientific discoveries on these incredible creatures with hands-on technology that the kiddos will love. To top it all off, they're open 365 days a year, so whenever you make your trip, you know they'll be open and have something unforgettable for you to see.

Chicago Cultural Center

The Chicago Cultural Center's building alone has a rich history, beginning back in 1897 when it was built as the city's first public library. Although late 19th-century architecture is generally awe-inspiring anyway, this building truly takes the cake with two stained-glass domes and special materials (like rare marble and hardwoods) from all over the world. But what really gives the Chicago Cultural Center character isn't the architecture, but rather the events held inside. With incredible traveling exhibits, concerts, performances, lectures, dances, and family activities, this place is a hub for local flair and always offers different experiences for visitors. Is it any wonder that this is one of the most visited sites in Chicago?

The Money Museum

Picture a whole museum dedicated to money. More specifically, the Federal Reserve System and how it works. Now imagine several displays that teach about inflation, counterfeits, the history of US currency, and what happens to money when it's no longer in circulation. Then add to that mental picture a display called "The Million Dollar Cube," which literally holds that amount of money. And then there's "The Million Dollar Suitcase," which also contains more hundred dollar bills than most people have seen in a lifetime. Now I want you to picture you and your family standing by that suitcase and getting a picture taken with it. Are you sold on this experience yet?

The Money Museum, located just a few blocks west of the Art Institute (230 South LaSalle Street), has received high ratings from visitors and has the reputation of being a great place to take the kids to help them learn about money.

Botanical Gardens

Visiting a botanical garden is an incredible way to see a wide variety of beautiful plants. They typically sport both indoor and outdoor attractions—plenty to please anyone, even someone who is hesitant to enjoy the outdoors! For those of us who can't get enough time with nature, especially while visiting the Windy City, there are several around town.

Chicago Botanic Garden

This particular garden spreads over 360 acres (that's .56 square miles) and contains nearly 2,500,000 plants! There are 27 separate specialty gardens, like the rose garden, the fruits and vegetable garden, the heritage garden, the Japanese garden, and many others that reflect the interests of the surrounding metropolis. Since it’s so large, it is a haven for several varieties of birds, insects, and animals.

Of course, since this is an outdoor garden, you'll see more of its open-air beauty in the spring, summer, or fall. But even in the winter, there are things to do or see. Take the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, for instance. Although it's mostly used as a facility for those seeking higher education in botany and related fields, there is a viewing gallery and a 16,000 sq. ft. green roof garden that are open to the public. This center strives to have incredible temporary displays that will mesmerize viewers of all ages.

Garfield Park Conservatory

Garfield Park Conservatory has a large indoor campus featuring climate-controlled houses for a different variety of plants, like ferns, palms, and exotic flowers, including an indoor garden specifically designed for children, and another one that simulates a desert climate!

And that's just the inside. Outside, they have twelve separate gardens, ponds, and exhibits, all ready to enthrall you with the beauties and mysteries of the outdoors. These include a labyrinth, lily pool, a honeybee exhibit, a sensory garden, and even a garden that replicates the garden that the famous French artist Oscar-Claude Monet kept in his back yard. There's also a "Play and Grow" garden designed for the little ones to enjoy.

Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

Although this museum isn't free, when I heard about it, I decided it deserved an honorable mention. It was designed to facilitate genuine natural world experiences for those living in extremely urban Chicago. And you know what? It worked. This three story museum has more hands-on science displays than any other museum in the city. And besides its interactive displays, it also has a famous butterfly house, memorials to bison and extinct birds, hiking trails, an indoor greenhouse, and a look-in lab, which shows several animals that the museum's scientists and volunteers care for on a daily basis. But these are just a few of this museum's incredible assets. You'll have to visit it to discover the rest!

Admission prices: $9 for Adults, $7 for Students and Seniors (60+), $6 for Children Ages 3 - 12, and free for Children under 3

Millennium Park

Since we've been on a roll with parks and such, let's touch on Millennium Park, one part of Chicago that never ever stays the same. It's always bustling with activity. Hundreds of visitors pass through every day and there's always some kind of free concert, exhibit, or family activity going on. Of course, there are park features that never really change, like the incredible displays of architecture such as The Bean, which is a piece of art that is shaped like a ginormous kidney bean and is made completely from mirrors. Or the Jay Pritzer Pavilion, an outdoor amphitheater and concert hall, which is a wonder in sound engineering.

But that's just the main sections of the park. There is also modern art exhibits, a large fountain, a massive playground that will tempt children of all ages, and beautiful flower gardens. Visiting this park is an absolute must for anyone who is visiting Chicago.

Hike Around Downtown Chicago

Before wandering off to check out more of Chicago's sites, you really need to walk around downtown Chicago. Although this area of town is equated with expensive shops like Macy's, there's so much more to experience! Check out some of the chapels that feature Gothic architecture. Look for monuments and modern art. Definitely keep an eye out for the silver men, who can be found almost any fine day around downtown Chicago. They're great to take pictures next to, but be careful! Although they look like statues, they're actually actors who may move in the middle of the shot just to get a reaction.

Don't forget to look at the buildings! Architecture from every era since the Great Chicago Fire grace the streets and it's amazing to see so many representatives from ages past. Although it may seem overly simplistic, it's actually a lot of fun to look at the sights and snap selfies and pictures of friends as a way to commemorate your trip to the Windy City.

This post originally appeared on Daring Penguin Travel Blog, published December 31, 2015.