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A Visit to Chicago

September 6, 2017
Beth Meyer
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My older daughter’s college visits have once again given our family an opportunity to explore a city.  My husband and I had visited Chicago for a friend’s wedding years ago.  This summer, we decided to return with our daughters, ages 13 and 17.  Chicago has it all - world class museums, imposing skyscrapers and even city beaches.

Prior to going, you can order a free city guide from ChooseChicago.com.  If you plan to spend a week like we did, you may want to purchase a City Pass, which gives you nine days to enjoy five of Chicago’s most popular attractions at reduced prices and allows you to skip waiting in lines.  The attractions are the Shedd Aquarium, Skydeck Chicago, The Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry or 360 Chicago and the Adler Planetarium or the Art Institute of Chicago.  The price is $99.75 for adults; $84.75 for children ages 3 to 11.  You can buy the City Pass at any of the above attractions.  Chicago is a busy place to drive so we took buses everywhere.  Ventra passes cost $28 for unlimited rides by bus or subway for an adult for a week.  The card itself costs $5 but gets credited back to your account. Children ages 11 and under ride for $1 per trip so tell the driver you have a child before swiping your card.

Family-friendly Chicago

View of Chicago taken from Wendella boat cruise.  Photo courtesy of Our Kids LLC.

We began our visit with a trip to Millennium Park. Lurie Garden in the park is one of the largest rooftop gardens in the world and hosts monthly children’s events.  The most iconic element of the park is the “Cloud Gate” sculpture, known as “The Bean,” which reflects visitors and the skyscrapers all around. Children will most enjoy the Crown Fountain, a splash park.  Here, two 50-foot towers project the faces of Chicago citizens. Periodically, the two mouths splash water onto delighted families. The plaza at Park Grill converts to a free ice skating rink in the winter. The Pritzker Pavilion is home to free events and concerts.  We returned there the next evening for a Broadway in Chicago concert.  Arrive at least an hour early.  We almost got shut out of the event.

Family-friendly visit to Chicago

"The Bean" in Millennium Park.  Photo courtesy of Sarah Meyer.
 

City Pass Attractions

Next door to Millennium Park is the world class Art Institute of Chicago.  Among its iconic paintings are Wood’s “American Gothic,” Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jette,” Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” and Monet’s “Waterlilies.”  It has an incredibly strong Impressionist collection, including an entire room filled with Monet paintings.  However, our favorite parts of the museum were in the basement.  All of us loved the Paperweight room.  The Thorne Miniature rooms are a big hit with children.  This collection of 68 miniature rooms illustrates the history of interior design from the 13th century to the 1930s.  These rooms inspired a middle grade children’s book series called The Sixty-Eight Rooms by Marianne Maloney, which we were lucky enough to find at a secondhand store on our trip. Caffé Moderno was the best of the museum cafeterias on our trip by far.  Whole sandwiches with sides were $13; half sandwiches were $8.

You can easily spend all day at the 400,000 square foot Museum of Science and Industry, which is full of interactive exhibits.  Your City Pass includes a motion simulator ride plus your choice of a special exhibition, the Lego Exhibition, a Coal Mine experience, and Imax films. We took the Magic Carpet ride and found it kind of lame.  We chose to see the exhibition Robot Revolution, on view through February 4, 2018, which was fantastic. We petted a robot that looked like a harp seal made to comfort hospital patients, played tic tac toe with a robot, had a robot copy our facial expressions, and saw a live demonstration about drones.  Other highlights of the museum included walking through a Boeing 727 and an 1893 locomotive.  In Science Storm, we saw a model of a tsunami wave, stepped into a tornado, and felt a vortex. The mirror maze in Numbers in Nature was a lot of fun. A low point was losing to my husband in a competition of who was more relaxed in You! The Experience.  We only had four hours to see the museum so we missed Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle (a dollhouse), a baby chick hatchery, and much more. The cafeteria and snack bar were the worst I have ever been to in any museum setting.  Kid’s meals are $6.99.  The vending machines would have been a better choice.

Both my daughters liked the Museum of Science and Industry more than The Field Museum. The Field Museum is comparatively old fashioned but still an amazing museum. Like all the previous museums, you need at least a day to see everything. Your City Pass gives you your choice of any of the 3D movies.  The Jurassic World special exhibition cost extra.  The museum houses Sue, the world’s largest and most complete T-Rex.  We saw the Bird Hall and most of the mammal halls but had to skip Ancient Egypt, the Hall of China, the Ancient Americas, and other anthropological sections of the museum. We are always drawn to gem halls and this one did not disappoint.  We saw a 102.2 carat sapphire exhibited at the 1893 Chicago Expo and a 97.5 carat topaz, the largest owned by any museum.  Two unique features are a Hall of Jades and Plants of the World.  The latter has over 300 plant models, the largest collection in the world.  It traced the production of a chocolate bar, coffee, and tea.  I loved the displays of edible nuts and seeds.  My younger daughter enjoyed the cartoons about paleontological discoveries in the Dinosaur Hall. The Crown Family Playlab on the ground floor is designed for children six and under and is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.  The cafeteria here was poor but not as bad as at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Family-friendly visit to Chicago

"Sue" at The Field Museum.  Photo courtesy of Larry Meyer.

The Shedd Aquarium is just 5 minutes by foot away from the Field Museum so we split our day between them.  This aquarium is one of the oldest in the country.  Your City Pass includes a 4-D film experience, which my husband and younger daughter thought was a waste of time.  My older daughter and I elected to skip the film and instead saw a diver swim in the 90,000 gallon Caribbean Reef. Make sure to check the daily schedule as soon as you arrive.  We almost missed the Oceanarium Show.  This show is now free so make sure and get there early.  It was a fun show but not one of the best.  It featured dolphins, four belugas, a blind sea lion, and surprisingly a German shepherd.  Afterwards, we could have spent ages watching the belugas, otters, Pacific dolphins, and penguins in their exhibits.  My younger daughter loved the outdoor Stingray Touch area, open May to October weather dependent.  Younger kids will also enjoy the touch tank with starfish and the penguin play area.  We concluded our visit by exploring the Wild Reef, which has fish and corals of the Philippines.  My younger daughter loved walking over stingrays on a see-through floor.  At the end of Wild Reef, we saw bamboo shark eggs about to hatch.

Family-friendly visit to Chicago

A Beluga at the Shedd Aquarium.  Photo courtesy of Larry Meyer.

We timed our visit to the Skydeck about an hour before sunset.  The Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) is the second tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. The one-minute elevator ride up has narration that gives you the history of tall buildings throughout the world.  Exhibits at the top have fun facts about Chicago.  The Skydeck offers spectacular views of Chicago with corresponding keys to the buildings.  Stand on line to go to the Ledge, a four foot balcony 103 floors up for a superb photo opportunity.  My younger daughter described the Skydeck experience as “the best.”  Note: The souvenir shop on the ground floor has a more extensive selection.

Architecture

The Skydeck is just one of the many famous buildings in Chicago.  For another overview of Chicago’s rich, architectural history, take a 75 minute boat cruise with Wendella.  The bottom level of the boat has a full bar, snacks and restrooms but it is more fun to sit on the upper level.  Our tour guide did an excellent job of describing buildings.  It reminded me of an informative Disney boat ride.  Adults are $35.50; kids 3 to 11 $16.50; children 3 and under are free.  Boats depart from the docks at 400 North Michigan Avenue and the Trump Tower.

Family friendly visit to Chicago

View of the Chicago skyline from the Wendella boat cruise.  Photo courtesy of Larry Meyer.

Possibly the most intriguing building I have ever seen is the nearby Tribune Tower, home of the Chicago Tribune.  This neo-gothic building at 435 North Michigan Avenue was the result of a 1922 competition to create “the most beautiful and distinctive office building in the world.”  The building has fragments from Lincoln’s Original Tomb, the Alamo, the Taj Mahal, Pompeii, the Coliseum, and the Forbidden City to just name a few. As an added attraction, the building houses Dylan’s Candy Bar and is right on the Magnificent Mile, Chicago’s famous, upscale shopping street.

Family friendly vacation in Chicago

Amazing architecture in Chicago.  Photo courtesy of Our Kids LLC.

Our family loves visiting historic houses and we greatly enjoyed our visit to the Driehaus Museum from America’s Gilded Age. This mansion is near the Tribune Building and just a few blocks away from Magnificent Mile.  The house was modern for its time and had hot and cold water and flush toilets.  The three-story building boasts a number of Tiffany glasses, lights, and lamps.  We saw a wonderful temporary exhibition on French posters.  For a historic house, the docents were refreshingly laid back and kid friendly.  Admission, which includes a guided tour, is $20 for adults; $12.50 for seniors; $10 for students with a valid I.D. and children 6-12; and free for children 5 and under. The museum is closed on Mondays.

We visited the suburb of Oak Park, a half hour drive away from downtown Chicago to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio.  There is ample free street parking. Adults are $18; students and seniors are $15; children 3 and under are free.  Note: Because inside spaces are so tight, docents ask that you lock up any oversize bags in an outdoor closet.  The only way to visit either site is through a guided tour.  The home was built by Wright in 1889 and shows the evolution of his Prairie School style. His children’s playroom is the biggest and most impressive room in the house. The adjacent studio was built in 1898.  Oak Park is also home to the largest concentration of Wright buildings anywhere.  We bought a $3.99 map in the gift shop and explored the area on our own for an hour after our tour.  You can also purchase a guided tour or acoustiguide.

Other Attractions

Chicago boasts over 26 miles of lakefront beaches.  My younger daughter and I spent a delightful afternoon at the Ohio Street Beach, a manageable hike away from Magnificent Mile.  The beach had a lovely smooth floor, soft sand, warm water, lifeguards, and restrooms.   Caffé Oliva had mediocre food but a great view of the beach.  The nearby hot dog stand is a good choice for a convenient snack.  This beach is also within a 10-minute walk to Navy Pier, apparently Chicago’s biggest tourist attraction.

The Navy Pier complex includes the Chicago Children’s Museum, a Shakespeare Theater, a number of shops and eateries, a splash park (outside the entrance), and a small amusement park.  Centennial Wheel, a state-of-the-art ferris wheel, is the centerpiece of the pier.  It goes up 195 feet and offers spectacular views of Chicago’s skyline and Lake Michigan.  Admission is $15 for adults; $12 for children 3 to 11; and free for children 2 and under.  Other rides include a carousel, a wave swinger, a light tower for younger kids, and a climbing wall.

Family friendly fun in Chicago

The Centennial Wheel at Navy Pier.  Photo courtesy of Our Kids LLC.

On our last day, we visited the Lincoln Park Zoo.  Begun in 1868, it is one of the oldest zoos in the nation and one of the rare free ones.  You walk towards the zoo via a half mile nature trail.  At the entrance, you will be handed a map with a schedule of events.  We would have been sorry to miss the Polar Bear training, where Cody was fed fish and worked with a trainer. My husband and younger daughter stayed at the seal pool, while my older daughter and I explored the nearby Pritzker Children’s Zoo.  There, we saw a black bear, wolves, otters, and a beaver.  Inside the only building in the Children’s Zoo is a large Indoor Tree Canopy Adventure; outside is a Waldorf-style playground.  Kids will also be drawn to the miniature train and the Endangered Animal Carousel. Rides are $3 per person.  The Ape House, Bird House, and Penguin Cove were exceptionally nice.  The African Journey takes you through re-creations of African environments with animals ranging from a cockroach to a giraffe. I loved the Macaque Forest since snow monkeys are my favorite kind of monkey.  We missed the farm, which has goats, cows, chickens, and an edible garden.  The zoo was beautifully landscaped with tons of flowers and was mostly level.

Dining

Chicago is famous for its hot dogs and deep dish pizza so we had to try both. A classic Chicago hot dog is topped with mustard, relish, celery salt, freshly chopped onions, sliced red ripe tomatoes, kosher pickle and sport peppers piled onto a steamed poppy seed bun. We sampled this specialty at Portillo’s, a chain with branches all over Chicago. We went to Pequod’s for pizza.  We loved our $20 large pepperoni pizza with its caramelized crust.  Be prepared to wait up to 45 minutes for a pizza wherever you go.

The Nutella Café is two blocks away from Millennium Park.  Do not be deterred by the long line in front; it moves quickly.  My daughters ordered crepes and waffles with Nutella and we all shared a fruit fondue with Nutella for $8.95. My older daughter, who considers Nutella a food group, was ecstatic.  The café also has healthy foods but why would you?  Toni Patisserie & Café, a mere half a block from Millennium Park with French-style sandwiches on baguettes, is a good choice if you want to pack a picnic.

Celebrity Chef Rick Bayless has Mexican restaurants at all price points.  We tried Frontera Grill, his moderate restaurant, where entrees range from $19 to $25.  The kid’s menu has authentic choices like tortilla soup, quesadillas and enchiladas $3.95 to $6.95 instead of the usual boring chicken nuggets. All of the food was very tasty but the chocolate pecan pie and peach empanadas blew us away.  My younger daughter thought the peach empanadas tasted like “heaven.” Next door Xoco, also by Bayless, features Mexican street food with entrees at $11.

Accommodations

We stayed at the Homewood Suites at 152 East Huron Street.  It was a block away from the Magnificent Mile, and a long walk away from the beach. The rate for a double room with a separate room with sleep sofa was $217.55 a night plus tax and included breakfast and parking. The hotel has a fitness room and a rooftop pool.  Note: Elevators are incredibly slow during breakfast-time and we waited up to 20 minutes for one.  Press the up elevator even if you want to go down; otherwise the elevator will be too crowded to accommodate you.

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