A pre-holiday trip to Chicago is a delightful tradition for many families. In the best-known downtown area bordering Lake Michigan, you have a critical mass of shopping, dining and family-fun destinations, not to mention plenty of hotels in a range of price options.
We've culled the many options to create a To-Do List if you're planning a trip to the Windy City:
The Magnificent Mile is the name bestowed upon the stretch of North Michigan Avenue that comes pre-loaded with plenty of ways to spend your holiday budget. Ogling the holiday-themed store windows (especially the department store windows) is a Chicago tradition.
Some of the stores you'll find along here include: The Disney Store (717 N. Michigan Ave., stores.disneystore.com); The North Face (875 N. Michigan Ave., thenorthface.com); Niketown (669 N. Michigan Ave., nike.com); Nordstrom (55 E. Grand Ave., shop.nordstrom.com); Saks Fifth Avenue (700 N. Michigan Ave., saksfifthavenue.com). And, just for something different, visit Garrett Popcorn (625 N. Michigan Ave., garrettpopcorn.com) for a real Chicago gifting fave.
Water Tower Place (835 N. Michigan Ave., shopwatertower.com) is technically on The Magnificent Mile, but deserves a mention of its own, in part thanks to the presence of the American Girl Place store (1-877-247-5223, americangirl.com/stores) - special store hours may apply during the holiday season (call or check their website for details). Other great shops in this seven-level urban mall include Macy's, The LEGO Store, Marbles: The Brain Store and LittleMissMatched. Water Tower Place also has a great food court called Foodlife and several other restaurants.
Navy Pier (600 E. Grand Ave., 312-595-7437, navypier.com) is another popular family destination with touristy shops, restaurants, rides and games (think: Ferris wheel - open year-round except in really bad weather, carousel, mini-golf and more), the Chicago Children's Museum (chicagochildrensmuseum.org) and year-round boat cruises.
Probably no city on this planet has done more to advance the cause of pizza than Chicago, and the natives will advocate strongly for their favorites. Here are some of the most popular choices:
Giordano's Pizza (730 N. Rush St., 312-951-0747, giordanos.com) is the champion of the stuffed-crust pizza genre.
Lou Malnati's Pizzeria (439 N. Wells St., 312-828-9800, loumalnatis.com) features award-winning deep-dish pizza; offshoot of the Pizzeria Uno family (after a parting of the family way).
Maggiano's Little Italy (516 N. Clark St., 312-644-7700, maggianos.com) has lotsa pasta, too.
Pizzeria Uno (29 E. Ohio St., 312-321-1000, unos.com) is home of the original deep-dish pizza.
Just in case you've got someone going through a non-pizza phase, here are two other very popular options:
Ed Debevic's (630 N. Wells St., 312-664-1707, eddebevics.com) is great diner-style food with a twist: The wait staff (many of them underemployed actors) treat the customers with gum-snapping rudeness - on purpose! Whether you tell the kids about that before eating there is entirely up to you. Breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays only, lunch and dinner every day.
Hard Rock Café (63 W. Ontario St., 312-943-2252, hardrock.com) features a ton of Chicago blues (and blues-influenced) artist memorabilia and serves up hearty burgers and smokehouse sandwiches.
The Museum Campus, located just south of the Magnificent Mile, is a peninsula packed with three great museums that kids (and grown-ups) love. If you visit on a weekday, we've found the Shedd Aquarium is overly crowded with visiting school kids first thing in the morning, so it's less of a hassle to visit the Adler Planetarium first, then the Field Museum and then the aquarium.
Adler Planetarium (1300 S. Lake Shore Drive, 312-922-7827, adlerplanetarium.org) has three theaters and 11 exhibitions currently. One of its shows, "One World, One Sky," takes place every day at 10 a.m. and uses the talents of Big Bird and Elmo to teach young children about the night sky.
Field Museum of Natural History (1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, 312-922-9410, fieldmuseum.org) is probably most famous for being home to Sue, the largest and best preserved T. Rex skeleton ever discovered, but it's also filled with excellent and thought-provoking exhibits about zoology, anthropology, botany and geology.
Shedd Aquarium (1200 S. Lake Shore Drive, 312-939-2438, sheddaquarium.org) has exhibits featuring aquatic life from just about every water zone on the planet, plus an aquatic show featuring dolphins and beluga whales. From Nov. 25-Jan. 2, the dolphins and whales perform their "Holiday Fantasea" show.