I've been a Midwesterner for 11 years now, transplanted from the East Coast, where it was no biggie to take the train to New York City for a day.
So I was overdue for a visit to Chicago, the NYC of the Midwest. The Pitchfork Music Festival this past July provided the perfect excuse to see some bands with my wife in the evening while touring the city with our kids (6 and 8) and their grandma (age redacted) during the day. Here's what we did.
Grant Park is to Chicago what Central Park is to New York, and inside these 319 acres are several don't-miss gems. The just-opened Maggie Daley Park (337 E. Randolph St.) is a spectacular urban park for kids. Located across a winding, metallic, Frank Gehry-designed foot bridge from Millennium Park (201 E. Randolph St.) Maggie Daley has play areas divided by age (2-5, 5-12) and with various climbing structures (boats, towers connected by rope bridges, slides). The Enchanted Forest is filled with upside-down trees and funhouse mirrors. Nest Swings look like huge, swinging bird nests, and the Watering Hole gives tots a splash pad for cooling off. Plus, for a price, there are enormous climbing walls, as well as a skating ring around the walls for roller skating in warm weather and ice skating in the winter.
Within Millennium Park is the Pritzker Pavilion, a gorgeous outdoor amphitheater with 4,000 fixed seats and tons of green space for lawn seats. The afternoon we visited, the symphony was rehearsing for an upcoming (free) weekend concert, and the acoustics of the space - combined with the natural wood proscenium and serpentine steel designs (also designed by Gehry) - made for an ideal rest stop.
Next, the kids stared at their contorted mirror images reflected by Millennium's Cloud Gate (or "The Bean," as it's often called), a 110-ton, stainless-steel outdoor sculpture.
If you want a bird's eye view of Chicago, head to either the Skydeck on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower, 233 S. Wacker Drive) or 360 Chicago in the John Hancock building (875 N. Michigan Ave.). We opted for 360 Chicago ($19 adults, $13 kids); the biggest thrill for both kids was watching people swim laps in rooftop pools. Another advantage of the John Hancock building: It's located on the "Magnificent Mile," a stretch of Michigan Avenue that shoppers flock to. (Warning: Entering the Lego and American Girl stores could lead to bankruptcy.)
While the waterfront view was great, Navy Pier was probably our biggest disappointment. It's overrun with tourists and expensive attractions, though I've heard the boat cruises are fun. And the kids did enjoy the big Ferris wheel. Some areas were under construction when we visited. Also, Navy Pier is home to the Chicago Children's Museum (700 E. Grand Ave.) but I'd opt instead for the Museum of Science and Industry.
A COSI membership gets you into this enormous, fantastic science museum for free (though parking will cost you $22). Originally built as the Palace of Fine Arts for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, MSI (5700 S. Lake Shore Drive) is the largest science center in the western hemisphere. Both kids ran excitedly from exhibit to exhibit, marveling at the U-505 German submarine, manipulating touch screens, watching chicks hatch, learning about storms and more. We unwisely budgeted just a couple of hours to explore; you can easily spend the entire day here.
Another must-see, the Shedd Aquarium (1200 S. Lake Shore Drive) is a first-rate facility where you can gawk at Pacific white-sided dolphins, beluga whales, penguins, sea otters and more - about 32,000 animals in all. The aquatic show was a good way to witness the belugas in action, but the "4-D" theater experience was a bit too intense for the 6-year-old.
The elevated train or "the L" as locals call it, is an easy-to-navigate, clean and fairly cost-effective way to explore the city. Single rides are $3, and a one-day unlimited ride ticket is $10; kids 7 to 11 get a reduced fare, and children under 7 ride for free. Unlike in underground subways, kids can peer into the windows of train-level buildings as they whizz by. We rented a VRBO condo near Union Park, and the L got us downtown in about 15 minutes. Be warned: Unlike in New York, people may actually talk to you on the train.
Depending on how many destinations you plan on squeezing into a weekend, you may want to consider the Chicago CityPass, which gives you admission, often with VIP perks, to the Shedd Aquarium, Skydeck, The Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry or 360 Chicago, and the Adler Planetarium or the Art Institute of Chicago ($96 for adults, $79 for ages 3-11).
We managed to eat some delicious deep-dish from Pequod's Pizza (2207 N. Clybourn Ave.), which Food Network recently ranked No. 2 in the nation. But on a return trip I'd like to sample more pizza between visits to the Adler Planetarium, The Field Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Willis Tower and Wrigley Field. I'd also take in all of Grant Park again and spend a full day at the Museum of Science and Industry.