Chicago has made vast strides in beautifying the city and developing visitor-friendly attractions. Millennium Park, a world-class destination on 25 acres near Michigan Avenue and the Art Institute, opened in 2004, and quickly became one of the city's biggest tourist attractions. The architectural highlight of the park is the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Music Pavilion, home of the free summer music concerts performed by the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra. Another popular attraction is the huge elliptical sculpture Cloudgate (immediately dubbed "the bean" by Chicagoans) by British artist Anish Kapoor -- his first public work in the U.S. The dazzling $450 million park added to the already excellent facilities for families, including Museum Campus, now (in my humble opinion) the number-one collection of museums on one walkable campus in the country. Several years ago the city created the campus by linking three great Chicago institutions -- The Field Museum of Natural History, John G. Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum -- by rerouting major streets to make the area more pedestrian-friendly.
Chicago continues to work on its cultural institutions, many of which have launched fundraising drives to improve and enhance their facilities for visitors. Navy Pier was rehabilitated and opened in the mid-1990s, quickly becoming the city's number-one tourist destination. The North Loop theater district has risen from a decades-long slumber. And the retail expansion along the city's fabled Magnificent Mile has yet to slow down. Is it any wonder that natives of the city have the reputation of never wanting to live anywhere else?
From the simple pleasures of summer baseball to the complexities of the world of science, here are my favorite Chicago experiences for families:
Encountering Jurassic Wonders: Sue, the largest T-rex skeleton ever uncovered, has made the Field Museum her home. (Don't be taken aback by her intimidating presence in the museum's grand entry hall.) But don't be surprised if your kids are just as much in awe of the Field's many classic kid charmers: a life-size Egyptian tomb, rooms of glittering gemstones, the royal Cameroon palace from Africa, and hundreds of stuffed animals (not of the teddy bear variety) in their habitat. Beware of the Field's mesmerizing qualities on adults and kids alike: A friend of mine began meditating in an Indian tepee, only to open his eyes and find the museum closed!
Read more about the Field Museum.
Exploring Underwater Life: Most kids have a fascination for life under the sea, and an afternoon watching dolphins frolic and colorful tropical fish swim circles around a mammoth tank is sure to enthrall. John G. Shedd Aquarium, with its all-time favorite dolphin show and precious beluga whales, is a surefire winner with kids.
Read more about Shedd Aquarium.
Marveling at the Innovations of Science and Industry: You can't go wrong at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago's perennial kids' favorite. Watch chicks hatch in an incubator. Catch an IMAX movie at the Henry Crown space theater. Step aboard a retired 727 United Airlines jetliner. Travel deep into a replica of a Southern Illinois coal mine. And, as of spring 2005, the newly restored and always classic exhibit of a captured German U-boat goes back on display in a new, climate-controlled environment (years of sitting outside in the elements took their toll). With so much to do, you might want to divide and conquer by spending a couple of afternoons here.
Taking to the Water from Navy Pier: Chicago's number-one tourist attraction is home to another kids' favorite -- the Chicago Children's Museum. Navy Pier is also the jumping-off point for many of the boat tours of Lake Michigan, so find a vessel that's your speed, from powerboats to tall-masted schooners, and take to the water!
Read more about Navy Pier.
Talking to the Animals: Located within Chicago's famous lakefront park, the Lincoln Park Zoo is convenient, compact, and charming. And what's not to love about a place that's open 365 days a year and never charges a cent for admission? This, the nation's oldest zoo, is famous for its major collection of gorillas, which live in the newly rebuilt Great Ape House, which gives its residents more outdoor living space (and the ability to control the temperature in their habitat, believe it or not). The adjoining Farm-in-the-Zoo allows urban kids to wander a working farm and meet cows, pigs, horses, chicks, and goats. And Pritzker Children's Zoo also recently received a makeover.
Read more about the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Riding the "El": L is not only the 12th letter of the alphabet, but also the greatest, least expensive entertainment your kids will enjoy in Chicago (even though fares have jumped a quarter, to $1.75 per ride). Hop a southbound Brown Line elevated train toward the Loop, and watch the city unfold as the train crosses the Chicago River and screeches through downtown canyons.
Read more about the El train lines.
Cruising Chicago's Waterways: A Chicago River cruise should be one of your first stops in our fair city. I didn't step aboard until I'd lived in the city for two years -- and boy, did I miss out! Kids and adults alike will love the Chicago Architecture Foundation's river cruise. Or, head to Navy Pier and hop on one of the myriad vessels that stand ready to chauffeur you around Lake Michigan. Whatever way you go, the best vantage point for viewing Chicago's world-renowned architecture is from the water.
Ogling Our Inland Ocean: Chicago's magnificent lakefront is an emerald strand of parks and sand beaches, linked by running, walking, rollerblading, and biking trails. You'll appreciate the foresight of Chicago's forefathers even more when you compare our free and open public lakefront to that of other Great Lakes cities like Toronto, where much of the lakefront is used for industrial purposes or is privately owned. And at 22,300 square miles in size and reaching depths of 900 feet, our great lake will look more like the ocean to your kids. It's the only Great Lake that lies wholly in U.S. territory, and Chicago is blessed with 29 miles of lakefront for biking, roller blading, or simply being. So get out there and enjoy the country's "third coast."
Getting the Blues: Even kids can get the blues, thanks to alcohol- and smoke-free nights at Blue Chicago, one of the city's many fabled blues venues. The blues is the first original music of America and the basis for rock [Â?]n' roll. It's an authentic piece of Chicago's heart and soul that you absolutely should not miss. If you want to learn more before your arrival in Chicago, read Blues for Dummies, written by the father-and-son team of Lonnie Brooks and Wayne Baker Brooks, two of Chicago's beloved blues musicians.
Rooting for the Home Team: Win or lose (and sorry to say, historically speaking, it's usually lose -- but as always, this may be our year!) an afternoon at Wrigley Field is a thrill for kids and adults alike. Even if the Cubbies aren't hitting them out of the park, hot dogs, peanuts in the shell, and a rousing rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" are sure to please. This most charming of major league ballparks is a slice of Americana that you should not miss. One afternoon spent in the embrace of the Friendly Confines will have you hooked on the sheer magic of Wrigley Field.
Read more about Chicago baseball and sports.
This article is an excerpt from Frommer's Chicago with Kids, available in our online bookstore now.
For a listing of events in the region, search Frommers.com's Chicago events database.
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