CHICAGO, Ill. (WHAS11) -- As a native of "downstate Illinois," (to Chicagoans that's anything south of Joliet) my ambivalence for the Windy City goes way back, primarily rooted in the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry. Yet a recent visit to Chicago with my wife and two elementary-age sons rekindled memories and reminded me both what a major metropolis can offer and just how easy it is to get there from Louisville, just a five hour drive.
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With a few days free during the Christmas break, we made the impromptu decision to load up the family car for a three day onslaught of four of the city's top tourist attractions for kids, the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, SkyDeck at the Willis (Sears) Tower and the Museum of Science and Industry.
A little planning goes a long way, and my deal-hunting wife, Whitney, scoured hotel websites until landing and pouncing on a $75 per night rate at the Embassy Suites Chicago Downtown Lakefront hotel. Just north of the Chicago River, the hotel is two-blocks to Michigan Avenue shopping (for Whitney) and seven blocks to Gino's East pizza (for the rest of us).
We decided to leave the car parked at the hotel, walk to shopping and food and cab it to the attractions. Nothing beats curb service, especially when traveling with children to popular and crowded destinations. Plus, the cost of a taxi wasn't too much more than what it costs to paying in museum parking garages.
The city was blustery during our trip, but high temperatures are forecast in the 40's and 50's during Spring Break in late March, early April. (Baseball alert! The White Sox are at home March 31 and April 2-3 vs the Twins. The Cubs are at home for a weekend series against the Phillies April 4-6).
But back to our trip and a little planning that goes a long way.
I cannot emphasize enough what is probably the best planning decision we made for our museums trip. By purchasing a Chicago City Pass for each member of our family, we bypassed massive lines at each attraction, received access to special exhibits and maximized our condensed experience.
The City Pass ($94 adults, $79 ages 3-11) includes admission to five popular attractions:
1) Shedd Aquarium VIP Entry
2) Skydeck Chicago Fast Pass
3) The Field Museum All Access Pass
4) Museum of Science and Industry OR John Hancock Observatory (choose one)
5) Adler Planetarium OR the Art Institute of Chicago (choose one)
At all three of our museum stops, the lines for ticket sellers inside the museum stretched out the doors. When you are traveling with a second-grader and fourth-grader, you have no guilt avoiding the 45 minute wait and diving into museum exhibits.
The Shedd, Field and Adler are all in the Museum Campus district on Lake Michigan near Soldier Field, the home of the NFL Bears.
Day 1 - The Shedd Aquarium offers an overwhelming variety of exhibits and creatures. My kids were especially excited to see the beluga whales and Pacific white-sided dolphins.
Tip: You're likely not to see everything in one day, so take your time at the exhibits that entrance you. We relaxed and watched the sharks in the Wild Reef for a half-hour, including an informative talk by an entertaining museum guide.
The aquarium closes at 5pm on weekdays and 6pm on weekends, just in time to make a pit stop at the hotel then the seven block walk to the original Gino's East Pizza on Superior. No CityPass line-buster here. After about a half-hour wait in a line that stretched into an alley, the cast-iron skillet deep-dish pizza made it all worthwhile. The kids enjoyed the graffiti tradition inside. Look for "Sam" and "Henry" in Sharpie on the end booth closest the kitchen.
Day 2 - Museum of Science and Industry
We started our day with a 3/4 mile walk to Sunday Mass at Holy Name Cathedral. Built in 1875 as the successor to two other cathedrals burned in The Great Chicago Fire several years earlier, the cathedral features Gothic revival architecture highlighted by a beautiful wooden ceiling and stained glass windows.
Holy Name is the seat of the Archdiocese of Chicago and the home parish of the archbishop. Fans of mystery writer Andrew Greeley might recall it as also the home parish of fictional pastor Father "Blackie" Ryan.
Brunch at Lou Mitchell's - This classic breakfast and luncheon diner dates back to 1923 on Route 66. It's very popular for breakfast with a line stretching down the sidewalk. Employees hand out fresh donut holes to people in line. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush have eaten here, plus countless other luminaries.
Our plan to ascend to the SkyDeck at the Willis Tower after brunch were scuttled by Chicago fog. To the attraction's credit, as soon as we walked in the entrance, an employee warned that fog and clouds made visibility quite low. Though the SkyDeck remains open on those days, we decided to take a rain-check after she showed us a photo of the view that day.
With a Bears-Packers playoff game crowding the Museum Campus, we decided to forego the Field Museum and take the seven mile cab ride to the Hyde Park area and our most surprisingly entertaining stop on our Chicago-venture, the Museum of Science and Industry.
All I had remembered from my childhood visit was the coal mine, inside. It is still there, but the new exhibits presented one "Wow factor" after another. In collaboration with visitors, the museum staff creates actual tornadoes and lightning inside the building.
The hands-on lessons are addictive. Henry could not stay away from -- get this -- an interactive periodic chart table. Visitors use a touch screen monitor and special tools to virtually combine different elements. When a chemical reaction is detected, the table's video comes to life showing how such a chemical compound is actually used in the world today.
As Henry imagined chemical reactions, Sam was in a biology lab dissecting a cow's eye to discover the inner workings of the eye and how vision works.
Those are just two examples. This gem of a learning hub is so well planned and executed, I recommend it for any school in the region (Louisville is close enough) to plan a trip here.
Tip: Tucked away in the expansive 400,000 square feet of exhibit space is the ToyMaker 3000. Visitors watch the manufacturing assembly line process of 12 robots producing colorful toy tops according to the design specifications of any visitor who pays a mere $5. You watch as your order is assembled and then personalized with your name and the date of the visit. I don't know of a better or more inexpensive souvenir at any museum I have ever visited.
Warning: the genetics exhibit which includes a chick hatchery is not only informative, but hypnotic. My children gazed in wonder as dozens of chicks hatched before their eyes, pecking through the eggshells, uneasily taking their first steps. Mesmerizing.
The museum also features a 727 jet, a steam locomotive and a German submarine from World War II.
While enjoying a treat at the museum's old-fashioned ice cream parlor, we used the Open Table app on our mobile phones to make easy dinner reservations. With our children eating dinner before the dinner rush, we had much success making reservations each night of our trip.
Dinner: Though you may know Maggiones as an Italian favorite with 50 locations in 20 states, it started in Chicago. Very child-friendly and the meatballs hit the spot after a full day of science.
Day 3 - The Field Museum
On to the Field.
My nine-year-old son, Sam, had been asking about the Field Museum for several years, ever since a kindergarten classmate gave him a key-chain featuring the museum's prized Tyrannosaurus Rex, Sue. Approximately 20 dinosaur books later, the museum anchored our planning.
The museum expects such long lines that it has erected a tent which cascades from its front doors down the expanse of steps to the plaza below. We skipped that with the CityPass.
With a range of exhibits dating back to the museum's birth at the 1893 World's Fair up to ongoing Dino digs, the Field is worth an all-day if not two-day investment. Both Sam and seven-year-old Henry were completely engaged. Wear comfortable shoes!
We took advantage of docent led tours and made sure to wander into some of the lesser visited areas, especially the large dioramas of taxidermied animals, many of which were preserved by legendary taxidermist Carl Akeley (don't miss the elephants in the main hall).
The Field Museum balances such traditional displays (it does seem anachronistic to display stuffed and mounted animals), including an amazing collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts, with dynamic presentations envisioned for a 21st century mentality.
Dinner: Lux Bar - trendy accompaniment to Gibson's Steakhouse nearby. Great mini-cheeseburgers and atmosphere, downtown.
Day 4 - SkyDeck
Before driving home, clear skies invited us to attempt another ascent to the SkyDeck of the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower). Unfortunately, I cannot speak firsthand about the experience because as we were about to board the elevator, I realized my wallet was still in the cab.
TIP - do not pay cash. If I had paid with a credit card, the cab company could have tracked down my wallet immediately. Instead, the wallet was never recovered.
Back to the SkyDeck.
1,353 feet above downtown Chicago, visitors can see four states from the Willis Tower's 103rd floor. They've added a stomach-turning view from The Ledge, a glass balcony that extends four feet from the side of the building. Sam lay on the glass floor, looking straight down to the street far below (he did not find our cab, however).
Though I cannot attest to three full days in Chicago without losing your wallet, I'm sure it can be done. We'll be back.