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Hold onto your hats! A T-Rex, ferris wheels, and bird's-eye views will amaze your kids.
copyright Peter J. Schulz
Don't let the nickname America's "Second City" fool you. When it comes to family fun, Chicago takes a back seat to no one. The Windy City offers so many attractions, the toughest problem you'll face is what to skip.
Most of the family-oriented activities are clustered around the Navy Pier and the Museum Campus. These must-see stops will delight both the little ones and the seniors in your group. After a morning in the clouds atop a skyscraper, spend at least a day each at the Navy Pier and the Museum Campus.
Before starting your tour, get a bird's-eye view of the whole city from one of two famous skyscrapers:
The country's tallest building makes other skyscrapers look like ankle-biters. Start with the eight-minute video Over Chicago, a perfect intro for first-timers; then zoom up to the 103rd floor for a breathtaking view. Get there early; long lines are common, particularly on weekends and in the summer.
John Hancock Center Many Chicagoans prefer Hancock to the taller Sears Tower, because it's closer to the lake -- and it's less crowded. Head to the 94th-floor observation deck. There, computers have replaced old time "viewfinders." Rather than having to stare blankly, you'll find these gizmos tell you what you're actually looking at.
A Shore Thing
South walkway of Navy
Pier, copyright Willy
Jutting into Lake Michigan, Navy Pier has been Chicago's hottest tourist stop since 1995, when a huge development project turned this old commercial relic into a lakefront playground for young and old. There are outdoor concerts and fireworks in summer, and ice-skating and theaters in winter. Museums and shopping are year-round treats. Be prepared to spend a full day or even two checking out these attractions:
The Chicago Children's Museum
If your kids think museums are boring, a couple of hours here will change their minds. Geared to the 12-and-under set, these exhibits spark imagination and burn off steam. Kids scramble through tree-house trails, don raincoats to build fountains and waterworks, and slide down rope-ladder chutes on a three-story schooner.
Palm trees sway year-round in this indoor botanical oasis with a restaurant and snack bar. Located behind the Children's Museum, it's a great spot to relax and refuel.
Navy Pier Ferris Wheel
This 150-foot wonder pays tribute to the very first Ferris wheel, built for Chicago's 1893 Exposition. It's open year-round, weather permitting, and offers dizzying views of the city.
Carousel and Ice Rink
Winter or summer, you'll get to whirl around outdoors here, and enjoy the lakefront view.
The Smith Museum of Stained Glass
Chicago's newest museum, and the first of its kind anywhere in the U.S., is located on the lower level of Festival Hall. More than 150 stained-glass windows by masters like Louis Comfort Tiffany and Frank Lloyd Wright light up the galleries, where a 30-minute stroll will delight adults without taxing the kids.
The Chicago Shakespeare Theater
If you come in March or early April, don't miss the chance to introduce kids (ages 8 and up) to the Bard with "Short Shakespeare," abridged, 75-minute presentations of classics like Romeo and Juliet. Stage-struck tykes can talk to the cast at chat sessions after these Saturday morning shows. For grown-ups, regular performances of full-length classics are staged September through May.
A World of Wonders
Head to Museum Campus on Lakeshore Drive South for more kid-friendly, world-class attractions. (Tip: If you're going on a weekday, arrive after 2 p.m., when school bus trips have already departed.) These activities will easily fill an entire day or more.
The Shedd Aquarium
At the world's largest aquarium, you'll examine bird-eating spiders as big as dinner plates and creep through the forest with the two-toed sloth in Amazon Rising: Season of the River, a permanent exhibit. In the aquarium's 90,000-gallon Caribbean reef exhibit, you can watch a diver plunge into the water to hand-feed deep-sea creatures.
The Field Museum
Meet Sue, the best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex ever found. Explore the facts and lore surrounding these ferocious beasts in hands-on exhibits. Then shrink the kids -- and yourself -- at Underground Adventure. You'll walk through a larger-than-life, soil ecosystem that reduces you to ant size. Amid microscopic mites and moving creatures like an 11-foot crayfish, interactive exhibits let you perform science experiments with plant roots and burrowing moles, all from a "worm's-eye" view.
The Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum
The Sky Pavilion features the StarRider Theater, which sends visitors on a virtual-reality trek into outer space, using NASA space-probe data. Galileo's Cafe dishes up kid-friendly pizza, salads, and pastries at tables with a panoramic view of the city.
Type of trip: Education, culture
Best ages: All
Ideal trip length: Weekend
Distance: Madison, WI (149 miles); Indianapolis (181 miles); Detroit (275 miles); St. Louis (291 miles)
Best time to go: Winter and spring, for the best combo of weather and crowd size. Summer, November, and December are busiest at popular attractions.
Weather: 29/12 degrees in January, 83/62 in July. Winds off the lake make it feel colder in winter; humidity makes it feel hotter in summer.
If You Go...
Sears Tower, copyright
Peter J. Schulz
233 S. Wacker Dr. (enter at Jackson Blvd.)
Favorite local food: Don't leave town without trying a genuine, Chicago-style, deep-dish pizza. Insiders rave over Lou Malnati's Pizzeria, 439 N. Wells St., 312-828-9800. There's a kid's menu, plus a chocolate chip pizza dessert for sweets lovers.
Best souvenir: A bright yellow miner's helmet with a real, light-up headlamp to remember tunneling adventures at the Field Museum.
Chicago Blues Festival Grant Park
Memorial Day Weekend
Live blues all day on four stages
Chicago Air and Water Show North Avenue Beach
Stunt planes and boats
Taste of Chicago Grant Park
End of June
Food festival with live music
Traffic alert: Chicago traffic rivals New York City and Los Angeles. Avoid rush hour on weekdays (7-9:30 am, 4-6:30 pm). Parking is tough, too. Tip: Leave your car at the hotel and take public transportation to attractions.
Ranked as Illinois' top outdoor cultural institution with over 2.2 million guests in 2009, Brookfield Zoo is a great summer fun activity for families visiting Chicago. The new Great Bear Wilderness exhibit will feature polar bears, grizzly bears, Mexican gray wolves, bald eagles, bison and ravens. Guests get the chance to see some of their favorite animals up close and learn how they can help conserve, protect and restore wildlife and their habitats by making environmentally friendly choices in their daily lives.
8400 W. 31st St.
Brookfield (14 miles west of downtown)