Eileen Ogintz, Taking the Kids, April 19, 2013
The hardest thing about visiting Chicago is deciding where to take the kids first - Chicago's famous Lakefront where you can ride bikes and in-line skate, or Lincoln Park where you can visit one of the few free zoos (www.lpzoo.org) in the country. (Kids especially love the polar bears.)
Maybe you want to check out the famous Millennium Park and its sculpture by Anish Kapoor. Its proper name is Cloud Gate but everyone calls the 110-ton stainless steel sculpture The Bean. "The Bean is like a house of mirrors but cooler," said 13-year-old Samantha, who lives in Chicago's northern suburbs. "My favorite thing to do at the Bean is to look up into the center and you see everyone else in there." That's because people - and the skyline - are reflected off the sculpture's shiny surface.
Some of the best kid-friendly museums in the country are here too. Let the kids lead the way through a great art museum. The Art Institute of Chicago, http://www.artic.edu/visit/visiting-your-family, is always free for kids under 14 and they especially love the Thorne miniature rooms and the Ryan Education Center where you can get gallery games and information. See the most complete T-Rex in the world (she's named Sue and you'll find her at The Field Museum, www.fieldmuseum.org). Reach for the stars at The Adler Planetarium (www.adlerplanetarium.org). Commune with creatures from the deep at the Shedd Aquarium (www.sheddaquarium.org); everyone loves the beluga whales and the dolphins. Board a German U Boat and descend into a coal mine at The Museum of Science and Industry (www.msichicago.org) where little girls especially will love the miniature Fairy Castle.
Take time to visit The Chicago History Museum (www.chicagohistory.org). Where else can kids dress up like a Chicago hot dog or "hear" the Great Chicago Fire. Another favorite is the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (www.naturemuseum.org) in Lincoln Park where gorgeous butterflies might just land on your hand.
Of course, you can't visit Chicago without stopping at Navy Pier (www.navypier.com) - the Midwest's most visited attraction - which offers the terrific Chicago Children's Museum (www.chicagochildrensmuseum.org) - with special play spaces and exhibits for the littlest visitors. (Check out the Tinkering Lab where kids can make their own invention or help them design a skyscraper with real tools.)
You've got to ride the famous 150-foot-high Navy Pier Ferris wheel, which is modeled after the world's first Ferris wheel designed by George W. Ferris, a Pennsylvania bridge builder, and built for Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. It was considered an engineering marvel at the time.
Shop till you drop on North Michigan Avenue. "The American Girl Store was amazing," said Morganne, 11, who visited from Texas. "I wanted to buy so many things there for my doll." In fact, it's one of the top family attractions in the city, with 1.5 million visitors a year.
Sample deep-dish pizza. "It's the best pizza in the world," said Samantha. "You bite in and it tastes perfect!"
I admit I'm biased about Chicago (www.choosechicago.com). I lived there for many years and explored The Windy City (so called not because of the weather but because of long-winded politicians) for many years as a reporter for The Chicago Tribune and later, also as a mom.
"Chicago is one of the world's greatest cities!" 15-year-old Ella told me. She grew up here.
I've been thinking a lot about what a great city Chicago is for families while researching my newest kid's guide about Chicago and talking to kids who live there.
Spring, of course, and summer can be an ideal time to visit. Fodor's Chicago (www.fodors.com) and Lonely Planet Chicago City Guide (www.lonelyplanet.com) can be helpful, giving you a sense of the city as well as what to do when you get there.
Cubs or Sox? Go to a baseball game and you might be able to explain to the kids that supporting a team isn't always about winning or losing. "A very fun thing to do is go to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field," said 12-year-old Teddy. "Even though they aren't the best team, fans still love coming to games to cheer the Cubs on."
Chicago, of course, is famous for having the first skyscraper in the country. Today, it also has the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), where you can step out in a suspended glass box at Skydeck Chicago (http://www.theskydeck.com/ and loom over the city at more than 1,000 feet above the ground. On a clear day you can see four states from the skydeck - Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana.
But don't forget to leave time to explore Chicago's neighborhoods, play soccer in the park or just take a ride around the Loop on the L, the city's elevated mass transit system.
Most important, get the kids involved in the planning:
- Time Out Chicago Kids (http://timeoutchicagokids.com/) tells you what's going on for families, where to eat and shop and more.
- Download the Choose Chicago Mobile App that will help you navigate -- and find fun things to do wherever you are in the city. You can also access Choose Chicago's Facebook and Twitter accounts for daily updates on what's happening in Chicago. http://www.choosechicago.com/articles/view/choose-chicago-mobile-app/306/(QUESTIONMARK)fmid(EQUALSIGN)815.
- Take a virtual tour of museums and tourist sites before you visit and decide which exhibits you want to see. You can't see everything! If you plan to visit many of the city's major museums and attractions, consider Chicago CityPASS (www.citypass.com/chicago), which will save you significant money on admission and also enable you to bypass some of the lines.
- If the kids are old enough, encourage each one to plan a day of your visit. At the very least, make sure each one in the family has a say in the itinerary.
- Sign up for a free customized tour for your family with a volunteer from Chicago Greeter (www.chicagogreeter.com). These volunteers are all locals who welcome the opportunity to show off their city. The service matches guides based on your interests. Just make sure to register 10 business days in advance.
And have a slice of deep-dish pizza for me.
(Check out Eileen's Kid's Guides to NYC, Orlando and most recently Washington, D.C. They are all available at major bookstores and from www.Amazon.com. You can find more ideas for family vacations at www.takingthekids.com and also follow Eileen @TakingtheKids on Twitter and on Facebook.)