Chicago with kids
For curious children, this inviting city overflows with treasures.
© Beth Gauper
Madeleine, Ben and Peter visit Navy Pier on their spring-break trip to Chicago.
To a would-be tour guide, Chicago is as shifty as a kaleidoscope.
The city has so many facets, in so many splendid configurations, that no one can predict what anyone — especially
children — will like best.
During spring break, my friend Rebecca and I took our children to Chicago, with an itinerary that cunningly alternated visits
to museums with visits to zoos and parks.
Pitting high culture against popular culture, we knew what the biggest hits would be: the Ferris wheel, the zoo, the elevated train, deep-dish pizza, perhaps the Museum of Science and Industry.
But we were wrong.
This is what they really liked: Miniature French boudoirs and English drawing rooms at the Art Institute. Seahorses disguised as seaweed at Shedd Aquarium. Quesadillas and freshly squeezed limeade at Frontera, one of the hippest restaurants in town.
They loved the museums, where they learned that if it’s naked, it’s French, and if it’s lethal, it’s German.
The architecture for which Chicago is famed, however, was not a hit. They were more interested in the beggars sprawled beneath it.
In Chicago, our five children learned a lot about the world. And we learned a lot about them.
Driving in from Wisconsin Dells, where we paid an overnight visit to a water park, we drove straight to Shedd Aquarium for
Climbing the steps of the aquarium, in the middle of Chicago’s lakefront Museum Campus, we could see the skyline stretching north and south, the sailboats bobbing in the harbor, small planes taking off from the field behind Adler Planetarium.
Inside, we watched dolphins jumping and heard beluga whales "talking’’ with high-pitched squeaks. We walked from
hall to hall, looking at sting rays as big as bathroom rugs, porcelain anemones with lavender-tipped arms, green moray eels
peering out from crevices with maniacal eyes.
We could hardly stop watching the sleek river otters at play: "If there’s such a thing as reincarnation, that’s what I want to be next time around,’’ said my daughter Madeleine.
© Torsten Muller
Kids like to splash in the reflecting pond of the sculpture Crown Fountain, where pixellated portraits often spout water from their mouths.
But nothing captivated us like the leafy seadragon, a foot-long seahorse with floating appendages that could not be distinguished from seaweed.
"They’re so weird, they’re the weirdest thing in the world,’’ said my son Peter, even after watching a video of a male seahorse giving birth to 150 babies.
Picking out dinner
From Shedd, we drove down Lake Shore Drive to Water Tower Place, where we parked, expensively, and went to the second-floor Foodlife, a grotto-like courtyard in which cooks stand in little kiosks, ready to whip up fajitas, potstickers, fried chicken with sweet potatoes.
I picked out my own ingredients for a stir-fry, Rebecca snared a chicken Caesar and the kids got pizza.
We should have gone next door to the top of the 94-floor John Hancock Center, for the view of the city at sunset. And we could have walked two blocks from our hotel to the Chicago Cultural Center, to hear a free Scandinavian folk-music concert under the world’s largest Tiffany dome.
They were the first of many concessions to fatigue. Instead, we settled into 25th-floor rooms at Hotel 71, overlooking the
Chicago River and the twin corncobs of Marina City.
The next morning, Peter wanted to go back to Water Tower Place, to give money to a woman who had asked us the night before.
"She was wearing designer jeans,’’ Madeleine said scornfully.
"She bought those before she lost her job,’’ Peter replied. But we persuaded him to walk to the Art Institute instead.
It was Van Gogh’s birthday, so we celebrated by looking at his famous "Bedroom’’ portrait, in a room that also contained Rousseau’s "Waterfall,’’ Toulouse-Lautrec’s "At the Moulin Rouge,’’ Cezanne’s "Basket of Apples,’’ two Gauguins and, as if those weren’t breathtaking enough, Seurat’s "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte.’’
Peter loved walking close to the Seurat, then fading back to see how the famous dots changed. But he thought the Thorne Miniature Rooms, dozens of intricately decorated interiors from the 13th century on, were even cooler.
Passing a variety of statues in the buff — "Yep, it’s French,’’ Madeleine said of Rodin’s "Adam’’ — we made our way to another kid favorite, the Arms and Armor Hall. Peter’s eyes glittered as he gazed at a German poleax."If you’d get me one of those, you wouldn’t have to get me a babysitter, because if a robber broke in, Bam! I’d scare him away,’’ he said.
Welcome to the blues
Then I hustled everyone back down Michigan Avenue to the Chicago Cultural Center for a free concert.
That day, the Matthew Skoller Band, regulars at the House of Blues, was paying tribute to local blues harmonica pioneer Sonny Boy Williamson, born that day in 1914.
© Beth Gauper
Little girls play on Oak Street Beach, a stone's throw from the Magnificent Mile.
It was a perfect introduction for children — Skoller’s hilarious harmonica imitation of a woman scolding a
man over the phone told them exactly what the blues are, without the bar smoke and adult language.
In the afternoon, the three oldest children and I left Rebecca with Jonathan, 6, and Rachel, 2, and hopped a taxi to Navy
Pier, which has a Ferris wheel, carousel, Children’s Museum, shops, restaurants and excursion-boat docks.
We rode the Ferris wheel, which was too slow for us, then went into the Children’s Museum, where their favorite feature was a Treehouse Trail that, considering the admission price, was too much like McDonald’s Playland.
Leaving, we watched the resident Improv Comedy Troupe perform a 3½-minute version of "The Wizard of Oz’’ on a raised stage in the middle of the mall.
After stuffed pizza that night at friendly Bacino’s, next to Hotel 71, Peter and I strolled 12 blocks down
Michigan Avenue for gelati at Foodlife.
The Magnificent Mile’s temples of commerce shimmered in the evening: Pottery Barn, Banana Republic, FAO Schwarz, Crate
Near the neo-Gothic Tribune Tower, Peter gave a man sitting on the sidewalk the two pennies he had found at Foodlife.
"I think we should give all homeless people $30,’’ he said. "It makes me feel really good to give money.’’
Just like an animal
The next day, we caught the bus to free Lincoln Park Zoo, where volunteers were bringing out the residents in the
Children’s Zoo — a hedgehog, a parrot, a screech owl named Otis.
In the primate house, we watched a mandrill, which the children immediately identified as the "Lion King’’
monkey, and a group of Western Lowland gorillas, which included a lively 10-month-old baby.
Something about the way she played seemed familiar.
"She looks just like Rachel, except she’s black and furry,’’ 9-year-old Ben finally said.
The zoo café was packed, so we walked the seven blocks west to Oz Park, and while the children were playing on the wooden
towers of Dorothy’s Playlot, I fetched sandwiches from the nearby Potbelly Deli.
Then we took the El back to the Loop, soaking up great views of the city as we clattered around each curve.
© Beth Gauper
A family bicycles on the Lakefront Trail, past Grant Park.
The children still weren’t out of energy. That evening, Rebecca and I watched them careening all over the sidewalk as we walked along Michigan Avenue to dinner at Panda Express.
"I think the excitement of the city stimulates them,’’ she said.
We needed energy the next day for free day at the Museum of Science and Industry, which was packed and clamorous. By 10 a.m.,
there was already an hour’s wait for the submarine tour, but we stuck it out, looking at propaganda posters as we moved
The German U-505, seized off the coast of French Africa two days before D-Day, was the first enemy vessel to be captured on the high seas since the War of 1812, and it contained the codes to the German shipping routes.
It’s a thrilling story that, unfortunately, was mostly lost on the children, though they were interested in the
scatological aspects of life at 120 degrees, with two toilets and no showers for 60 men.
We moved on to the giant heart, the flight simulators, the LEGO room, the 1911 ice-cream parlor in Yesterday’s Main Street. The Museum of Science and Industry is a wonderful place, but after four hours, we were exhausted.
Fashionable food for kids
© Beth Gauper
A baby hippo snuffles in the water at the free Lincoln Park Zoo.
Later, when Rebecca suggested we go to the Frontera Grill for dinner, I thought she was insane. An Internet restaurant guide
had praised its "extraordinary décor, extraordinary service and near-perfect food’’ but studiously avoided any
mention of families.
We went anyway, and it turned out to be the hit of the week. The walls were covered with brightly colored folk art, and giant papier-mache bears hung in the rafters.
The children gobbled quesadillas and taquitos off the children’s menu, and I had a fabulous plate of cobia with garlic achiote and garlic mashed potatoes and parsnips. The pickiest kid of all, oddly, was the happiest.
"These quesadillas are a fiesta for my taste buds,’’ Ben said.
It was an easy walk back to the hotel. When we stopped at the White Hen Pantry to pick up breakfast pastries, I noticed Peter’s face was splotched with soot, from hands trailed along bridge rails. The clerk also noticed, and, bringing out a wet cloth, cleaned him up.
I have to say I’m biased about Chicago. I always have a great time there, and I always run across the friendliest people. Now I’ve indoctrinated my children. Funny — they don’t seem to mind a bit.
Trip Tips: Chicago with kids
Getting around: For families, taxis to Navy Pier and the Museum Campus are economical, $6-$10 from most downtown hotels. A laminated map of downtown Chicago that identifies hotels and landmarks, available at bookstores, is very useful.
It's also very easy to use the CTA, which operates subway/El trains and buses.
Get a Visitors Pass, $5 for one day, $9 for two and $12 for three.
© Beth Gauper
The Scarecrow lives in Oz Park with the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, Dorothy and Toto.
They're for sale at airport stops (also museums, Navy Pier and visitors centers), and you also can order the passes online, with no shipping charges.
Planning an itinerary: I planned around free days at the museums, which change frequently. You'll save the most at Shedd Aquarium, the Art Institute of Chicago, Adler Planetarium and the Field Museum of Natural History.
Because waits already are long at the Museum of Science and Industry, it's best to avoid free day there.
For more about bicycling on the Lakefront Trail, see Spin City.
Accommodations: Choose a hotel that’s not far from Michigan Avenue and the Loop. For families, the other
question is whether or not to choose a hotel with a pool. We chose one without, knowing we’d be nagged mercilessly if
the children knew they could swim.
Reserve rooms as early as possible. Rates are pegged to demand, so they'll be highest during summer and for conventions and festivals. For discounts, try Hot Rooms, as well as such search engines as Orbitz and Expedia.
One of the best hotels for families is the Hilton Homewood Suites, which
has two-room suites with kitchenettes, a pool and buffet breakfast. It's at Grand and State, just off the subway line and a
short walk to Michigan Avenue.
The Embassy Suites has a pool and rooms with mini-fridge and microwave, on State and Ohio, three blocks south of Michigan.
© Beth Gauper
The bronze lions outside the Art Institute are a favorite kid hangout.
Suites Chicago, formerly the Doubletree Guest Suites, has a pool and two-room suites with mini-fridge and microwave, and
is on a quiet spot three blocks from Oak Street Beach and two blocks from Water Tower Place, with its eight movie screens and
Hotel 71 has large rooms with small sitting areas and is very well-located at Wabash and Wacker, one block from Michigan and two blocks from CTA trains.
Dining: It’s easy to eat well for very little at delis. Cosi, the Corner Bakery, Caffe Baci and Chipotle all
are on Michigan near the Cultural Center, and L’Appetito, a great Italian place, is at the foot of the John Hancock
It’s hard to beat Foodlife, on the mezzanine level of Water Tower Place, and Panda Express, a Chinese cafeteria with several locations.
But families can eat even at fancier restaurants; the key is arriving at 5 p.m., so kids won’t have to wait. The city’s Web site has three restaurant guides; Entrée Chicago makes it easy to find the family-friendly ones.
Events: There are lots of free events. As soon as you arrive, stop by the Chicago Cultural Center at Randolph and
Michigan or the Chicago Water Works on Michigan Avenue and Pearson for the latest information.
Navy Pier: Fireworks shows with music are held Wednesdays and Saturdays in summer. Check for the many free performances and events.
Information: Chicago tourism, 877-244-2246. And be sure to stop by the Cultural Center, on Michigan Avenue across from Millennium Park, to get the latest information.
For more help planning a trip, see Chicago as you like it.
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