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The butterfly haven at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is just one of many family attractions you'll find in Chicago.
by Jim Graves
Chicago is one of America’s great cities. Despite its cold winters and hot, humid summers, it is a center for business and commerce, as well as a great destination for vacationing families. In June, my wife, Carol, and I braved 90-degree Chicago temperatures and took our children, Claire and Shelby, ages 5 and 6, to the Windy City for a week of fun.
Chicago has an excellent public transportation system, and parking for your own car can be expensive or hard to find. So, if you’re planning to enjoy attractions around “The Loop” of downtown Chicago, leave your car behind and take public transportation. Your options include ample buses, the elevated train (“EL”) and even water taxis that navigate Chicago’s rivers and lake. (If you love boats, they’re a must.) Kids 6 and younger ride the bus for free. Bus tickets are $2.25 if you pay cash, and stores in the area (we bought ours at Walgreens) will sell you a 24-hour bus pass for $5.75, which is your best deal if you plan to ride the bus more than twice in a 24-hour period.
We stayed at the Silversmith Hotel, located at Madison & Wabash downtown. You can pay hundreds of dollars per night for a posh hotel downtown; we booked ahead for $130 per night for a decent room with historic décor. Parking the car was a downside, as it cost $49 per day. A cheaper option is to stay at a hotel outside of town and take the train in each morning, but we liked the feel of being in the big city. Or, if you want to stay downtown, don’t rent a car at all.
Our first stop was actually about an hour outside the city in the northwest suburb of Schaumburg at the Volkening Heritage Farm (http://www.parkfun.com/spring-valley/heritage-farm) at Spring Valley. The farm is a public park, free to visitors, featuring a farmhouse with chickens, horses, cows and pigs tended to by staff in historic farming costumes. The farm also has a series of hiking trails that take you on a short walk to a cabin, nature center and a large pond covered by blooming lily pads.
My kids found the wild animals even more entertaining than the domesticated ones. They saw frogs, including a large one they watched for five minutes straight – an eternity for small children. We also saw a gray egret and a large, swimming rodent that might have been a muskrat or beaver.
If your child is 10 or younger, the Chicago Children’s Museum (www.chicagochildrensmuseum.org) should be at the top of your list to visit. It is outstanding. We spent 3 ½ hours there, and wished we’d come earlier and spent the entire day. Tickets are $12, plus an additional $20-25 if you have a car to park.
Located on Navy pier, the museum features play areas including a small city, a garden and a dinosaur dig. And wherever they go, there are costumes for them to try on – from anthropologist to garden bug to firefighter. My kids loved the art studio. At one station, they created images in clay. They also enjoyed scrambling around in The Climbing Schooner, building fountains and pumps in Waterways, and buying and “cooking” pretend food in the Market.
Throughout the museum personable, talented staff members jumped in to facilitate play and draw in my children’s interest. One sculpted her own face in my children’s clay with such skill that we knew she had an art background. Another taught children that oil and water don’t mix, and helped them create beautiful oil-and-water swirls on paper.
Navy Pier also boasts a Ferris wheel, games for children, and many places to eat.
Little girls love butterflies, so the next day we headed to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum ($9 adults, www.naturemuseum.org), a highlight of which is its butterfly haven, a greenhouse that contains 1,000 butterflies of 75 different species amidst a backdrop of waterfalls, flowers and tropical trees. The butterflies flutter about you, and an occasional hitchhiker may stop for a rest on your back.
My kids also liked the museum’s Bikes! exhibit, which included 13 historic bikes dating back to the 1880s. You can climb on and pedal a replica of an 1880s big wheel bike, or take a virtual bike ride around Chicago’s neighborhood.
Cross Fullerton Parkway which runs to the south of the Nature Museum , and you’ll hit the north end of the expansive Lincoln Park Zoo (www.lpzoo.org). If you opt to drive yourself, the cost to park is $18. Otherwise, a city bus can take you right to the front gates. Admission to the zoo itself is free. It houses a wide variety of animals that you’d expect to see in a world-class zoo – including a bird house where many exotic birds are free to fly about you. My girls were startled when an African Spoonbill (a large white bird with a flat beak) landed beside us. The polar bear exhibit and seal tank were also great.
South of the zoo and Navy pier is another great group of attractions, including the Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium. The Field Museum ($29 adults, $20 children, www.fieldmuseum.org), another must-see in Chicago, is home to Sue, the skeleton of a T-Rex, which is visible as you enter. The highlighted exhibit when we were there was one that told the story of Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire 800 years ago. There was also an Extreme Mammals exhibit, which featured the remains of various odd creatures that roamed our planet centuries ago. There is much to read and learn when you go to Field Museum, so I want to take my girls back when they are older so that they can really appreciate all the museum has to offer.
The Shedd Aquarium ($35 adults, $26 children, www.sheddaquarium.org) houses more than 30,000 animals. My kids liked the aquatic show in the Abbott Oceanarium, which featured dolphins, belugas (white whales) and penguins. My daughter Shelby insisted we take a penguin home. The aquarium’s central feature is its Caribbean Reef tank, which is surrounded by sections that feature fish and other undersea creatures from various rivers, lakes and the ocean. They also have a fabulous jellies exhibit – scheduled to run through 2013 – in which you’ll see pulsating, translucent sea jellies. If your kids have the urge to run around, the lower levels have a mock submarine for young mariners and a penguin rock on which small children can climb. Stop for lunch at the aquarium’s Soundings Café, which has some healthy offerings and the best view we saw of the lake and city.
I like architecture, and Chicago is known for its many beautiful and historically significant buildings. There are many architectural tours, so I chose to take a tour of churches with Nell Andrzejewski, director of Catholic Church Tours (www.CatholicChurchTours.com). My kids were a bit young for touring historic structures, so mom returned for a second visit to the zoo while I toured.
We hit such iconic churches as St. Mary of the Angels, a Polish parish established in 1897. It’s one of the region’s largest churches, and seats 2,000. Features include a majestic entrance portico, nine-foot angels that surround the domed church and a vast collection of beautiful artwork inside. If you’re a Steven Seagal fan, St. Mary’s served as the backdrop for his 1988 movie Above the Law. It’s a prominent feature when you drive down the Kennedy Expressway. It’s built in the Italian Romanesque style, modeled after a church near Rome. Everywhere you look inside is a feast for the eyes, with colorful paintings, statues and stained glass windows.
Other stops on our tour included St. Hyacinth Basilica, established in 1894, and visited by Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II. A statue of him was erected in front of the church in his honor. Like St. Mary’s, the church has a magnificent interior. It is also one of three churches designated a basilica, or pilgrimage site, in Chicago.
We had an outstanding visit to the Windy City; it has some magnificent historic features and many family-friendly elements. We look forward to returning soon.
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