Chicago is a city of iconic architecture, stunning lake views, renowned museums and recent renovation practically everywhere. With its metropolitan atmosphere and dash of Midwestern charm, Chicago is not surprisingly one of our favorite cities. It is a quick flight away from Cleveland, so we are lucky to visit the Windy City almost every year and have taken children aged two months to five years. We are definitely planning a long overdue Chicago trip with all three kids in 2018.
When traveling to Chicago by plane, there is easy access to downtown on the “El” (elevated) train from Midway on the Orange Line or O’Hare on the Blue Line. We usually arrive at Midway during morning rush hour and always take the El downtown. Once downtown, we walk almost everywhere or occasionally take an Uber.
We have stayed in many hotels in Chicago, but here are a few of our centrally-located favorites:
- The Ritz Carlton, Chicago – This is probably my favorite hotel in the US. It is located in the Water Tower Place right next to the John Hancock Center on the Magnificent Mile and has indoor access to the mall. The rooms are impeccable, and the lobby is an absolute delight. The hotel completed a $100 million renovation in July 2017, and its delightful lobby has been completely transformed. The fountain was replaced with a floor to ceiling art installation.
- Palmer House – A Hilton Hotel – We have stayed at this historic hotel several times. It is located in the center of the Loop and was also recently renovated. The lobby magnificently maintains its original splendor with a stunning mural on the ceiling and seems right out of Downton Abbey.
- Hyatt Regency Chicago – This is Chicago’s largest hotel with comfortable guest rooms located in two towers. Also recently renovated, the lobby features BIG Bar’s stunning liquor tower.
There are so many fun family activities in Chicago, but here are our top five.
#1: Navy Pier
With about 9 million visitors each year, Navy Pier is a major Chicago tourist attraction. It’s a bit of a hike to get there from downtown, so we hopped on one of the seasonal free trolleys after dinner on our last night in Chicago.
The Pier was constructed in 1916 as a commercial-shipping pier and redesigned as a tourist attraction in 1995. The Ferris wheel is the obvious centerpiece of the Pier. We enjoyed a night ride in 2013 on the pictured Ferris wheel that was retired in 2015. The new bigger and better $26.5 million DW60 opened in May 2016.
The carousel on the Pier was a big hit with our kids. We were lucky that there was almost no line, and we able to ride many times in a row.
Navy Pier offers fun for all ages, including a mall, the IMAX Theatre, the Chicago Children’s Museum, a house-maze, the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows, the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and an 18-hole minigolf course in the summer. You’ll also find the expected souvenir shops, restaurants and bars.
#2: River Cruise
Chicago architecture was world-famous long before the Trump International Hotel and Tower became the fourth tallest building in the world upon its completion in 2009. The city practically had a blank slate after the Great Chicago Fires of 1871. Chicago’s architectural icons include the skyscrapers such as the Willis Tower (the world’s tallest building from 1974-1998 and formerly known as the Sears Tower) and the John Hancock Center, the neo-Gothic Tribune Tower (home of the Chicago Tribune), Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rookery Building, the art deco Merchandise Mart and the mixed-use Marina City with an exposed parking ramp that has been likened to Sagrada Familia.
With many of the landmark buildings located along the river, several tour companies offer architectural river boat tours. The most popular is offered through a partnership between the Chicago Architecture Foundation and Chicago’s First Lady Cruises. We planned to take that tour with our three and five year old sons but waffled after learning that children are discouraged and also require a full price ticket. We opted for the more family-friendly Mercury Skyline Cruiseline, which offers a narrated architectural tour and a bit of cruising on Lake Michigan.
#3: The Field Museum of Natural History
The Field Museum is one of the world’s largest natural history museums. It opened in 1893 and was named to honor its first major benefactor, Marshall Field, the founder of the Chicago-based department store who donated $1 million to the Museum in 1894. It is located on Museum Campus along Lake Michigan.
The Field Museum boasts one of the world’s best dinosaur collections. Sue, the world’s most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, has been prominently displayed in the main hall of the Museum since 2000. However, Sue will be moved upstairs in early 2018 when a cast of the world’s largest dinosaur, which was found in 2014, moves in.
With two young boys who were excited about prehistoric creatures, we definitely did not miss the dinosaur exhibit.
We also explored an Egyptian tomb in the three-story Inside Ancient Egypt exhibit. This exhibit includes one of the world’s largest collections of human mummies. This was our boys’ first exposure to Egypt, but they were fascinated and have since enjoyed Egyptian exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History and the Cleveland Museum of Art.
As members of the ASTC Passport Program, we also enjoyed free admission with our reciprocal membership to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
#4: Adler Planetarium
Our kids love space as much as they love dinosaurs. My older son wanted to be an astronaut through pre-school and had a great time visiting the Adler Planetarium. The Adler Planetarium was the first planetarium in the western hemisphere and named for philanthropist Max Adler, who donated funds after visiting a planetarium in Munich. The beautiful stone building houses many interactive exhibits and three theaters, including the most technologically enhanced planetarium theater and a high-definition 3D theater.
Our boys enjoyed the interactive exhibits focusing on the planets, solar system and space exploration, and, of course, the planetarium show. As members of the Association of Science-Technology Center’s (ASTC) Passport Program, we also received free admission with our reciprocal membership to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. However, we did have to pay extra to attend the theater show.
At the tip of Museum Campus, the Adler Planetarium boasts one of the best views of the Chicago skyline.
#5: Millennium Park
Millennium Park was designed in the late 1990s to honor the third millennium. Construction costs ballooned from $150 million to $475 million, and the opening was delayed until 2004. Today, the park is a widely popular destination for both Chicago residents and tourists and attracts over 25 million people each year.
The centerpiece of Millennium Park is the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a bandshell used for outdoor music performances. The Pavilion was designed by Frank Gehry using his characteristic curved stainless steel plates and features a sound system designed to replicate the sound experience of an indoor concert hall.
Cloud Gate is a public sculpture located at the center of AT&T Plaza in Millennium Park and nicknamed “the Bean” because its shape. The Bean is created with stainless steel plates that have been welded together and highly polished so that there are no visible seams. Sir Anish Kapoor designed the sculpture to resemble liquid mercury and the sculpture’s curved surface creates a distorted reflection of the city’s skyline. Construction costs escalated way above the original estimate of $6 million and ultimately cost almost four times that amount. The Bean was privately funded through donations and unveiled in 2006. This is a highly interactive sculpture that visitors are encouraged to touch, and it is so popular that we have never been able to get a picture without also capturing dozens of other visitors.
Chicago is an amazing city to visit that definitely offers something for everyone.