Experience 1 Day, 3 Ways in Chicago!
A visit to Chicago will have you crooning “Chicago is my kind of town” just like Sinatra did. The only problem is that with so much happening in the Windy City, you might find it hard to narrow down what you want to do. We’ve put together 3 fun themed suggestions on how to spend the day so you can pick and choose how to let Chi City leave its mark on you!
Chicago like no other: SkyDeck Chicago and Chicago Food Planet
The Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) is one of the Chicago buildings that makes the city skyline world famous and immediately recognisable. Staring up at the shining black edifice from the sidewalk on Wacker Street, I can feel my knees buckling. Thinking of heading to the SkyDeck at the top makes me woozy. “I’m not sure I can…” I murmur. “Of course you can!” I am brightly encouraged.
The trivia posted in the lobby area before we board the elevator (zipping us up 103 floors in less than a minute) distracts me from the impending doom from great heights for just long enough. Did you know the tower is 262 Michael Jordans high? That’s 313 Oprahs! The 9-minute movie, Reach for the Sky filled in some of the history of the building and its design. Once at the top, I will concede, it was awe-inspiring. On a clear day, you can see four states from the Skydeck. If you are braver than me, step into The Ledge…a thick laminated glass box that protrudes 4.3 feet from the side of the building to give you a clear shot down to the street, 412 metres below.
There’s nothing like staring death in the face to work up an appetite, and a tour with Chicago Food Planet is an ideal way to get a taste of the Second City. Several themed tours run seasonally. I had the opportunity to sip and snack my way around the world at several restaurants in the charming area around Wicker Park for the World’s Fare tour. According to our engaging and hilarious guide, the most popular tour for families is Best in Chow, which runs year round and offers discounted pricing for children under 13. You get to taste some of the most iconic Chicago food (hotdogs, deep dish pizza, popcorn and more!) at the restaurants most associated with their creation. I can’t think of a better way to spend 2.5 hours eating with kids, as the portions are small enough that you can get a taste of everything, the pace is leisurely but not slow, and there is no waiting for a seat at some very popular restaurants. Just bear in mind, depending on the tour, there can be a fair amount of walking and standing…you know your kid best, and if they will have patience for that kind of thing!
Explorers Rock! The Field Museum and Adler Planetarium
The Field Museum is deceptive. From the bright centre hall, open to the ceiling that houses “Sue” the T-Rex, you would be forgiven for thinking the handful of surrounding galleries take up a small footprint and that you can get through the museum quickly. It’s not small. You can’t rush. Highlights tours are offered throughout the day by knowledgeable docents, and that can be a great way of hitting the high points to help you decide what you want to go back to on your own to dig in deeper at the spots you are really interested in.
My fave was the Grainger Hall of Gems, with an impressive collection of gems and jewellery donated by patrons of the gallery, as well as fantasy pieces created from the jewels in the collection. “Don’t you get any ideas!” I heard a young man admonish his girlfriend as she lingered a little too wistfully over a multimillion-dollar display.
Don’t miss the Crown Family Playlab (downstairs) it has different hours from the rest of the museum, so make sure you check and plan accordingly. The younger set will love the hands-on fun and chance to delve into the themes that mirror what is going on in the rest of the museum.
A word to the wise: If you have purchased the CityPASS, be sure to check what galleries are included in your admission, some (but not all) are part of the pass. I mistakenly thought I didn’t have access to some of the exhibits I actually could have visited. Wah WAH.
Not far from the Field Museum, (in the area known as Museum Campus) is the Adler Planetarium. It has a cool collection of artefacts from the history of space exploration, notably pieces from Jim Lovell’s own collection. The gallery is immersive, with a soundtrack of the Houston control room playing that lends a feeling of urgency as you look at relics from the dramatic Apollo 13 mission (yes, that’s the Tom Hanks movie one.) I could see it being a bit overwhelming to someone with sensory sensitivities, so you might want to spend your time in other galleries if that is an issue in your family.
The Adler has done a neat job of engaging visitors, from the giant planets in the Solar System gallery, to the Space Walk simulation, a long, dark tunnel with a glass walkway to make you feel like you are walking through the stars, plus shows and activities that will get you excited about the Final Frontier.
Art Attack: The Art Institute of Chicago and Millennium Park
The Art Institute of Chicago is consistently ranked among the top museums in the world, and with its encyclopedic collection, it offers something for every genre of art lover. A tour (included with admission and held daily at noon) is an excellent way to learn about the collections. The miniature rooms downstairs were magical and seeing, in real life, art previoulsy seen only in my art history texts was pretty thrilling.
If you have the CityPASS, you will know that you can choose from the Adler Planetarium or the Art Institute. If you have little/active kiddos, they might enjoy the hands-on nature of the Planetarium more (you could spend this day at the Museum of Science and Industry that is far more interesting than the name implies!)
You can get into the Ryan Learning Space at the Art Institute without paying admission though. While you won’t get to see all the art, you can still engage in some creative art activities, including the touch gallery, an accessible collection that is free for the touching!
Once you have finished at the Art Institute, cross the Nichols Bridgeway (from the third floor in the modern wing) over the road into Millennium Park. The City of Chicago works hard to ensure there is accessible public art—some more beloved by the citizens than others – around town, and in Millennium Park you will find a bunch! Stop on the bridge for a view of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion designed by Frank Gehry. If the weather is nice, you can splash in front of the faces of ordinary Chicagoans, projected large onto facing towering screens, at the Crown Fountain. Pose for pics in front of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (affectionately known as “The Bean”) and the Doric columns of the Millennium Monument. There is an audio tour you can download to your phone if you want more info on the art.
My requisite #nofilter posts on social media elicited passionate comments from my friends. “I LOVE CHICAGO!” and “Why didn’t you bring me? Chicago is THE BEST!” I travel a fair amount, and I don’t think I’ve ever got that kind of response about a city. There is something understated yet feisty about the place, and it’s tough not to be drawn in. With these 3 ways to spend the day, you’ll get a taste of it too!