Sure, Chicago is a great walking city, but some tourists just can't resist those Segways.
With speakeasy-style spots like the Drake Hotel’s Coq d’Or lounge, which opened the day after Prohibition ended in 1933, and Buddy Guy’s Legends blues club, Chicago is home to some of the world’s coolest bars. Call them just some of the Windy City’s Hip Places You’ll Never See if You’re Travelling With Kids.
But if you do have tiny tourists in tow, America’s third-most-populous city has plenty to entertain little ones—and mollify their parents.
You might, for instance, find yourself on a mission to meet Sue. Even if your kid doesn’t aspire to be a paleontologist, most children are fascinated by dinosaurs, and this old gal will stop you in your tracks. Named after Sue Hendrickson, the fossil hunter who discovered her in South Dakota in 1990, Sue is the world’s largest, best-preserved, and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. More than 12.8 metres long and weighing over 1,800 kilograms, the beast makes for an awe-inspiring entrance into the Field Museum, an impressive structure in itself situated on the shores of Lake Michigan.
When a docent asked our six-year-old—who does, in fact, dream of finding fossils—if he’d like to hold one of Sue’s actual teeth, you’d have thought he’d died and gone to the late Cretaceous period. He needed two hands to hold the serrated incisor, which was bigger than a plantain.
Although Sue is the Field’s most imposing creature on view, other dino exhibits are just as captivating. There’s the McDonald’s Fossil Preparation Laboratory, where visitors can see mask-clad paleontologists at work in what resembles a dentist’s office with all those bright lights and sharp tools. And kids can go on a dinosaur dig in the Crown Family PlayLab, sifting through bits of recycled tires to discover massive bones underneath.
What’s the best way to drag children through the Art Institute of Chicago? Good question, and if you know the answer, let me know. But it’s worth bribing them with wooden puzzles from the gift shop just to see the museum’s impressionist collection. In less than an hour you can take in masterworks like Georges Seurat’s 1884 A Sunday on La Grande Jatte and Vincent Van Gogh’s 1886-87 Self-Portrait. If you have the stamina, check out other highlights like Marc Chagall’s America Windows, which even kids find dazzling, and iconic works by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Edward Hopper, and Grant Wood.
Fortunately for culture-craving moms and pops, Chicago has a progressive and impressive public-art program, and just steps away from the AIC is the 10-hectare Millennium Park. There sits Anish Kapoor’s mind-bending Cloud Gate, a giant, stainless-steel, mirrored blob that has a four-metre arch you can walk under and gaze up at. Nearby are the two 16-metre-tall glass towers at opposite ends of a shallow pool that make up Spanish artist Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain. The towers’ LED screens project video images of Chicagoans’ ever-shifting faces that sometimes blow kisses—then spew water. Both installations make for perfect, picturesque playgrounds.
Perfect, that is, if the weather is cooperating, which in Chicago it often isn’t. We were there at the end of May and froze our blackhawk feathers off, and friends who’ve visited in the fall said the same thing. When packing for Chicago, always bring something warm.
Then there’s the wind. The kids would have loved a ride on the 15-storey Ferris wheel at Navy Pier, a 20-hectare lakefront playground that’s also home to the Chicago Children’s Museum (which won the kids over with its Kovler Family Climbing Schooner, complete with three levels of shiplike nets and ladders to scramble up and down). But day after day the winds were so strong that the big wheel wasn’t spinning.
Ironically, Chicago didn’t get its Windy City nickname because of howling gales. The name goes back to the late 1800s, when long-winded politicians boasted about the city hosting so many conventions and expositions.
Forgoing what would have been a spectacular view from that Ferris wheel, we opted for two kid-friendly tourist attractions that offer expansive vistas instead.
Little ones have no fear of the vertigo-inducing glass balconies that jut more than a metre out from the Willis Tower Skydeck’s 103rd floor. A little less nauseating is the John Hancock Observatory. The building itself is an architectural icon with its exterior’s distinctive X-shaped bracing. With a City Pass—a book of admission tickets that allows you to take in five attractions for far less than what you’d pay for them individually—a trip to the viewing deck comes with a free frothy strawberry milk for kids at Lavazza Espression Café. Adults get a coffee. At 300 metres above the ground, the café also sells panini, gelato, and cocktails. Taking in the stellar view with a drink in hand while the kids swooned over ice cream made for one of those rare moments that reminded us of the days when holidays were relaxing.
The Hancock building and the Willis Tower are both near Magnificent Mile, that famous, wide shopping street lined with the usual major shops, including Disney and LEGO.
Chicago is a walking city, so it’s easy to get around with kids—if you have the foresight to bring a stroller, which we didn’t. The city’s El (as in “elevated”) train is a highlight in itself for children: it’s kind of rickety and loud. Plus, it’s convenient and cheap. We were strangely envious when we saw a group of adults on Segway Personal Transporters on Lakeshore Drive. City Segways Tours offers three-hour guided adventures, allowing tourists not only to advertise to the world that they are, in fact, tourists, but also to take in major sights in the fresh air, fast. Alas, the minimum age is 12.
If every trip has regrets, here are ours. We never took an architectural tour by boat, a 90-minute voyage on the Chicago River. I would have loved to see more of the city’s striking architectural contrasts, like the way the new sparkling Trump International Hotel and Tower sits so close to the white -terra-cotta-clad, triangular 1924 Wrigley Building.
And despite having bought tickets to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, the beloved ballpark with ivy-covered walls where the score is still changed by hand, we never did see the famous baseball diamond: the game was rained out.
After that disappointment, we craved comfort food, and luckily dining out in Chicago with kids is a cinch. You can’t escape the fact that the town remains associated with deep-dish pizza (try the gooey spinach version at Giordano’s) and hot dogs. Portillo’s, a theme-restaurant chain with its Chicago location decorated in ’30’s and ’40s gangster memorabilia, offers a beef wiener stacked with half a kosher pickle the size of that aforementioned T. rex tooth as well as peppers, tomatoes, onions, and mustard (but no ketchup) on a steamed poppy-seed bun for just $2.35. Moms and dads can get a chilled schooner of beer for $2. See? In the Windy City, there’s something for everyone.
Access: Hotels in the Loop (downtown), Lincoln Park, and near Magnificent Mile are all close to major attractions in Chicago. We stayed at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers, which has views of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River.
Originally printed in the Georgia Straight