We're going to try a new weekly installment. Since it's Friday and since I like alliteration, we're going to discuss "Five Family Fun Features" for a given city each Friday. FFFF will be a firsthand account of fun things to do while traveling with kids in various cities. Because it's a firsthand account, this series will probably run out sooner rather than later (we've only been so many places with Travelin' Junior and, sadly, we were somewhat oblivious to potential family activities during our pre-TJ travel experiences). But, I'll hope to add to the list as we add to our travels. Here are some other basic disclaimers:
- These lists are just what they say they are: five things to do with kids in a given city. It's not the five must-see attractions or the five things kids will enjoy doing most. It's simply five suggestions of things a family might enjoy when visiting a particular city. Think of it more as a brainstorming tool than a definitive list.
- Unless a specific age group for a particular activity or destination is mentioned, you can assume that it's generally good for, in the words of Nat King Cole, kids from one to ninety-two. But, you can probably tell from the descriptions what age groups will get the most enjoyment out of a particular spot.
- Many of these activities may be weather dependent. I'll try to mix in a few indoor and outdoor activities on each list, but it should be easy to figure out what can be enjoyed when.
Okay, with all the preliminaries out of the way, here are five fun things for families to do in Chicago:
- The Lakefront and/or Beaches. Chicago is one of those rare cities where you can take in an impressive skyline while walking along (or swimming in) an equally impressive body of water. A flurry of activity occurs on the walking/jogging path that winds along Lake Michigan for miles. You can bring your rollerblades, rent bikes, or just walk. If your kids like the path, they'll probably love the beaches. Walking from the northern end of Michigan Avenue, you can have the sand of the immensely popular Oak Street Beach between your toes in about fifteen minutes. Since there's no parking there, if you're driving, consider North Avenue Beach, just about a mile north of Oak Street and almost equally popular. Because of that popularity, parking can actually be quite a hassle. So, if you're willing to trade a great skyline view for an equally nice and more easily accessible beach a few miles north, you can try Foster Avenue Beach. But, if you're making it a day at the beach, Foster has only a little snack bar, while both Oak Street (Oak Street Beachstro) and North Avenue (Castaways) have very good dining options.
- Millennium Park. Words escape me when trying to describe how great Millennium Park is. You've got the amazing "Cloud Gate" sculpture (better known as "the Bean"), the kid-favorite Crown Fountain (containing two 50-foot video screens/water walls that flow into a reflecting pool full of wading kids in the warmer months), and, if you're traveling to Chicago in February this year (not that I recommend it), a new, 95-foot long ice creation called "Paintings Below Zero." If you'd rather hear your art than see it, you can bring a picnic and catch a free outdoor concert at the Pritzker Pavilion. Don't worry about disturbing other patrons-- the running, dancing kids probably outnumber the more serious concert-goers some nights. Set up shop near the back of the pavilion and nobody will even look twice. If you work up an appetite from these activities, the Park Grill serves up great food both in a more casual, outdoor setting and in a fancier (but still kid-friendly) indoor setting. In the winter months, the outdoor portion of the bar and restaurant converts into a skating rink.
- Navy Pier. Yes, Navy Pier is "touristy." So, what, you're a tourist! Your kids will be too busy checking out the fantastic Children's Museum, the musical performers, fun house, ferris wheel, and beautiful Lake Michigan views to worry about the local vibe. There's also an abundance of kid-friendly restaurants, as well as a large food court stocked by mostly local Chicago restaurants. During the summer, there are often free nighttime fireworks shows, too. The only downside to all these activities in one place? The parking, while available, is expensive. If you're staying downtown, ask about the free Navy Pier trolley service that runs about every 20 minutes from select locations.
- The Notebaert Nature Museum. A couple of miles north of downtown, the nature museum provides an excellent wintertime activity for stir-crazy kids. There are tons of hands-on activities, with the main attraction being a 2,700 square-foot greenhouse containing more than 1,000 butterflies. It's the closest thing you'll get to an outdoor activity when the weather turns brutal.
- Shedd Aquarium. The Shedd bills itself as the "world's largest aquarium." I've never measured, but it's got, like, a lot of stuff. Some of the best include: (1) the "Caribbean Reef"-- a 90,000 gallon circular tank where a diver feeds the animals while talking to the visitors through the speaker system; (2) a huge oceanarium with regular dolphin shows; and (3) a "Wild Reef" exhibit containing more than two dozen sharks. There are several other great exhibits and two kid-friendly dining options: a food court and a nicer sit-down restaurant with beautiful Lake Michigan views. Come to think of it, several parts of the aquarium have amazing views of Lake Michigan and the city. It's definitely one of those spots the adults will enjoy as much as the kids.
So, there are five suggestions of things to do with kids in Chicago. And, because this entry isn't painfully long enough, I'll throw in an added bonus:
Find a Sitter and: Go see sketch comedy at Second City. The comedy troupe that launched careers from John Belushi to Tina Fey is still going strong. Unfortunately, many of the topics covered are a tad "mature" for younger audiences. Plan ahead, because weekend shows usually sell out a week or two in advance. If the main stage is booked, try for a ticket at the smaller E.T.C. stage, whose revues are usually equally funny.