Last weekend we spent a long weekend in Chicago. We had a great time on our trip and definitely recommend a trip to Chicago for Ann Arbor Families. At just under 4 hours, it is the perfect distance for a long weekend.
While in Chicago, we visited several Museums. We made extensive use of our Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum membership to receive free basic admission.
Museum of Science and Industry
The Museum of Science and Industry is located on the museum campus several miles south of the downtown area. Because of it’s location, it is easiest to visit on your way in or out of Chicago. We visited on our way in. Parking was available in the museum garage or neighboring city parks lot for $15/day.
Basic admission was included with our membership reciprocity, but we added the U-Boat 505 tour and the Brick by Brick LEGO Architecture exhibit at $9/adult each ($7/child). There were also other options to add, but we decided to stick with the two. There are plenty of exhibits that you can see even with just basic admission, so it is completely up to you whether you want to add extra experiences.
I definitely recommend the U-Boat tour if your children are 6 or older. Younger children probably will not appreciate it as much. In addition to seeing the inside of the boat and learning more about how it operated, the tour provides a dramatization of the capture of the U-Boat. Without a tour ticket, you can still see the U-Boat exhibits and the exterior of the sub. U-Boat tour tickets sell out very early in the day. We arrived around 11:30 and our tour was not until 3:38p. If you want to do the U-Boat tour, I recommend getting an early start to Chicago or visiting on your way out of town.
My daughter loves LEGO, particularly the LEGO Architecture series. The Brick by Brick Tour features amazing landmarks created by Chicago native Adam Reed Tucker, a LEGO Certified Professional who was instrumental in the creation of the LEGO Architecture line. Not to be missed in the exhibit are the Golden Gate Bridge and Walt Disney World’s Cinderella Castle. Before entering the exhibit, you can pick up a brochure with answers to find in the exhibit. This encourages kids to explore the hands-on activities in the exhibit. My daughter also had the chance to participate in a LEGO design contest.
The main Museum Campus in Chicago features the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, and Shedd Aquarium. It is located across from Soldier Field and near McCormick Place. The campus was 2 miles from our hotel so we took a cab on one day to visit the Field Museum and Adler Planetarium. We drove to the campus our second day on the way out of town to visit the Shedd Aquarium. Unless you make very brief visits to each of the 3 museums, it really isn’t feasible to visit all 3 in one day since they close at 5 or 6p especially if you see any shows. Parking was $19 in the Soldier Field garage.
This trip was the first time that we have visited the Adler Planetarium. Basic admission ($12/8) is free with membership reciprocity, but we upgraded to include our choice of shows in the planetarium ($23/22). I couldn’t see going to a planetarium and not seeing a show. The planetarium does offer several exhibits such as Mission to Moon, What is a Planet, and more. There is also an exploration area for young children. Even as a tween and adults, we enjoyed piloting a rover in the children’s area. The Adler Planetarium offers a nice cafeteria that overlooks Lake Michigan. We had sandwiches and fruit for lunch here.
Like the Museum of Science and Industry and Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum offers free basic admission with our membership reciprocity with available upgrades. Here we decided to stick with the basic admission. I considered adding the Underground experience, but was ignored by my husband and daughter when I turned to ask them, so we stuck with the basic admission. Our main goal at the Field Museum was to see Sue and visit the dinosaur exhibits. We also enjoyed visiting the Egyptian exhibit.
The Field Museum offers the Field Bistro on the main floor with limited lunch options and the Field Cafe in the basement with more traditional fast food style options. The options are definitely an upgrade from our 2010 visit when they only offered a McDonalds in the basement.
On our last day, we visited the Shedd Aquarium. I recommend having at least 4 hours to visit the Shedd Aquarium if you want to be able to enjoy all of the benefits. I also suggest arriving early as the admission line gets very long later in the day. My favorite part of the Shedd Aquarium was the Beluga Whales. I wish we had more time there so that we could have seen the dolphin show.
General admission ($8/6) only covers some of the basic exhibits. In order to see the large Caribbean Reef exhibit and the Abbot Oceanarium (Arctic), you will need a Shedd Pass ($30.95/$21.95) or a Total Experience Pass ($39.95/$30.95). The Total Experience Pass also includes a dolphin show, Amphibians special exhibit, and StingRay Touch. We really debated what to do. I felt that we would miss too much with the General Admission, but didn’t want to spend the money for the Total Experience Pass since we had to leave before 1p to make it home for an evening commitment. We decided to do the Shedd Pass which was perfect for the amount of time that we had. If you select the Total Experience Pass, I would suggest allocating all day to the Shedd Aquarium.
Chicago offers a number of public parks that are readily accessible.
Taste of Chicago
During our visit, their annual Taste of Chicago Festival was going on in Grant Park. At this festival, restaurants from around the city were setup in booths and food trucks. We decided to get lunch at the Festival. We arrived early (11:30a) which was great timing since the entry and food ticket lines where short. Each restaurant was offering both sample portions and larger portions. We opted for sampler portions. Some of our highlights were an ear of corn, bacon wrapped chicken, and lemon Italian Ice.
Maggie Daley Park
Maggie Daley Park is a new park offering recreation options for the whole family. There are several play structures, a climbing wall, mini-golf, and a skating ribbon (ice skating in winter, walking in summer).
My first tip for the Maggie Daley Park is to arrange a meeting place with your child before letting them loose on the playground. My daughter ran off into the large structure and it took us about 10 minutes to find her again. Playgrounds are categorized by age. For the youngest ages 2-5, there is even a water playground, so be sure to bring a change of clothes in the summer.
As a tween, my daughter was most interested in the Climbing Wall. We let her try bouldering which offered a 15 min training course, unlimited climbing time, and helmet and shoes for $15 (we also had to pay for an adult to be her spotter). She enjoyed it, but many of the climbing paths were beyond vertical, which were too hard for her. Next time, she would probably try climbing with ropes. They had three options for ropes: taking a 45 minute class and unlimited climb time, 30 minute climbing with an automatic belayer, or a 15 minute kids climb where staff do the belaying. In hindsight, we probably should have opted for the 30 minutes of climbing with an automatic belayer.
There are several swimming beaches available along Lake Michigan in Chicago. If you want to try swimming, you’ll need to bring your own gear – suits, towels, etc.
Chicago is more than just museums and parks. We also spent time at the Sears Tower and shopping on Michigan Avenue.
Skydeck (Sears Tower)
My dad worked in the building for 5 years, so it’ll always be the Sears Tower to me. But whether you call it the Willis Tower or the Sears Tower, the observation level is called the Skydeck.
It’s a definite must visit on our trip for the spectacular views. The 103 floor offers 360 degree views of Chicago.
The west side of the building also offers the Ledge, extendable glass-floor modules that extend out from the building. At first, only my daughter and I were planning to go out on the Ledge, but we talked my parents and husband into joining us.
Shopping on Michigan Avenue
Michigan Avenue offers extensive shopping and is always worth a browse. Water Tower Place is probably the most popular shopping mall with kids boasting an American Girl store complete with Doll Salon and restaurant and a LEGO Store. We browsed up and down Michigan Avenue and in addition to the above stores, also stopped at the Apple Store and the Disney Store.
We considered a few other activity ideas during our trip: particularly a tour bus or a river cruise. The temperatures were hot and sunny, so we decided to skip both options.
Chicago offers a varied selection of dining options. For lunch, we mostly ate wherever we were – the Museum of Science & Industry, Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium, and Taste of Chicago. We saved our bigger meals for dinner.
Our first night, we ate at the original Pizzeria Uno which was around the corner from our hotel – we could see it from our room. Unlike most restaurants, you order your pizza when you arrive and they prepare it while you wait for a table. Our table was ready about 10 minutes before our pizza giving us time to add drinks.
The second night, we ventured to Carson’s Ribs for BBQ. My dad suggested the restaurant since he used to eat there when he would travel to Chicago for work. The restaurant is a bit off the tourist track, but was only a few blocks from our hotel. We thoroughly enjoyed our dinner – a shared rack of ribs for my husband and I and brisket minis for our daughter.
Our other restaurant find was Eataly located on Ohio St. The store is a combination Italian grocer and food hall with separate restaurants or food stands throughout the store. We never had a meal there, but definitely enjoyed gelato and crepes for dessert on two separate nights.
On our trip we stayed at the Homewood Suites Downtown. They were located on Grand Ave. just a block from Michigan Avenue. For $10/night we were able to upgrade to a suite offering a separate bedroom. The $10 is worth it for our family so my husband and I have a separate area to work or watch TV after our daughter goes to bed. At under $200 a night (before taxes), we also had access to a microwave, refrigerator, and stove. Included in the rate was breakfast each morning with options like pancakes or French Toast, eggs, sausage, Tater Tots, oatmeal, yogurt, breads, fruits, and more. Complimentary WiFi allowed connection of 3 devices for each room and was mostly sufficient for browsing the web. We did have trouble connecting one night.
Using SpotHero, I was able to get a parking spot for our 3 night stay for $75 total. Our spot was in the parking garage on the next block. The hotel does not offer it’s own self-park. They do offer Valet Parking for $59/day. The only advantage of the Valet Parking Option is that you get in-out privileges and we did not have the ability. We weren’t planning to drive in the city, so the $100+ savings was very worth sacrificing in-out privileges.
Your Chicago Trip Recommendations
Has your family taken a trip to Chicago? Do you have any other recommendations for activities, dining, or restaurants.