We all have childhood memories of a favorite vacation destination - a place with special meaning that repeated visits only enhanced.
For one of us who grew up in the Midwest, Chicago was that place. We would board the train at Union Station in St. Louis and arrive five hours later in a city that seemed infinitely larger and more exciting than our hometown. Chicago had a lake that seemed as big as an ocean and skyscrapers, museums and shops unlike anything back home.Now, years later, Chicago continues to be a special place for us and our own child. We return once or twice a year, usually for a long weekend. Our visits rekindle our own childhood memories and allow us to introduce our child both to the things that made Chicago special to us as a child and to the city's many new attractions.
With seven million people, Chicago is the third largest city in the nation. But it's easy to get around, and the city's many attractions give you the choice of indoor or outdoor activities, as the weather allows.
It's impossible to sample all that Chicago has to offer in a weekend, or even a week. It's best to proceed deliberately, visiting only those places that hold the most interest for your family. (Be aware that almost all of Chicago's attractions charge admissions.)
Lincoln Park, with 12 beaches, several museums and the city's zoo, is the center of family activities on the north side of the city. The zoo's collection includes the largest group of apes in captivity, a children's zoo with a petting area, and a farm.
The Chicago Academy of Sciences in Lincoln Park is one of our favorite smaller museums. It's rarely crowded, and it has lots of nooks and crannies to explore. The top floor is given over to hands-on exhibits.
The Chicago Historical Society is another small Lincoln Park museum that is well worth a visit. The Pioneer Life Gallery and the hands-on exhibits will get you involved in Chicago history. Children can even produce their own old-time radio show.
Shoppers will want to head for North Michigan Avenue, also known as the Miracle Mile. The water tower that survived the fire of 1871 is now surrounded by hotels, office buildings and a shopping mall. Get a view of it all from the top of the John Hancock building, the third tallest building in the world.
In the same area of posh shops, but less well known, are several fine museums. The Museum of Contemporary Art on East Ontario displays the innovative work of contemporary artists. The Terra Museum of American Art on North Michigan has a good collection, including some works by Andrew Wyeth. The ride on the room-size elevator to the exhibit space could be the highlight of the trip for younger children.
To the east, on North Pier, children can "touch, create, build, crawl and bubble" their way through the wonderful Chicago Children's Museum. Chicago's architecture is made accessible through a downtown reproduction with kid-sized buildings. Our 10-year-old still remembers a visit five years ago when he was encased for an instant in a huge bubble in the "art and science of bubbles exhibit."
While on North Pier, you can view model ships at the Chicago Maritime Museum and then stroll outside and watch the real thing on Lake Michigan.
The River North neighborhood has more than 50 art galleries and a small museum with a very important message. The Peace Museum on East Erie Street has excellent exhibits on the importance of getting along in the world and a Peace Post Office where children can send greetings to other children in countries around the globe.
The Loop is the center of Chicago, and its buildings tell the history of modern architecture in stone, steel, concrete and glass. Learn about Chicago's great architecture by signing up for the "Put Your Arms Around a Building" tour at the ArchiCenter on South Dearborn. Sears Tower, the world's tallest building, is at the southwest edge of the Loop. The observation platform at the top is a major Chicago tourist attraction.
While you walk The Loop be on the lookout for some great art, including Dubuffet's Monument with Standing Beast (you can climb on this one), Oldenburg's baseball bat, Chagall's mural and Picasso's sculpture.
A visit to the Chicago Art Institute on South Michigan is a must. Don't miss the Junior Museum, with hands-on activities for children, artists at work, and games like "I Spy" that will have children combing the museum for the answers. The miniature rooms exhibit near the Junior Museum also holds a special fascination for kids.
Another rare find is the Maurice Spertus Museum of Judaica just south of the Art Institute. In its Artifact Center, your family can go on a simulated archaeological expedition in the Mideast. Children can work with authentic tools at one of 11 indoor digging sites. As they discover artifacts, they learn when each was made and something of the civilization that produced it. The Marketplace introduces your family to life in the Middle East thousands of years ago. The museum is closed on Saturdays and holds special programs on Sundays.
The famous Field Museum of Natural History lies just south of the Loop, along Lake Michigan. It is impossible to absorb its nine acres of exhibits in one visit. Concentrate on a few areas and pledge to return another day.
Our favorites are the Egyptian tomb and the Traveling the Pacific exhibits. In the reconstructed 4,000-year-old tomb, you descend 35 feet into burial chambers that contain 23 mummies. The Pacific exhibit features the people and environment of Polynesia and Micronesia. Here you can visit a village in New Guinea or steer a Spirit Canoe by the stars across the open ocean.
From the Field Museum you can take the walkway under Lake Shore Drive to get to the Shedd Aquarium, where you can watch a diver feed hundreds of tropical fish, including sharks, in the 90,000-gallon reef tank. Also visit the recently completed saltwater Oceanarium, the world's largest indoor aquarium, which houses Beluga whales, white-sided dolphins and Pacific blue whales.
Astronomy buffs will want to continue from the aquarium to the Adler Planetarium. A bonus is one of the best views of the Chicago skyline from the end of the peninsula near the planetarium.
The Hyde Park/Kenwood neighborhood is just a few miles south of the Loop and is easily reach by commuter train or car. This is the location of the Museum of Science and Industry, one of the nation's original touch museums, with loads of buttons to push, cranks to turn, and levers to lift. The coal mine and the German submarine are still there. The simulated space shuttle ride in the Crown Space Center is new.
The DuSable Museum of African American History is on East 56th Place. Here children can participate in workshops on holidays like Kwanza and Carnival and learn about famous African-Americans.
When considering places to eat in Chicago, don't ignore Chicago's many ethnic neighborhoods with their unusual restaurants. Polish, Greek, Chinese, Mexican, Swedish, Lithuanian - they all add spice to the Chicago experience. And many have cultural centers and museums of their own.
Chicago has many hotels and motels in every price category. If you want to be at the center of the action on North Michigan Avenue, consider the luxurious new Four Seasons Hotel. Amenities for children include complimentary movies for use on an in-room videocassette player, board games and in-room Nintendo. The health club has a large indoor swimming pool and an outdoor jogging track.
For information and for reservations (ask about week-end rates), call (800) 332-3442.
Embassy Suites, at 600 North State St., near Michigan Avenue, offers a good location and affordable rates ($109 to $169 on weekends) that include a comfortable two-room suite with living room and bedroom, and full-cooked breakfasts, cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. Call (312) 943-3800.
Another attractive option for families are two European-style hotels, with many kitchen-equipped suites, that are operated by the family-owned Gold Coast Group, the Talbott and Delaware Towers. Winter weekend rates, including breakfast, cocktails and Sunday brunch, begin at $99 (rates are lower in the summer.) Call the Talbott at (312) 944-4970 and Delaware Towers at (312) 944-4245.
The city's public transportation system is excellent. A car is actually an impediment because of the high cost of parking and congested streets.
For additional information, call the Illinois Information Center at (800) 223-0121 or the Chicago Office of Tourism at (800) ITS CHGO. Once you get there, pick up a copy of the Chicago Reader, a free weekly newspaper, to find out about ongoing cultural events.
A good source for things to do with children is Lauren Davis' book, "Kidding Around Chicago."