Family Activities in Chicago
Within a few minutes walk of the Hyatt, there are a number of museums and things to do with children. The best place to start your visit to Chicago is downtown at the Cultural Center. Not only does the Center offer free art exhibitions and musical performances, often at lunch times or early evenings, it is also the site of Chicago’s main tourism information office. The Cultural Center has spectacular interior decoration, including a Tiffany Glass dome roof. There are numerous attractions in Chicago and the CityPass offers a combined multi-ticket discount to many of the most popular museums and experiences. Also, Chicago is the home of Groupon, so keep your eye on that for more deals. Indeed, some of the most exciting things Chicago has to offer are free or low cost for children. For kids not familiar with Chicago, just riding around the Loop on the El can be a great adventure! There are often up to date listings on the Time Out Chicago Kids website and many of the museums have free days so check with them for the dates. If you are staying with friends in the city and can get access to a Chicago Public Library card, all branch libraries have free entry passes for most of the main museums – you just check out the museum pass as you would a book!
The Bean (officially “Cloud Gate” by Anish Kapoor) anchors the popular Millennium Park attraction. Even in Spring, kids and adults will enjoy their distorted reflections on the Bean. Also, the walk over the foot bridge to the Art Institute of Chicago offers some good views of the city. Numerous famous paintings hang in the galleries at the Art Institute, including Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat. Other artists represented include Degas, Monet, O’Keeffe, Warhol, Hopper, Gauguin, Picasso and, well, pretty much everyone else! There is a children’s play area ideal for those under eight at the Ryan Education Center and slightly older children may enjoy the intricate models of the Thorne Miniature Rooms. The Institute offer many age-appropriate workshops and programs, so check its web site. Children under age 14 are admitted free.
Further south, although quite a walk away, is Chicago’s Museum Campus. Three museums cluster together here, and you probably need a day for each! The Field Museum which has exhibitions of natural history and Suits of armor, an and ever popular dinosaur skeletons. Its current major installation is Vikings. The Shedd Aquarium offers a multitude of aquatic displays. Most popular are the leaping dolphins of the Aquatic Shows, but there are other great things to see such as the sharks and otters, and to touch too, with an interactive Stingray Touch exhibit. The third museum on the campus is the Adler Planetarium. The other major museum in Chicago is the Museum of Science and Industry. It is eight miles south of the AAG conference site, in the Hyde Park neighborhood. Popular attractions include the interactive “Science Storms” installation, and the huge, ever-moving, 30-train model railroad display.
Skydeck in Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) and the 360Chicago observation deck at the Hancock Building offer stunning views of Chicago. The gimmick at Skydeck is that you can walk out into a glass box and look straight down, 1300 feet (410m) above street level. At 360Chicago, the “Tilt” window moves in a way that makes you feel like you are dropping over 1000ft to street level. Skydeck may be higher, but the views from the Hancock Building are better! If you are without the children, then the Signature Room bar on the 96th Floor of the Hancock Building is well worth watching the sunset from, glass in hand!
Another downtown event worth considering are the theaters. Most of those showing Broadway musicals (such as the Book of Mormon), or well-established ensembles such as Steppenwolf, offer day of show reduced price tickets. Some box offices raffle off pairs of tickets for a matinee at 10am, so contact the theaters for details. For older kids, the long-running Blue Man Group, about 2 miles north of the conference hotel, is an enjoyable event that offers high energy music, light shows and humor. Children under 12 are well served by the Chicago Children’s Theater and Emerald City Theater.
Navy Pier is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Chicago. Although much of the pier is currently undergoing renovation, most of its attractions remain open. Entry to the pier itself is free, but all the activities charge fees. There are also a large number of chain fast food restaurants and gift shops. On the pier is the Chicago Children’s Museum which offers a host of kid-friendly activities; the Ferris Wheel offers great views of Chicago and Lake Michigan, and is offering discounted tickets if bought in advance on-line. Other popular attractions on the Pier for older children are the IMAX movie theater, Navy Pier also has a number of performance spaces, so check its schedule for events. Boats leave from Navy Pier for tours of the River and Lake Michigan. Other boat tours leave from Michigan Avenue Bridge adjacent to the Hyatt. These trips are a great way to see the city from the River.
A short distance west of Navy Pier is the Museum of Contemporary Art. With traveling exhibits and an extensive collection of modern art, the MCA is smaller and more manageable than the Art Institute, and a two hour visit will give you a great sense of the collection.
Perhaps the best value family-friendly venue in Chicago is the Lincoln Park Zoo. It is open year round and is free (although you have to pay for car parking). The northern part of the Zoo contains many of the large mammals that kids love (giraffes, bears, rhinos, but no elephants). The middle portion of the zoo is home to the reptile house and the ape house, where a baby gorilla was born just a month ago, and at the southern end of the zoo is the Farm-in-the-Zoo. The farm is great for preschoolers and kindergarteners. Time your visit right and you can watch a cow being milked, or feed the cows and goats.
Just north of the zoo are the four greenhouses that comprise the Lincoln Park Conservatory. With a palm room, fern room and orchids, the Conservatory offers floral displays and botanical exhibits. Just north of the Conservatory, within an easy walk, is the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. The Nature Museum is excellent for children of all ages. It has snakes, frogs, spiders, fish and a butterfly garden. New butterflies are released daily and that event is great for children over five as the butterflies may land on their clothes. This museum also has exhibits about sustainability and a children’s play area with tunnels and slides.
Chicago has a multitude of smaller art galleries and museums. For older children who may enjoy something more squeamish, about a mile north of the AAG conference is the International Museum of Surgical Science. Alternatively, go southwest on the
Pink line from the Loop to 18th Street and then walk two blocks to the National Museum of Mexican Art. It is an excellent museum and, better still, it is free. The Pilsen neighborhood is also well known for its Mexican restaurants, so plan for these too. About thirty minutes south of the Loop is the DuSable Museum of African American History, and nearby is the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. Further west, take the Green Line El to the glasshouses of the Garfield Park Conservatory.
In the north suburbs, Kohl’s Children’s Museum in Glenview has exhibits and play spaces for children of all ages from toddlers to teens. The water room is always a big hit, as is the play grocery store, hospital and various interactive science-related installations such as magnets and windmills. Also north, slightly nearer a more affordable option than the Kohl’s Children’s Museum, is the Skokie Exploratorium, a guaranteed hit with children aged 10 and under with climbing walls, light tables and other play equipment. You can get there by the El (from the AAG you need to take the Red line to Howard and then change to the yellow line, so allow at least an hour travel time). In the south suburbs, Brookfield Zoo offers bears, dolphins, penguins and big cats.
If the weather cooperates, Chicago has a lot of public parks that offer children a range of structures to clamber over. Every neighborhood has them, so check with your accommodation for the nearest park. Close to the Hyatt is he newly constructed Maggie Daley Park, but this is scheduled to open in Spring, so check the website.