For families who plan to make Chicago their vacation destination, the following “museum 101 primer” may be of help in deciding which museums to explore:
The Art Institute of Chicago is the grand dame of art museums, widely regarded as having one of the top collections around the globe. It’s a must see for every visitor with a series of greatest hits that evokes awe and reverence. There’s the jaw-dropping “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” by Seurat, Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist” and a host of exquisite Impressionist works featuring the likes of Monet, Cassatt, Renoir, Degas and others. The new Modern Wing is home to many of these masters and is a destination in itself. At 264,000 square feet, it’s a treasure trove of wonders that spans modernism in all its glory, with a gallery devoted solely to pop art.
Kids will particularly enjoy the medieval armor room with its display of weapons from the days of yore. Down on the lower level are the Thorne Miniature Rooms, a lovely place for doll-furniture aficionados. There’s even a whole room full of paperweights! Ethnic art is also represented from Africa, India, Asia and other exotic regions. And of course, there’s plenty for the clan to explore outside the museum beginning with the main entrance and its famed lion statues, a virtual cultural crossroads where people watching is par for the course. On the north side of the building, you can approach from the city’s award-winning Millennium Park, with its Frank Gehry-designed musical amphitheater. Walk up the exhilarating 625-foot Nichols Bridgeway for breathtaking views of the park, skyline and Lake Michigan on your way to the Modern Wing’s sculpture courtyard.
Know that this museum is vast and can be overwhelming, especially to first timers, and it’s impossible to see everything in one visit. Pick and choose wisely based on your kids’ attention spans and interests. If you go to just a few galleries, you will have left a significant impression in their minds and hopefully nurtured a desire to return to this Chicago jewel on another occasion.
If the Art Institute is the powerhouse of art, the Museum of Science and Industry is the formidable giant of science centers. Opened in 1933 in the last remaining building from Chicago’s fabled World’s Fair of 1893, the institution is a mammoth vault, consisting of fourteen acres of interior space. It’s chockful of fascinating and interactive exhibits exploring areas of natural history, biology, anatomy and physiology, technology, aerospace and more. Among the many highlights include a U-505 Submarine, the only German sub in the U.S.; Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle; fabulous collections of vintage and cutting-edge bicycles, as well as model ships and a massive model railroad; ginormous LEGO structures; the world’s largest pinball machine; and an assembly line of robots manufacturing custom toy tops. Kids will love descending down a coal mine shaft and riding the rails to learn about the technology of coal mining or experiencing America in the early 1900s with a stroll down “Yesterday’s Main Street.” They can look for mathematical patterns in “Numbers in Nature: A Mirror Maze” or watch baby chicks hatching, while getting schooled on the interplay between genetics and environmental cues. In “Science Storms,” one of the finest displays of its kind, you’ll delve into the physics of such natural phenomena as tornados and avalanches. Young’uns ten and under will delight in the “Idea Factory,” where they can test and observe theories of construction, simple machines, light, air pressure and other scientific principles. The “Water Spectacle” is something to behold!
Crowds flock to Shedd Aquarium on Chicago’s Museum Campus to get their fill of all creatures wet and wild. This lakefront gem likens itself to the “world’s aquarium,” with a slew of tank-style displays along with open pools and naturalistic habitats. See if you can spot Granddad, an Australian lungfish that came to the Shedd in 1933 and has the distinction of being the oldest aquatic animal in any public aquarium. A 90,000-gallon Caribbean Reef tank gives visitors a 360-degree tour of an underwater reef community with moray eels, sea turtles, rays and even a shark or two. If you’re lucky, you might catch a diver feeding the creatures.
For a glimpse of piranhas, tarantulas, anacondas and even monkeys, make your way to “Amazon Rising,” and if the kids want to slip into a penguin suit and practice their waddle, take them to the Polar Play Zone. One of the most spectacular exhibits, however, is the Abbot Oceanarium, which provides an immersive experience in a coastal ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest. Here you’ll come face to face with beluga whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea otters and the like. For an up close and personal interaction with stingrays, don’t miss the Stingray Touch area. You can actually stroke de-barbed rays as they glide around in a shallow pool.
To answer all those mysterious cosmos questions, head to the Adler Planetarium, also located on Museum Campus. The star of the place is Grainger Sky Theater, where several shows are offered daily to take you on a journey to the deepest reaches of space, tour the sun, moon and planets, discover the hidden secrets of the universe and see a digital simulation of the night’s sky. With a mix of cutting-edge intergalactic imagery and contemporary science, the shows offer plenty of wow moments. Exhibits range from “Mission Moon,” which details the Apollo space program through the eyes of NASA’s Captain James Lovell Jr., to “Planet Explorers,” an interactive playground where kids can climb aboard a rocket and manipulate model planetary rovers. In “The Universe: A Walk Through Space and Time,” you’ll learn how the universe evolved over the past 13.7 billion years, while in “Astronomy in Culture,” you can practice using early astronomy tools including astrolabes and sundials, as well as visit a medieval classroom.
Make sure you check out the legendary Atwood Sphere, a mini-planetarium constructed in 1913. It’s seventeen feet in diameter with 692 holes drilled through its metal surface, allowing light to enter and show the positions of the brightest stars in the night sky. Visitors can ride a small mechanized car into the star dome via a set of diagonal tracks, where a guide will point out the constellations as they appeared over a hundred years ago.
The third institution on Museum Campus is the Field Museum. It, too, is an immense building, consisting of 350,000 square feet of public space. The most famous resident in the museum is Sue, the world’s largest, complete and best preserved T. rex skeleton ever found. And she is a fierce beauty! If your kids want to see more dinosaurs, and trust me, they will, take them to “Evolving Planet,” an engaging exhibit that traces the story of life on Earth from four billion years ago to the present. Dinosaurs of all kinds are on display, along with skeletons of colossal ancient mammals. Another highlight of the museum is its mummy collection, which can be viewed in “Inside Ancient Egypt.” It’s arranged in such a manner where you can explore an Egyptian tomb and peer into dioramas of ancient Egyptian workshops to see how the deceased were mummified and prepared for burial.
For rockhounds, the gem and stone galleries will be of great interest, while those scientist-wannabes will want to hang out at the McDonald’s Fossil Prep Lab to watch scientists prepare ancient specimens for study or witness DNA research in action at the DNA Discovery Center. There’s a real Maori Meeting House and a replica of a Pawnee Earth Lodge to give visitors an inside view of the lives of these fascinating cultures. And for little ones, ages 2-6, the Crown Family PlayLab is the place to be, with oodles of fun, explorative activities.
At Chicago Children’s Museum on Navy Pier, kids are king. The place is designed to be an interactive and educational playground where the ten and younger set and their families can dig for bones on a dinosaur expedition, climb aboard a three-storied schooner, make a big splash in the water arena, tinker with real tools and dress up as a firefighter and put out a “fire.” They can paint, print, sculpt and make art to their hearts’ content, build a skyscraper, fish in a river, shop in a grocery store, hide in a treehouse and more. The recently opened “Zoom Room” invites children to sit in the driver’s seat as they send toy cars careening around a multilevel race course. Featuring hundreds of toy cars and dozens of tracks of every length, height and angle, it’s billed as the “ultimate toy car experience” – and you can bet parents are going to want to participate, too!
The Chicagoland area is also home to two highly-regarded zoos – Lincoln Park and Brookfield, several arboretums, a nature museum and the top notch Chicago Botanical Garden. The latter boasts beautifully designed showplace gardens, ponds, waterfalls and ample walking paths, along with the spectacular Model Railroad Garden –a definite kid-magnet.