Spending spring break as a tourist in Chicago can be a tough sell to the kids if their friends (and your friends) are bound for the beach.
But our city has plenty to offer, especially as the grass begins to darken and the trees begin to flower. And your budget for the big city doesn’t have to give you vertigo.
Rules of the road:
1. Pack food. Food equals kid happiness. Packed food equals dollars not spent on overpriced junk food.
2. Take public transportation if possible.
3. Don’t be a superparent. A short, happy day is better than a long, cranky one.
DAY 1If the sun’s out, ride to Adams and Wabash and start with the Art Institute ($12, $7 kids 12 and up, free 11 and under) when the kids are still fresh. After acting, drawing and reading your way through "Faces, Places and Inner Spaces," join one of the almost-daily family programs, where kids can create artwork fashioned after the masters. Don’t tell them they might be learning.
After a picnic at Millennium Park, it’s time for the real fun. Make faces at yourselves at the Bean, get soaked in the fountain and spy ships close to shore. Keep your ears open for free entertainment, including singers, storytellers and even orchestras. Bring your own entertainment—be it cards, books or crayons—just in case. Caught in a spring shower? Head over to the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., (312) 744-6630. Crammed with multicolored mosaics, the "People’s Palace" is a peaceful jewel in the middle of the rushing city. It also has indoor art exhibits and a map of the sculptures around the city, including the city’s most artistic slide, the Picasso, at 50 W. Washington St.
DAY 2Time to dig—to Chinatown, that is. Chicago’s version comes complete with red pagoda rooftops, bubble tea and knickknack shops. If your kids shop, see what they can get with $5—it might even be more useful than the bamboo earwax pickers, dried seahorse or sushi candles we found.
Find dim sum at old-world prices at Won Kow, 2237 S. Wentworth Ave., (312) 842-7500; barbequed pork buns, shrimp dumplings, fried rice and spring rolls are safe bets. Charged up? Burn off some energy with a family karaoke room at Red-I, 2201 S. Wentworth Ave., (312) 927-7334. Wrap up the day with your zodiac fortune in China Square Sculpture Garden and a relaxing warm sip at Ten Ren Tea, 2247 S. Wentworth Ave., (312) 842-1171.
DAY 3Get back to basics with the science programs at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 N. Cannon Drive ($7, $5 students, $4 kids 3-12, free 2 and under). This small museum does a great job teaching preschool-age kids about the world around them. And you can’t get butterflies perching on you like this in the Bahamas.
For lunch, walk next door to the free Lincoln Park Zoo. Even if you pack the rest of your food, get the animal-shaped fries. They just taste better. Spring is the best time to spy baby animals, and our winter friends will begin to wake up. If the kids still aren’t tired, charter a ride in one of the zoo’s paddleboats. You can see ducklings and geese up close, or even scout out on an island.
DAY 4Relaxed and ready for another el-surfing trip into the city? Spend some time on State Street, then take the free trolley to Navy Pier, which runs every 20 minutes (www.navypier.com). Even older, more hardened kids will be too busy making foam airplanes, digging up bones and spraying water at their siblings to be bored at the Chicago Children’s Museum ($8, $7 seniors, free 1 and under). This is another day to pack a lunch, but the kids may forget it’s packed if you catch one of the many free performances on the Pier.
See Chicago like the seagulls do by going on the Ferris Wheel—it’s slow, but the view is fantastic. Watch the rest of your family on their favorite rides, whether it’s the dizzying swings, the merry-go-round or the newest attraction, a ropes course (no skirts allowed). Tickets are $9 for a three-pack used for one person. Don’t forget to splash in the fountain and check out some of the more unique vendors before you leave.
DAY 5Time to find some treasure. At Emily Oaks Nature Center, 4650 Brummel St., Skokie, (847) 677-7001, you can chase treasure through a GPS Treasure Hunt (page 79). Even if you don’t find a trunk of gold, you might see something just as good: a flying squirrel or a turtle.
Another treasure is Pick-Staiger Concert Hall at Northwestern University, 50 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston, (847) 491-5441, with professional-level concerts at a fraction of the price. If you can, check out one of their Saturday morning Kids Fare concerts; "A Sing Thing for Spring," March 31, is closest to spring break time. Next door is the Block Museum of Art (best for older kids) and a wonderful view of Lake Michigan. Take a walk; the kids will enjoy climbing over the rocks and feeding the enormous fish and normal-size ducks.
Before you leave, give yourself a moment of peace at the Baha’i House of Worship, the only Baha’i temple in North America, 100 Linden Ave., Wilmette. The outside looks like lace and the flowers will just begin to appear. What better way to celebrate the oneness of religion, mankind and family?
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