We're probably all guilty of rolling our eyes at a group of
tourists fumbling with maps and blocking our way. But Chicago is a
world-class city, so why should the natives miss out on all the
fun? We've got six ideas for experiencing our great city like it
was your first trip around the Loop.
It turns out Chicago's Visitors Centers actually aren't just for
visitors. Dorothy Coyle, executive director of the Chicago Office
of Tourism and Culture, says employees at the Cultural Center or
the Water Works are happy to help you set up an itinerary and
navigate public transportation, not to mention provide scavenger
hunts and Foursquare badges to make exploration more fun (we like
the Celery Salt badge for Chicago hot dogs, or the Brain Freeze
Trek for ice cream lovers; visit explorechicago.org/games).
Or, see all those spots you disparage as "so touristy." Think as
if you're hosting out-of-town guests and want to show off the
places that make Chicago Chicago. If it's been a while, you might
not know that Navy Pier is far from a warm-weather-only
destination; there are activities going on all year-inside and out
(and a rockin' children's museum).
Have years passed since you've ascended the Sears-ahem,
Willis-Tower? Then you probably haven't had the opportunity to defy
your fear of heights on The Ledge. And Coyle says it's worth
looking into membership options so you can explore the Museum of
Science and Industry over and over. Think basic, and you might be
surprised by how extraordinary it is.
Is there any word more powerful than "free"? We don't think so,
which is why we're glad Chicago abounds with cultural opportunities
that don't lighten the wallet. The Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the
country's finest, is always free. Bring along a picnic lunch and
you've got a cheap day of entertainment.
Chicago museums, including big names like the Field Museum and
the Adler Planetarium, regularly offer free days.
We also love places where kids under 12 are always free, such as
the Chicago History Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Coyle says spring is a great time for a parade, such as March's
St. Patrick's Day parade and May's Cinco de Mayo celebration. And
we'd also like to point out that window-shopping on the Magnificent
Mile doesn't cost a penny.
Think of two opposites and then try them out. High and low? Ride
to the top of one of Chicago's famous skyscrapers, then wander
under the city using the Chicago Pedway.
Got baseball fans? Take behind-the-scenes tours at Wrigley Field
and U.S. Cellular Field and learn more about the city's
relationship with the American pastime-and deep-seated rivalry.
Sick of unpredictable weather? Pick a controlled climate to
explore, whether the tropical landscape of Garfield Park
Conservatory's Palm House (one of Chicago's "under-discovered"
attractions, Coyle says) or the chilly waters of Shedd Aquarium's
On chilly spring days, you can even explore contrasts in the
interiors of buildings: Coyle recommends stopping into the Chicago
Cultural Center or Palmer House Hotel to check out the lobbies,
then popping by the Aqua Building or Trump Tower for some sleeker
If you're used to exploring by car or on foot, switch it up.
Chicago's got a wide range of alternative transportation, whether
distinctive-looking trolleys or eco-friendly bikes (ride to Peggy
Notebaert Nature Museum to check out the new exhibit Bikes!: The
Families can gape at the city's amazing architecture from a new
vantage point on the Chicago River, while adventurers and the
non-self-conscious can test out their balance on a Segway (age
minimum is 12). There are even tours on antique fire trucks! Or if
you want to keep it simple, buy a CTA Day Pass ($5.75) and make
your way around the city on our world-famous El.
"Transportation is such a fascinating topic for children, and
the physical structure of the El is pretty unique," Coyle says. "I
think it's fun to go on public transportation."
We've all got something we pledge to do "someday." Write a
"bucket list" for the things you'd like to do or see in Chicago.
Whether it's marveling at the water show at Buckingham Fountain,
enjoying modern art, or checking out Sue's impressive
skeleton-now's your chance.
If your dream activity is somewhat of a splurge, a family
overnight at a museum or a Broadway in Chicago show, start saving
now. For the ultimate splurge, Coyle recommends a weekend in the
city, whether at one of the budget-friendly locales like Best
Western River North or a more over-the-top choice like The Four
"You just have time to absorb everything around you, and you're
not so rush, rush, rush," she says.
And if you need an excuse to do something every other native
seems to have done, well, you can always pretend to be a tourist.
Just bring along a map to make it convincing.
Elizabeth Diffin is the associate editor at Chicago Parent. She lives in Wheaton.
See more of Elizabeth's stories here.
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