We recently got a chance to hit the Windy City for a week. Cowed by the sheer number of things we wanted to do (we still only knocked a handful of them off our list after six days), we were still able to pack in enough to give us a tantalizing taste of the city and what it has to offer.
1. Field Museum
While I was most excited to finally see Sue face-to-face (after months of following her on Twitter), her main hall replacement, the Titanosaur Maximo, did not fail to impress. So large that it gazes into the second story balcony, it’s the largest sauropod skeleton on display (and the only one that’s actually touchable).
As impressive as Maximo was, the museum’s main collection of fossils held an endless number of exciting discoveries. I could have spent all day exploring the Evolving Planet exhibit. Not only is that where the Field Museum’s impressive permanent collection of fossils resides (along with Sue, still visible in her under-construction suite), but each section of the exhibit is divided up with informative graphics and information on recorded mass extinctions. The last, about how humans are responsible for the mass extinction we’re currently experiencing, should shock you.
In addition to dinosaurs, there is also a very impressive collection of extinct mammals in this hall, including a giant sloth that had me agape. Unfortunately, the mammal exhibit was a little crowded. I’d love to see them get a bit more breathing room so that guests could linger and explore more – it’s a truly stellar collection.
If you haven’t gotten quite enough dinos, head to the add-on exhibit “Antarctic Dinosaurs.” There aren’t as many specimens here, but the exhibit makes up for it by painting a story of the paleontologists who braved the coldest place on earth to search for some of the most impressive fossils I’ve ever seen. The life recreation model of the Cryolophosaurus made me gasp as I turned the corner.
And that’s not all the Field Museum has to offer. In addition to a menagerie of mounted animals, there is an impressive exhibit showcasing the mummies of Ancient Egypt, a walk-through recreation of an Egyptian tomb that takes you to a subterranean exhibit, an interactive Underground Adventure for younger patrons, and genuinely entrancing jade and precious gem exhibits. Plus 3-D movies, virtual reality, Native American art, and more. It should be front and center of your “Must Visit” list. Just make sure you give yourself enough time to explore it all (and say hi to Sue, she gets lonely).
2. Skydeck Chicago
If you want to get a sense of what Chicago has to offer, there’s no better place than Skydeck Chicago on the top of Willis Tower (it used to be known as Sears Tower).
Offering panoramic, 360-degree views of the entire Loop, you’ll get a perspective on Chicago’s Loop district that’s completely unparalleled. Each bank of windows has a helpful map (so you can figure out where all your favorite landmarks are). There are also binoculars handy if you want to check out the literal green roofs and rooftop farms that dot the buildings below (City Hall has beehives!).
There’s a stage about halfway around the Skydeck that will let you take a picture with the skyline behind you, unencumbered by people jostling past. But the real photo opportunity is at the Skyboxes on the South side of the building. There, you can edge out onto one of four suspended plexiglass cubes. It offers a truly unique, and genuinely terrifying view of the city below.
When scheduling your visit, try and go early in the week. Weekend lines can be over an hour with a pass and up to three hours without a pre-purchased pass. You’ll also have less time to linger as the crowds will be substantial. We went on a Wednesday and walked right up to the elevator to the top.
You won’t find a better view of Chicago, and if you can time it to avoid the crowds, it’ll be the highest highlight of your trip!
3. Art Institute of Chicago
Whenever I tell my wife I’ve scheduled an art museum for the day, I usually get a combination of rolled eyes and groans. But the Art Institute of Chicago is different. Housed in two gorgeous buildings (one classic, one modern) in the heart of Millenium Park, it offers a wide array of art from nearly every era.
Plus, if you’re a fan of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you’ll recognize quite a few set pieces from the movie. Good luck trying to recreate the Renoir scene, though – it’s easily the most popular painting in the place.
I’d highly recommend springing for the audio tour. It’s a great way to get extra information on the extensive collection and gain insights into pieces that you might have passed over otherwise. Like the Georgia O’Keeffe skyscraper painting that’s one of her earliest works and shows elements of her later style. As someone who’s only ever known her later New Mexico paintings, I was fascinated by this piece from the beginning of her artistic career.
The audio tour has some well-done collaborations as well. The early American art gallery, which honestly might be a bit of a yawn for some patrons, has a more in-depth examination read by the Chicago cast of Hamilton! It’s much more lively than the other audio recordings and well worth the time invested.
There’s so much more than paintings to see as well. As you make your way to the Chagall windows, make sure you pause and take in the well-curated collection of Greco-Roman pottery and sculpture. I particularly enjoyed the medieval arms and armor exhibit. Also, make sure you leave plenty of time to visit Thorne’s Miniature Rooms. The exhibition is a fascinating collection of miniaturized tableaus depicting everything from mid-century sitting rooms to grand European cathedrals. You can lose yourself for hours in that exhibit alone.
In the end, we only got to see maybe a third of the exhibits, even after spending half a day there. You can hit all the highlights in a few hours, but you’ll want to give yourself more time to contemplate, educate, and enjoy this masterful collection.
But Wait There’s More
Those weren’t the only things we did in Chicago – we hit up Navy Pier and rode the Centennial Wheel for a gorgeous view of the nighttime skyline (though the view from Adler Planetarium was even more iconic). We spent an afternoon at Shedd Aquarium, visiting with their vast array of creatures (from octopi to beluga whales). Went to the (free!) Lincoln Zoo. Took an architecture tour on the river and walked the Riverwalk. Ate more Chicago-style pizza than is healthy. We even took in a show about the dude on the $10 bill (Hamilton? You might have heard of him.).
The upshot is this. No matter what you like to do, Chicago has it. I can’t recommend it highly enough for your next family vacation. We’ll definitely be back. If you have any time left in your summer vacation, head to the Loop and see the sights! You won’t be disappointed.
Thanks to Skydeck Chicago, Field Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago for providing media passes for my visit. Opinions are my own.