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Weekending With The Kids: Magnificent Mile Meets Museum Mecca, Chicago, Illinois
Dazzling stores, eye-popping museums – you get both in Chicago, and you can get there fairly easily from anywhere in the U.S., making for a great weekend getaway. Plan on three days in the Windy City and visit museums first – ya gotta earn that shopping trip, kids!
The Museum of Science and Industry, or MOSI for short, is the largest science center in the western hemisphere and its myriad exhibits and artifacts hold universal appeal. Make your first stop the U-505 submarine, an actual World War II sub captured by the U.S. Navy. The vessel is 252 feet long, 32 feet high and weighs 750 tons, and looks as big as it sounds. Purchase tickets to tour the sub and you’ll see just how cramped its crew of 59 men were and the indignities they had to endure: no showers, sleeping in shifts and two tiny toilets. After two days of cat and mouse in June, 1944, the U-505 surfaced and the loot secured by U.S. forces included two Enigma machines, the fabled coders of the German military. The interactive displays outside the submarine are equally engaging and include a kiosk that portrays Enigma-like coding. More interactivity, this time filled with hilarity, will be found at “MythBusters: The Explosive Exhibition,” a paean to the highly-successful television show where hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman explode this and smash that in their quest to bust well-known myths (does a bull in a china shop really do damage? Not! Myth busted.). Our ten-year-old son, Steven, is a fan of the show and provides running commentary at a display titled “Props From The Show:” “That was Tory’s decapitator, Mom! They called it ‘Tory’s Flying Guillotine.’ And I recognize that shovel, it was from when they tested the spinning bullet. And you know what that giant fireball was from? They tested if coffee creamer could burn.” You’ll get to test a few myths as well, such as whether you get wetter walking or running through the rain. Steven tries his hand at “Tablecloth Chaos” and successfully pulls a tablecloth out from under a set of dishes while nobody else does. Clearly, my boy’s seen too many episodes of the show. MOSI’s Circus Room is another joyful visit and a display titled “Swiss Jollyball” defies explanation and cannot be missed; the slate of IMAX films is terrific. Expect to spend the better part of a day at this wondrous museum. http://www.msichicago.org/
The Field Museum is part of a lake front Museum Campus that includes the Adler Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium. While the Field is well-known for a girl named Sue whose species was T. Rex, there’s much more after you’ve gawked at the dinosaur. The museum’s rotating exhibits are as good as they get and a recent one titled “Mummies” was comprehensive without being mawkish. “Genghis Khan” is currently receiving the Field treatment and it’s up to you to decide whether the poker-faced conqueror was a ruthless warrior or a revered statesman. Permanent exhibits include the Hall of Jade and Hall of Gems and there’s much to be learned as your jaw hits the floor. 3-D films are part of the mix and a 25-minute movie on Egypt is fascinating. http://fieldmuseum.org/ Stop for a late lunch at the Corner Bakery on the Field’s main level then depart for the Adler Planetarium a thousand feet away. “Planet Explorers” uses low-tech stations to give kids a basic understanding of outer space and immediately lands with a five-year-old manipulating a robotic arm who coos, “Mom, this is awesome.” “Our Solar System” has a push-this, touch-that sensibility that appeals to kids while “A Walk In Space” is a pitch-black room where you best hang on to your kids – and wits! A much larger exhibit holds items from astronaut Jim Lovell’s Apollo 13 space journey. The purchase of a Deep Space Adventure Pass allows you to experience two shows and one of them has to be “Space Junk 3D” since the need to reclaim a veritable sea of space junk sounds a clarion call to the next generation of space explorers. http://www.adlerplanetarium.org/
The Magnificent Mile is the northern section of Michigan Avenue bounded by the Chicago River and Lake Shore Drive. Here, you’ll find all manner of shops, restaurants, museums and hotels along a grand boulevard imagined by architect Daniel Burnham. Start your day at the Michigan Avenue Bridge, a twin to the Pont Alexandre III in Paris. Facing northward, admire two iconic structures, the whitewashed Wrigley Building to the left and the neo-Gothic Tribune Tower to the right. The Tribune Tower is home to the Chicago Tribune and Tribune Company and, prior to the building’s construction in 1922, Trib correspondents from around the globe brought home rocks, bricks and assorted small sections of world-renowned structures. These mementos were then encased in stones around the Tower near ground level and marked as to date and place of origin. Embark on an urban scavenger hunt with your kids as you spot a shard from Roman ruins in Libya that dates to 455 B.C., an ornamental detail from a bridge in the Forbidden City and a mangled piece of metal from the World Trade Center. More amazing discoveries include fragments of the Great Wall, Berlin Wall, Taj Mahal, Parthenon, Arc de Triomphe and our humble Alamo. Cross over to the western side of Michigan Avenue and visit the first of several vertical malls along the street that define the shopping experience. At The Shops at North Bridge, four shopping levels are anchored by Nordstrom while stores such as Boss, Bose and Vosges Haut-Chocolat provide something for everyone. Further up the street, there’s another sweet treat from dueling chocolatiers Ghirardelli and Hershey’s, located across from one another. A small Ghirardelli square is yours as you walk into this serene emporium while the party’s started at Hershey’s, where a chocolate mix-master hands out handfuls of Hershey’s kisses between stacks of bright orange Reese’s throw pillows and chocolate brown footballs. Head left at Oak Street for prime window shopping at a slew of boutiques including Tory Burch and Kate Spade then circle the block via Rush and Walton Streets for visits to Urban Outfitters, Diesel and Burton that will satisfy the most hipster kids. Mom can catch her breath at Bloomingdale’s and then it’s off to lunch for everyone.
On the eastern side of the Magnificent Mile stands the John Hancock Center, a 100-story skyscraper that’s the sixth tallest building in the U.S. On floor 95 is the window-walled Signature Room where, on a clear day, you can see for miles as you ogle muscular Trump and Willis Towers and wax eloquent over Lake Michigan, a serene blue-green. Chef Brandon Wolff, formerly of one sixtyblue, is now helming the kitchen and focusing on house-made pastas along with inventive dishes such as a braised duck meatloaf; the black angus burger will sing to kids (ours ate the entire palm-sized thing). http://www.signatureroom.com/ Due south is Water Tower Place, a stories-high mall anchored by Macy’s and American Girl Place. Prepare to be a while as your kids stream in and out of the LEGO Store and adidas Sport Performance Store, both filled with walls of brightly-colored, high-quality, irresistible merchandise. Luckily, Godiva Chocolatier holds the (choco)fort. Around the corner is the Museum of Contemporary Art, where four floors of rotating art act as eye candy for younger kids and thought-provoking pieces for their older siblings. http://www.mcachicago.org/ Mega-versions of The Apple Store, The Disney Store and GAP will greet you as you make your way back toward the Chicago River and being charmed by their excess is half the fun.
Where to stay: The Hotel Monaco is Kimpton Hotels’ fanciful brand and the Chicago outpost is no exception, awash in bold color and sassy patterns. What sets this location apart, however, is a level of customer service rarely seen at big-city hotels. From the “Run with the GM,” a thrice-weekly 3 1/2-mile jaunt along Lake Shore Drive, to the hosted evening wine reception replete with hors d’ouevres, Wii gaming console and happy-to-be-here pups (the hotel is pet-friendly and visited by exceedingly well-mannered pets – and owners), there isn’t a false note, and the hotel’s Chef Concierge can be counted on for pitch-perfect recommendations. Attractive rooms are a study in dark woods graced with high-backed beds met by sumptuous white-leather benches. Request a room with an ample window seat and your kid(s) will camp out day and night. The location, on a quiet street close by the Michigan Avenue Bridge, is ideal. http://www.monaco-chicago.com/
Where to eat: Toni Patisserie & Cafe is an adorable, French-fused cafe with light-as-air croissants and delectable pastries, all made from scratch. Marble rounders paired with shiny black chairs transport you to Paris though the service is a model of American efficiency. Salads and baguette sandwiches add to the offerings. http://www.tonipatisserie.com/ Frontera Grill is the showplace for Chef Rick Bayless’ interpretation of Mexican cuisine. A Chicago standby, the restaurant is filled with brightly-colored artwork and the noise level will drown out the most spirited kids. It’s all good fun and dishes including a pork loin in a fruity mole sauce and enchiladas draped in a traditional chocolate mole are sure to please. http://www.rickbayless.com/restaurants/grill.html Cafe Spiaggia is Chef Tony Mantuano’s outpost for casual Italian fare. A red banquette envelops a warm dining room dotted with white-napped tables and if the mood seems refined, well, relax: kids will dig into the fresh, expertly-prepared pastas, recognizing a treat when they see it. A gnocchi with wild boar ragu is positively addictive while a pappardelle studded with oxtail and English peas is equally appealing. Bomboloni, round donuts served with a berry dipping sauce, are the perfect grace note. http://www.spiaggiarestaurant.com/cafe South Water Kitchen, the lobby bar/restaurant at the Hotel Monaco, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and will win your heart with its Sunday brunch. An earthy dining room is the setting for ample portions of classic dishes. http://www.southwaterkitchen.com/index.php
Elaine Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA . When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and ten-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.