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Top tourist spots and how they rate
What it is: A five-block-long entertainment zone, and the city's top tourist destination.
What we found: It was a beautiful day to spend a few hours at Navy Pier with my 4-year-old son. After a couple of rides, a few snacks and a toy, we were $43.10 poorer.
Bottom line: This place is almost totally about commercialism, but there are some ways around it.
Our first stop was Haagen-Dazs Cafe for a tiny kid's scoop of strawberry ice cream and a mango sorbet shake (total: $8.10). We then strolled to Pier Park and bought two tickets for the Ferris wheel ($9). After posing for a photo, we hopped onto a waiting car that would take us 150 feet into the air. The view is breathtaking, even if you can't really hear much of the scratchy recorded commentary that plays. When we returned to the ground, we had the option of buying the photo but declined. The carousel ride ($7 for two tickets) lasted 2 1/2 minutes, and my son loved hopping on the lion, even if it never could catch up to the frog. Joe is not tall enough to ride on the Wave Swinger, so we ducked into the adjacent Crystal Gardens. The interactive fountains, palms and picnic tables make it a perfect place to enjoy asack lunch.
Just outside the gardens, the Children's Museum was nearing closing time. (Alternative: Come on a Thursday night, which is free Family Night, and is open until 8 p.m.) With its three floors of dinosaur, water and craft exhibits as well as the current "Busy Town" show featuring the characters of author Richard Scarry, the museum is a terrific place for youngsters. On this trip, we visited the Children's Museum Store instead.
It was dinnertime and so we went to the cheapest restaurant in the building: McDonald's. We then headed outdoors to the path with the least whine-inducing commercial offerings for my son. We passed on the Seadog cruise that would cost us $28, the "Amazing Chicago" fun maze ($6-$8) and the Time Escape 3-D Thrill Ride ($8-$10).
Pier parking cost us $14 because we were there for less than 3 hours; a minute later and it would have jumped to $17.50. You could take the CTA to the Grand subway stop and take the free trolley to the Pier. But, be warned: sometimes it's more than 20 minutes between trolleys and occasionally it is too packed to take on more riders.
With 50 shops, restaurants, museums, an IMAX theater, two live theaters, a concert venue and lots of seasonal attractions, Navy Pier cannot be experienced in a day much less an afternoon.
But here is its appeal: There are few spots where you can bring your kid to a museum, ride on a Ferris wheel with such a great view and run around through palms and interactive fountains for free. That makes it worth the trip.
-- Monica Eng
Lincoln Park Zoo:
What it is: The best value in town -- a free, open-air, beautifully maintained animal haven, big animals underwritten by big bucks.
What we found: We expected quiet on a Thursday morning, but found swarms of kids, bigger ones on school field trips and smaller ones in a parade of strollers (little fold-ups, padded luxury models, ones with pedals) that at first fascinated us more than the animals. There's something right about all this being free.
Except for what's sold. Although looking is free, eating and drinking is relatively expensive. A bottle of water is $2.50, juice is $3, a burrito is $5.50. A half-hour ride on a swan boat is a hefty $15, so if you're inspired to underwrite this for some random kid, go for it.
The new Regenstein African Journey had not yet opened, so we meandered to an attraction we had never inspected before, the merry-go-round, just east of the lion house, which opened in 2001. It's a chance--for $2--to sit on a life-size ostrich, clouded tiger or poison arrow frog (well, maybe that one's not life-size) for a few musical revolutions.
Since we didn't find solitude around the animals (what were we thinking?), we exited the zoo area and walked five minutes north to Cannon Drive and Fullerton Avenue, the entrance to the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool. This appears to be an extension of the zoo (when you exit the lily pool on its south side, you land near the polar bears), but one that few have discovered since it was revamped and reopened in May. There were only three other people there, quietly walking the large flat stones that surround the pond, listening to cascading water.
A tip: On the way to the lily pond we passed a new public parking lot on Cannon Drive with about 80 spots, available 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and to 11 p.m. in summer, for $8 maximum. In Lincoln Park, that's a deal.
John G. Shedd Aquarium:
What it is: The world's largest indoor aquarium, home to some 8,000 fresh-water and saltwater animals from around the globe.
What we found: Sheer bliss, and we're going back as soon as we can. The big crowds were there, sure, and the single, extremely long line to get in was a nuisance, but it moved pretty swiftly, and while you're waiting you can take in the numerous and exquisite aquatic motifs that embellish the foyer of the majestic Beaux Arts structure. (Also, you can always order your tickets through Ticketmaster a day ahead.)
Everyone should take in the Oceanarium, which has a wide-open view of Lake Michigan and is home to the seals, the talented dolphins, the Beluga whales, the sea otters and the preternaturally peppy penguins (if they don't make you happy, nothing will).
The hot exhibit is the Wild Reef, housed in the new $47 million underground wing. The 26 interconnected, floor-to-ceiling (and sometimes in the ceiling) habitats, which replicate a coral reef in the Philippines, are nothing short of dazzling. A half-dozen kinds of sharks (a zebra, a white-tipped reef shark) in one tank swim overhead, beautiful blue-dotted stingrays try to hide in the sand underfoot, and down a long tubular hall, brightly colored, striped and dotted schooling fish (Flashlight, Emperor Snapper), corals, anemones, starfish, jellyfish, seahorses and other underwater exotica swim and undulate to the sounds of the crashing sea. It's like swimming through a Dr. Seuss fantasy. And all along the way, the preservationist-minded curators offer inspiring rather than strident reminders that we are all part of the very same fragile global environment.
-- Emily Nunn
Museum of Science and Industry:
What it is: That sprawling colossus that looms into view as you round the Lake Shore Drive curve at 57th Street and one of the oldest science museums of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.
What we found: It's easy to understand why kids are always running through the Museum of Science and Industry. There is way too much to do, with something nifty or potentially nifty beckoning around every corner. In most museums, you can't touch stuff, but not here, baby. Grab, pull, press, have at it. This place feels like a mad scientist's attic--you just don't know what will happen next, or what you'll stumble across. This schizophrenia adds to the museum's sense of discovery.
The glitzy lower-level entrance leads to the museum proper, with trains lying about, planes hanging from the rafters--jeez, how high is that ceiling? You giggle, and look around for something to play with. An aircraft carrier exhibit on the lower level features a real control room and a virtual reality ride that simulates a carrier launch and mission in an F-14 fighter jet. You press buttons and flick switches, even if sometimes nothing happens--you never know, and that's the cool part. If, that is, you can pull yourself away from the immense model railroad setup.
The MSI heavy hitters are intact, only the museum has built worlds around them. The baby chicks are part of the Genetics exhibit. The Coal Mine and U-505 submarine are there, and the Omnimax films still have those problems with focus around the edges, because of the dome they're projected on in the Henry Crown Space Center. There isn't quite as much stuff to play with as there was during my youth more than two decades ago, but still, the MSI rocks.
-- Kevin M. Williams
What it is: Home of Sue, the world's most complete T. rex skeleton; Bushman, the gorilla (OK, actually his stuffed remains); mummies, special exhibits ("Eternal Egypt") and vast collections.
What we found: Dinosaurs, elephants and disarray. Maybe there's a method to the madness, but like a child with too many toys, the Field seems to have bits and pieces scattered everywhere. That's not to say it isn't cool stuff, but it's tough to feel there's a coherent story. "Eternal Egypt" seems to have encroached on the Native American exhibit area like so many graven homesteaders. The Field's own Egypt exhibit is on the other side of the main hall and you have to exit the main-floor portion to take the stairs (or elevator) to the lower level for the rest of the story.
On the plus side, an effort clearly is being made to bring attention to cultural diversity, including noting the multiethnic makeup of old Egypt, which included people from areas ranging from (in modern terms) Sudan to Greece.
One amusing juxtaposition from the on-site McDonald's: A mural shows a T. rex ready to munch some veggie-saurs; nearby, a window poster shows Flintstone cartoon characters riding on the back of pet dinosaur Dino. Coolest gift: The Mold-O-Rama machines still work, and they cost $1.
-- Michael Esposito
Art Institute of Chicago:
What it is: A world-class art museum, home to more than a quarter-million works (not all displayed at one time) and some of the world's greatest art masterpieces.
What we found: Plenty of paintings, including some spectacular 19th Century French works--but lots more than that. We discovered European decorative arts, American furniture, textiles, photography, even several rooms devoted to contemporary art. You can stand in the midst of a collection of Chinese art and spot a huge Warhol portrait of Chairman Mao at the end of the hall--a cute juxtaposition.
Though the displays are spread out among three buildings, which interconnect only on one (first) floor, navigating is really quite easy. Grab a floor plan (free) at the desk and start walking. If you're looking for something specific, just ask at one of several information desks scattered about. The staffers are so friendly you'd never guess that you were the 311th person that day to ask where "that Sunday in the Park picture" is hanging ("A Sunday at La Grande Jatte--1884" resides in room 205, second level). On Tuesdays, when admission is free, the halls do get a bit crowded, but it's exhilarating to see all those eager, young faces. Parking tip: Cheapest and closest parking is in the Grant Park South garage; avoid the meters on Columbus Drive, where they charge a quarter for five minutes with an enforced two-hour maximum.
-- Phil Vettel
Sears Tower Skydeck:
What it is: Maybe the world's tallest building.
What we found: The world's tallest building, according to the two cartoon pigeons who chat up the elevator crowd via video screen during the minute-long ride to the Skydeck, on the 103rd floor. They discount Cesar Pelli's Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur (decorative spires inflate their height) as "that building in Malaysia." The Skydeck brochure refers to the Tower, somewhat obscurely, as "The World's Tallest Building from street level to rooftop." A call to the Tower's info line got this response: "It's actually the world's tallest office building." Whatever it is, at 1,450 feet and 110 stories, it's scary high.
Once you arrive through the Skydeck's separate entrance for tourists (which is what you'll be), a friendly, businesslike staff herds you into a short movie about Chicago that is most memorable for the narrator's hilariously stiff reading of blues lyrics. Then it's a short and fast ride upstairs to take in not just the views but the fruits of a $4 million renovation that was completed in April 2000, and includes "The Sights and Soul of Chicago," a mural-cum-multimedia exhibit about Chicago's history. That's in the center of the room, which has plenty of knee-high peepholes for kids. Everywhere else it's nothing but that 365-degree view. The letdown, aside from the fact that the South and West are kind of industrial-looking duds, is that the Skydeck is enclosed--doesn't "deck" imply otherwise?
-- Emily Nunn
Chicago Cultural Center:
What it is: A beautiful, old historic building, used for various city events.
What we found: This building bustles with activity. For the first hour, we just wandered, admiring the sea of marble and intricate stained glass and tiles. For each breathtaking dome is a contemporary art exhibit around the corner. The Cultural Center allows for real leisure. See what you want, skip what you aren't interested in today. Come back tomorrow--it won't cost you a thing.
The day we were there, the center had seven exhibits, two public performances and five Renaissance Court programs (for seniors). We saw "Thin Skin: The Fickle Nature of Bubbles, Spheres, and Inflatable Structures" in the fourth floor's exhibit hall, "ABCD: A Collection of Art Brut" in the Sidney R. Yates Gallery, and a fun display of kites. Loved the Art Brut, bubbles were just OK. But to be honest, it didn't much matter what we were looking at; we just enjoyed the freedom to roam and the perfect space-to-face ratio.
At around noon, we heard music coming from the first floor. Jali Morikeba Kouyate, a Senegalese Kora player, was warming up for his performance, part of the center's free music series. Being rock fans, we wouldn't normally opt to sit through a set of world music (closed-minded, aren't we?), but we decided to eat our lunch from the lobby's Corner Bakery and listen. Kouyate was great with the audience, the music was beautiful and we loved watching the diverse crowd.
After the show, we went to meet the 1:15 tour. Charles Staples, our guide, had a wealth of knowledge about the history and architecture of the place he calls "The People's Palace." Unfortunately, all this wisdom extended the tour past its 45-minute time limit and after about an hour and a half, we left.
Heading downstairs, we were annoyed that the whole place smelled like Corner Bakery and we started to get worked up about commercialization, but then we remembered: Charles likes the Corner Bakery. The public, after all, has to eat.
-- Allison Benedikt
Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum:
What it is: Space, the final frontier, by way of sky shows and space travel exhibits.
What we found: A friendly and outgoing staff almost desperate for contact with people who are not screaming school groups. A neat gravity exhibit that, on a computer, has visitors set gravity in motion and watch stuff whirl, or as in one visitor's first try, collapse on itself. By the way, not to alarm anyone, but seemingly there is a black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy--our galaxy--and it will eventually suck our solar system into it. Of course, it is likely that the sun will blow up long before that happens but--here's the upside--neither is expected to happen for millions or billions of years.
As for the sky shows, the Sky Theater under the original Adler dome presented sharper images than the newer StarRider Theater. Several different shows are presented daily ("Skywatchers of Africa" includes neat info about a notched baboon bone used to track lunar phases--it predates any other known sky tracking device--and Egyptian pyramid alignment relative to the North Star and Orion's belt).
Meanwhile, real spacecraft seem to be conspicuously absent, though scale models abound.
One oddity is an area called "CyberSpace." Several video displays feature diverse images such as actual space launches, movie-monster space aliens and, in an irritating juxtaposition, a tribute to the Columbia astronauts lost in the Feb. 1 accident. An astronaut memorial should not be shown packaged with badly done movie space creatures.
-- Michael Esposito
Museum of Broadcast Communications:
What it is: A center for media artifacts and archives.
What we found: Coming from the Cultural Center, we entered and immediately met the MBC's gift shop to our left. Not the best way to start off a museum experience. But, truthfully, it was tough to differentiate between the shop and the Bozo the Clown exhibit to our right. So, after walking circles around displays of Bozo toys, we asked the shop's clerk, the only other person around on this Friday afternoon, to point us in the right direction, assuming that there was much more to see.
Unfortunately, there wasn't. Sure, there's the Jack Brickhouse room, but it's basically just a wall of pictures with Jack posing next to celebrities.
Off in an alcove, we spotted a TV and for a moment felt relief. But the TV was playing ESPN classic sports moments, the same stuff we can see at home on the ESPN Classic channel.
For the next hour, we tried our best to muster up interest in the Radio Hall of Fame, again mostly a wall of pictures (Look, it's Wolfman Jack's head shot!), and even picked up the headphones to listen to Paul Harvey reporting on a space shuttle's re-entry. There's also a display called "Rock 'N' Roll on the Radio" that does include some technology (touch this screen, hear a little history), but for a museum about communication, there is astonishingly little communicating going on here.
We did have fun with the old radios, dating to the 1920s, and the people I finally found back at the "Fibber McGee and Molly Show" exhibit sure were excited by opening Fibber's closet. And to be fair, many visitors would probably love to pay $14.95 to make a tape of themselves calling a half-inning of baseball in the Play-by-Play Press Box. In the end, the best part of the MBC exhibit was watching old Bob Hope specials on a big screen.
But then, there it was upstairs: the archives--a room full of TVs, a stock room full of archives and a computer full of data on your favorite old broadcasts. For $3, you can spend all day at the archives, but we only had time to watch the first permanent broadcast of "Nightline" and CNN's breaking news coverage of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination.
-- Allison Benedikt
Chicago Historical Society:
What it is: A federal revival-style architectural marvel filled with stuff.
What we found: A good place for lunch. Period. We hate to be so dreary, but this place is dreadfully boring. We walked three floors of memorabilia--important stuff, we're sure--packed behind glass, with little attention to visual impact so that it had the excitement of a high-school trophy hall.
True, Lincoln's death bed is there. And a darkly lit room with eight dioramas. But the overcrowded collection meant to record and teach is overwhelming and shallow in its mass.
Lunch was great. Almost every table in the Big Shoulders Cafe is a window seat, the soup was shrimp bisque, and at the piano was Roberta Brown--shoulder-length white hair, dressed completely in purple, playing fragments of show tunes. We loved her. We bought one of her little musical boxes with a Chicago cow on the front.
Best use: Wedding reception.
-- Patricia Tennison
DuSable Museum of African-American History:
What it is: The oldest non-profit institution dedicated to African-American history.
What we found: A well- laid-out museum that is liberated by its narrow focus If it doesn't involve African-Americans, to heck with it. The building itself is beautiful, with mosaic-tile portraits of important people in the museum's history --founder Margaret Burroughs, Wilberforce Jones, Hammurabi Robb--and floors worn smooth by thousands of feet.
It was much busier than we expected, and even if the exhibits didn't exactly surprise us, the presentation, coupled with the fact that nobody else is doing it, makes it worth the trip.
There's the Tuskeegee Airmen show, with a sidelight shone on Bessie Coleman, the second African-American to earn a pilot's license. There was indeed the expected African art, much of it donations from Burroughs, and the exhibit on Annie Malone, a pioneer in black beauty culture and founder of the Pono School of Beauty Culture, from which Chuck Berry (yes, that Chuck Berry) graduated. There were the obligatory, heavy-handed slavery exhibits, lest we forget. But this place was far cooler than our cranky childhood memories.
-- Kevin M. Williams