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Exploring Chicago with the grandchildren

    Two grade school boys ran from one delight to another at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium recently. The lights from fish tanks glowed on their faces. Their grandfather smiled down at them. The boys looked up and asked him a question, and he answered. They shifted quickly to another exhibit, joining their grandmother. The grandsons beamed at creatures new to them. The grandparents beamed down at their grandsons, and then the group moved off to some other wonder. This is a snapshot of the value of traveling with your grandchildren. No matter how young or old they are, taking them away from their usual surroundings and sharing experiences with them strengthens bonds and creates memories that keep. A wonderful place to do that is in downtown Chicago. Whether your grandchildren are toddlers, teens or twenty-somethings, there are plenty of ways to have a blast together in the Windy City.

Shedd Aquarium The Shedd Aquarium, only blocks from the downtown loop, is a good place to start. Your grandchildren can hunt for marine wildlife beginning in the entryway, which has a distinct nautical theme in ornate stonework over doorways carved as shells, as well as ceilings with a variety of sea life sculpted into them, and hanging lights with metalwork octopi curling over their tops. The original 222,000 square feet on the main level is divided into six ecological areas. Here’s where your school-aged grandchildren could get some extra credit for a science class. The most frightening creature is the massive anaconda snake housed in the Amazon Rising section. The Amazon Rising exhibit is closed for refurbishing and will reopen Dec. 15. The eye-level tanks in all areas: Ocean, Local Waters, Islands and Lakes, Rivers, and Caribbean Reef give the feeling of peeking in on a colorfully active world that is usually invisible from the surface. Children throughout the museum can be seen tugging on adults’ hands and pointing at the action in the tanks, while neon-bright fish glow, sea horses trot gracefully past water plants, or fish that look like multi-colored Easter eggs flutter by rocks, or giant catfish float ponderously along. Stump your grandchildren by asking them what the oldest living public aquarium aquatic animal is. Then tell them it’s an Australian lungfish that came to Chicago in 1933. Next, you could have them guess its name, which happens to be “Granddad.” The Soundings Café seems to jut out over Lake Michigan and affords one of the finest views for dining in Chicago. Lunches are reasonably priced and include soups, salads and sandwiches. Just outside the entrance you could try a Chicago-style hotdog from a hotdog stand. Access to the original section of the museum costs only $8 for adults and $6 for children. This inexpensive main level may be enough to see for grandchildren who plan to visit other Chicago spots or for toddlers. In fact, the younger set could be entertained well by visiting the free Children’s Garden just outside the Shedd Aquarium and Field Museum. It includes an oversized globe the youngsters can spin, a spinning black marble sphere and a spider web jungle gym. For an extra cost the current featured exhibit of jellyfish, called Jellies is available as are the aquatic shows, Polar Play Zone and the Oceanarium.

Field Museum of Natural History Next door to the aquarium stands the Field Museum. Here’s another opportunity for extra credit in humanities, geography, history and science. What in these fields interests you? This is the place to spread that enthusiasm to another generation. From the frigid Arctic to the balmy Pacific Islands, from an Egyptian mummy to a Pawnee earth lodge, from lion displays to butterfly wings, you and your grandchildren will find a lot to talk about. Feel small together in front of a giant dinosaur and even smaller in the Underground Insect exhibit where everything is proportioned to 100 times its size (except for you). The sparkle of gems and the luster of jade, along with the latest fashions (Fashion and the Field Museum Collection: Maria Pinto) will dazzle older grandchildren.

Other Attractions and Getting Around Stepping toward Lake Michigan, and away from the Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium, reveals the downtown Chicago skyline. Gregarious giant buildings seem to lean over the water and invite you to come see all they have to offer. There are so many family-oriented attractions in Chicago it is hard to decide which ones to see – or which method of transportation to use when seeing them. One method that may be open until Thanksgiving, depending on the weather, is the Chicago Water Taxi. It connects Museum Campus to Navy Pier, with a swing out into Lake Michigan (departs about every 20 minutes). Navy Pier is a popular stop for youngsters because of the Children’s Museum and carnival rides, and for others because of the shops and restaurants. The water taxi also makes stops at the Michigan Avenue Bridge and near Union Station. Another way to get around town is via the public transit system, which includes the L (elevated train), the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA – bus and rail), and Metra Trains. These systems all converge on the downtown loop. Be sure you know exactly where you’re going before boarding. Not all stops are handicap accessible. If you fly into Midway Airport, nine airport hotels at the Midway Hotel Center, offer shuttles to the public transportation station that services downtown. Go Airport Express provides rides from the O’Hare and Midway airports to downtown and regional hotels. An entertaining way to see the sights is to get a pass for the Chicago Trolley and Double Decker busses. They offer a chance to “hop on, hop off, and hop back on again,” according to their brochure, to see such sites as the John Hancock Tower, Millennium Park, the Art Institute, Chicago Theatre, the Water Tower and others. Another stop is the Magnificent Mile shopping corridor. Don’t worry. You won’t have to walk a whole mile to peruse dozens of shops. Outside of the Magnificent Mile, Macy’s, on 111 North State Street, is the premier shopping experience. It’s a great place to get Christmas shopping done and enjoy the animated holiday window displays, the Great Tree (45 feet tall), and the perennial favorite – dining in the Walnut Room. Driving your own car is also an option. If you can drive in the Twin Cities you can handle Chicago – it just takes more patience, and parking is a lot more expensive. The toll road fees into and out of the city add up too. Avoid rush hour (7-9 a.m. and 3-6 p.m.). Traveling on the Amtrak is a delightful way to get into the heart of the city. Union Station is a fascination for its architecture, rush of activity and people watching. The Amtrak leaves St. Cloud at 5 a.m., (Staples an hour earlier and Detroit Lakes an hour before that) and arrives in Chicago at about 4 p.m., after rolling past farmland, downtown St. Paul and its bluffs and river road, along the Mississippi River Valley, and through the deep ravines and rock formations of Wisconsin Dells. The return trip departs Chicago at 2:15 p.m. and arrives in St. Cloud after midnight (Staples an hour later and Detroit Lakes an hour after that). Check for senior discounts and lower or free child fares. Union Station is connected to the public transit system and about two blocks from the water taxi.  About two blocks away (and on a trolley stop) is Willis Tower with its thousand-foot high Skydeck, where standing on the floor is like standing on air while looking over the Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan. Another place to get an overview of the Chicago area is the John Hancock Observatory from 94 stories up. November and December Activities In November and December Chicago can be chilly, with stiff winds blowing off of the lake. But some of the following child-friendly seasonal offerings might keep you warm. Navy Pier’s Festival Hall hosts the Chicago Fine Chocolate Show and The National Chocolate Show Nov. 16-18. The BMO Harris Bank Magnificent Mile Lights Festival goes all day Nov. 17, with family activities, thousands of lights, a parade, extended shopping hours and fireworks. The free Lincoln Park Zoo will be all lit up from Nov. 23 through Jan. 6. Christkindalmarket, a German heritage Christmas shopping experience, comes to life at Daley Plaza in the downtown loop for over a month, from Nov. 21 – Dec. 24. The McCormick Tribune Ice Rink at Millennium Park should really warm everyone’s toes. Skate rentals go for $10, and the rink is usually ready by the week of Thanksgiving. Whether you’ve been here before or not, the hardest part about going to Chicago is deciding what not to see. A helpful place to check into when you first arrive is the Chicago Cultural Center at 78 East Washington Street. It’s packed with visitor information.

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