My little guy turned two a week and a half ago, and the terrible twos have descended upon our home like locusts on a field. Since his birthday, he’s turned into a sass monster. He’s two going on thirteen.
To celebrate his birthday we decided to take him to the world-famous Shedd Aquarium, which is just four and a half hours away in Chicago, Illinois. Keenan’s pretty into fish right now, and since I don’t find the live fish at the supermarket as exciting as he does, I decided we’d all enjoy a nice little vacation to see some bigger fish.
Like most big cities, Chicago is not exactly known for being budget-friendly. And like most big cities, downtown Chicago is designed for tourists who seek high-end shopping, full-throttle nightlife and a touch of fine dining. If you’re a family with young kids, a Chicago vacation might seem a little intimidating, but I discovered that if you plan ahead, it can actually be a lot of fun for kids of all ages. If you’re planning a trip to Chicago, or even just thinking about it, here is my advice for making the most of your stay (and not going broke) while you’re in the Windy City.
Where to Stay
When it comes to hotels, I’m not a $200-a-night kind of gal. I prefer to stay in a cheaper hotel and have more money to spend on entertainment.
Hotel prices in downtown Chicago are on the high end, and they don’t include many extras. Chances are your downtown hotel stay won’t include free breakfast or a swimming pool. You could certainly stay outside the city, but then you will have to deal with transportation to and from the city on a daily basis.
We solved the expensive hotel problem by stalking daily deal sites in the months before our trip. For just $100 per night, we snagged a gorgeous hotel in the business district, which included secure parking. Our room was really spacious, the staff was courteous, and we were right by a 24-hour pharmacy, which is always helpful when you have small children. We didn’t get free breakfast, but I solved the problem by bringing along muffins and yogurt in a cooler. All in all, I thought our hotel choice was a good one because we were far enough away from the Magnificent Mile to get a decently sized room, yet close enough to be within a short cab ride of everywhere we wanted to go.
Paying for Entertainment
In my post on museum admission, I told you about “Go Cards.” For this trip, I decided to put them to the test myself. If you’re not familiar with Go Cards, they are cards that you can purchase from SmartDestinations.com which include admission to several destinations in a specific city. Before our vacation, I purchased a Go Card with three attractions: Chicago Children’s Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, and SkyDeck Chicago. The Go Card was less than $100 and included admission to three attractions for two adults. Considering that the aquarium alone would have cost $70 if we had purchased tickets on the spot, this was a bargain.
This was a really convenient way to do things. The card was electronic, so all I had to do was let the admissions person at the attraction scan a code on my smart phone. This also allowed us to skip ticket lines – a huge plus. I would highly recommend Go Cards for anyone visiting a major city because it was a huge time and money saver.
What to Do
Visit Navy Pier. Navy Pier is undoubtedly a summer destination, but we went in February, and we still had a great time. Navy Pier is a family-friendly attraction that features shops, restaurants, rides, an IMAX theater, and other touristy stuff. Our main focus at the pier was the Chicago Children’s Museum, a hands-on museum that’s perfect for the under-five set. The museum had a lot of cool things for kids, like digging for dinosaur bones, building activities, and a lot of little-people-sized rooms including a supermarket, house, bus, campsite and more. It was a lot of fun and kept Keenan entertained for an entire afternoon.
The rest of the Navy Pier was fun too. We had lunch at Margaritaville, browsed the shops and let Keenan ride the kiddie rides. Since it was winter, we were restricted to indoor activities, but in the summer, the Navy Pier has carnival rides, performances and even a beer garden – fun for the whole family!
Explore the Shedd Aquarium. The Shedd Aquarium is the largest indoor marine mammal facility in the world. They have thousands of animals, including beluga whales, dolphins, otters, sea lions, and penguins. I found myself running from tank to tank like a kid in a candy store, and Keenan was right behind me. If you’ve been there before, you have to go back, because they’ve added an entire floor which includes a stunning tank full of sharks, as well as sting rays and a huge coral reef. There’s simply no way your kids can get bored at this aquarium, but if they do, there is an adorable play space where kids can dress up like penguins and climb on penguin-inspired rocks. In my opinion, this place is as magical as Disney World, and if your kids don’t visit here at least once, they’re missing out.
View the city from the Willis Tower. Our last day was spent at the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower. This building is one of the tallest structures in the world. If you visit SkyDeck Chicago (the tourist part of Willis Tower), you can take an elevator 103 stories to the top to see gorgeous views and even step out over the city on a glass floor (exhilarating, yet terrifying). While this attraction has the potential to be not-so-kid-friendly if you’re stuck waiting in lines for hours, we lucked out by going in the off-season on a weekday. While many kids won’t necessarily appreciate the view, our little guy loved being able to see all the tiny cars on the ground, and we even got to see an airplane fly underneath us.
Chicago is a great place to visit, and you don’t have to stay away just because you have young kids. What are your favorite things to do in Chicago? Share with other Zing readers in the comments section!