Tour # 1: The Museum Campus Tour
Just east of the Loop, you'll find The Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium and Field Museum, connected by a newly created museum campus. You could spend an entire day in each of the museums, but don't get so caught-up in the museum crawl that you neglect the campus itself. This 57-acre green space is a perfect place to relax, eat a picnic lunch and enjoy the brilliant lake views. Or, if you're staying downtown, stroll to Grant Park and take a leisurely walk via the inter-connected walkways that lead to the museums. The breath of fresh air could do you some good before spending the rest of your day inside gawking at exhibits.
Catch up with your favorite ocean mammals by the lake. Boasting the largest indoor aquarium in the world, the Shedd is home to beluga whales, Pacific black whales, eels, penguins and over 2 million human visitors annually.
But with all the Shedds aquatic displays, none is as popular as Kayavak, the worlds newest beluga born in captivity. Born August 13, 1999, the strapping baby girl weighed in at 115 pounds and quickly became the citys most famous infant mammal, as her nursing habits seemed to make daily headlines. Kayavak was kept in seclusion the first weeks of her life, but has since been moved to a public viewing area where she can be seen closely trailing her mother, Immiayuk, or playing with some of the 'educational toys? the Shedd supplied her with.
Amazingly, the Fields vast 9 acres of exhibition space accommodates just 1 percent of the museums 20 million artifacts. You won't have to worry about running out of things to see, in fact, you'll probably have to decide which exhibits to see, and which to miss. The most famous exhibit is Sue, the worlds largest and most complete T-Rex. Many other prehistoric animals are also on display.
The museum also highlights an eclectic array of temporary exhibits. Recent shows included 'The Art of The Motorcycle,? a Cartier jewelry display, and even a retrospective on The Chicago Bears football team.
The Northern Hemispheres first public planetarium just got a face-lift. Built in 1930, the space center is home to many high-tech, interactive displays that make learning fun. Learn about the different densities of stars, chart the development of a black hole and see an out-of-this-world moon rock.
The planetariums Sky Box Theater affords a brilliant view of the universe that surrounds us. On Friday nights, the planetarium displays real-time images of the constellations from its 20-inch telescope to an 18-by 24-foot screen. In a city whose bright lights squelch the grandeur of the stars, this view of the galaxy is truly awe-inspiring. The Sky Show changes frequently, and usually features two shows in repertoire, one for adults and one for children.
Tour #2 Museum of Science and Industry, Jackson Park and Hyde Park
If one museum can hold a re-created coal mine, a Zephyr steam locomotive, a German U-Boat, a Boeing 727, and an Apollo 8 spacecraft, you know it has to be big. The Museum of Science and Industry certainty is that, with more than 350,000 square feet holding over 800 exhibits. An adjoining 342-seat Ominmax theater offers panoramic movies.
After a day of touring the museum, make sure to walk around the neighboring Jackson Park. Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed New Yorks Central Park, the park covers 2-square miles and includes a bird sanctuary, a Japanese Garden and a golf course.
Don't forget about the Hyde Park neighborhood that surrounds the museum and the park. Designed in the 1800s by renowned architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, this neighborhood was the citys first suburb before being annexed, and is home to The University of Chicago, one of the nations best. Long on the National Historic Register, the neighborhod retains an air of dignity and sophistication with vintage architecture, formal gardens, and tree-lined streets.
Tour #3 Art Tour
The Art Institute of Chicago
You?ve no doubt seen the pictures of the pictures, now come to the see the real things. See Claude Monets "Irises," Georges Seurats "Sunday Evening on the Island of La Grande Jatte," Auguste Reniors "On the Terrace," Edward Hoppers "Nighthawks" and Grant Woods "American Gothic."
While the Art Institute is famous for housing some of the worlds finest impressionist and post-impressionist collections, it also offers several other treasures. For example, the miniature room contains recreations of palaces and mansions, while the life-sized reconstruction of Chicago Stock Exchanges original Trading Floor features some of architect Louis Sullivans best work.
With so many works to chose from, you may want to take advantage of the 45-minute guided tour daily at 2pm.
The Museum of Contemporary Art
This museum specializes in works created after 1945. It offers paintings, sculptures and multi-media displays by many of the worlds best-known modern artists.
River North Galleries
This warehouse district turned art district features both cutting-edge and traditional galleries, from the progressive work of Tony Berlant featured at Klein Art Works to work suitable for corporate board rooms at Carl Hammer Galleries.
The gallery scene here isn't as exclusive as New Yorks. In fact, every Friday during the height of the cultural season, the River North galleries sponsor a T.GI.F. fest where the public is invited to view the art, chat with the artists and grab some free hors d?oeuvres.
Wicker Park Galleries
Wicker Park is another emerging scene for artisans, with such venues as Gallery 203, Chez Louise Gallery and David Leonardis Gallery. Every fall, the neighborhood sponsors the Around the Coyote festival, which showcases modern art and performance art.
Tour #4 Lincoln Park
A favorite Chicago pastime is just strolling through the thousand-acre park viewing the statues of Goethe, General Ulysses Grant and Hans Christian Anderson, and walking around the pond. Theres also a free zoo, offing the standard array of giraffes, elephants, mountain lions and penguins.
Just outside the zoo is a nature conservatory, which offers meticulously displayed permanent and temporary exhibits. The stunning view of the citys skyline from the glass-enclosed conservatory provides a brilliant juxtaposition of architectural and natural wonders.
If the fresh air is getting to you, or if you are visiting when the citys weather is less-then-perfect, head to one of the areas indoor museums.
Chicago Historical Society
Chicago is the city that works, the city that burned to the ground (and re-built itself). Its the city that reversed the flow of the Chicago River. And don't forget, Chicagos in the state that reared Abraham Lincoln. You better believe theres a lot of history to this city--even to the Chicago Historical Society itself and the 240,000-square foot building in which it is housed are parts of the citys history. The CHS, founded in 1856, is the citys oldest cultural institution. Its current building dates back to 1932, and includes an 100-year-old Louis Sullivan-designed arch included in a more-recent addition.
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
Much like the nearby conservatory, this museum is very much a part of its urban surroundings. For example, one permanent exhibit features a two-story house typical of most urban areas. Parts of the structure have been peeled away to give you a view of the organisms that live inside the house?and quite possibly inside your own home. The exhibit also shows how turning on the lights or turning up the heat affects the environment around you.
Tour #4 Boat Tours
Chicagoans love their lake and river. Sunbathers, joggers, rollerbladers and walkers crowd the lakefront, especially in the heat of summer, when it can be 15 degrees cooler by the water. The Chicago River, once a bastion of pollution, has been cleaned up and is fast becoming one of the downtowns most scenic resources. The Riverwalk, which runs from the rivers terminus at Lake Michigan to Michigan Avenue, is especially romantic at night, when the Wrigley Buildings ornate white facade is bathed in light.
But being by the water is no substitute for being on the water, and many boat cruises allow you to do just that.
The Architecture River Cruise is sponsored by the Chicago Architectural Foundation and is an excellent way to learn about Chicagos diverse architectural landscape without giving your feet a workout. You'll get boatside views of the Wrigley Building, the Sears Tower and The Lyric Opera. The tour guides are extremely knowledgeable, and you'll learn many interesting factoids those of us who live here have long-since forgotten.
The Ugly Duck Cruises can best be compared to a theme restaurant on water. The ship itself is painted yellow and is meant to standout. The crew, waiters and hosts are wacky, the meals are traditional buffet-style and the after dinner dance music is reminiscent of a wedding reception. Take a break from the entertainment to head to the upper deck. The views of the skyline and the quiet water that surrounds you are at once awe-inspiring and extremely peaceful.
If the ocean-faring Love Boat docked on Lake Michigans shores it would look a lot like the Odyssey cruise line. While you won't find Captain Stubing or Gopher from the television show on board, you will find one of the citys most romantic cruise ships. This liner oozes class. The four-deck ship with its sleek white sides and black tinted windows can be easily spotted from shore, and the land-locked spectator must wonder about the people in the boat. It isn't hard to imagine young lovers or older couples celebrating a second-honeymoon on board. Those on-board won't be disappointed by the fantasy. The two or three-hour cruises usually include a four-course meal and live entertainment.
While many of the cruise lines are corporately owned and offer lavish amenities, the Wendalla Sightseeing Boats are refreshingly simple and non-corporate. Family owned since 1935, the captain offers interesting tidbits about the city and dry one-liners.
Why take a both a bus tour and a boat tour when you can have both tours in one? Chicago Duck Tours drives along the streets for 45 minutes to highlight the many landlocked sights of downtown. Then it splashes into Lake Michigan for a 35-minute cruise. While you'll no doubt have fun in the Duckmobile, many of these vehicles have seen more serious tours of duty. The amphibious boats were originally designed for the U.S. armed forces to bring troops and supplies from ship to shore.
For kids, theres the Wacky Pirate Cruise, with activities and entertainment. And to get from one place to another, try the Shoreline Water Taxi. The taxi serves both commuters and tourists as an efficient--and interesting--way of getting around town.
Fireworks Display Tours
Lakeside fireworks are a Chicago staple. While the granddaddy of the displays is the Independence Day Fireworks (which are actually presented on July 3rd, one day before the countrys birthday), the city also offers smaller-scale presentations on Memorial Day, during Venetian Night, and virtually every summer Saturday night at Navy Pier.
Perhaps the best and most romantic way to see these displays is from a boat. From out on the lake, the citys bold skyline is a stunning backdrop for the fireworks. Many ships are careful not to overbook these cruises, so you'll have plenty of elbow room, quite a contrast from the cramped Grant Park, where as many as 3 million people gather to watch the Independence Day celebration.
Virtually all of cruise lines offer special fireworks tours. Advanced booking is advisable.