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An exceptional art museum, second in size only to the Met in New York, Chicago’s Art Institute is famous for its Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and American collections. Among its most celebrated paintings: Monet’s Water Lilies series, van Gogh’s Self-Portrait, Renoir’s Two Sisters (On the Terrace) and the two American icons, American Gothic by Grant Wood and Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. The Modern Wing, designed by acclaimed architect Renzo Piano, is home to the museum’s 20th Century artwork, including coveted Picassos and Mirós. A rooftop sculpture garden offers city views and connects to adjacent Millennium Park via the very cool pedestrian-only Nichols Bridgeway.
MSI is one mind-blowing museum! Housed in a beautiful Beaux Arts building that hosted the entire 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, MSI is the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere, with more than 35,000 artifacts and hundreds of interactive exhibits, simulations and actual live-science experiences. To wit: Trigger an avalanche, manipulate a 40-foot tornado, descend into a coal mine, climb aboard the engine of the first vehicle to break the 100 mph barrier. Advice: Come prepared with a plan of attack.
Chicago’s “art park,” Millennium occupies 24.5 acres of the northwest corner of Grant Park, spanning the former open rail yards on the lakefront—and is famous for its modern artworks and architecture, as well as its music festivals. The park’s two biggest draws are Cloud Gate, a gleaming elliptical sculpture (and the new “marketing face” of Chicago); and Crown Fountain, which relies on digital technology for its objective. Other highlights: the large rooftop Lurie Garden; Boeing Galleries, which showcase outdoor sculpture, and the Pritzker Pavilion, the acoustically awesome band shell designed by Frank Gehry.
This gleaming abstract sculpture in Millennium Park is the most famous thing to come out of Chicago since Barack Obama. The elliptical sculpture nicknamed “the Bean” (for obvious reasons) measures 66 feet long by 42 feet high and comprises brilliantly polished welded steel that both reflects and distorts the Chicago skyline. Visitors can’t resist interacting with it (you can walk under its 12-foot-high arch), making Cloud Gate one of the most popular backdrops for selfies.
The second-oldest baseball park in the U.S., Wrigley, built in 1914, is home to the Chicago Cubs and tons of storied traditions and curious curses. The Cubbies haven’t won a World Series since 1908, yet the team has some of the most devoted fans in baseball. If you can’t get tickets to a game, a 90-minute stadium tour is the next-best thing. And at least you won’t have to watch them lose.
The Richard H. Driehaus Museum, otherwise known as “a little slice of heaven” to aficionados of America’s Gilded Age, is housed within a magnificent late-19th Century mansion, restored to showcase the design celebrated with the dawn of the 20th Century. Established by its namesake, a Chicago-born investment banker and art collector, the Driehaus Museum boasts swoon-worthy interiors of wood and marble, onyx and alabaster, furnished with elegant pieces, some original to the home, appointed with a peerless collection of Tiffany.
Previously called the John Hancock Observatory, this glass and steel enclosed deck (renamed in 2014) on the 94th floor of the John Hancock Center still features the same unparalleled panoramic views from 1,000 feet above the heart of Michigan Avenue. 360 Chicago added an attraction called The Tilt, in which visitors can stand on a forward-tilting platform, for another aerial perspective.
One of Chicago’s most famous landmarks, the monumental Buckingham Fountain is the centerpiece of Grant Park. It was modeled after a fountain at Versailles, and consists of three tiers of basins surrounded by four pair of bronze seahorses. The fountain operates from April to October and features displays of aquatic theatrics every 20 minutes, with sprays reaching 150 feet. At night, the fountain’s choreography is accompanied by lights and music for an even more mesmerizing effect.
The observation deck on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower (née Sears Tower) in Chicago’s financial district, the Skydeck offers amazing views from 1,353 feet up. On a windy day, visitors can even feel the superlative skyscraper swaying. New to the Skydeck are retractable all-glass skyboxes that extend four feet out from the façade, allowing visitors to see through the glass bottom and experience the sensation of vertigo.
Constructed five years after the Great Fire of 1871, Holy Name Cathedral features a quietly beautiful Gothic Revival exterior with a spire that soars more than 200 feet. The magnificent bronze entrance doors are architectural sculpture, designed to look like carved wood. Inside, the vaulted ceiling and high walls are ornately carved and framed with abstract stained-glass windows. The commanding gallery pipe organ, of elaborately hand-carved French oak, is perhaps the Cathedral’s most exceptional architectural feature.
The Field Museum is known for its incredibly extensive collection of artifacts that help further the scientific and historic knowledge of Earth. Which is to say, there is a lot here and a big draw for kids. Highlights: the enormous reconstructed Egyptian Tomb in Inside Ancient Egypt; Hall of Jades, with over 450 pieces spanning 2,000 years of ancient China; and of course, Sue, the largest and best preserved T. rex skeleton yet discovered.
Founded in 1868, the Lincoln Park Zoo is a small city zoo, making it perfect for travelers with jam-packed itineraries (plus, admission is free). Recognized for its conservation efforts, the zoo features a replicated African habitat for its great apes, including Bela, a western lowland gorilla born there in early 2015. Other attractions: Harbor seals at the Kovler Sea Lion Pool, not to be confused with the big cats at the Kovler Lion House; and the 48-seat, artisan-crafted Endangered Species Carousel.
The Shedd Aquarium is a world-class indoor aquarium, however ironically encased in a Greek Revival structure (it was built in 1930, after all). One of the world’s largest, it claims more than 30,000 aquatic creatures among a number of habitats, including the South Pole and the Amazon. Hands-down highlights: Abbott Oceanarium, where visitors get up close with beluga whales and dolphins; and the shark encounter, a 60-minute guided shark-feeding exploration. Purchase a Shedd Pass to avoid sticker shock.
This spectacular building is the city’s venue for free, year-round concerts and events, including music, theater, dance, films and art exhibitions. Originally built as the Chicago Public Library in 1897, it was designed to showcase Chicago’s sophistication and recovery after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, with interiors resembling Italian palazzos. Hence, the gilded ceilings, marble walls and mother-of-pearl inlays. The building is capped with two stained-glass domes, one of which is 38 feet in diameter and Tiffany glass.
Occupying 4.5 acres of Garfield Park on Chicago’s West Side, the Garfield Park Conservatory is one of the largest greenhouse conservatories in the country. Established in 1908, it showcases naturalistic landscapes in eight separate glass houses. Of special note: The Aroid House, which displays the majesty of otherwise typical houseplants, plus a pool of 16 brilliant lily pads created by glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. In warm weather, a host of outdoor gardens color the grounds.
If you want to know anything about Chicago’s past, present, even future, the Chicago History Museum—with its extensive collection of over 22 million artifacts, photographs and documents—is the place to come. Located in Lincoln Park since 1932, the museum has its own dramatic history, having lost its original building and all its contents to the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. On a rainy (or snowy) day, the Chicago History Museum offers a fascinating refuge…for the whole family.
Extending a half mile out onto Lake Michigan, the Navy Pier is like a cool, old-time county fair, except that it’s permanent. There’s a Ferris wheel tall enough to be seen from space, a 44-foot-high carousel, miniature golf course, IMAX theater, family-friendly restaurants, a beer garden and even the Chicago Children’s Museum (in the historic Headhouse building) and Shakespeare Theater complex. Concerts are often there, plus twice a week in the summer, the Pier presents fireworks displays. How fun is that?
A large beautifully landscaped, pastoral park, typical of Victorian cemeteries of the day, Graceland, established in 1860 (and still in use), is of architectural interest for its tombs, mausoleums and monuments. Two-hour guided history tours of the cemetery, located on Chicago’s North Side, are available.
Less an actual fountain than a “video sculpture,” Crown Fountain is comprised of a black granite reflecting pool flanked by a pair of 50-foot-tall glass brick towers, each fronted with a dual LED screen. Each tower projects a huge close-up of a person’s face onto the screen, and the water from the fountain looks like it’s streaming out of the person’s mouth. Operating from May to October, the Fountain is one of the most popular attractions in Millennium Park.
Smaller and occupying fewer grounds than Chicago’s grand Garfield Park Conservatory, the Lincoln Park Conservatory was created to both display exotic and non-indigenous plants and grow the thousands of plants needed for the city’s many parks. Established at the end of the 19th Century, the antiquarian conservatory, designed with a series of trusses in the shape of ogees, makes for an eye-catching centerpiece of Lincoln Park.
Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1908, the Frederick C. Robie House is a stunning example of Prairie School architecture—and an icon that helped redefine American architecture for the new century. Featuring Wright’s innovative concepts of low-pitched roofs, an open floor plan and walls of leaded glass allowing light to pour in, the Robie House is now a National Historic Landmark and open to the public via guided tours only.
Located in the historic Headhouse Building on Navy Pier, the Children’s Museum has interactive exhibits, hands-on experiences and art classes for free. Most popular exhibits: Kids on the Fly, in which kids experience how to fly a plane or helicopter or play an air traffic controller; Play it Safe, in which kids explore an authentically-staged firehouse; and Dinosaur Expedition, in which kids explore a real archaeological excavation pit.
The Magnificent Mile identifies the stretch of Michigan Avenue extending north from the Chicago River to Oak Street, famous for its collection of the world’s most exclusive retailers. It’s Chicago’s answer to Fifth Avenue in NYC or the Champs-Élysée in Paris, including the fact that some of the city’s most notable architecture is also there. Highlights: the historic Water Tower, the longest-standing structure on the Avenue, having survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; the Wrigley Building, the Tribune Tower and the John Hancock Center. In December, the holiday lights festival on the Mile is legendary.
The Loop identifies Chicago’s downtown area, bounded on the west and north by the Chicago River and on the east by Lake Michigan. The Loop is also defined by many of Chicago’s iconic landmarks, old and new. In the wake of the Great Fire of 1871, architects were drawn to the city’s redevelopment, which launched Chicago’s renown for architectural creativity. The Loop’s “best” buildings: Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower built in 1974 as the world’s tallest building; Chicago Board of Trade Building; Chicago Cultural Center; Burnham & Root's The Rookery Building, with lobby by Frank Lloyd Wright; and the Chicago Theatre.
This striking 1925 neo-Gothic skyscraper features a crown modeled after a French cathedral. The ornate spire is particularly beautiful at night, all lit up. But the most remarkable thing about this building, home to the Chicago Tribune, are the hundreds of stone fragments embedded in its base—from such iconic structures as the Taj Mahal, the Wall of China, even the Alamo, all ID’d and viewable from street level. The epitome of the collection? A moon rock, stored in its own display case.
Adorned in taxi-cab yellow (or red, white and blue), these small ferry boats transport visitors between locations from either the Chicago River or Lake Michigan. A fun way to get around and “cruise” the skyline and sites at the same time. Taxi service operates from April through October.
Known as Chicago’s “front yard,” the famous Grant Park covers more than 300 acres of lakefront space in downtown Chicago. As with most pubic parks, Grant is replete with grassy greens and park benches in shady spots, but because it covers so much of the city’s prime real estate, it’s also home to several museums, the fantastical Buckingham Fountain, even the newer Millennium Park—plus several amazing formal gardens. Worth picking up a map to locate: the outstanding Bloch Cancer Survivors Garden; the Lincoln statue in the Court of Presidents; and Agora, a provocative art installation of 106 oversize cast-iron headless torsos, posed in different directions, suggesting a sense of fast-paced confusion.
Large (216 acres) with more than 2,000 animals, Brookfield is a remarkable zoo with a less common focus. Sure, there are plenty of exotic habitats—African Safari, the kangaroos at Australia House, dolphins at the Seven Seas—but it’s interesting to experience North American species, endangered and otherwise, for a change. The Great Bear Wilderness feels like a National Park visit with eye-to-eye window access of grizzlies, bison, bald eagles and more. Equally cool: Backstage Adventures, for the opportunity to hang with a zookeeper.
America’s very first planetarium is so exemplary, it will make space lovers of the most landlocked individuals. Exhibitions span ages, and the Sky Shows are immersive 360-degree experiences. Must-sees: Planet Explorers, in which kids don astronaut suits, perform virtual takeoffs and space walks; Shoot for the Moon, an exhibit of space-exploration stories narrated by Jim Lovell of Gemini 12, complete with a hands-on lunar surface; Telescopes exhibit and collection of antique scientific instruments; and for adults over 21, Adler After Dark offers nighttime open-museum access and special Chicago skyline views.
This stylishly ornamented 12-story building in the Loop is one of Chicago’s original skyscrapers—and still in use. Completed in 1888, it was designed by Daniel Burnham and John Root, the darlings of late-19th Century Chicago architecture, and in addition to its picturesque façade and noted light play, it was one of the first commercial buildings to use steel-frame construction and load-bearing walls. Completing its impressive pedigree, Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned in 1905 to redesign the building’s two-story lobby, noted for its grand cast-iron staircase, which Wright cloaked in Carrara marble. Considered his most dramatic interior composition, the Rookery, surprisingly, is the only building in downtown Chicago to boast a Wright imprint. Highly recommended: any of the architect-guided tours offered by the Wright Preservation Trust and the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
Looking every bit as exalted as a Medieval Cathedral, this striking Gothic Revival church was, in fact, only built in the 1920s. Designed by the prolific American architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, the chapel is the star of the University of Chicago campus (literally—its 207-foot-high tower makes it the tallest structure on site). Its interior includes intricately carved woodwork, a vaulted ceiling tiled in color-glazed mosaics, jewel-like stained-glass windows and the original, and still magnificent, E. M. Skinner organ. Yet, its most famous feature by far: the carillon tower, housing 72 bronze bells of different sizes and sounds, which provide daily recitals (when school is in session). Tours of the tower and its inner workings are highly recommended, provided you can climb its 271-step spiral stone staircase. Either way, song requests are welcome.
Money is treated like a new art form in this fascinating little museum located within the lofty Federal Reserve Bank. It features both fun exhibits (a how-to for spotting counterfeit bills, a photo op with a backdrop of 1 million bucks in $100 bills) and historical displays (discontinued currency; rare coins and bills, including a $5,000 mark), making it captivating for all ages. Oh, and it offers possibly the best souvenir ever: a free bag of “Fed shreds”—shredded currency to the tune of $300, no longer in circulation. Spoiler alert: You'll never find all the pieces to reassemble even one bill in your goodie bag...but have fun trying!
As the only museum in the country dedicated to showcasing art by U.S. military combat veterans, NVAM is just about the most poignant museum in all of Chi-town. Founded in 1981 by Vietnam veteran-artists as a “touring exhibition,” the museum found a physical home in Chicago in 1996. Now in its second home here, in the Six Corners neighborhood, the museum’s permanent collection boasts more than 2,500 paintings, photographs and sculptures (even some poetry and music) by bona-fide artists who can express firsthand the lingering impact of war. Ironically, the new space couldn’t accommodate the museum's most famous work, “Above and Beyond,” a replication of 58,000 individually stamped metal dog tags hanging from the ceiling (representing all the troops killed in the Vietnam War). Fortunately, this haunting display is once again on view, at the Harold Washington Library Center (400 S. State St.), where it remains on extended exhibition until April 2020.
Like the repurposed elevated rail lines in other cities (Paris, NYC and St. Louis, to date), Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail is a 2.7-mile linear park, about 3 miles north of the Loop, running west to east through the neighborhoods of Wicker Park, Bucktown, Logan Square (currently, one of the city’s hottest nabes) and Humboldt Park. But unlike the above-street-level oases of those other cities, this paved trail is wider (14 feet across) and more recreation-friendly, allowing for cyclists, ‘bladers and skateboarders in addition to pedestrian strollers and runners. In fact, with many nearby stations for the city’s bike-share program, the Trail is popular with commuters and tourists alike. Designed to be part of a larger elevated-park network known as The 606 (the 3-digit prefix of Chicago’s zip code), the Trail is the first completed piece and features 12 serpentine-like ramps to/from street level that provide easy-access along Bloomingdale Ave., from Ashland Ave. to Ridgeway.
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