Plenty to explore in Chicago

Marie Havenga • May 6, 2018 at 10:00 AM

As one of our closest major cities, Chicago is a hip spot for a quick mini-vacation.

Within a couple of hours our horizon can change from Lake Michigan sunsets to Lake Michigan sunrises; from small town charm to big city bustle; from low-profile buildings to towering skyscrapers; from a small ride-on-demand bus service to a mega metro transportation system with trains and buses.

But don't forget to get off the bus and train to take time to explore. If it's warm enough, hop on a water ferry or boat tour. And don't forget to think vertically – some hotels will let you view the city from their rooftop.

You'll see a skyline etched with architectural marvels such as the 1,451-foot Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, the John Hancock building and the iconic neo-Gothic Tribune Tower.

There's so much entertainment to choose from. We recommend multiple trips to take in all Chicago has to offer, but if you're short on time, and have to whittle down your Windy City choices, here are some “can't miss” options.

Just make sure you make like Douglas MacArthur did in 1942 during WWII and vow “I shall return.”

Until then, start with these amazing attractions:


The “Shedd” as it's affectionately called, on the shores of Lake Michigan, is one of the world's largest aquariums, with about 32,000 creatures within its walls.

Don't just hit the highlights, here, of which there are many – make sure to explore all the various habitats under the Shedd roof, including Great Lakes, rivers, Amazon and more.

Take time to shoot some photos in front of the large Pritzker Carribbean Reef when you enter. You can get some colorful shots of your kiddos with fish, sharks and stingrays.

They're included with your admission price, but you'll need special, time-slotted tickets for some events, including the amazing aquatic presentation at the Rice Amphitheaer. Make sure to grab them from the kiosk early, or you may miss out.

The presentation features white-sided dolphins launching into the air and performing some pretty amazing tricks. The show also features a sea lion game and penguins.

The scene before the show is pretty impressive, too. Before they draw the massive curtain, the all-glass wall facing east offers breathtaking views of Lake Michigan.

Some features, like the 4-D experiences, animal encounters, behind-the-scenes tours and feeding experiences, cost extra.

Through September, you'll be able to stand in amazement at the Washed Ashore Art to Save the Sea exhibit.

You'll see a 1,600-pound seahorse, a 6-foot penguin and 13 other creatures created completely from beach trash – plastic beverage bottles, straws, flip-flops, toothbrushes, lighters and toys.

More than 5 tons of trash collected on West Coast beaches are on display in this exhibit, in totally creative and thought-provoking ways. Hopefully we'll all think twice or thrice before littering our beaches after seeing this amazing display.

If you want to view the sharks, penguins, beluga whales and other sea creatures without constantly bumping elbows, Sunday mornings are typically a less crowded time to tour.

And to avoid standing in long lines to buy tickets, you may purchase ahead of time at www.sheddaquarium.org.

Beginning in late May, weather permitting, and running through October, the Shedd features an outdoor stingray touch tank.


In all my visits to Chicago over the years, I never took time to check out the Museum of Science and Industry. My bad.

From a commercial jet, bi-plane and helicopter hanging from the ceiling to hands-on exhibits centered on farming, genetics, chemistry, weather and transportation, there's truly something for everyone in this stately building near the shores of Lake Michigan.

The building is the last remaining from the 1893 World's Fair. It brought together some of the best scientific/electrical minds of the day, including Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.

The museum today sports a Tesla coil, which generates 1.5 million volts in a loud and luminous demonstration that rocks the house.

You can watch a 40-foot-tall tornado inside a glass case, or step into a booth to feel the effects of 80-mile-per-hour wind.

And if you're a World War II buff, the museum houses the only U-505 German submarine captured during the war. For an extra fee, you can even get onboard for a tour. For the more dainty tastes, the museum also boasts Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle, a dollhouse full of impressive miniature artifacts.

Besides the charming baby chicks in the hatchery, my favorite exhibit was “You! The Experience,” a collection of hands-on activities and displays to help people learn about the human body and all if its intricate systems.

A “prenatal development” area shows fetuses from fertilization to full-term, collected by Dr. Helen Button in the 1930s. The exhibit was loaned to the museum in 1939, and became a permanent display in 1991.

Hard to believe had these fetuses not died in utero, they could be people in their 80s right now.

A couple of West Michigan residents made the museum – Richard DeVos and Jay VanAndel, founders of Amway Corporation, are featured in a “Tops in Business” display, next to John Deere and Estee Lauder.

We added a coal mine tour to our visit, which brings guests into an underground exhibit that replicates a working Illinois coal mine.

For more information, visit www.msichicago.org.


If you're looking for a relaxing, fun and innovate way to dine, head 30 miles northwest of Chicago for an evening of knights, horses and jousting.

Just don't plan on being prim and proper here. You'll eat the way they did back in the day – without utensils.

The feast consists of garlic bread, tomato bisque soup, oven-roasted chicken, potato, a few inches of corn on the cob and dessert. The meal includes your choice of beverage.

Although the cuisine is tasty, the true highlight of your evening will be the authentic medieval tournament that plays out in front of you – knights in full regalia challenging each other to jousting, lance and shieldfights and other competitions.

On this particular night, our “yellow” knight became the victor. He then galloped through the arena, and entered the audience to choose the “Queen of Love and Beauty.” With great surprise, out of the hundreds in attendance that night, he picked my 6-year-old daughter, Lainey.

The knight and queen draped a sash over her shoulders and crowned her “Lady Lainey.”

Medieviel Times has several locations throughout the nation, including Washington, D.C., Orlando and Myrtle Beach.

If you plan to attend Chicago or other venues, be sure to arrive early or buy tickets in advance. Shows sell out quickly.

For more information, visit www.medievaltimes.com.

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