Posted in Activities, chicago, travel

Shedd Aquarium

2016-06-20 09.50.21.jpgNow that my kids are getting older, children’s museums offer less and less. Their interest in playing with bubbles or making paperclip helicopters has waned. At almost-ten and thirteen, they want something in between appreciating modern art and crawling through the “pretend you’re a bug” exhibit. They want exciting, yet interesting.

During a recent trip to Chicago, we spent some time exploring Shedd Aquarium, and it was one of my kids’ favorite places. There is a little bit of everything at Shedd Aquarium, which makes it work for a wide variety of ages. The exhibits focus on learning, as well as fun and interaction.

During the summer and early fall, you can visit the outdoor Stingray Touch pool to pet stingrays. The pool contains a good number of stingrays, so everyone has a chance to get up close. After the volunteer explains how to safety touch the stingrays, you’re free to enjoy the experience for as long as you like. My youngest loved this, and also spent time at the indoor touch pool filled with several large species of fish, and the starfish touch pool on the lower level.

 

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After my daughter petted fish to her heart’s content, we went in to check out the 4-D experience. They had a choice of SpongeBob, Coastal Predators, and Prehistoric Sea Monsters. We bypassed SpongeBob and went with the Coastal Predators movie. While we did get jabbed in the back as one of the special effects, the movie itself was entertaining and educational. Paired with the 3-D visuals, water mists, and wind effects, both myself and the kids enjoyed the show.

Special experiences done, we moved on to the rest of the aquarium. The amphibian exhibit was listed as a “special exhibit,” but most of the visitors seemed to have tickets which gave access to it, so no one was watching the entrance. For this being a special exhibit, it didn’t seem any better or more exciting than the regular exhibits. Having said that, all the regular exhibits were well put together and interesting, so this one certainly wasn’t disappointing. I had expected something more “special” than an exhibit of frogs, newts, and salamanders I had seen at other zoos or aquariums, though.

The regular exhibits held a variety of fun and interesting options. The main floor exhibit “Waters of the World”, was divided into corridors which held fish from specific regions. If you were interested in something particular, it was easy to find what you wanted. Centered between these corridors was the Amazon Rising exhibit, a coral reef habitat where you could watch divers feed and interact with the fish at scheduled times throughout the day. In the basement, the “Wild Reef,” is home to a large number of sharks, coral, and tropical fish. You get to view the 400,000 gallon tank from a huge viewing window that makes you feel like you’re in the water with them.

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The “Polar Play Zone” was partially closed when we visited, due to the upper level viewing deck being closed off to allow the recently born baby dolphin and its mother time to bond. However, at the lower level viewing area, you could see both the dolphins and several beluga whales. The last, largest exhibit was “At Home on the Great Lakes,” which featured environments and fish from the area, while teaching visitors about the local ecosystem. This was a full scale experience you walked through, stopping to observe each habitat as you experienced the simulated Great Lakes area.

If you’re interested in visiting Shedd Aquarium, it is part of Museum Campus in Downtown Chicago. It’s within walking distance of many Michigan Avenue hotels. If you’re staying further away, there are CTA bus and trains stops nearby for easy access, and has paid parking available as well. If you want to make a day of museums, it’s also right next door to both the Adler Planetarium and Field Museum.

Ticket prices for the “Total Experience” package range from $40-$55 for adults and $29-$46 for kids ($2 discount for ordering online). This includes access to the regular exhibits, special amphibians exhibit, 4-D movie, and the Stingray touch pool (open seasonally). There are tickets available to only access the regular exhibits in the $20-25 range, as well. If you’re planning to visit multiple top attractions in Chicago, you can get a Chicago CityPASS (tickets for 3-5 local attractions) for $98 and $82 for adults and kids, respectively, which saves you up to 50% when you use all the tickets.

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If you end up at the aquarium for the whole day, which is definitely possible, they have several dining options onsite. The café on the main floor is a sit-down style restaurant. It’s a more expensive option, and the formal set up appeals to adults more than kids, but anyone is welcome. There’s also a small deli right next to the café, as well as cafeteria-style food options on the lower level.

The aquarium is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5/6 p.m. (depending on the season). If you’re planning to do two attractions in one day, get there first thing in the morning, as crowds pick up considerably in the afternoon. When we arrived a little after 9 a.m., we walked right in, but when we came out of the building around 1 p.m., there was a line all the way down the steps and into the courtyard. Plan your second activity for the afternoon to avoid being stuck in a line.

While Shedd Aquarium is one of the pricier downtown Chicago attractions, its large number of exhibits and wide variety of activities makes it appealing to most ages, and well worth the price.

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Posted in Activities, aquarium, chicago, museum, planetarium, travel, Uncategorized

Chicago’s Museum Campus Roundup

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When it comes to a city the size of Chicago, there’s no way to see it all in one trip. Trying will make you miserable. Making the best of your visit to Chicago means making choices. Are you a foodie? A musical fanatic? A history buff? No matter your interests, you’re likely to find plenty of activities to keep you busy. For those who love museums and exhibits, Chicago is your paradise, but be prepared to pace yourself.

Chicago is so thick with museums, there’s a whole section of the lakefront designated as “Museum Campus.” Located in the Michigan Avenue/Lakeshore Drive area, the campus is spread out over the beautiful Grant Park. The Art Institute of Chicago dominates the north end of the campus near Millennium Park, while the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium take up most of the campus on the south end near Northerly Island.

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Starting at the north end, the Art Institute of Chicago is a massive building with a massive amount of exhibits. It is one of the oldest and largest art museums in the U.S. Founded in 1879, it has nearly 300,000 permanent works of art, covering a wide variety of styles, as well as various special collections. The AIC has everything from the Thorne Miniature Rooms and a furniture-as-art exhibit to exhibits on architecture and contemporary American classics from artists such as Warhol and Lichtenstein. Visiting the AIC can easily be a full day event. However, if you have other plans for the afternoon, it’s easy to pick and choose the exhibits you’re most interested in and save the rest for another time. If you do stay at the museum all day, there are several moderately priced indoor and outdoor café options. Along with food, they also offer a variety of wines, microbrews, and a full bar.

General admission is free for children under 13, but ranges from $14-25 for teens and adults, with out of state visitors paying the highest price. Fast Pass admission is also free for children under 13, but ranges from $29-35 for adults. Or, if you plan to visit several attractions, the CityPASS offers discounted tickets to 5 venues for $82 and $98 (children and adults). The museum is open from 10:30 am to 5 pm, daily, except for Thursday’s when it stays open until 8 pm to accommodate the weekly free admission night for Illinois residents from 5-8 pm.

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Heading south across Grant Park, is one of the most popular Museum Campus attractions, Shedd Aquarium. It’s best to plan your visit for the morning in order to avoid waiting in long ticket lines later in the day. The aquarium boasts a wide variety of fun and educational exhibits. During summer months, you can visit the outdoor Stingray Touch pool to pet stingrays, then escape the heat inside while you watch a 4-D movie. Choose between SpongeBob, Coastal Predators, and Prehistoric Sea Monsters to entertain younger visitors.

The amphibian exhibit has a wide variety of exotic frogs, newts, and salamanders, and though labeled as “special,” appears to be a permanent feature and is no more elaborate then the regular exhibits . The “Waters of the World” exhibit is divided into corridors of regional fish exhibits, while “Amazon Rising” is a coral reef habitat where you can watch divers feed and interact with the fish at scheduled times throughout the day. The “Wild Reef” is a 400,000 gallon tank filled with sharks, coral, and tropical fish, but the “Polar Play Zone” is where you can see the recently born baby dolphin and its mother, as well as several beluga whales. The last, largest exhibit is the full-scale “At Home on the Great Lakes” exhibit, which features local environments and fish, while teaching visitors about the ecosystem as they walk through the simulated Great Lakes area.

The aquarium is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5/6 p.m. Ticket prices for the “Total Experience” package range from $40-$55 for adults and $29-$46 for kids. This includes access to the regular exhibits, special amphibian exhibit, 4-D movie, and the Stingray touch pool. There are tickets available to only access the regular exhibits in the $20-25 range. Shedd Aquarium is also part of the CityPASS. If you end up at the aquarium for the whole day, which is definitely possible, they have a sit-down style restaurant as well as a small deli and cafeteria-style dining on the lower level.

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A short walk from the aquarium is The Field Museum, one of the largest natural history museums in the world. Of all the Museum Campus attractions, The Field Museum practically requires a full day to enjoy. Whether you visit for half a day or the entire day, arriving early is a must. Long lines begin forming around lunch, so be there at 9 am when they open, and you might be able to see everything by the 5 pm closing time.

Why do you need so much time? The Field Museum houses three huge floors of exhibits, nearly 30 permanent and special exhibits, as well as 3D movies and interactive exhibits for younger children. Whether you want to see mummies, learn about indigenous cultures, study plant entomology, or see the Emperor’s Terracotta Warriors, you’ll have your pick of fascinating exhibits. The best way to approach this large museum is to start with what you are most interested in, rather than beginning at one specific spot and moving through systematically. The exhibits are so large and take so long to get through, you may end up missing out on others you want to see, otherwise.

The Field Museum is open every day of the year, except Christmas. Ticket prices range from $26 to $38 (children/adults) for the All-Access pass, which includes all regular and special exhibits, and one 3D movie. The Discovery pass does not include a movie, and ranges from $22-31. The Field Museum is also part of the CityPASS, and general admission is free to ASTC museum members. If you get hungry during your visit, stop by The Field Bistro for cafe-style lunch items.

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Rounding out the attractions on Museum Campus is the Adler Planetarium. While Adler Planetarium is quite a bit smaller than the rest of the attractions in the area, it still offers an assortment of shows and exhibits. “Planet Nine” is their current featured movie, an discussion on the exploration for a new ninth planet, and is offered alongside a handful of classic planetarium “night sky” shows and short films. If you want a completely retro planetarium experience, Adler is home of the oldest planetarium, the Atwood Sphere, built in 1913 by Charles Atwood. The dome is a 15-foot metal sphere that rotates around 8 seated guests once the platform is raised inside. The tiny lightbulbs situated around the inside of the dome show the constellations, which haven’t changed since 1913 when it was built.

The rest of the planetarium exhibits showcase NASA programs and moon landings, astronomy, how the universe formed, and a large collection of modern and ancient telescopes. There are also several interactive exhibits, the “Community Design Lab” and “Planet Explorers”, both of which are geared toward younger children. While the range of exhibits and shows is impressive for a planetarium, this is typically only a half-day or less outing. If you want to finish off a morning visit with lunch, Café Galileo’s is onsite with soups, salads, sandwiches, and drinks.

Adler Planetarium is open from 9:30 am to 6 pm, and is also part of the CityPASS. Non CityPass Holders can purchase general admission (no shows included) for $8 and $12 for children/adults. The Basic Pass includes 1 show and all the regular exhibits for $20-25. If you want to try everything the planetarium has to offer, you’ll need the Anytime All Access pass for $30/35, which includes all regular exhibits, the Atwood Sphere, and unlimited shows. General admission is free for ASTC museum members, with the option to add on shows for a fee.

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Chicago’s Museum Campus offers a little bit of everything when it comes to exhibits, entertainment, and education. For those who prefer not to eat at the attractions, head into Grant Park for a variety of food vendors, or back to one of many the Michigan Avenue restaurants. When you need a break from touring, stop and enjoy Buckingham Fountain in the heart of Grant Park, or the 12th Street Beach on Northerly Island. Wherever you choose to start or end your visit to Museum Campus, take your time and enjoy everything it has to offer.

Posted in chicago, restaurants, travel

Belly Up Smokehouse & Saloon

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Chicago is known for great food. After a recent visit, I’ve decided it should also be known for incessant honking from impatient drivers, but the label of being a foodie paradise did indeed prove accurate. Staying in downtown Chicago, we had a plethora of dining options within walking distance from our rather lousy hotel (a whole other review in the making!). One of those was Belly Up Smokehouse & Saloon.

Despite its name, Belly Up works great as a family restaurant if you’re heading out for an early dinner. After a day of museum hopping, our two kids were starving by 5:30 p.m., which means we beat the crowd and happened to get in before happy hour ended. Bonus on both counts. By the time we were finishing our meal, the dining room was filling up, which indicated it to be a popular night time hangout. So, if you want a quiet family dinner, head over right after work, but if you’re looking for something more energetic, give it a few hours to get going.

Being that we were there at the beginning of the dinner hour, there was no wait to get a table and our server was nearby whenever we needed him without hovering. As traffic picked up during the evening, there was more of a wait, but the staff stayed on top of things even as it got busier. It seemed unlikely it would get too hectic for them to handle, even on a busy night. The kitchen was just as prompt and on task. Our food arrived within twenty minutes of ordering and we never had to wait an absurd amount of time for drinks from the bar as we have at other restaurants.

Speaking of food and drinks, let’s talk menu and prices. While the interior of the restaurant is an upscale, classy version of a hometown barbecue joint, the most expensive, single-person item on the menu was $22 for the full rack of ribs. Appetizers were in the $6-10 range, while the majority of the entrées were $12-18. The only outlier was the Belly Up Platter, a combination of 3 meats, sides, and rolls, priced at $45, but was meant to feed 2-3 people. Accompanying the regular menu was a list of seasonal items to choose from, all within a similar price range to the regular menu.

Drink prices ranged from $4 drafts and bottles to around $12 for some of the specialty items, as well as having happy hour pricing from 3-6 p.m., and then again after 9 o’clock. Belly Up specialized in beers, with a full menu of local, national, and international options. While cocktails were available from the bar, the focus was more on beers than mixed drinks on both the regular and specials menus.

Getting back to the menu, as the name suggests, Belly Up’s main appeal was their barbecue cuisine. Everything from ribs, pulled-pork, brisket, catfish, and burgers graced the menu. Homestyle sides were classed up from the basics, such as Smoked Mac & Cheese with three cheeses and a breadcrumb topping, while still holding on to their classic comfort food appeal. With four people at the table, we had a chance to test out a variety of items from the menu.

The shrimp Po’boy was a little awkward to get your mouth around, given how big it was, but there were no complaints on the taste. The Smoked Mac & Cheese proved to taste as good as it sounded, much to my son’s delight. The smoked brisket was delicious as well, especially when paired with one of the six barbecue sauce choices offered at every table. The only complaint came from one of times from the seasonal menu. The southwestern chicken wrap sounded yummy, but we learned ordering Mexican food in Chicago was not the best idea. The southwestern style chicken wrap was so drenched with a too-sweet sauce it overpowered the other flavors and left the tortilla soggy. Three out of four when it came to the food wasn’t too bad, though.

As far as drinks were concerned, the menu did a great job of describing the flavors and types of each drink so you weren’t guessing at some of the local brews we’d never tried before. The menu was divided up between types of beers, liquors, and ales, and seasonal items were on a separate menu, but still included in the happy hour pricing. If you did have questions about a particular drink, the wait staff was knowledgeable and very helpful.

Belly Up Smokehouse and Saloon is located on South Wabash Street in downtown Chicago, a short walk from Michigan Avenue and many popular attractions in the area. It serves as both a great family restaurant in the early evening and an upscale restaurant/bar later at night. The affordable and largely great tasting menu made it a popular spot for get-togethers with friends or family, whether local or those in town for business or vacation. With attentive yet not overbearing staff who can answer questions when needed, diners can relax and enjoy the hometown atmosphere as they munch on delectable barbecue classics. If you’re looking for a classy hangout with great food and a wide range of drinks, Belly Up Smokehouse & Saloon is your place.