CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As the summer months begin to come to a close, many of us across the area are looking for a final opportunity to get away for a long weekend. If you’re looking for a destination that provides family-friendly activities, great shopping and a metropolitan feel, look no farther than Chicago.
With a driving distance of just under 500 miles and a driving time of roughly 7½ hours, Chicago has plenty to do to keep your family busy as they celebrate the end of summer.
See the sights
Known for its diverse architecture and collection of museums and attractions, Chicago has plenty of sights guaranteed to keep your family busy.
One of the major draws in Chicago is the Shedd Aquarium, on Chicago’s Museum Campus.
Open daily, the Shedd Aquarium hosts over 32,500 different species of animals and fish, from whales to snails and tarantulas to turtles. Guests to the Shedd Aquarium are greeted by the Caribbean Reef exhibit, where you can get eye-to-eye with several species of saltwater fish and watch divers feed them.
Be sure to check out the award-winning Abbott Oceanarium, where you can encounter beluga whales, sea lions and sea otters.
The Polar Play Zone has great activities for kids, in addition to underwater viewing areas for the beluga whales and penguins.
If you make it to the Shedd Aquarium this summer or early fall, be sure to take advantage of Stingray Touch, where guests can pet stingrays as they glide through the water.
AAA tip: Be sure to arrive at the Shedd Aquarium early, as the line to enter the facility can occasionally exceed 30 minutes. Saturdays are especially busy.
Staying on the Chicago Museum Campus, the Field Museum provides the opportunity to travel through time to view 4.5 billion years worth of history. With more than 26 million artifacts, the Field Museum is home to exhibits such as Sue, the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever found, as well as a collection of 23 Egyptian mummies.
Also on the Museum Campus is the Adler Planetarium, America’s first planetarium. Home to NASA’s Gemini 12 space capsule, the planetarium is a great destination for families.
The Planet Explorers exhibit provides hands-on fun for kids, and there are plenty of shows and theaters sure to keep a family of all ages busy.
Destination Solar System is the Adler’s premier show, but many guests also enjoy being able to experience the night sky over Chicago as it appeared in 1913 in the historic Atwood Sphere.
A bit farther south of downtown Chicago and accessible by bus, car or taxi is the Museum of Science and Industry. The largest science center in the Western Hemisphere and open daily, the Museum of Science and Industry boasts a large transportation collection, including the submarine U-505 — the only German World War II submarine in the United States.
Other exhibits include a coal mine, where guests descend into a mine and ride the rails to learn the technology behind coal mining, and Toymaker 3000, an area where guests can watch 12 robots assemble toys from start to finish.
AAA tip: Visit the Motion Simulator and Omnimax when first arriving to the Museum of Science and Industry to secure reservations.
Navy Pier, nestled along Lake Michigan, is home to the Chicago Children’s Museum and features great dining and shopping options.
While at Navy Pier, be sure to take a ride on the Navy Pier Ferris wheel, which lifts riders 150 feet into the air while they witness stunning views of the Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan shoreline.
AAA tip: Don’t miss out on the Wednesday and Saturday night fireworks displays at Navy Pier if visiting during the summer months.
While in downtown Chicago, be sure to check out either 360 Chicago in the John Hancock Center, or Skydeck Chicago in the Willis (Sears) Tower. Both attractions offer exceptional views of the Chicago skyline and either attraction has fuel to feed your inner daredevil.
360 Chicago’s Tilt attraction tilts guests downward toward the Magnificent Mile from the 94th story of the John Hancock Center, while Skydeck Chicago features The Ledge — glass-floored balconies that project out of the 103rd story of the Willis Tower.
Chicago also boasts an excellent arts scene. Home to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Art Institute of Chicago, many visitors will enjoy taking in one of the many shows that are a part of the Broadway in Chicago series.
One of the best ways to view Chicago’s architectural marvels is to take a cruise along the Chicago River.
Cruise lines such as Shoreline Sightseeing offer fantastic architecture and history cruises that provide riders with an insider’s glimpse into the buildings, architecture and engineering that made Chicago famous. Cruises leave from a variety of locations, but the easiest place to catch a cruise is from Navy Pier.
Of course, no trip to Chicago would be complete without visiting the Magnificent Mile, a prestigious portion of Michigan Avenue devoted to shopping and dining.
The shops along the Magnificent Mile are as diverse as the goods they sell, featuring designer studios and trendy favorites.
Where to stay
There are plenty of lodging options in Chicago at a variety of price points. Many opt to stay in downtown Chicago along the Magnificent Mile, close to transportation, shopping and dining. There is a variety of hotels in this area, and the benefit to staying along Michigan Avenue is its proximity to all the major Chicago attractions.
AAA tip: Be prepared to spend at least $40 per night to park a vehicle at a hotel in downtown Chicago — very few hotels in this area offer complimentary parking.
Another area to consider staying is near O’Hare International Airport. Just under 20 miles from downtown Chicago, the Rosemont area offers many hotels at lower price points than properties in downtown Chicago.
Many hotels, such as the Renaissance Chicago O’Hare Suites, are just steps away from the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Blue Line, making the trip into downtown Chicago simple without having to ever set foot in the car after arriving to the hotel.
What to eat
Deep-dish pizza and hot dogs are two food staples Chicago is famous for, and there are plenty of opportunities within the city to try both.
What makes a Chicago-style hot dog unique? It’s an all-beef hot dog on a poppyseed bun, garnished with mustard, relish, chopped onion, tomato slices, pickle spears, “sport peppers” (hot green peppers) and celery salt. One of the best places to try a Chicago-style hot dog is at Portillo’s Hot Dogs, near the Magnificent Mile at 100 W. Ontario St.
If Chicago-style hot dogs aren’t your thing, Portillo’s has a variety of other hot dogs and sandwiches guaranteed to satisfy any appetite.
An exceptional place to have dinner and experience Chicago deep-dish pizza is at Giordano’s, a block off the Magnificent Mile at 730 N. Rush St. Locals recommend Giordano’s because they offer stuffed deep-dish pizzas. Giordano’s also offers exceptional thin-crust pizzas and pasta dishes.
AAA tip: Expect to spend at least an hour at Giordano’s for a deep-dish pizza, as preparation takes a minimum of 30 minutes, and pizza orders are typically placed prior to being seated.
Looking to try some trendy spots in the Windy City? Head out to the Wicker Park neighborhood, where a short trip on the CTA Blue Line northwest of the city will provide several dining options, including quick service meals and vegan options.
An outstanding breakfast option is Stan’s Donuts and Coffee, at 1560 N. Damen Ave. While offering traditional glazed doughnuts, Stan’s also features specialty doughnuts, including the Chocolate Chocolate-Chip, Peanut Butter Pocket and the Buttermilk Bar.
Across the street is Big Star, a first-rate stop for Mexican cuisine. Tempt your palate with a variety of flavorful tacos (the fish tacos get rave reviews), great guacamole, strong margaritas, and a large selection of beer and bourbon.
AAA tip: Big Star is cash-only and frequently has a long wait, so plan accordingly.
How to get around
While Chicago has an expansive highway system, it’s not always easy to navigate as an out-of-towner.
Combine this with the high price of parking in the downtown areas, and parking the car will suddenly seem like a great idea.
AAA tip: Most of Chicago’s highway system is in the form of toll roads, so bring plenty of cash and watch for periodic pull-offs to pay tolls.
The CTA system is very user-friendly and is highly recommended for tourist use around the city, regardless of where you decide to stay. The Chicago “L” — Chicago’s elevated rail system — is easy to navigate with stations scattered all around downtown Chicago and in the suburbs.
With regular schedules, stops are located near major tourist attractions, making it particularly attractive for guests.
One-, three- and seven-day unlimited passes (in the form of electronic Ventra cards) are available for purchase at train stations and local retailers. What makes these passes exceptionally useful is that they also provide unlimited use on the CTA bus system, which traverses the downtown and suburban streets.
AAA tip: If you’re unsure of how to navigate the train, there are transit system maps available. There is a variety of apps available for your smartphone or tablet that can also help you with schedules, maps and walking instructions. CTA staff are also always willing to help answer transit questions.
Ready to go?
Does a long weekend in Chicago seem like the trip for your family? AAA can help make it a reality. Stop in the AAA Charleston office and talk to a AAA travel expert for assistance with lodging, purchasing a Chicago City Pass, plus planning a tailor-made trip.
They can provide up-to-date information on what’s new, plus provide information about any special events, such as festivals and shows, taking place during the time you plan to visit.
For more information on Chicago and other destinations, stop by the AAA Charleston office or call one of the AAA travel professionals: Janice Adkins, Lia Ireland, Amy Sisson, Becky Wallace and Barbara Wing at 304-925-1136.
Mitzi Harrison manages AAA Travel for the Charleston area and divides her time between Cincinnati and West Virginia.