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Chicago with Kids: Spring Break in the Windy City

visiting chicago with family

Perhaps not the most obvious choice for a spring break, Chicago can keep a family happy—if not warm and dry—when school lets out. The city welcomed us with open arms during a blustery spring break week when our 'Plan A' vacation fell through. Here are some basic tips for a terrific time with the kids in the Windy City:

If you’re planning on hitting more than a few museums and skyscrapers, buying the Chicago CityPass ($94 for adults, $79 for kids, 11 and under) not only makes economic sense but it allows you to skip the lines at most of the participating venues. The passes saved us from standing in line in the sleet outside the Shedd Aquarium one day and we felt pretty smug sweeping past the hour and a half wait at the Skydeck. Waltz up to the desk and buy the passes at the first venue you visit, and they're valid for the next nine days.

Museum of Science and Industry This magnificent edifice in Hyde Park, between Lake Michigan and the University of Chicago campus, is one of the last remaining buildings of the 1893 Columbian Exposition (you know, from The Devil in the White City!). The museum offers engaging high- and low-tech exhibits—from the physics of basketball (kids pre-set the velocity and angle of a cannon that launches a ball across the grand hall and into a basket on the far balcony) to how cow manure can be turned into fuel (From Poop to Power!). A longtime favorite of Chicago kids, the museum was fully interactive before the word involved touchscreens. You can easily find enough varied and interesting activities to fill an entire day. Don't miss the retro make-your-own-molded-plastic-souvenir machines at the submarine, farm, and space exhibits.

The Art Institute As if the greatest-hits aspect of the Institute's collection weren't reason enough, the melding of classical and super-mod architecture warrants a visit to this glorious institution. The aforementioned CityPass includes a free kid-friendly audio tour that effectively doubled the attention spans of our young companions, and the visitor's map includes recommended itineraries for people of all ages with 60 minutes or 90 minutes to spend. Brilliant. Don't miss the gift shop with great design-minded housewares and gifts, whimsical souvenirs, and art books for all budgets.

The El, Brown Line (single fares $2.25; farecards can be bought at the station in single fares or in 1-, 3-, 7-, and 30-day increments, and can also be used on the easy-to-navigate bus system) This scenic route circles the Loop, passing some of the dreamiest architecture in town, then crosses the river at the monumental Merchandise Mart and heads north. Hop off when you want and just board a train heading back downtown.

The ArchiCenter The current open-ended exhibit, Chicago Model City, features a 320-square-foot model of downtown Chicago focusing on the development of the modern city. The ArchiCenter runs numerous walking tours and has an amazingly eclectic gift store that sells Louis Sullivan-designed wall stencils and Arts and Crafts ceramic tiles, as well as suction-cup toothbrush holders and a rubber chicken purse.

Millennium Park You don't need me to tell you: It's public art that's fun and spectacular. The park will captivate and re-energize your kids, no matter how tired of sightseeing and walking they are.

Wrigley Field A must-see on any baseball-lover's itinerary, worth a tour even if the beloved Cubs are playing out of town.

Food My NYC-bred kids refused to try the local pizza on principle, but still considered these Chicago restaurants contenders:

The Bristol The cheeseboard at this Bucktown bistro was the biggest hit with our 11-year-old: three cheeses from Wisconsin dairies, served with sweet semolina crackers, handrolled breadsticks, and apricot mustard. She raved about that right up until she tried the raviolo: a single pasta envelope which, when prodded with a fork, released golden egg yolk and airy ricotta to blend with the brown butter. Our son destroyed a basket of duck-fat fries and then elbowed in on his father's hanger steak.

Potbelly Sandwich Works On a friend's passionate recommendation, we lunched here, and then returned to lunch again. Now I, the skeptic, have become the passionate recommender. While Potbelly appears to be a geegaw-strewn homegrown version of Subway, it manages to elevate the custom-ordered sub into something toasty, jazzy, and inspired. Good news for fans: the shops are opening all over the country.

North Pond Dinner at this romantic restaurant tucked beside a pond in Lincoln Park was definitely a splurge, but also an exciting and surprising revelation for the kids. Seasonal food, prepared artfully, in a spectacular setting (the restaurant is housed in a meticulously renovated Arts-and-Crafts style warming house from the park’s ice rink) definitely made an impression. 

The sun finally came out when we were in the cab back to O'Hare. Olivia remarked that though their friends would return to school with Florida tans, she'd do Chicago again in a heartbeat. Not a bad review for a 'Plan B.'

Ann Shields is a senior digital editor at Travel + Leisure.

Photo by Ann Shields

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