This tour of Chicago brought to you by Nicole Wiltrout from Arrows Sent Forth.
For us Midwesterners, Chicago is the place to go when we seek big city adventures. Chicago is an ideal destination during the summer months, when you can cool off by catching a breeze along Lake Michigan, take in a ballgame, or experience one of the many summer festivals.
Visit world-class museums: I never leave a weekend getaway in Chicago without visiting at least one of the phenomenal museums here. Fortunately, they're very kid-friendly. If you're traveling with little ones, I recommend the Chicago Children's Museum on Navy Pier or Shedd Aquarium (arrive early or purchase tickets in advance—the entry line gets extremely long). Older children would enjoy the Field Museum (an Extreme Mammals exhibit runs May 25 through January 6, 2013) and the Art Institute of Chicago (with its wonderful new children's wing). If your family includes kids of all ages, focus your time around the Museum Campus, where the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium are all within steps of each other and you could split up depending on interests.
And regardless of age, don't miss my favorite Chicago museum, the Museum of Science and Industry. It is worth the short train ride south to its location near the University of Chicago. It truly has something that would entertain and educate kids and adults of all ages, and it is incredibly hands-on. Based on the popular television show, a Mythbusters exhibit runs throughout the summer.
Don't miss Millennium Park: This isn't your ordinary urban park. It is truly a hub in the city, with outstanding and iconic public art like the Cloud Gate Sculpture (commonly referred to as "The Bean"). In the summer, splashing around in the Crown Fountain is a fun way to cool off. From July 2 to September 2, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, there's a free family fun fest, featuring kids' shows, story times, and an activity zone. There are also many concerts and events held here.
Take in towering views: If you've got daredevils in your family, you won't want to miss the chance to head up 103 stories to the top of the Willis Tower (formerly named the Sears Tower). Called the SkyDeck, this attraction is known for its glass sky ledge, where you'll step out onto a glass "box" that extends off the side of the building. Not for the faint of heart! But be sure to arrive early to avoid the long lines that form. If you'd rather a less scary, but still breathtaking experience, put the John Hancock Building Observatory on your list. It is cheaper and less crowded.
Make time to explore: I think the best part of any trip to Chicago is the discoveries you make wandering around. I love just taking a simple walk along the lakeshore (you could grab a water taxi if you or the kids get tired). There are wonderful architectural tours, Segway rides, even horse and carriage rentals. Window shop along Michigan Avenue, with kid-friendly stores like American Girl and Niketown. Even if you can't snag tickets to a Cubs game, walking around Wrigleyville is a fun and lively experience.
No trip is complete without sampling the famous deep dish pizza. Try spots like Gino's East, where customers can sign their names on the wall at the flagship restaurant, Giordano's, with its convenient locations all over the city, and Pizzeria Uno, which started in Chicago. Note: Place your pizza order as soon as you sit down. These heavenly pies typically take at least 45 minutes to cook.
Another Chicago staple, the hot dog, can be ordered up all over the city at the many street vendors. Just be sure to pass on the ketchup, or you'll be instantly recognized as a tourist.
Ed Debevic's is more than a Chicago landmark, it's an outrageous dining experience that will have even the grumpiest teenager laughing. Offering typical diner food, what makes Ed Debevic's special is the "service." The staff is famous for being downright rude to customers. So be sure to pack your sense of humor. And if you time your visit right, you may be treated to one of their mini-shows, which usually involve dancing on the countertops.
Embassy Suites Downtown Lakefront: A short walk from Navy Pier and Millennium Park, this property is also a great, family-friendly option. Beyond the free breakfast and indoor pool, the evening reception means that moms and dads can grab a free drink at the bar each night while kids help themselves to the buffet of snacks.
Majestic Hotel: This small property is the closest hotel to Wrigley Field. It's got a great Old-Chicago feel, but with family-friendly conveniences like an extra sitting room, small kitchen appliances, and a free continental breakfast. I've even managed to snag coveted free street parking when staying here.
Invest in a CityPass: If you plan to visit several of the main attractions, you'd be well-served to purchase this pass that gives you 50% off admission fees. It's valid for nine days, and may even allow you to bypass some of the ticket and admission lines.
Leave your car at home: I find most hotel rates to be quite reasonable given the size and popularity of the city. But parking can run anywhere from $20 to $50 per day. Many attractions are within a short walk of each other, and the El is easy to navigate.
Do what's free: There is a great lineup of events throughout the summer with no admission, like Taste of Chicago (July 11-15) and the Chicago Air and Water Show (August 18-19). Or check out some of the smaller ethnic festivals in various neighborhoods. Chicago is home to the Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the only remaining free zoos in the country. You can also spend the day at one of the city's 23 swimming beaches along the 26 miles of lakeshore.