Chicago's many attractions make it a family-friendly place to live in or visit

TAKING THE KIDS

September 03, 1995|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Here's one that will stump the kids: Name the city with the only river in the world that flows backward. A hint: This backward river turns Kelly green one day a year.

We're talking about a town kids and parents both like, with a great, free zoo open every day of the year, the biggest aquarium in the country, a 150-foot-high Ferris wheel strung with thousands of tiny lights built so close to downtown it provides a super view of the skyline, and even a coal mine and submarine under one roof.

There are miles of beaches close to downtown, more than 500 parks and plenty of children's theater. Soon, there will be a 57,000-square-foot children's museum overlooking a giant lake.

And don't forget three of the world's tallest buildings and some 6,000 restaurants, including first-rate ethnic eateries of every stripe -- from soul food to Mexican, Thai to Greek, Italian to Polish to Chinese! The pizza here may be the best anywhere; so are the ribs. And the Chicago River, if you guessed right, had its flow reversed by the Army Corps of Engineers back at the turn of the century.

This is also the town that celebrates its sports teams, win or lose.

Welcome to Chicago, home of the Cubs, White Sox, Bears, Blackhawks and, of course, Michael Jordan and the Bulls. It's also been my home for the last 17 years and one of the most kid-friendly places I know. As my family gets ready to pull up stakes and head for new adventures on the East Coast, I thought it was time to go on a Taking the Kids tour of a few of our favorite spots in the Windy City.

Let's start at the newly reconstructed Navy Pier along Lake Michigan, a Chicago landmark since 1916. It has served as an entertainment center, barracks for young soldiers, pilot training center during World War II (George Bush qualified here), and a college for returning veterans.

Now Navy Pier is the place for Chicagoans and visitors alike, drawing hundreds of thousands just since it reopened this summer after a $150 million renovation. There are concerts on the Skyline Stage (Bill Cosby and Raffi were among those who sold out the 1,500-seat outdoor theater). There are also a Ferris wheel and carousel, IMAX theater, and Dock Street, which runs the length of the Pier's South Dock and is reserved for pedestrians.

Navy Pier is easily accessible by public transportation -- a good bet since parking is limited -- and free trolley service runs the length of it. For transit information about Chicago, call (312) 836-7000; for information on pier events call (312) 595-PIER.

Rent a bike or in-line skates on the pier and enjoy the show of jugglers, musicians and passersby (watch for the guy on stilts!). Shop along the way for souvenirs. In the winter, you can skate on the outdoor rink in the new Navy Pier Park.

In early October, the Chicago Children's Museum will move to its new quarters on the pier, anchoring the Family Pavilion. Learn "The Stinking Truth about Garbage," put yourself in a gigantic bubble or scamper up and down the Climbing Schooner, a replica of a lake-going ship. We've visited the Chicago Children's Museum many times in its smaller quarters: Expect that the kids won't want to leave.

Take a half-hour cruise out on Lake Michigan ($6 for adults and $3 for children) and admire the skyline. Chicago has long been known for its architects, from Louis Sullivan to Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Helmut Jahn. The world's first skyscraper was built here in 1885; the Sears Tower remains the world's tallest at 1,454 feet. (Yes, you can take kids up to the top.) Stop in to see Chicago's elegant new Harold Washington Library Center. It's got the world's largest children's library.

While you're in the Loop (ringed by the elevated trains) checking out the Sears Tower and the library, stop at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange or the Board of Trade. In the visitor's gallery the kids will see more shouting and yelling than on a bad day at the playground, as traders buy and sell millions of dollars' worth of orders for pork bellies, soybeans and financial products. The kids can practice the hand signals: Palms out means sell, palms in means buy.

Parents will probably insist on hitting at least one museum, and there are plenty to choose from. Among our favorites: the Field Museum of Natural History (don't miss the dinosaurs), the Museum of Science and Industry (where preschoolers will find buttons to push and the older crowd will love the German U-boat and the coal mine); the Shedd Aquarium and Oceanarium; and the Art Institute where the current Monet exhibition is drawing enormous crowds (head downstairs to the Kraft Education Center for kids).

For a free Chicago calendar of events as well as plenty of information on museums, sports teams, hotels and restaurants, call the Chicago Office of Tourism at (800) 487-2446. "Chicago" by veteran travel editor Jack Schnedler is a great resource (Compass American Guides, $16.95).

After all that sightseeing, everyone needs to eat and buy souvenirs. Opt for deep-dish pizza, a meal at Michael Jordan's restaurant or a burger at Ed Debevic's '50s-style diner. Then go shopping on Michigan Avenue -- "The Magnificent Mile."

If the gang wants an offbeat memento, there's the City of Chicago Store at North Pier Festival Market, a short walk from Navy Pier. How about an authentic Chicago ballot box or parking meter? My kids think one might look just right in our new back yard.

After all that, no kid will want to leave Chicago.

Taking the Kids invites reader questions and comments about family travel. Send your questions or comments to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.

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