It’s always a battle deciding when to wake my kids when traveling. My preference is to get moving early to enjoy exploring for as long as possible. But they need their sleep. Dragging grumpy kids around a city is no fun. My eight-year-old son honestly handles it better than my daughter, though. She is a mess. Even after flying American Airlines 767 business class back to the U.S. on a trip this spring, she still crashed for a few more hours of sleep.

My son and I made it to bed around midnight after a late arrival into Chicago O’Hare (SEE: United 757 Economy Plus Review: Los Angeles to Chicago). I was awakened around 5:00 AM by jets taking off from the Midwest hub. At 7:00 AM I called it quits and showered, waking my son at 7:45 AM. Not his normal 10-11 hours of sleep. We’d have to catch up on sleep our our downtown hotel after our first day in Chicago.

Checking out of the Crowne Plaza Chicago O’Hare, the Blue Line “L” train brought us to downtown where we checked into the Thompson Chicago for a night. It’s in a great location in the Golden Mile. Dropping the bags, we headed right back out to explore.

Pizza One

The morning transit had burnt enough time that it made sense to eat an early lunch before visiting Shedd Aquarium. Pizza is a Chicago must, but our first spot left something to be desired. It was at a place called Aurelio’s, a local Illinois chain along the way from the metro stop. The sausage was good, cheese okay, but the sauce way too sweet. It also wasn’t the classic Chicago deep dish. We’d need to find a place serving a top-notch pie before we left town.

From here we headed across the southern end of Grant Park toward Shedd Aquarium. Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum, and Adler Planetarium are all located across Lakeshore Drive at the south end of the park. Each is worth most of a day, from what I’d read. We simply didn’t have the time, and I picked the aquarium for one day and the planetarium for the other. We’d add in some other sights each day as well.

Before we got there we ran into this odd sculpture. Giant, metal, headless people? Gotta take a photo.

The tracks for a couple local train lines run right through Grant Park. These run to the southern suburbs, and one goes as far as South Bend Airport. Things seemed really quiet on the weekend, so my guess is that they are primarily commuter rail during the week.

An Afternoon at Shedd

When we finally made it to Shedd Aquarium, I looked at the line in dismay. It was long. And I hate lines. A Saturday afternoon in summer is obviously a popular time at the aquarium. But it moved a bit faster than I expected and we were inside within 15 minutes.

Tickets at the Shedd Aquarium are pretty pricey. There was no X-for-one deal like we got at the Georgia Aquarium last year in Atlanta. After adding in the Sea Monster 4D movie to the tickets, the total came to $79.80 for the two of us.

The main oceanarium was unfortunately closed. But it was for a good reason. Shedd Aquarium recently welcomed a baby beluga. Just seeing those words brought back the Raffi song from my childhood that remained stuck in my head the rest of our visit. I fell asleep to an old cassette for years. Literally never gonna forget that. We headed downstairs during the middle of the visit to see for ourselves. The belugas were the biggest highlight of the Shedd Aquarium for me. It was so cool to see these denizens of cold Arctic waters.

I’m really split on seeing marine mammals in aquariums. On one hand, people love them. Dolphins are always a favorite. But the lifespan of these creatures in captivity is notoriously short, even when their care is excellent. I totally understand why many avoid aquariums and zoos, arguing that the animals should be in their natural habitat. But I also see value in being able to see them up close and personal.

We headed to the 4D theater at our scheduled time to watch the sea dinosaur show. I’m really not into these, but my son loves them. It’s a fun animation following the hypothesized life of a dinosaur, with multiple jump moments and fun 4D interaction.

We spent much of the time at the various tanks and exhibits around the central hall. From the tiny, brightly-colored cardinal tetras to the massive Giant arapaima in the Amazon exhibit, Shedd Aquarium has a lot to offer. Check out the teeth on this guy.

We enjoyed the touch pools as well. You can tell that the starfish aren’t keen on people handling them all day, given that they congregate on the other side of the tank.

Shedd Aquarium required much more time than I anticipated, eating up the entire afternoon. Near the end of our visit we headed to see the shark and stingray area. However, the line was ridiculous, so we skipped this final section. It was time to head out, but not before stopping to take in the lovely view of the Chicago skyline from here.

Walk In The Park

Although we had tired feet from standing so long at the aquarium, a walk along Lakeshore Park was still a must. We enjoyed the views of the water, but Chicago was really living up to its nickname. At least I thought that was where it got its nickname. I’d find out the next morning from other patrons at our breakfast spot that it refers to the city’s politics over the years (LOL). The wind off Lake Michigan was still ridiculous.

We turned west toward the row of skyscrapers when Buckingham Fountain came into view. Grant Park is a lovely spot with city on one side and lake on the other.

We headed up along Michigan Avenue for a bit before cutting over to the middle of the Loop. if you’re unfamiliar with the city, The Loop is the central business district, named for the elevated railway loop that serves the downtown. From there we caught the “L” (I guess? This one was underground) back to the Thompson.

 

Pizza Two

Flying by the seat of your pants can result in both the best travel and the worst travel. The serendipity of the restaurant you stumble across is delightful. Other times you end up wasting time planning in the moment rather than when you were still home. Or places end up being closed, have lines, etc.

But this was one of those moments. I found myself Googling “best restaurants in the near north side” when we were back at the hotel. Last minute planning at its best. However, these are plenty of nice restaurants around the Thompson Hotel. I settled on Lou Malnati’s, a highly rated pizzeria within view of our room. The flagship location in here in the Gold Coast/Near North Side, and they serve a classic Chicago deep dish pie. Can’t really go wrong with pizza twice in one day.

I’m not sure what I was expecting for my first Chicago deep-dish pizza (ever, not just one from Chicago), but this one beat all expectations. The crust is amazing, and the cheese, sauce and toppings utterly delicious. I’ve had great pizza and terrible pizza. Lou Malnati’s is easily in the top 3.

It’s amazing how stuffed you can feel from a pizza that appears so small. I can eat an entire 12-inch pizza myself if it is thin enough. This is exactly the opposite. I made it through two slices, after which I was satisfied. But can’t let that last go to waste when your kid only wants one piece!

Goodnight, Chicago!

Although day one in the Windy City was filled with more aquarium time than I anticipated, it was still a great introduction to Chicago. The rest was what I love to do most: simply walk the streets and bit and get a feel for the place. We enjoyed Grant Park and our brief walk into the Loop, but the neighborhood in the Near North Side around the Thompson Hotel is honestly probably my favorite that we explored.

After the early morning start (at least based on California time), I made sure we got to bed at a reasonable time. I did spend about half an hour downstairs at the Salone Nico, the classy lounge at the Thompson, doing a bit of last-minute planning for our next day. I have a terrible habit of writing down no more than lists of places and ideas, not actually crafting them into an itinerary until a trip is already underway. I’m better with international travel. Domestic? I’ll keep winging it.