Our Family Vacation to Chicago

10:14 AM

I was a guinea pig for you.

It was very hard work but I did it. I traveled to Chicago and back with my family, to bring you the best and worst, tips and tricks, for a Chicago family vacation.

You're welcome.

Travel: We took the Amtrak train from Port Huron to Chicago Union Station. The good news: it's inexpensive as heck ($50 per person, round trip), you can park your vehicle there for the length of your stay for free, it's comfortable, they have food and drinks for sale, toddlers are free to run wherever they please (and make friends with strangers, and spill cracker crumbs everywhere). The station is also very close to the border so you won't have many turns to navigate once you're in the States. The train had ample room for our luggage, carry on bags and our large stroller. There is supposedly a 2 bag limit per person but we never saw it enforced. The bad news: I believe it only runs at 6am and it takes six hours. All things considered, I would highly recommend it!

Travel snacks: I packed Oliver a make-shift bento box of PC Whole Wheat "goldfish-style crackers"; homemade dried fruit (see my post), carrot and bell pepper sticks with homemade baba ganoush, and some water. My mom had also packed us a complete breakfast of hot coffee, hard-boiled eggs, cheddar cheese and gluten free harvest muffins with homemade pumpkin puree and flaked coconut.

Attractions: We opted to buy Chicago City Passes as they give you access to five of the top attractions in the city, with "VIP"/fast-pass luxuries and major money savings. Being there for only five days, we didn't need to purchase tickets for anything else.

Sky Deck is what they call the area of Willis Tower (formerly known as Sears Tower, the tallest one around) that tourists can take an elevator up - to the 103rd floor - and view the entire city/state/world, it seems like. While this was our quickest attraction (we were in and out in an hour I would guess), it was definitely worth it. It was really cool to see everything and get a context for where we were located. It helped to do it on our first day there because it helped us with navigation the rest of the trip. We used handy reference guides to view Oprah's Harpo studios, Trump towers (which was directly across from our hotel), all the gorgeous water, Navy Pier, the Planetarium, Lincoln Park, etc. We also went out on "the Ledge" which is a glass floor that you can stand on and look down, basically to make yourself scared and nauseous. Tons of fun - great for pictures. I will say: fast pass was a lifesaver for this attraction. Those with 'regular' tickets waited 2 hours to get in - we walked right up. Oliver slept in his stroller through the entire experience which was just fine. Tip: email the Sky Deck staff ahead of time to tell them when you plan to visit - they can light your name up on the welcome wall and make you feel like a celebrity.

The Field Museum of Natural History was so much fun! We arrived pretty early in the morning and had just enough time to view every single part that we wanted to by about 3:30pm when we caught a bus to get dinner. The upper floor has a 3D theater where we saw a movie about "Sue" the real T-Rex skeleton that they have featured in the front lobby of the museum. It was a little scary for a 2-year old but Oliver loved it. He now talks about "Sue" a few times an hour, and is in love with her (her face alone weights 600 lbs). There was an exhibit on Africia, Asia, the World Fair, and so much more. We saw stuffed man-eating tigers, and a whole walking path on Creatures of Light (instances of phosphorescence in nature like with fire-flies, etc.). The basement is fully designed for kids with a killer ancient Egypt exhibit (who knew mummies aren't scary at all?) and a giant play zone. Oliver found an area where he could play in a pretend North-American forest with racoons, chipmunks, etc. and decided he would never leave. We literally had to pull him, screaming CHIPPY! NO CHIPPY! (Chipmunks are his fav.) We loved that they have a lunch room where you can eat your own packed lunch because every other cafeteria/ cafe says "No Outside Food." We also recommend taking turns if you bring a child because we were so tired by the end that we each picked an exhibit to skip so we could have a 15 min nap on one of the huge sofa-chairs outside of the play room. 
Cute Oliver story: my dad took him, in his stroller, up the elevator while the rest of us walked the stairs. At the top they waited for us on a bench and my dad said "Dad, Mom and Maamo should be here soon." and a woman near by said, "What's a maamo?" So my dad answered: "That's what he calls his grandma. He made it up. You should hear what he calls me." (Which is Bapa) and my dad said "Ollie, tell her what you call me." And he said, "Uh, Paul?"

The Museum of Science and Industry was the only place that we desperately needed bus/rail-car transit for. Not walkable from downtown - not at all. I believe we took #6 but be careful: the #10 seems like a more direct route but it only runs during the summer. We almost waited for that dumb thing. This museum was also awesome. There were so many highlights. I enjoyed the flight simulator which made you feel like you were taking off, flying, and landing a military jet. There was also a human body exhibit that had more cool things than I could ever list. There was Science Storms which taught you and showed you how hurricanes, tornadoes, avalanches, etc. are formed. We saw an IMAX movie on coral reefs that was pretty cool and a great opportunity for me to get a 10 minute nap in - I'm serious. I can't really remember where we ate, but it worked out well. And there is the US's only captured German U-Boat on display. If you pay a few bucks extra (my dad did) you can do a tour inside. Oliver loved spending probably 2 hours in "The Farm" where he milked cows, harvested corn and rode tractors. There was actually so much I feel like I only remember 10% of it. One big tip I have: don't walk past the little counters that some staff have set up to do personal science experiments. We almost didn't do any all day, then at the last minute we asked a guy what he was showing and it was cool, so we did another one. Tip: if you have a stroller, use the accessible entrance. There are so many bloody stairs to the main door.

Shedd Aquarium was a blast. We loved seeing the huge sharks, the mesmerizing jelly fish and the playful beluga whales. Early in the day we saw a "4D" movie on the Ice Age - if your little one is 2 or under I'd suggest letting them sit on your lap not giving them their own seat because a few scary things happen like your seat rocking a lot. We watched a dolphin show as well. One major bummer: it was really hard to find a place to eat a packed lunch. Every place seemed to say "No outside food and drink". We finally found a section without these signs in the underwater viewing area of the dolphins and whales - which was actually a great place to enjoy lunch, and a bit of a show. There is a kids area near the penguins and it was pretty fun. If you are scared of spiders like my husband is: be warned that the Amazon area has 2 tarantulas. We finished our trip by viewing the main circular aquarium on the first floor and I fell in love with a giant turtle named Nickel who had been injured by a motor boat and can't regulate her buoyancy. I miss her already.

Lastly, the Adler Planetarium. Calvin and my mom opted out of this attraction because they were already "attractioned-out" and wanted to get a day of shopping in on the Magnificent Mile before we caught the train home. My dad and I agreed we would rather learn about the solar system than go shopping ANY DAY, and we took Oliver with us. I have to say, if there was one day that I was glad Oliver spent a few hours napping in his stroller, it was this one. While educational for kids over 8, I'd say, for younger ones this could be boring. My dad and I spent a lot of time reading about space, touching moon rocks, checking out rovers and pods, etc. and I didn't feel bad that Ollie slept through it. He did catch some of a 3D movie called Space Junk which taught us about all the retired satellites that are still orbiting Earth that could collide at anytime and cause huge problems. We ate lunch in their cafe despite the signs that say "No outside food or drink" because school field trip groups were taking up all of the other areas and a staff member gave us permission. Our view while we ate was over the water - so gorgeous. I enjoyed the 100-year old planetarium sphere that you can ride inside of to learn about constellations. There was also a really neat exhibit on telescopes. The kids area here was stellar. Oliver played astronaut for quite a while and I really liked it too! We left at 2pm to catch a bus back to our hotel, to gather our luggage and grab the train.

Accommodations: We knew we wanted to stay downtown in the "Loop" as they call it, because this was a walking vacation. We left our car seat back in Port Huron and therefore could not, would not use a taxi. Our hotel was called the Wyndham Grand Riverfront and was on the street winding along the river (Wacker Drive) across from Trump Towers. I wouldn't say it was over-priced or fantastically affordable, it was a fair rate for how fancy it was. We were on the 31st floor. Our room was gorgeous and had an amazing view. It also had a fridge which suited us perfectly because we purchased groceries for most breakfasts and lunches. The staff were excellent and helped with everything we asked. They recommended restaurants, gave us extra blankets and k-cup coffee pods (for our in-room Keurig) and they stored our luggage the entire last day after we checked out in the morning, and before we returned at 3 to get our things for the train. (This allowed us to travel to the Planetarium/ shopping on Magnificent Mile without luggage - thank you!) We loved the clean, quiet fitness room where Oliver and I spent some time practicing yoga early in the morning. Tips: slam your door really hard, it doesn't lock if you just let it close naturally.

Food: We ate at a number of amazing restaurants, I couldn't pick a favourite. We chose a mix of ones I'd heard of in pre-trip research, ones that Calvin had already been to on a past visit, and ones that we simply found out about minutes before.

For breakfasts we purchased cold cereal, milk, strawberries, oranges, apples, yogurt and mini-blueberry muffins from a grocery store. For lunches we purchased whole wheat wraps, turkey lunch meat, havarti cheese, dill pickles, mustard, baby carrots and Goldfish crackers (for Oliver). My mom had also packed sunflower seeds and peanut butter cups.

The Public House (at the corner of State and Kinzie, in "River North"). This was a walk from our hotel and recommended by the staff. It has a sports bar feel but super classy in a way that isn't uptight. We felt comfortable even hauling a large stroller ("ugh, where can we put this?") and asking for gluten-free food. I had the black bean nachos with guacamole and there was more than enough to share with Oliver and let everyone else have a taste. Warning: the red sauce is actually hot, maybe Sriracha caliber. I thought it was like a dip a Tablespoon on each chip type salsa - no. They had great gluten-free options and could make any burger without a bun, which is was my parents did and loved. Calvin also got a burger. They also brought Oliver home-made bread and home-made butter that was out of this world.

The California Pizza Kitchen (on Ohio, near Wabash). We didn't intend to go here as it is a chain but we walked all the way to Pizzeria Uno (the oldest and most famous pizzeria in Chicago) and the staff rudely told us they have no gluten-free choices. Plus it was easily a 2 hour wait to get in. We walked across the street and were pleasantly surprised by CPK's gluten-free options and friendly staff, so we ate there. Calvin, Oliver and I shared a huge salad, and a garlic chicken pizza. Tip: unlike most places, their flavoured lemonades come with free refills. Also, their kids drinks come in plastic, lidded cups with straws that you can take home.

The Flat Top Grill (Randolph near Wabash). We chose to eat here because it was voted Best Gluten Free in Chicago. It is very similar to the Mongolian Grill that we have in Canada, but better! The main differences are that you don't need to have your ingredients made into a stirfry, you can also choose to make them into lettuce wraps, burritos, or even soup, or have it served as a stirfry with roti bread. You also don't need to wait to watch them cook it, you can just put a wooden stick in with your name and table number and a server will bring it to you - love that cause I'm lazy, and I hate how you can spend half your dining experience at the grill (at Mongolian) and feel like you never got to visit with the people you're dining with. Also, their ingredient options were worlds-better. I personally had soba noodles with tempeh, yellow summer squash, edamame and cilantro, with a ton of fresh ginger, a wild-mushroom sauce, and soaking of organic tamari and a side of roti bread. It was delicious beyond words. It was also very kid friendly because they eat free first of all (to a certain age) and the options were great for Oliver. Calvin made him a stirfry of chicken breast, mini corns, tomatoes, broccoli and brown rice with plum sauce on top, and then he had the griller add scrambled egg and cheddar cheese to it. These are pretty much Oliver's favourite foods in a bowl.

Old Town Social (corner of North and Cleveland, in Old Town, which is North of downtown). This is a pretty hipster-y charcuterie joint that is essentially a replica of what I picture in my mind if I ever opened a restaurant. Calvin spent hours here when he was in Chicago for a bachelor party last year. We started the meal with custom meal and cheese platters. We had an assortment of cheeses including sheep- and goat- milk varieties. And some delicious in-house cured meats like salami and a really tender pork tenderloin. It was served with cherry preserves, smoked almonds, crisp crackers, soft baguette, and a large jar of market pickles which included pickled rhubarb, asparagus, strawberries, carrots, radishes and more! Then we ordered even more food - a plate of various hot dog sliders including coney-island and chicago-style, an epicurean dream of grilled cheese and tomato soup, a plate of duck wings with a cool cucumber sauce and a side of sweet potato friends, and chorizo soft tacos with fluffy mashed potatoes - because my mom was craving them. It was full to the brim with barn-board, exposed brick, hanging light bulbs, perfect plating, and all the things you expect from a hipster restaurant.

Pizano's Pizza (Madison and State). We weren't satisfied with our Chicago pizza experience because we still hadn't had a traditional deep dish, so we sought out this classic restaurant that boasts 2 different gluten-free options: a thin crust, and a deep-dish made with... pressed ground sausage instead of pizza crust! The pizza was glorious, loaded with hot cheese and fresh toppings. We also had buttered bread and Caesar salad to start. Our server was actually 10-out-of-10 perfect and even brought us free ice cream at the end. They put a shaker each of parmesan cheese, chili flakes and dried oregano at each table so we nearly polished those off. And yet again, a plastic, lidded kids cup with a straw to take home. Only tip: some tables are in squishy areas, try to look for one with more room.

Brian's Juice Bar (Lake and Michigan). We had pretty much eaten all of our breakfast groceries by the last day so we decided to get an extra bite to eat at a place we'd walked past a few times that looked interesting. It was teeny tiny but offered $1.99 breakfast and literally 4 available stools to sit in plus space for the stroller. I ordered scrambled eggs and cheese on a croissant, and a juice made of pineapple, kale and ginger, made fresh before my eyes. It was so inexpensive and wonderful. A real hole in the wall, but I loved it.


Intelligentsia Coffee (Randloph and Wabash). With literally one hour before we needed to be at the train station I finally made my way inside this coffee bar that I'd so been hoping to visit the whole time. It was the quintessential coffee bar, with type-writer printed menus on butcher paper attached to a clipboard, prices starting at $4 for a plain cup of coffee, rustic pastries strewn in a artistically-lit glass case, plant-based milks as prevalent as dairy, and of course every male barista wearing suspenders and sporting a $50 hair cut. You don't order a "small light-roast to go" it's a "Los Santos in paper with no room for dairy." It was high-brow and everything I hoped for!

What to Pack: If you're planning to go in October like we did you'll likely need jeans and a jacket every day. We loved the weather and never pulled out our umbrellas once. I did keep mittens on Oliver and whoever was pushing the stroller when we walked long distances. We also recommend practical shoes if you'll be walking as much as we did (i.e. 16,000 steps per day according to my dad's pedometer.) Pack about $20 a day for dinner, plus $20 for a transit pass so you don' t have to pay $2.25 for each ride. Make sure you have a camera or smart phone, everything is so picturesque. And get your hands on a map or draw a quick one out, because it's a little confusing at first. I also packed BPA-free reusable water bottles so we could bring drinks when we went out. I packed a few books to read. I packed a tablet, and charger, in case we need to look directions up on the Internet. We had no need for toiletries, towels or a hair dryer - everything was provided. And every time you leave your hotel room don't forget to pack your hotel key and transit pass!

We had a great time in Chicago and I recommend you go! If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask.

I'll leave you with: Oliver's Target haul. Organic green veggie snacks, a new BPA-free cup, and Burt's Bees wipes and cream.

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  1. Quite a beautiful narration about the family vacation you had. I almost got the feel of it here. He is such a little handsome guy! We had a last year's family vacation in Mexico and it was so much of fun! The joy of being together is something beautiful beyond words!

  2. I realize that this post is about a year old, but we're planning on taking the train from Port Huron to Chicago in a couple weeks. You didn't find parking at the train station to be a problem? I can't decide whether to take the risk that there is a spot early in the morning or just take a cab from our hotel. Thanks!

  3. Hi Kaileigh! There were a bazillion spots and all for free! You'll be fine :)


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