After hearing about Chicago’s bitter winters, its crime, and its other big-city problems, you would wonder why anyone would subject a little child to that town.
Well, I took three little children for a Chicago Christmas, and we had a ball.
We arrived 10 days before Christmas, just in time to beat the big chill that hit the city on Christmas and continued through the rest of the bitter winter of 2014. It snowed a bit on us, but the temperature never got near zero, and the little ones– aged one, three and six–had a smashing good time. If I were to ask them if they’d like to return, they would be in the car in a flash, waiting impatiently to take in the joys of a town that relishes the holiday and makes it very special for kids, as well as their parents and grandparents.
One of the secrets of our success was to park the car in the hotel garage and pick a hotel – in our case, Swissotel – that was close enough to the major stores and activities that we could walk to everything.
We headed first for the Art Institute of Chicago, making sure that on the way, we would pass by Millennium Park where you can rent ice skates and skate for free on the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink. Millennium Park is run by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and has free art shows, music and many other special activities. Its collection of architecture and landscape design is worth a visit alone, but free concerts, including the Chicago Jazz Festival, held in the stunning Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, are a bonus.
One of the highlights of the park is its huge kidney-shaped silver sculpture by Anish Kapoor called Cloud Gate, though everyone calls it “The Bean.” My granddaughters immediately rushed over and stood beneath it, looking up at their reflections, exaggerated like a house of mirrors by its shiny curved surface. On Friday evenings during the holiday season carolers entertain there.
When we finally pulled them away from The Bean, it was just a short walk to the Art Institute. Children under 14 get in for free to enjoy an entire wing devoted to them and for the very youngest there’s the Vitale Family Room. Our three girls settled in and could have stayed the rest of the day enjoying a huge selection of art-themed toys and puzzles. My six-year-old granddaughter sat me down at a computer for an interactive game of finding the famous art hidden in the picture. Naturally, she was faster and more agile with her mouse than was I, despite the fact that I was more familiar with the art than she.
Near the Vitale Family Room is the Elizabeth Morse Touch Gallery, originally designed for the visually impaired. Now it’s also known as a great place for children to touch and feel art, such as metal sculptures.
The little ones were happy staying in the family room, but I had told the six-year-old about the Institute’s Thorne Room and its collection of 68 miniature historic rooms. To the average visitor, this constitutes a historic display of early American interior design, but to a six-year-old, it’s a dream dollhouse, and she insisted on reading each and every description of the individual rooms (“This is an English great room of the late Tudor period 1550-1603. . .”) Of course, she was also practicing, and showing off, her new first-grade reading skills, but in the course of it she also was able to inadvertently study the little rooms’ design and history.
The Christmas lights on Chicago’s famous Michigan Avenue are magical, and the spirit of shoppers on the street festive and friendly. We headed toward Macy’s and its famous Walnut Room where generations of Chicagoans make a point of having lunch beside the gigantic Christmas tree. Christmas fairies, dressed in long gowns and carrying their wands, flit around the tables and tell children that they should try to be very good, knowing there might be rewards under their own Christmas trees if they behave.
Our only objection to the lovely tradition of Christmas lunch beside the tree at Macy’s is that they do not take reservations, and people have to stand in line for hours to get a seat, with some having their “lunch” at, say, 3 p.m.
One of the biggest magnets for little girls from pre-school age to preteen is the American Girl store, and our little girls were enchanted as soon as they entered the Water Tower Place store. It was just days before Christmas, and little girls were dashing about picking out Christmas gifts for their dolls, while their parents were loaded down with enormous bags and packages filled with what was probably going to go under many Christmas trees.
Our three little girls were thrilled not only to see the full extent of the doll collection and all of their accoutrements in real life as opposed to in the brochures that they had intensely studied at home, but also to attend the American Girl luncheon with their dolls, who were treated as VIP guests with their own tiny chairs and dishes. It was little-girl heaven for them. There were three different sold-out seatings on our luncheon day, and each one was jammed with about 200 people. Our little ones never complained that the only seating we could get for lunch on this Saturday so close to Christmas, was at 3 p.m.
One of the most ingenious things the American Girl people do is to put conversation topics on a piece of paper in the center of each table to spur polite dining-table discussion. One such subject: “If you could go to any country in the world, which would it be and why?” We overheard tidbits of thoughtful conversation from one end of the table to the other, all coming from the youngest guests.
While that was by far their favorite meal of the trip, the girls also enjoyed having a casual meal at the very first Pizzeria Uno in the world, on East Ohio Street just off Michigan Avenue. Deep dish pizza was first created here in the 1940’s. Everyone in the family also loved the Sunday brunch at Shaw’s Crab House on East Hubbard Street. The enormous restaurant has not only crabs, but rooms full of lobster, salads, meats, sushi, vegetables, soups and desserts. It’s a fun place, with many large families gathered together for an all-you-can-possibly-eat buffet meal.
On Chicago’s near Southside, the Museum of Science and Industry displays Christmas trees from different countries and its Brunk Children’s’ Museum of Immigration was voted “Best of Chicago” by Chicago Magazine.
As the weekend grew colder and snowier, the fireplace in the Swissotel became our refuge, with the children enjoying decadent hot caramel chocolates loaded with marshmallows, whipped cream and cherries as we enjoyed somewhat stronger libations. Our hotel also has a large, warm swimming pool that was the perfect place on a winter night to use up some of the energy left over in the littlest travelers.
And as to Chicago’s more unseemly reputation, the only crime we saw was fake–actors filming a scene for the television show “Chicago P.D.” which aired later in the year and made Chicago look like that sinister place we’d heard about but we certainly didn’t find on our sparkling pre-Christmas visit.