Hugging the lakefront on the eastern tip of Grant Park, Museum Campus unites three institutions dedicated to natural sciences (not to mention some of the most important artifacts in the country) in one pedestrian-friendly setting: the Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum of Natural History. It’s also an amazing spot from early summer into fall to picnic and take in the skyline and passing boats. It’s fun and economical for families to catch the free Museum Campus trolley that connects the three sites with other downtown tourist attractions and train stations. (It operates daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day and on holidays, and runs on weekends only the rest of the year).
The Shedd Aquarium holds the largest collection in the world. The Wild Reef area has a coral reef habitat and the Oceanarium contains dolphins, sea otters, harbour seals and whales in a recreation of a Pacific Northwest landscape. Plan it right and the kids can catch a pool-side feeding session and kids can touch sea stars, crabs and other cool little things. The weekly Tots on Tuesdays program offers story times, crafts and animal touch programs specially designed for pre-schoolers — a perfect respite for small kids who may not have the staying power to last elsewhere in the aquarium.
Sue, the world’s largest and most intact skeleton of a T-Rex, resides at the Field Museum. (Despite her name, no one’s sure if Sue was a male or a female — her moniker is in honor of Sue Hendrickson, the paleontologist who discovered her.) Other permanent exhibits here include Ancient Egypt, with creepy-cool mummies and tombs, and an enormous Africa area with loads of taxidermied wildlife.
The Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum was the first modern planetarium in the western hemisphere. There’s a rotating roster of kid-focused sky shows and frequent family days, including “Far Out Friday” when budding astronomers can test out telescopes and chat up museum experts on the first Friday of each month. Former astronaut and nearby resident Jim Lovell has been known to stop in at space-themed events. In a weird twist, scientific research has come full circle at the Adler; the large marble panel in the lobby has eight bronze emblems representing each planet, with one noticeably missing. The discovery of Pluto — the ninth planet — was announced after the panel had been installed in 1930. But in 2006, Pluto was reclassified as a “dwarf planet,” making the Adler’s display up-to-date once more.
If you’re visiting all three museums, plus some of the city’s other big attractions, buy a Chicago CityPass (adults $49, kids 3-11 $38). You’ll avoid long lines and get access to the Field, the Shedd and the Adler, plus the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hancock Observatory and the Museum of Science and Industry.