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ChicagoChicago, the 3rd largest city in the U.S., is surprisingly easy to visit with children, reports a recent New York Times article. Not only does the Windy City boast an array of kid-friendly museums, shops, shows, trolleys and tours (centrally located so they require little transportation or street smarts), you’ll get few dirty looks when your tot spills or throws a tantrum. “Chicago is used to that,” says The Times.

The downside: so much convenience makes it tempting to stay within the well-trod, family-friendly environs of downtown and miss the rest of Chicago, a city of distinctive and intriguing neighborhoods. Sure, most children could spend a week happily playing beside the big steel Cloud Gate (known to locals as the Bean) in Millennium Park. But then you wouldn’t get lost in the fern room at the Garfield Park Conservatory on the West Side, or the butterfly haven inside the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum on the North Side.

Happily, you don’t have to choose, The Times advises. Given some guidance and common sense, you’ll find that venturing to destinations beyond downtown can be safe and worth the train, bus or cab fare to get there. Here are some ideas:

Lesson Plan

Downtown Chicago is well-stocked with kid-centric museums: Adler Planetarium (they simulate their own space missions), Shedd Aquarium (aquatic show featuring jumping dolphins) and the Field Museum (natural history).

Yet the lines can be long, especially at the aquarium, and the prices steep. A different option, away from the museum epicenter but still centrally located downtown along Michigan Avenue, is the world-class Art Institute of Chicago. Children under 14 get in free, and a $7 audio guide―the Lions Trail Family Tour, available in English and Spanish―will help children 10 and younger truly appreciate the works in front of them. And on the first level of the museum’s Modern Wing, an education center and family room are just the ticket for young visitors, with puzzles, online stories, books and blocks.

Chicago’s museums beyond the Loop are worth a try, too. Head south and west by cab or L train to the Pilsen neighborhood, a predominantly Latino area that is home to another world-class museum, the National Museum of Mexican Art.

There are additional treasures to be found farther south in Hyde Park, the neighborhood where President Obama has a home. The stellar Museum of Science and Industry is there, with its trademark U-505 submarine, baby chick hatchery and a model train with enough track (1,400 feet) to captivate the youngest would-be conductors. And don’t miss these two gems: the DuSable Museum of African American History and the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute (devoted to the history of the ancient Middle East).

If you would rather head north from downtown, you can easily take a bus to Lincoln Park and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum―bugs, mud and butterflies, oh my! A short walk away, the Lincoln Park Zoo is free and open every day of the year; small children will be smitten for hours with a 20-foot-high climbing structure and carousel. In winter, the zoo is festooned with millions of decorative lights at ZooLights.

Knosh Time

Chicago = hot dogs. What’s not to love? Hot dog joints are everywhere in this city, and Italian beef is another blissfully sloppy favorite. Al’s Beef is always dependable, as is Mr. Beef On Orleans. Ed Debevic’s, with its sassy staff and souvenir paper hats, will entertain the kids in addition to stuffing them with burgers and fries. Lou Malnati’s Pizza has locations all over downtown and beyond. And the chocolate chip ice cream at Mitchell’s, covered in homemade hot fudge, is a must.

Beyond downtown, try John’s Place in Lincoln Park, offering slightly fancier cuisine. And for dessert, a few steps west you’ll find Sweet Mandy B’s, a sugar-shock-inducing bakery full of pastel frostings and treats with names like Dirt Cups and Double Doozies. Add in Chinatown (especially the dumplings at Lao Beijing) and you’ve got it made in the shade.

Recess

Thanks to the foresight of Chicago’s early planners, this city is packed with park space—much of it right beside Lake Michigan. From Grant Park, make your way to Millennium Park with its spray pool which, on warm summer days, draws kids of all ages who love to watch water “spit” at them from the mouths of enormous human images. Tip: bring a towel and change of clothes if it’s wading pool weather. On cold days, a skating rink is not far from this spot.

Walk or, during the summer, take a trolley to Navy Pier, where a Ferris wheel emerges beside the lake. Much of the Pier is dizzyingly crammed with out-of-town visitors, smells of fast food and corridors jammed with strollers, but the Children’s Museum is worth a stop. Rent a family-sized bicycle on the Pier, then pedal along the lake for the view.

Beyond downtown, try the Garfield Park Conservatory, an exquisite building opened in 1908 on the Far West Side. A waft of warm, humid air and the smell of plants will greet you. Children can roam the rooms learning about plants, and search for items on scavenger hunts. Special projects, including plantings, take place many weekends in a children’s garden area. Admission is free, though a donation is requested during special events.

A Time Out

Near the busiest part of Chicago’s Loop, slip inside the Chicago Cultural Center, just off Michigan Avenue on Randolph Street, for a moment of calm. Lots of people visit here, but the space is large, more than a century old, and it feels like an escape. And it’s free!

Where to Find a Rest Room

Midwesterners are nothing if not practical, so bathrooms are not that hard to find. Hotels and department stores work well, especially Macy’s at State and Randolph Streets. In addition, most chain stores and large grocery stores have restrooms you and the kids can slip into.

Wherever you go and whatever you do, you’re going to love Chicago, from the youngest among you to the oldest! Have fun and enjoy.

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