Chicago for the Busy Traveler

Things to do in Chicago when you are short on time and still want the best of what to see and where to go

We realize not every trip is a long, leisurely one, so we’ve made it a snap to get the most out of your time. Mix and match any of our recommendations for one fun-filled day of exploring some of Chicago's top attractions, getting the most bang out of your busy schedule. 

Quick Visit to Adler Planetarium:

We think of Chicago’s Museum Campus a little like a movie lineup in which the Shedd Aquarium is the blockbuster, the Field Museum is the critic’s choice, and the Adler is the sleeper hit. Though we could spend hours at the Adler, we also know that general admission here is the least expensive of the trio, which makes dashing in and out completely doable and still a good deal. Admission gains visitors access to all the exhibits (sky shows are an added fee, so save that for when you’ve got a little more time), and you could easily bounce to them all, but we have a better plan: Adjacent to the entrance is the Welcome Gallery, a colorfully LED-lit space that feels like we’d imagine the interior of a UFO might feel. Spend about 15 minutes here, checking out interactive features and listening to video greetings from real-life space explorers. From there, move onto Our Solar System, where one of the coolest exhibits is the Crater Maker (yes, you get to create one yourself, although it takes a bit of patience). Next stop is Planet Explorers, geared toward kids ages 3 to 8. Here, mini moon-jumpers can launch a rocket, navigate deep space, move moon rocks and crawl through caves on Planet X. Good luck pulling them back to earth.

Adler Planetarium
Adler Planetarium "Planet Explorers" exhibit (©Janet L. Moran)

Quick Visit to DuSable Museum of African American History:

Along with temporary exhibits, lectures, workshops, musical performances and youth programs, the museum’s permanent exhibits are outstanding, and we recommend you hit three of them in particular if time is tight. Start with a walk-through of the newest and largest installation the museum has seen since its opening: “Freedom, Resistance and The Journey Toward Equality.” Through objects, artifacts, archival videos and images, visitors follow the African-American experience from slave trade through the election of the first African-American president. Before there was President Barack Obama, there was Harold Washington, the first African-American mayor of Chicago, who died suddenly of a heart attack in the first days of his second term. Check out “A Slow Walk to Greatness: The Harold Washington Story,” in which his life and legacy are made that much more poignant looking through the lens of racial tensions in the city today. Finally, the collection of art and artifacts in the “Africa Speaks” exhibit provides that tangible ancestral connection to the five regions of Africa.

DuSable Museum of African American History
DuSable Museum "Freedom" exhibit (©Duane Savage)

Quick visit to Skydeck Chicago:

The observatory on the 103rd floor of Willis Tower, the city’s tallest building at 1,450 feet high, is at 1,353 feet. During peak travel months, a visit to the Skydeck may take you longer than 80 minutes, so we have two suggestions: Plan your visit to opening time or after 5 pm, or splurge on a Fast Pass to scoot past the line and into the elevator in a flash. But during the off-season, this city highlight fits into a sightseeing-packed day any time. Traveling with kids? Get them excited before arriving with a printable scavenger hunt. After getting there, leave time for the 9-minute movie revealing Willis Tower’s rise from concept to reality. Atop the Skydeck, views stretch up to 50 miles and four states, and the glass-boxed Ledge (there are two) is a dare you really need to take. Don’t worry, they are built to withstand 10,000 pounds. Add a little romance by timing your visit to catch the sunset.

Willis Tower's Skydeck Chicago
Willis Tower's Skydeck Chicago

Quick visit to Garfield Park Conservatory:

Approaching by car or El—the Green Line stops just a block away at the Conservatory-Central Park Drive station—it’s impossible to miss this impressive steel and glass-domed structure. Designed by celebrated Chicago landscape architect Jens Jensen and opened in 1908, it’s now one of the largest conservatories in the country, encompassing 4.5 acres of indoor and outdoor gardens. A visit to the gardens is worthwhile any time, as flowers bloom and leaves fall, new specimens are acquired and the Show House gardens reflect the seasons. There are seven main indoor display houses, and, while it’s possible to whip through them all in 80 minutes, take your time to fully appreciate some highlights. On cool days, start your tour in the dry-heat Desert House, a climate perfect for nurturing its cacti and succulents of all kinds, tall, bushy, flat and spiky. It might not be the most attractive of the plants in here, but the unique Weird Welwitschia is worth searching for; it’s so old and so unique that it has no other living plant relatives. In the tropical Palm House, find the giant Scheelea Palm, grown from a seed collected by Field Museum scientists in Brazil in 1926. Lastly, be sure to make time for the Aroid House, whose foliage is described as “houseplants gone wild” and where a pond features floating glass lily pads designed by world-famous artist Dale Chihuly. Before heading over, check the calendar, as public programs take place throughout the year including beekeeper demonstrations, origami-creation and kids activities in the Children’s Garden. One of the amazing things about it is that it’s open 365 days a year, with only a suggested donation (required entrance fee for special exhibits or events).

Garfield Park Conservatory Fern Room
Garfield Park Conservatory Fern Room

Quick visit to Museum of Science and Industry:

The Museum of Science and Industry opened in 1933, meaning it’s just a few years older than Where. It also happens to be 400,000 square feet, one of the largest science museums in the world, making a quick trip tricky, but still doable. It’s all about the hands-on experience at MSI, and we recommend starting at the crowd-favorite "Great Train Story." Here, all ages are entranced by the 20 trains that traverse 3,500 square feet of scenery, cities and waterways in a scaled-down trip from Seattle to Chicago. Kids love the buttons that lift drawbridges, while parents appreciate the subtle humor peppered throughout. Next, spend some time in “Numbers in Nature,” where the mirror maze is the main attraction (get a free, timed-entry ticket), then the remainder at "Science Storms," revealing the workings of tornados, lightning, rainbows, avalanches and more. Be sure to volunteer for the tornado experiment. Admission $18; children $11. 

Museum of Science and Industry "Great Train" exhibit
Museum of Science and Industry "Great Train" exhibit (©J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry)

Quick visit to the Chicago Sports Museum:

Run by the folks behind Harry Caray’s Restaurant Group, it’s conveniently across the hall from Harry Caray’s 7th Inning Stretch restaurant in Water Tower Place. Plan lunch there first to take advantage of free admission to the museum (with minimum purchase). Not just for sports fanatics, it’s a hit with all ages for its interactive exhibits: Measure your jump height against Michael Jordan’s; see how your arm span compares to Scottie Pippen’s; defend a hockey goal; and take a swing at the simulated batting cage. Speaking of baseball, the late, great Cubs announcer Harry Caray himself gets in on the action here. In the Fan Zone, imitate his famous "Holy cow!” and sing a rendition of his famous 7th-inning stretch song, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Where there’s sports, there are curses and superstitions, and the Chicago Sports Museum devotes a whole section to them, plus plenty of sports memorabilia, including prized possessions from Ernie Banks, and collectors items from Harry Caray’s CEO Grant DePorter, including Sammy Sosa’s corked bat, a reminder of the good, the bad and the questionable in pro sports. Admission $6; seniors $3; children under 3 free; free with minimum purchase at Harry Carry’s 7th Inning Stretch. Open 11:30 am-close (call ahead, as the venue sometimes closes for special events).


Chicago Sports Museum
Michael Jordan's backboard (Courtesy Chicago Sports Museum)

Quick visit to the Lincoln Park Zoo:

Founded in 1868 and one of the country's last free zoos, the Lincoln Park Zoo is a city gem. Our first stop is always at the Kovler Lion House where African lions, a jaguar, a snow leopard and new resident Kazho, an endangered Amur leopard, doze in the sun outside or cool off inside. Take a stroll past the lagoon to watch the graceful, Chilean flamingoes, then onto the Primate House where lemurs, tamarins, monkeys and white-cheeked gibbons show off their acrobatic skills. At the nearby state-of-the-art, indoor-outdoor Regenstein Center for African Apes, it's fascinating to watch the human-like interactions among the families of chimpanzees and Western Lowland gorillas. With younger children, we highly recommend heading south along the South Pond to spend some time at teh Farm-in-the-Zoo. Kids love to climb into the driver's seat of the huge tractor, get behind the puppet theater, and see cow-milking demonstrations, If there's still time, head back north to the Regenstein Macaque Forest to see how the three young snow monkeys are growing.

Lincoln Park Zoo
Lincoln Park Zoo Regenstein Macaque Forest snow monkeys (Courtesy Lincoln Park Zoo)

Quick visit to the Chicago Children's Museum: This Navy Pier mainstay originally opened in 1982 in two hallways of what’s now the Chicago Cultural Center. But the move to Navy Pier in 1995 was a perfect fit. It can be a destination on its own or part of an all-day trip to the pier. If you’re running short on time, we suggest starting at the Kovler Family Climbing Schooner because it’s such a visible attraction. In other words, let them do it first and they’ll get it out of their system. Kids also clamor for Play it Safe, where they can suit up as firefighters, slide down a (short) fire pole, belly-crawl through a “burning” room and sit in the drivers seat of the fire truck. Next up: WaterWays. Roll up their sleeves and find a raincoat and set them free to make waves, build dams, squirt and spray, navigate boats and paint with water. A huge hit with the under-5 set (though all ages enjoy it) is Kids Town where make-believe comes alive in a downsized CTA bus, grocery store and car wash. In Skyline, budding architects and builders design their own structures with wooden beams, canvas canopies, and metal nuts, bolts and nails. Maybe one last run through the Climbing Schooner, and you’re done. 

Chicago Children's Museum
Chicago Children's Museum WaterWays exhibit (Courtesy Chicago Children's Museum)

Quick visit to the Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art:

What is lapidary art, you ask? Technically, it’s “the art of cutting and polishing stone,” and in practical terms, it translates to beautiful gems worth wearing or displaying. The museum opened in 1962, a labor of love by Joseph Lizzadro, chairman of a lighting company who had a hobbyist interest in stones. He often made jewelry for friends and family and he wanted to preserve and display other examples of the specialized art that he had collected over the years. It started with a hanging cut-jade vase and has grown to include more than 200 pieces of jade and other stone carvings. A visit to this Elmhurst museum, about 16 miles west of downtown and said to resemble a jewelry box, might start with the dioramas, 20 miniature scenes of life carved from gems. Marvel at the Florentine and Roman stone mosaics, so intricate, they almost look like paintings. In the “Rock & Mineral Experience” exhibit, learn a little about the art, such as how a tree turns to stone, and how a gem is cut and faceted. Then see some of the most exquisite specimens in the world, including Castle Lizzadro, made from 18 Karat gold with diamond windows and amethyst, malachite, azurite and vanadium details. Catch the end of the temporary exhibit “Minerals in Food” (through Sept. 18), which reveals the minerals our bodies need to stay healthy and features three meals made solely of actual polished stones. Finish up your stay with a trip to the gift shop to bring home your own shiny souvenirs, from a $1,195 rhodochrosite necklace to gemstone chip baubles that start at about $10, plus petrified wood or agate geode bookends, soapstone Buddhas, carved birds and, of course, rock candy.

Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art
Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art (Courtesy Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art)

Quick visit to Millennium Park: This 24-acre public green space lies to the east of the Loop, Chicago’s central business district. In a city whose motto, “urbs in horto,” translates to “city in a garden,” Millennium Park is a crown jewel. But it doesn’t stop at just beautiful landscape; it boasts public artworks that have become attractions in their own right. Such as “Cloud Gate,” nicknamed “the Bean” for its shape. Spend some of your time at this 110-ton elliptical polished steel sculpture by Anish Kapoor, which lends itself to artful, funhouse mirror-like selfies, no stick necessary—Instagram instantly with Millennium Park’s free WiFi. Second in popularity is Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain, most enjoyed during warm days when crowds splash between the two 50-foot-tall glass-block towers that face each other and project faces that intermittently spout water; a word of caution, though: the surface can get slippery in the shallow reflecting pool between the fountains, so watch the little ones. Or check the schedule for free concerts that take place under the ribbons of brushed stainless steel of the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Grab one of 4,000 seats or pull out a blanket to sit amid the expansive lawn that’s blessed with outstanding acoustics from a state-of-the-art sound system that crisscrosses overhead. When winter comes, it’s the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink that gets the action, a 16,000-square-foot skating rink right along Michigan Avenue. Stroll through the north and south outdoor Boeing Galleries for a glimpse of some of the rotating exhibits for world-class visual art and sculpture. And be sure to spend some time admiring the nature of the Lurie Garden, a serene space whose plants and wildlife shift with each season. End your exploration with a walk over the BP Bridge, a snaking 935-foot-long steel path across Columbus Drive and into the wondrous Maggie Daley Park, a new green addition to the scene that also has a kids playground, mini golf, climbing wall and a winter skating ribbon. Keep up on all the goings-on here and get a map by downloading the free Millennium Park app from Apple and Google Play.

Millennium Park's "Cloud Gate" (aka "the Bean")
Millennium Park's "Cloud Gate" (aka "the Bean") (©City of Chicago/Patrick Pyscka)