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By boat, bus, bicycle, foot, or even Segway, there is no shortage of ways to experience the country’s most celebrated architectural metro – Chicago, Illinois. Admired for creativity rather than longevity—the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 destroyed a majority of notable buildings—each tour, no matter the means, showcases the character, ingenuity, and groundbreaking methods that make up Chicago’s towering skyline.
The number of companies offering these sought-after tours are ample, but the Windy City’s architectural history is so spectacularly rich, it’s no wonder tourists have many options to choose from. Chicago is known as the birthplace of the Ferris Wheel; boasts the tallest building in North America; features works from modern and classic architects like Mies van der Rohe, Bertrand Goldberg, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill; and also has bragging rights as home to the world’s first skyscraper.
One company, however, has made it their mission to inspire people to discover “why design matters,” according to their mission statement, but also help promote and preserve the buildings that make Chicago so notable. The Chicago Architecture Foundation [CAF], a nonprofit founded in 1966 by a group of residents determined to preserve the H.H. Richardson Glessner House from being demolished, hosts 85 different types of tours to more than 319,000 guests annually while giving back to preserve and promote the city’s architecture.
They led their first award winning walking tour in 1970 and kicked off the Architecture River Cruise—the number one architecture cruise in Chicago—aboard Chicago’s First Lady in 1993. With their many offerings, visitors to Chicago are sure to find the perfect tour to suite their architectural interests.
One of the most scenic routes to explore the metro’s skyline is aboard Chicago’s First Lady on the Chicago River, which flows through the heart of the downtown skyline, passing more than 50 notable buildings dating back to the rebirth of the downtown after the Great Chicago Fire. Don’t miss the Willis Tower, formerly Sears Tower and home to Skydeck Chicago and The Ledge. At 1451 feet tall, it’s the city’s tallest building.
Volunteer docents will share stories about the John Hancock Center (home to 360 Chicago), Chase Tower, and more. For an extra spectacular view, book a Twilight River Cruise. See the buildings’ exteriors come to life with the sunset’s reflection lighting up the sky while you sip a cocktail. Or, for the photographer enthusiast, check out the Capture Chicago Photography Cruise every Saturday and Sunday at 9:00am. In the fall, boat tours are offered seven days a week with six different times Friday through Sunday, and three during the week.
The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers 70—yes, 70—different walking tours throughout Chicago! Although the ample selections may seem hard to choose from, don’t hesitate to ask a staff member to help select your ideal journey.
The popular Downtown Deco tour peruses the “lavish materials and geometric ornaments that epitomize the prosperity and optimism of the Roaring 20s,” according to the CAF. This two-hour walk tour will take you up close and personal to the beautiful details that mark Chicago’s historic buildings, like the Chicago Board of Trade Building, One LaSalle Street Building, and many more.
Interested in Skyscrapers and how they have changed throughout history? The Skyscraper Walk Through Time explores Chicago’s tallest towering structures and shares how the innovative techniques have helped change architecture from past to present. Or, sightsee the full spectrum of the city’s architectural pulse with Chicago Old and New: Intersections, a look at architecture from 1870 to present, and how it represents Chicago’s unique culture. For a look at each walking tour available and to see times, visit www.Architecture.org.
Take to the streets and soak up the skyline with a docent-led bus or trolley ride through Chicago’s downtown and historic neighborhoods. Drive through Frank Lloyd Wright neighborhoods or explore the compelling true story told by Erik Larson in the bestselling book “The Devil in the White City.”
With the holidays right around the corner, take the Holiday Lights, City Lights tour down the illuminated Michigan Avenue aboard a heated trolley and get in the holiday spirit! Tour times vary by season and tour.
A fast-paced platform, explore Chicago via the L Train, the second longest rapid transit system in the country, and the ideal vessel to soak up the entire city’s history and architecture from the comfort of a train. Choose from Must-See Chicago—a 90 minute tour of Chicago’s most famous buildings—or Elevated Architecture: Chicago’s Loop by “L”, a two-hour tour of the city that also delves into the history of the public transit system.
By Bike or Segway
In the sunnier months, CAF’s bike and Segway tours are a warm-weather must. As part of the Segway Experience of Chicago, you’ll take in Chicago’s lakefront architecture and park system on a guided two-wheeled adventure. Limited to only eight guests, this intimate option is an ideal venue to explore Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, Buckingham Fountain, The Field Museum of Natural History, and much more. Check times and schedules beginning this spring!
Still want more of the Windy City? Don’t miss the Chicago Film Tour that takes guests through the cinematic landmarks where films like The Dark Knight, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and The Fugitive were filmed (chicagofilmtour.com). Or, take a tour on the wild side and explore Chicago during the Prohibition Era when legendary gangsters ran the streets of the city. You’ll hear stories about Johnny Torrio, Machine Gun Jack McGurn, and more on this gangster-themed excursion (gangstertour.com).
Kids love science like peanut butter loves jelly. So if you’re visiting Boston with kids, be sure to stop by the Museum of Science: “kid-friendly” doesn’t begin to describe it. The MoS’s exhibits – including over 700 interactive ones – are so hands-on, so beautifully geared toward the enjoyment and excitement of science, it’s a perfect fit for the curious kid in your life. Here are six of the must-see exhibits for you and the kiddos to enjoy.
Archimedean Excogitation (entrance hall, lower level)
Upon entering the museum, you’ll encounter Archimedean Excogitation, the audiokinetic sculpture by George Rhoads. You can’t miss it – it’s a 27-foot tall sculpture that demonstrates the relationship between potential and kinetic energy through a complex system of chutes, balls, gears, paddles, and pulleys: picture a huge Rube Goldberg machine, forever in motion.
Colossal Fossil and Dinosaurs: Modeling the Mesozoic (Blue Wing, lower level)
No one – and I mean no one – gets more excited over dino poop than kids do. That, along with bones, footprints, and other dino artifacts, will turn any curious kid into a mini-paleontologist. The exhibits’ centerpieces, however, are a full-size model of a Tyrannosaurus rex and “Cliff,” a 65-million-year-old Triceratops fossil. Older kids will be impressed that it’s one of only four nearly complete Triceratops on public display anywhere in the world.
Science in the Park (Blue Wing, level 2)
When my kids see this exhibit from a distance – essentially a playground inside the museum – they immediately bolt for it. Science in the Park takes everyday play objects like seesaws, slides, balls, swings, and bicycle wheels, and shows how they demonstrate scientific concepts like mechanical advantage, leverage, momentum, and force. Kids can participate in their own experiments, like racing a set of lights down a track to measure their speed, or twirling ice-skater style, seeing how different ways of positioning their legs contribute to or hinder their momentum. It’s the principles of mechanics, literally brought to life.
Lightning! (Theater of Electricity, Blue Wing, levels 1 and 2)
Upon entering the Theater of Electricity, you’ll immediately see what looks like two giant metal spheres on pedestals: the world's largest air-insulated Van de Graaff generator. What, you may well ask, does a Van de Graaf generator do? As you’ll see demonstrated in a live, loud, edge-of-your-seat 20-minute show, it creates lightning. (Note that this show may be better suited for ages seven and up; younger ones might be afraid of the loud noises and flashes.) The show runs at certain times throughout the day; check the schedule beforehand so you can grab a good seat.
Hall of Human Life (Green Wing, level 3)
Kids love to learn about their bodies, and many aspects of human biology – from your DNA to what you eat to where you live – come to life through 70 interactive exhibits. Kids will love exploring questions like “How well can you keep your balance?”’ “How does your body grow?”, “Why does one person get cold faster than another?”, “Why are some faces easier to recall than others?”, “How efficient is your walk?”, “Does the sight of an animal change your pupil size?”, and “How easily are you distracted?” My kids usually gravitate to the Exploration Hub, where they’re mesmerized by a hive of honeybees and an incubator with chicks hatching. Among many hands-on activities, they can piece together a skeleton, learn about nutrients in different foods, examine a dissection of a sheep’s eye, and visit some cotton-top tamarin monkeys.
The Discovery Center (Red Wing, level 1)
If you have little ones in tow, put the Discovery Center on your must-see list: It’s especially created for babies, toddlers, and young children, with an “Experiment Station” for trying different experiments and building projects. Kids (little and big) will also get a thrill out of Live Animal Story Time, presented at various times throughout the day (Shapiro Family Science Live! Stage, Green Wing, lower level).
Finally, be sure to check the current offerings for the 4-D Theater, the Charles Hayden Planetarium and the Mugar Omni Theater’s IMAX screen. As of the time of this writing, the 4-D Theater is presenting The Polar Express 4-D Experience, the Planetarium is showing The Magic Tree House: Space Mission (required viewing for fans of Jack and Annie!), and the IMAX is showing Pandas: The Journey Home. While all of these require additional ticket purchases, they’ll make your MoS experience truly spectacular.
Everyone has their preconceived “musts” when they visit New York City. For some, it’s the landmarks: Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and Times Square. Others prefer the riches found in some of the world’s greatest museums, such as the Met, MoMA and the American Museum of Natural History. And there are those who find pure joy in getting to know the different boroughs, sampling the ethnic flavors, visiting quirky haunts and eating incomparable cuisine.
The fact is that there’s just no way to see everything in a visit or three. You’ll still just scratch the surface of what New York City has to offer.
For a fuller visitor’s experience, Walks of New York provides affordable walking tours led by enthusiastic experts. The groups are kept small, no more than a dozen per tour, so it’s easier for people to stay engaged and converse with the guide.
“This isn’t a ‘hop-on/hop-off’ charter bus, or a parade of Segways,” explained Stephen Oddo, who cofounded Walks of New York and Walks of Italy in 2009 with Jason Spiehler. “We’ve branded ourselves by offering a higher-quality touring experience, because our guides research their tours and they can speak with authority.”
Recently, Walks of New York achieved a coup by recruiting famed chef Mario Batali to craft the itinerary for its Greenwich Village Food Tour. Priced at $64 for adults, the three-hour tour takes walkers to Faicco’s for arancini, Raffetto’s to see pasta making, O&Co. olive oil store, and Grom for gelato. The tour includes stops at two Batali restaurants: Otto and Lupa Osteria Romana.
The Broadway Behind the Scenes tour is less about going backstage than being regaled by an insider who will share his or her secrets about life in New York’s famous floodlights. The tour explores the history of landmark theaters, how a show is produced and scuttlebutt about legendary performers. Walkers will see and learn about Times Square, 42nd Street, Rodgers & Hammerstein Way, Sardi’s and Shubert Alley.
“Our goal is to provide a diverse array of tours,” Oddo said. “Broadway is a perfect example. Because we have insiders in the theater industry, you can ask them how much performers make, how the Guild works and everything else that is involved in a show.”
One of the great New York experiences is just being out among the hustle and bustle of humanity. For that, journey to the different boroughs.
“Each of our neighborhood tours has a unique twist and includes places that are often overlooked,” Oddo said. “A perfect example is our Lower East Side tour, where visitors can tour the Eldridge Street Synagogue Museum, enjoy a bialy at a local, traditional bakery, and even sample pickles at the last pickle stand.”
The three-hour Lower East Side tour also has stops at Straus Square, a Buddhist temple, and the Chinatown fire brigade’s building.
A stop on many visitors’ agendas is the new 9/11 Memorial Museum. Walks of New York adds value to the experience with an explanation of the events and the important landmarks surrounding the World Trade Center. Led by a local, the World Trade Center Tour with 9/11 Memorial Museum Ticket tour starts with a visit to Trinity Church and Wall Street, and then to Chase Manhattan Plaza and the New York Federal Reserve Bank, where most of the world’s gold is deposited.
Next is St. Paul’s Chapel, where George Washington worshipped, and which served as the headquarters for the Ground Zero rescue and relief workers. Before entering the 9/11 Memorial Museum for a self-guided tour, walkers will stop at the firehouse of Engine 10, Ladder 10, where they will hear about the heroism of that fateful day.
Lastly, there’s also a Welcome to New York tour of Midtown Manhattan that encompasses landmarks such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Rockefeller Center, Bryant Park, Grand Central Terminal and a rooftop view of Times Square.
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