Aquarium in Oak Park

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By the early 1920s, nearly every major metropolis in the United States and abroad had an aquarium. By 1930, Chicago stood tall among their ranks, thanks to civic leader John G. Shedd’s drive to build the first permanent inland saltwater collection in the country. Shedd’s contribution of $3 million paid for nearly a million gallons of seawater, which were transported by rail from Florida’s coast before filling exhibits large enough to accommodate sea mammals as well as fish.

Today, Shedd’s dream continues to thrive with the aquarium’s scores of undersea creatures—from sharks and dolphins to vibrant sea cucumbers—showcased in educational, eye-catching exhibits. The permanent collection spirits visitors from the Great Lakes to the Amazon River to the waters of the Arctic Circle. The resident critters often share their turf with temporary guests such as sea jellies and stingrays, who fill dramatic special exhibits.

The most exciting animal encounters, however, may come via the year-round aquatic show. Trainers show off the talents of sea lions, dolphins, and even beluga whales. They have some four-legged company, too: a trio of rescue dogs often perform alongside their finned adoptive family, demonstrating how learning through positive reinforcement transcends boundaries between species.

1200 South Lake Shore Drive
Chicago,
IL
US

The Chicago Academy of Sciences created a library and collection of flora and fauna specimens that burnt in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, just 14 years after its inception. By 1894, the academy had regrouped and rebuilt its collection in Lincoln Park, where it stood for more than 100 years. In 1999, the academy turned it into the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, a family-friendly museum filled with exhibits that let visitors explore the flora, fauna, and ecology of the Great Lakes region.

The 6.35-acre campus hosts more than 15,000 plants, 13,000 birds, and 22,000 amphibians and reptiles in its specimen collections. As visitors walk through Popular attractions include the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven, where visitors can stand in a swirl of 1,000 exotic butterflies, and Mysteries of the Marsh and the Istock Family Look-in Lab, which feature dozens of living creatures, such as turtles, snakes, and giant bugs. The two-story Extreme Green House offers a hands-on look at the materials and technologies that surround us.

In addition to educating the public, the museum is a local leader in wildlife conservation. It's nestled in acres of restored prairie, where visitors can spot migratory birds and other native critters and plants. Outdoor exhibits include 17,000 square feet of green roofs, a restored-prairie nature trail, and a rooftop birdwalk.

2430 N Cannon Dr
Chicago,
IL
US

Click above to buy a Sky High annual adult membership to John Hancock Observatory for $39 ($79 value). Buy here for a Sky High annual membership for you and a youth (ages 3–11) to John Hancock Observatory for $29 ($59 value).

Each year, dozens of acrophobes overcome their fear of heights by building their own skyscraper by hand. Today's Groupon to John Hancock Observatory lets the height-averse breathe the heart-starting thin air of extreme altitudes without the hassle of scraping their own skies. For $39, adults get an annual membership with unlimited Fast Pass entries for you and a guest ($79 value), plus a 10% discount at the Espression by Lavazza café, at the observatory gift shops, and on Fun Photos. Get a similar deal for you and a youth for $29. Activate your membership in person at the ticket desk no later than March 31, 2010, to get unlimited access to the 100-story exemplar of structural expressionist style.

To prepare for life after your PhD, practice looking down on others from the open-air skywalk, where you'll feel the winds 1,030 feet above ground level while protected by a super-strong screen. From the observatory deck, a soundscope amplifies and zeroes in on sounds all over the city, so low-budget spies can get vague approximations of what's happening in Lincoln Park on any given day, or hear how the Sox game is going without turning on a radio. In addition to high-tech spy gear and meshed windwalks, you'll get access to tons of history and maps, as well as an audio guide narrated by former Friend and dinosaur lover David Schwimmer.

For those who are frequently out a'wooing, John Hancock Observatory's breathtaking nighttime views can turn a friendly evening out into a wind-swept romance—the observatory is open until 11 p.m. Before you impress your date with gorgeous views of four states (Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the other one), you'll get the high-roller treatment with an express elevator up to the 94th floor observation deck and an express ride back down, bypassing the tourist lines. You can tell your date you don't actually own the John Hancock Center after you're married.

Youth membership passes include one guest between the ages of 3 and 11. Photo ID will be required with each entry.

Reviews

Citysearchers give John Hancock Observatory five stars, while Yelpers and Insider Pagers give it four. TripAdvisors give it 4.5 owl eyes:

  • The views are spectacular. Watching the sun go down and the city lights appear is incredible. – RobAndKathy, TripAdvisor
  • It has great views of the lake/waterfront , skyscapers, and the city. don't miss this attraction. it's amazing. we also think it has the best gift shop(street level) we could find on michigan ave. a must see! don't miss it. – Corry2006, TripAdvisor

875 N Michigan Ave
Chicago,
IL
US

The word "museum" may suggest a world behind glass—except at Chicago Children's Museum, where pint-sized visitors freely touch and tinker, build and dismantle, and experiment and explore in an array of interactive exhibits. Located on Navy Pier, CCM remains the city's sole cultural institution dedicated to children and experiential discovery. The museum's 30-year legacy has kept visitors engaged from early ages so they can develop a lifelong curiosity for learning. Stretching across three floors, CCM invites guests to participate in a staged paleontological dig, create art projects, tinker in a workshop, work in a fire station, dam up a river, or a take the driver's seat in a kid-size CTA bus. On a given afternoon, scores of kids can be found climbing, splashing, pretending, or building. There's even the famed Skyline exhibit, which explores the physics that magically hold up Chicago's mighty skyscrapers, exploring how architects came up with the idea to use steel—a rare substance plucked from the mighty armpits of Atlas.

700 East Grand Avenue
Chicago,
IL
US

1400 S Lake Shore Dr
Chicago,
IL
US