Chicago for middle-aged Chinese folk?
July 8, 2012 2:28 PM   Subscribe

My (middle-aged, Chinese) parents and sister are coming to Chicago with me for a week this August to attend my graduation, and would like to make a vacation of it while they're here. Unfortunately, I'm enough of a homebody that few of my pastimes in Chicago are appropriate for groups, so I don't know how to entertain them for a week. We have a few ideas, and would love if the hive mind could offer advice on those or suggest additional ones.

A few ideas we had:

Both my parents have expressed some nostalgia for commuting to work by bicycle back in China, so we were thinking of renting some bicycles and riding out to a picnic lunch on a trail somewhere. Can anyone recommend a good bike rental place, and a quiet, unambitious ride?

They've also expressed some interest in doing the typical touristy things. Does anyone know what the "touristy things" are in Chicago? I was thinking of the Bean and one of the Field museum, Lincoln Park Zoo, Shedd Aquarium, or MSI. They've heard of some restaurant whose claim to fame is that it's located at the top of a tall tower downtown, so if I can find that place we'll go there for lunch in between.

I'll also give them a walking tour of my campus at some point, so they have some idea how I've spent the last five years away. If you've ever done this for your own parents, I'd love to hear what interested them and what you could have skipped.

Could anyone suggest some additional evening activities? One constraint is, my parents are not entirely comfortable with English, especially outside the technical jargon of their fields. They're fine for transactional conversations, but we should avoid activities like stand-up comedy that require real-time comprehension of idiomatic English.
posted by d. z. wang to Travel & Transportation around Chicago, IL (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
A few 'touristy' things that I avoided until I had visitors, and then discovered were a lot more fun than I'd imagined:
1) The boat tours of the Chicago River (although I guess that may be problematic on the English front, as there is a tour guide describing the architecture, but the view is really nice, if nothing else, so perhaps they could tune out the description?)
2) Visiting Millennium Park
posted by vetala at 2:41 PM on July 8, 2012

You could rent bikes at McDonald's Cycle Center in Millennium Park. Alternatively, you could take the Metra down to the 51st-53rd (Hyde Park) platform and rent bikes at the new 53rd Street Cycle Center, which is located directly beneath the train platform. This would facilitate a nice ride into the city. I believe you can return the bikes that you rent down on 53rd street at several downtown locations.

If you head to 53rd street, I'd recommend walking through the nearby University of Chicago campus, which is really quite interesting.

For more suggestions, see the sidebar on the Chicago Subreddit. It has lots of great information.
posted by BrandonW at 2:43 PM on July 8, 2012

Definitely do the boat tours. Look for "architecture boat tour" and choose according to time/price. Like vetala said, the explanation will be in English, but even with just getting half of what the guide is saying, the tour should be a nice ride through the city.

Window shopping on the Magnificent Mile is nice and a "must" of the regular touristy things to do. I'd recommend doing the restaurant at the top of a tall tower thing when doing the window shopping, not in between museums, as most of the museums are a bit far from here (and mostly close to each other themselves). The Signature Room is nice for drinks before or after dinner, you don't need to have a whole meal there to enjoy the view.

The viewing deck on the Willis Tower is also fun if you like those sorts of things.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 2:52 PM on July 8, 2012

The restaurant they're talking about is probably The Signature Room in the Hancock Center. I haven't been there, but 95 floors up is something to see, I suppose.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:53 PM on July 8, 2012

If your parents are particularly interested in architecture (and don't mind walking), they'd probably enjoy the Chicago Architecture Foundation's walking tours more than the boat tours. You really get to see much more on the walking tours.

In addition, the Chicago Greeter program (operated by the Chicago Office of Tourism) provides a huge number of free tours "in over a dozen languages", which might help with the language barrier issue. Just keep in mind that you must register for these tours over 10 days in advance.
posted by BrandonW at 3:03 PM on July 8, 2012

Here's a great bike ride for you -- the North Branch Trail, which starts at Devon and Calder on the Northwest Side and ends in the Chicago Botanic Garden. It's one of my favorite rides ever, through lots of forest preserves and Cook County parks, and the Botanic Garden is a wonderful place to end up. There's even a nice cafe there, but there are also lots of nice picnic spots along the way.

It's about 20 miles each way from Devon, but you can also park and enter the bike trail farther along its length, and it's completely flat and paved and mostly shaded.
posted by tully_monster at 3:43 PM on July 8, 2012

Tully beat me to it!!!!

Plus, you can rent bikes at Edgebrook Cycle, on Central, one block from the beginning of the trail.

This is my neighborhood, and I ride these trails often so let me warn you? It's like 20 miles to the Botanic Garden, and 20 miles back, and there is a bridge going over Dempster St. that is like going up the side of Everest each way. There are nice picnic groves scattered all along, and the river (ahem) runs through it, so no need to kill your legs.

Have fun, and go for a NICE side bar, treat them to Superdawg!

It's two miles from the beginning of the trail at the corner of Devon and Milwaukee. When the trail bears right, hang a left on go down the hill, over the river, follow it to the end, you will see it.
posted by timsteil at 4:09 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love the Field Museum. Great, thoughtful exhibits and some really cool stuff. The Lincoln Park Zoo is nice, the Bean is kind of cool, the Shedd is pretty boring, and the MSI is absolutely awful (I lived next door for two years and went there a total of twice, once because I didn't know better, and the next time because I had guests). The Field Museum!
posted by stoneandstar at 4:18 PM on July 8, 2012

If you're biking from the South Side, I've heard that the renovation of the 31st street beach has been completed and it's really nice now. Haven't been there myself though; but as a bike ride it is off the lakefront path so it would be pretty low-key.

College campus tours are more fun for everyone when you make them personal, I've found. Liberal spreading of gossip, point out buildings where famous professors have offices, whatever. I always talked about what I actually did in various buildings, it is somehow more interesting to know that the library is rumored to be riot-proof and also if you hide in the stacks, you can stay to study after closing and the overnight cleaning crew who empties the trash bins won't say anything. I think parents especially like to have some appreciation about what exactly you've been getting up to for these past four years or so.

Since it will be August - plan some backup indoor activities in place of every outdoor one because it always gets hot in August and if this year is anything like this past week nothing will be fun.

Evening activities - Grant Park Music Festival is going on in August, features free classical outdoor concerts in the evenings. Maybe scan the city's website for city events for other fun stuff happening that week. Park events and festivals and stuff are good to plan because they're usually low-key and flexible, so you don't have to stick to a tight schedule and get stressed out.
posted by newg at 5:12 PM on July 8, 2012

If you're going to make a vacation of it you might as well participate in the time honored Chicago vacation tradition of going to Wisconsin ;)
posted by MikeMc at 5:23 PM on July 8, 2012

The Signature Room in the Hancock Tower has a good views (especially the women's restroom -- no joke!); though, I think the night skyline with the lights is more impressive than the lunchtime view. The Adler Planetarium (on the same campus as the Aquarium and the Field Museum) is also worth a visit if you're at all interested in astronomy (I think the planetarium shows are relaxing and cool -- something you might need in the heat of August).
posted by bluefly at 5:40 PM on July 8, 2012

Frank Lloyd Wright's home in Oak Park. There's a link to bicycle tours of FLW houses in the neighbourhood on this page.
posted by lulu68 at 6:29 PM on July 8, 2012

Take them to The Berghoff
posted by Confess, Fletch at 6:45 PM on July 8, 2012

Do they like sports at all? Take them to a Cubs home game! Chicago Fire are also playing, but they're soccer stadium isn't in Chicago proper. When my dad visited in Seattle, I took him to a soccer match, and we both found it quite enjoyable. I also found it a good break, as he wasn't focused on me, but on the action on the field.

(Also, I went to the MSI as a tourist for the first time ever earlier this summer, and I really enjoyed it.)
posted by spinifex23 at 8:21 PM on July 8, 2012

The Botanic Gardens is a great idea even if you don't go by bike. With a week in Chicago in August, I would certainly check out the north shore which is easily accessible by Metra. Maybe look into tickets for Ravinia? A night at Ravinia can be truly magical.
posted by BibiRose at 9:11 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

The museums all around the Chicago park area are fantastic! That is basically 4-5 days of viewing and consumption for you right there. Many are big enough to consume the whole day + going out to eat and staying at the hotel.

+1 for the park areas and museums!
posted by Bodrik at 10:17 PM on July 8, 2012

I always enjoyed entertaining visitors when we lived in Chicago. People have already hit on most of the big touristy things, but here's a quick summary of stuff we sometimes did:

-- architecture boat tours. You want the ones done by the Chicago Architecture Foundation if possible; some of the others are more like speed boat trips with occasional mention of architecture.

-- the bar at the top of the Hancock building. Maybe this is what your parents were thinking of? The food in the Signature Room is way overrated and overpriced imho, but the bar (the "signature lounge") is okay and has the same view. We generally felt like paying $13 for a cocktail on the 95th floor (or whatever it is) was a better-sounding prospect than paying $15 for a ticket to the observation deck. One side of the building has a significantly better view than the other (imho), so look around and don't just blindly follow where they point when you come out of the elevators (or do, but look around later).

-- the Art Institute and/or the Field Museum. The Art Institute seemed to be the favorite of our guests; we preferred the Field Museum, but it is too massive to see in one visit (or two, or three).

-- Cubs game. Presumably it's sold out, but we had good luck with private ticket purchases from season ticket owners, etc.

-- Food! I really, really miss some of the food options in Chicago. We liked to take people to Frontera Grill for tasty higher-end Mexican, or to various places in Little Village for less high-end (but equally delicious) Mexican. Deep dish pizza: pick your place, but they've got to try this while they're in town. Italian: our favorite place was actually out near Oak Park ("Gaetano's").

-- the Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Oak Park are interesting if they're into that sort of thing. There's also the "Robie House" by Wright near the University of Chicago, if you find yourself in that neck of the woods.

-- Drinks: I miss the Violet Hour. (Though, in all honesty, I haven't been there in a long time.)

Have fun!
posted by chalkbored at 9:32 AM on July 9, 2012

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