Chicago's Big Five

When I think about Africa, my mind goes straight to the “Big Five.” These are the “trophy” animals that visitors often hope to see while on safari. They include the rhinoceros, elephant, leopard, buffalo and lion.

Here in Chicago’s urban “jungle” we may not have thousand pound mammals roaming our streets, but we do have what I call my own “Big Five.” Many of my favorite childhood memories tie back to the time I spent in each of these places. Whether you are a lifelong resident or a tourist in our fair city, be sure to explore these world-class institutions when you have the chance.

The Lincoln Park Zoo

Founded in 1868, the LPZ is the nation’s oldest zoo as well as one of only three zoos in the country that is open free to the public. The zoo campus is located in Lincoln Park, a prime piece of real estate in the heart of the city. While renowned for its important conservation and education programs, the zoo’s main draw is the chance to discover a diverse array of animals from around the world set among incredible gardens. My favorite exhibit is Regenstein African Journey, which offers the opportunity to get nose-to-nose with large mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, bats and even insects. Regardless of whether your passion is gorillas, penguins, zebras or snakes, a day at the zoo will bring out the child in visitors of all ages.

The Art Institute of Chicago

Built on rubble from the 1871 Chicago Fire, the Art Institute is located on Michigan Avenue just east of the Loop. While the museum is home to many extraordinary works of art, it is most famous for its Impressionist collection, the largest assemblage of Impressionist and post-impressionist paintings outside of Paris. We owe a debt of gratitude to socialite Bertha Palmer and her real estate developer husband, Potter Palmer, who collected many of these works in the late 19th century while on vacation in Europe. Featured artists include Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat, Mary Cassatt, and Auguste Renoir.

May 16, 2009 marks the official opening of the museum’s major addition… the Modern Wing. Check here to see a time lapse film clip showing the construction of this remarkable Renzo Piano-designed project. Significant efforts were made to ensure this addition is as “green” as possible. Admission to the entire museum will be free for the first week following the opening.

The Field Museum of Natural History

One of three institutions located in Chicago’s Museum Campus, the Field Museum is probably best known today as the home of Sue, the largest and best preserved T-Rex skeleton in the world. Founded to house the biological and anthropological collections assembled for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the Field Museum has spectacular exhibits with Egyptian mummies, artifacts from the Ancient Americas, and so much more. You don’t need to be Indiana Jones to enjoy a great day at the Field Museum, as there is something interesting for everyone here.

The John G. Shedd Aquarium

Also located on the Museum Campus, this incredible Beaux Arts icon is home to thousands of fish and other marine creatures. My favorite exhibits include Amazon Rising where you can view 250 species from South America including an anaconda, piranhas, giant spiders and tiny frogs. Other cool exhibits include a 90,000 gallon Caribbean Reef, and Wild Reef, which contains more than two dozen sharks. The Oceanarium  (scheduled to reopen on May 22, 2009) showcases beluga whales, sea lions, otters and birds of prey, all in an amphitheater-style setting framed by a panoramic view of Lake Michigan. The Shedd is among the city’s most visited destinations, so arrive early!

The Museum of Science and Industry

Located in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, the MSI is one of the largest science museums in the world. It offers more than 35,000 artifacts and nearly 14 acres of hands-on exhibits, all designed to spark scientific inquiry and creativity. Many of my favorite exhibits from my childhood are still an integral part of the MSI experience. You can tour a U-505 submarine, the only German U-boat in the United States, descend 50 feet into the bottom of a mineshaft to discover what life was like inside an Illinois coal mine, get your photo taken in vintage costumes in a classic 1902 motor car at Yesterday’s Main Street, or explore a 3,500-square-foot working model train that includes scale models of both downtown Chicago and downtown Seattle. Our kids love climbing inside the John Deere tractors. When they are older, we’ll take them to the Henry Crown Space Center as well as the Omnimax theater. The MSI website is especially helpful in suggesting age appropriate activities for your next family visit, so be sure to take a look.

So you see, there’s no need to suffer the expense of traveling to the Serengeti to see the Big 5. Many of the world’s greatest treasures (including leopards, lions and rhinos) can be enjoyed in our own backyard here in sweet home Chicago.

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  • I think this is an awesome Big 5 List — I spent some time in Africa as well so I think you captured the urban jungle well with your post. I love these attractions especially on their free days

  • If I could add another, would also add the Sears Tower and its sky high observation deck , long the gleaming pride of Chicago, which reigned as the world's tallest building for several decades.