Forget flying to Beijing! Grab your (pretend) passports and fly on over to Chicago's Chinatown, where you can experience China without having to set foot at O'Hare.
The easiest way to get to Chinatown is via the Red line (Chinatown) - it's just a hop, skip and a few stops from the loop, but a world away. But if you want to take the scenic route - rather, the scenic waterway - catch a water taxi: you'll glide along the Chicago River from Madison Street directly to Ping Tom Park, in the heart of Chinatown. For more info and schedules, visit chicagowatertaxi.com
Start your Chinatown journey at Ping Tom Park (300W. 19th St.; Hours: Open daily, dawn to dusk; Chicagoparkdistrict.com). This 12-acre park is located along the South Branch of the Chicago River, making for a green space with outstanding river views. My kids always get a kick out of watching the drawbridge occasionally rise up to let boaters through the river here. The Asian-inspired landscaping and structures make for a more interesting park experience.
Next, head south towards the Chinese Zodiac Square in Chinatown Square Mall (2100 S. Wentworth Ave.; store hours vary). This large piazza is at the heart of the boutique and cafe lined mall. Send your kids off to search for their representative animal among the twelve Chinese Zodiac animal statues. A short description of each zodiac animal’s personality traits as well as corresponding birth years are inscribed at the base of each statue.Kids will also enjoy climbing the stairs of the two pagodas located on opposite ends of the mall.
Joy Yee’s (2139 S. China Place, Chinatown Square Mall; Tel. 312/328.0001; Hours: Daily 11 a.m. to midnight; Joyyee.com) is the perfect spot to sit and watch the world pass by in Chinatown Square. Try Joy Yee’s specialty, Bubble Tea, a.k.a. Boba Tea, a fruit flavored tea dotted with tapioca pearls that will remind your kids of mini balls of Jello.
Head further south towards Wentworth Avenue(Wentworth Avenue and Cermak Road), Chinatown's main drag, where you'll find gift shops galore, mini-grocery stores, and restaurants. Give your kid a couple of dollars to spend on souvenirs from his trip to "China" - the boutiques all carry inexpensive, Chinese-themed toys, hair bows, stickers, and more.
Be sure to pop into a bakery: our family won’t leave Chinatown without a box of coconut stuffed buns from Chiu Quon Bakery (2242 S. Wentworth)
For more information on Chicago's Chinatown, including info on upcoming special events, visit the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce at http://www.chicagochinatown.org/cccorg/home.jsp