The exterior of the world-famous Shedd Aquarium located within Chicago's Museum Campus.

If I Could Choose Only One Thing to Do in Chicago: Visit the Shedd Aquarium

If I Could Choose Only One Thing to Do in Chicago: Visit the Shedd Aquarium

By Carolyn Mueller

What’s the best way to see Chicago in the summertime? Pedaling on the Lakefront via Fat Tire Tour’s Chicago Tours, of course! Fat Tire Tour’s Chicago Tour takes you to all of the best Chicago attractions, from Grant Park to Lincoln Park and everything in between.

What’s that you say? Summer feels very, very far away right now?

True – it’s hard to imagine sunny, lakeshore breezes and selfies in front of The Bean when it’s 20 degrees outside and sleeting… So, then what can you do during a wintertime visit to Chicago?

Check out Shedd Aquarium, of course!

Visiting Shedd in the winter allows you to beat the rush of the summer tourist season and explore the Aquarium at your own leisurely pace. And trust me, there is a lot to explore. You can chase away the wintertime blues by submerging yourself in a tropical rainforest with a visit to the anacondas, monkeys and piranhas of the Amazon Rising exhibit, or stand mesmerized by the sea turtles and stingrays floating by in a 360-degree view of the Caribbean Reef.

But how can you take your visit to Shedd from fun to extraordinary? Check out these 5 special experiences Shedd has to offer.

1. See an Aquatic Presentation

Did you know that Ken Ramirez, one of the biggest names in the animal training world, worked at Shedd Aquarium for over 25 years? Ken’s legacy of animal training excellence is showcased by the Aquarium’s daily Aquatic Presentations. The trainers use positive reinforcement training, meaning that the animals who participate are rewarded with a special treat (i.e., food, or praise from their trainer). It’s amazing to see the strong relationships built between the dolphins, whales, sea lions and even dogs, showcased in the presentations, and their trainers as they work together to teach the audience about the unique species that make Shedd their home. Expect a full sensory experience with lights and music, not to mention the chance to see some extraordinary animals doing what they do best—leaping, rolling, swimming, waving and simply having fun in the water!

 

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2. Touch A (Sea)Star

Sea stars are fascinating creatures. When you’re used to seeing the version sold in tourist shops or printed across beach chairs, it can be pretty exciting to check out the real, living thing in person at Shedd Aquarium. Seeing these bright, star-shaped creatures wriggle and move in their watery home is a trip. What’s even better is that the Shedd Aquarium offers the opportunity to touch a living sea star. Visit the Polar Play Zone, where you’ll find a sea star touch tank. Ok, yes, the Polar Play Zone is technically designed for kids, but who wouldn’t get a thrill from examining the rough skin of the five different species of sea star that live here? Plus, if you visit on a weekday during the winter, you shouldn’t have much competition with the youngsters for your chance. Don’t forget to check out the hundreds of tiny, all-purpose tubes on the sea star’s arms, which help them to feel, move and even feed in their watery home! Pretty stellar, if you ask me.

3. Chat with a Scuba Diver

A keeper/trainer chat is a great way to learn more about the animals at any zoo or aquarium, but Shedd takes its chats to the next level by giving guests the opportunity to talk to an animal caretaker who is underwater. Crazy, I know. Remember the 360-degree Caribbean Reef exhibit mentioned earlier? Scuba divers jump in this giant tank to feed the fishes at 10:30 a.m., noon, 2pm and 3pm daily, allowing visitors to ask questions via the magic of underwater microphones. You can learn all about what it’s like to care for these animals on a daily basis or ask questions about scuba diving. It’s pretty amazing to see the fish, turtles and rays offered their daily diet. If watching them eat has made you hungry, you can make your way to Soundings Restaurant where you can stay cozy by dining indoors while still enjoying the lakefront view.

 

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4. Explore Wildlife from the Pacific Northwest

One of the highlights of any trip to Shedd is a visit to the Abbott Oceanarium. The Oceanarium transports you from the chilly Windy City to the Pacific Northwest. You can stroll along the rocky landscape (while still enjoying those lakefront views through the gorgeous full-length Oceanarium windows) and check out some of Shedd’s unique species. The Oceanarium is home to sea otters (yes, it’s true, they sometimes hold hands), sea lions (many of which have been rescued from the West Coast) and Pacific White-sided dolphins. But for those of us who grew up listening to Raffi, the most exciting find in the Oceanarium is the beluga whales! They’re equal parts cute and beautiful, and it’s fascinating to watch their playful antics in the water. Which leads me to the very best Shedd experience to make the list…

5. Meet a Beluga Whale

That’s right. You can actually sign up to MEET a real beluga whale at Shedd. The Aquarium classifies Beluga Encounters under “Extraordinary Experiences” for good reason. At $250 per person ($200 for members) it’s a bit pricey, but definitely worth the cost, especially if you are commemorating a special moment like a birthday, anniversary, or even a proposal! The encounter begins by meeting with an animal trainer and learning about beluga whales and how they are cared for at Shedd. You will even get some personal information about the particular whale that you get to meet. Then the real fun begins…first, don some very sexy waders (they’ll keep your clothes dry!) and step right into the Beluga Encounter Habitat. Here, you will be instructed to stand on a ledge and a real beluga whale will swim right up for a visit! You’ll get to touch the beluga’s silky skin, try your hand at some animal training andget your picture taken with your new friend.

 

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Though you may be longing for the summer sun and the return of Fat Tire Tour’s Chicago Tours along the lakefront, enjoying a trip to the Shedd Aquarium is a great way to spend a blustery day in Chicago. After all, a kiss from a beluga is enough to melt even the frostiest Windy City heart.