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One of the most popular aquariums in the country, the Shedd houses more than 32,500 creatures from around the world.
Get an up-close look at piranhas, snakes, and stingraysat "Amazon Rising." The 8,600-square-foot exhibit resembles a flooded forest and re-creates the rise and fall of floodwaters.
Shiver as sharks swim by in their 400,000-gallon tank as part of "Wild Reef," which explores marine biodiversity in the Indo-Pacific. The exhibit also has colorful corals, stingrays that slide by under your feet, and other surprising creatures, all from the waters around the Philippines.
Stare down the knobby-headed beluga whales (they love to people-watch), observe Pacific white-sided dolphins at play, and follow the simulated Pacific Northwest nature trail in the spectacular Oceanarium, which has pools that seem to blend into Lake Michigan. The aquatic show here stars dancing belugas, leaping dolphins, and comical penguins.
Be sure to get an underwater glimpse of the dolphins and whales through the viewing windows on the lower level, where you can also find a bunch of information-packed, hands-on activities.
Head to the 90,000-gallon "Caribbean Reef" exhibit to see sharks, stingrays, sea turtles, and other denizens of the deep dart around. It's most fun to observe when divers swim within, feeding the animals and talking to the crowd gathered outside. Kids have their own Polar Play Zone, where they can dress in penguin suits or peruse Arctic waters in a miniature submarine.
Lines for the Shedd often extend all the way down the neoclassical steps. Buy a ticket in advance to avoid the interminable wait, or spring for a cityPASS.
Soundings restaurant makes an elegant (albeit pricey) stop for lunch. The quiet tables look over Lake Michigan—and there are very few Chicago eateries that can say that. The food court, Bubble Net, offers more moderately priced family fare, and Deep Ocean Café, in the Polar Play Zone, caters to kids.
June through early September, catch live jazz on the Shedd's north terrace on Wednesday evenings from5 to 10. It coincides with Navy Pier's fireworks. A gorgeous view of the lake and skyline can make for a magical night.