November 4, 2018

Free Things To Do In The Quad Cities With Kids

During our long weekend to the Quad Cities – a collection of cities around the Mississippi River on both the Iowa and Illinois side – we visited several family-friendly museums and places that I can’t wait to tell you more about. Three things that I want to highlight in this post stand out from the others in one particular way – they are free. If free fits your budget when traveling, read on.

3 free things to do in the Quad Cities that kids will love #Illinois #Iowa #familytravel

Fryxell Geology Museum

Where: Rock Island, Ill.

Hours: Academic year, Mondays-Fridays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 4 .m. (plus seven evenings throughout the year)

Tucked in the beautiful Augustana Campus is the Fryxell Geology Museum.  This museum is a bit off the beaten path, but it was so worth the stop. It’s one of the largest and finest collections of rocks, minerals and fossils in the Midwest.

It’s a more hands-on museum than you’d expect, which is great for visiting families. The staff has found engaging ways to get your kids excited about the displays.

Fryxell Geology Museum at Augustana College campus
The Fyxell Geology Museum is a free museum that’s worth a visit for families. Explore fossils, gems and the area’s pre-historic history.

If you’re doing the self-guided thing, you can pick up scavenger hunt cards. They’re simple cards that encourage kids to look closer at displays to find the item that matches the picture.

There’s also a new iPad app that allows kids (or adults, because you know you’re going to want to try it) to aim the iPad at a fossil and see an image or an illustrated video to see what the creature might have looked like back in the day. This was way cool for the kids.

Large dinosaur fossil Inside the Fryxell Geology Museum in Illinois
My family is in the background, learning about the discovery of the Cryolophosaurus, the first (and only) Jurassic dinosaur discovered in Antarctica. It was collected by a team of Augustana geologists led by Dr. William R. Hammer.

The highlighted was walking around with a staff member and having her point out cool fossils – like fossilized poop – and answering questions my kids posed.

Things to look for:

  • There’s a rock display behind curtains in theback of the museum. Take a peek to see the “glowing” rocks. It impressed myyoungest.
  • The Cryolophosaurus. This large dinosaur is one of the first things you encounter at the museum. It’s got a great story– the first dinosaur found in Antarctica AND found by an Augustana professor. There’s a display to learn more about that years-long process of uncovering the bones.

John Deere Pavilion

Where: Moline, Ill.

Hours: Monday–Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. Closed major holidays.

This river town is home to John Deere, and lucky for families, it’s home to John Deere Pavilion.

Inside the John Deere Pavilion in Moline, Illinois
The John Deere Pavilion in Moline, Ill., is free to visit. You can climb into the cabs of many of the tractors and machinery.

This pavilion, to me, is half history museum and half children’s museum. Even the website tells you: “The only requirement for kids inside our doors — BE A KID. Climb on board. Pretend you’re driving…”

So, the history part is fairly obvious. You can see the earliest tractors and how they and other farming equipment have evolved over 180 years. Walking the whole length of the pavilion, you can’t help but be impressed. And, when you reach the other end of the building, you get a glimpse at present time and what innovations are ahead.

Antique farming equipment inside the John Deere Pavilion in Moline, Illinois
John Deere farming equipment from more than 180 years are on display at the John Deere Pavilion in Moline, Ill. You can climb into many of the machines.

What’s great for kids is that they can climb into the cabs of many of these huge machines.

The space that felt like a mini children’s museum part, the Discovery Zone, was the area my kids wanted to spend the most time. There are hands-on displays and train table, as well as a stop-motion table. My son’s favorite was a video he can manipulate, speeding the image up or slowing it down.

Kid's play area inside the John Deere Pavilion in Illinois
My daughter and I made a few stop motion movies set on a farm.

There’s a row of screens that you can sit in front of and try out simulations of driving some of the machinery. This appealed to the grown-ups as much as the kids. There were quite a few screens, actually, throughout the pavilion that allowed for a fun way to learn more about the brand and farming.

Exterior of the John Deere Pavilion in Moline, Illinois
The John Deere Pavilion was a good rainy day stop for my family during our Quad Cities vacation.

This one was a fairly quick stop for us, whereas I think the others could spend about an hour or so there. If your kid is really interested in the machines, check out this John Deere website with coloring pages and videos.

Davenport Skybridge

Where: Davenport, Iowa

Hours: Daily, 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.

I first learned about the Skybridge through pictures, because this hidden gem (or maybe not-so-hidden) gives you a great birds-eye view of the Mississippi River.

The view from inside the Davenport Skybridge in Iowa
If you’re in downtown Davenport, make a quick stop to see the Davenport Skybridge, which has great views of the Mississippi River.

Pretty much, it’s a walkway over a highway from a parking garage to the riverfront. But, it’s done in such a cool way, that it’s worth checking out. If the weather’s crummy, it’s also a nice, long corridor that kids can run up and down. When we were there, two women were running laps for a workout.

Exterior of the Skybridge in Davenport, Iowa
The Davenport Skybridge is safe way to cross a highway from the downtown area to the riverfront. 

At night, I hear the lighting inside is pretty sweet, too. We were there during the day, so I can’t vouch for the lighting. But, the view was neat.

The river was at flood-level, so we could see water seeping up onto the Iowa banks.

Flooded Mississippi River
The Skybridge gave us a nice view of how far up onto shore the Mississippi River has flooded.

We didn’t head downtown just for this view. We actually decided to add a visit to the Skybridge at the last minute since we got downtown in record time and the Figge Art Museum wasn’t open yet. The Skybridge is super close to the Figge and killed about 10 minutes.

Fun things to do that don't cost a thing in the Quad Cities in Iowa and Illinois #familytravel #visitquadcities

Plan a Quad Cities Family Trip

I’ll be sharing more in-depth posts about some of the places we visited in the Quad Cities in upcoming posts. Check back to learn more about:

Fun Things To Do With Kids In The Quad Cities

Where To Stay In The Quad Cities – Illinois Side

The Figge Art Museum And Kids

Exploring The Putnam Museum With Young Kids

Comparing Hotels Around The Quad Cities

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October 21, 2018

Where To Stay In The Quad Cities – Illinois Side

If you’re traveling to the Quad Cities and you’re planning on visiting attractions in several of those cities, you be wondering where best to stay. Good question since there are four cities making up this region. This post is looking at staying in Moline, Ill., and staying specifically at the Element Moline.

Review of the Element Moline located in the Quad Cities

Disclosure: Our stay was hosted by Visit Quad Cities. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.

The Element hotel chain is a sleek brand, with airy and modern décor. This particular location was a brick building with gorgeous loft-style rooms, blending brick walls, cement, and modern furniture.

Hallway at the Element Moline in Illinois
With cement floors and unique light fixtures, Element Moline didn’t look like a typical hotel.

Our room was spacious, with a small kitchen, two beds, a fold-out couch bed, and a second mystery room that was empty. The bathroom was modern with a large glass shower.

Guest room with two double beds at the Element Moline in Illinois
Our room at Element had the look and feel of a chic loft – brick walls, concrete, and a kitchen.

As a parent, I appreciated the room had blackout curtains. My youngest occasionally takes naps still and it was very helpful being able to darken our room enough for her to sleep.

Exposed brick in the guest room at Element Moline in Illinois
The room had blackout curtains to help with an impromptu nap one of my kids needed during our trip.

The hotel had one of the best complimentary breakfasts I’ve seen at any hotel when traveling. There was someone preparing hot food made-to-order (pancakes on the weekend and two egg white options on the weekday).

Sign at breakfast at the Element Moline in Illinois
Element Hotel in Moline had self-serve breakfast food plus someone making hot food to order. On the weekend, she was making pancakes and on Monday, she was making two different egg white dishes.

The fresh fruit and yogurt bar were healthier options I appreciated. My kids, on the other hand, liked the cereal bar and pastry varieties.

Dining room at the Element Moline in Illinois
The breakfast crowd on a Monday morning was decidedly more business than families.

If you stay during the week, there’s a happy hour with complimentary beer and wine in the comfy lobby.  

For traveling families, the most important feature is that it has a pool. It’s a small rectangle of a pool, but my kids didn’t care.

There’s also a workout room and complimentary bikes to rent. There’s a nearby trail that runs along a river.

Bike trail in Moline, Illinois
This trail is within walking distance of Element Moline. You can borrow bikes from the hotel to explore it.

The hotel is within walking distance a few restaurants. Some that we tried that were nearby included Lagomaricino’s and Bent River Brewing Co.

It’s also near to the John Deere Pavilion, a good place to take the kids that’s free to visit. It’s also next to the TaxSlayer Center, with a lot of good concerts and performances coming up.

If you go

Element Moline

Where: 316 12th Street, Moline, Ill.


Looking for a place to stay in the Quad Cities? Here's a recommended hotel on the Illinois side - Element Moline. The healthy breakfast, loft-style rooms and location will appeal to most travelers.

Other places to stay in the Quad Cities

We returned to the Quad Cities area twice on a recent road trip. Each time, we stayed in a different hotel of the region. Each place had their pros and cons. Read this post comparing three hotels in the Quad Cities to see if one suits your family’s traveling needs.

Plan a Quad Cities Family Trip

I’ll be sharing more in-depth posts about some of the places we visited in the Quad Cities in upcoming posts. Check back to learn more about:

Fun Things To Do With Kids In The Quad Cities

Taking Kids To The Figge Art Museum

Free Things To Do With Kids In The Quad Cities

Exploring The Putnam Museum With Young Kids

Get Travel Inspiration Directly In Your Inbox

Subscribe to the FREE twice a month(ish) e-newsletter sharing what’s new in Omaha, giveaways, family travel ideas, and more! Subscribe here.

October 2, 2018

My Chicago Christmas Bucket List

After many years of saying, “We should take the kids to Chicago,” we’re doing it. We’re timing the kids’ first visit to Chicago to be during the holiday season, so in this particular Chicago bucket list, I’ve included holiday shows, lights displays, and special events, as well as a few dining wishes. So, here’s my Chicago Christmas bucket list, all the things I’d do in the Windy City if time and money weren’t a factor.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. At no extra cost to you, writers like me earn a small referral fee if you click a link and make a purchase. 

The Chicago Christmas Bucket List of shows to see, annual traditions, restaurants that get decked for the holidays, and winter activities. Use this wish list of things to do to plan a visit to Chicago in November or December.

Related post: Holiday Weekend In Chicago Itinerary

Catch a holiday show

There are an overwhelming assortment of live shows in Chicago between November and December. Narrowing down holiday show choices, you can find anything from traditional options like Joffrey Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” to more contemporary shows like “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” at the Chicago Theater and for a unique take on “A Christmas Carol,” there’s “Q Brothers Christmas Carol.” It’s a hip hop take on the Charles Dickens’ tale at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Here’s a sampling of holiday shows on Chicago stages, just in November 2018.  And I’m just throwing it out there, because it’s on my all-time big bucket list – “Hamilton” is at the CIBC Theater for an open run. Just sayin’. I’d go in a heartbeat.

Shop the most famous Midwestern holiday market

Christkindlmarket is an open air holiday market in the heart of downtown Chicago. It’s modeled after German Christmas markets and looks completely charming. While browsing vendors, I envision myself warming up with some Gluhwein.  I’ve heard the Snow Balls (donuts) at Christkindlmarket are tasty and pair well with the Gluhwein, too.

Christkindlemarket in Chicago
The Christkindlmarket is an open air holiday market in Chicago modeled after European markets. Photo courtesy Ranvestel Photographic/Choose Chicago

Attend the biggest holiday celebration

I’m missing this parade this year, but since the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival is said to be to be the largest holiday celebration in the country, I’ve got to add it to my bucket list. This annual event is held the weekend before Thanksgiving, and includes a popular parade.

Enjoy winter outdoor fun…indoors

Here’s another annual event that sounds like fun, especially for my little ones, but just isn’t timing out to coincide with my visit. Winter Wonderfest is an annual event at Navy Pier is held in December and features bounces houses, slide, carousel and all the typical outdoor things brought indoors. I bet we’ll still go to Navy Pier this November to ride the ferris wheel and maybe take a walking food tour. 

Navy Pier ferris wheel in Chicago
The ferris wheel at Navy Pier in downtown Chicago. Navy Pier is home to Winter Wonderfest in December. Photo courtesy Ranvestel Photographic/Choose Chicago

See trees in a different light

OK, technically this is outside of the city, but I hear “Illumination: Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum” is worth the drive. This annual holiday event at Morton Arboretum features an illuminated path of trees programmed with lights, video and audio.

See the city from way up high

Chicago will be my kids’ first encounter with legit skyscrapers. I can’t wait to take them to one of the tourist spots to get a bird’s-eye view of the city. If we’re feeling daring, there’s the TILT experience and viewing the city from Hancock Tower’s Observation Deck or The Ledge experience at the Skydeck at Willis Tower.

Willis Tower The Ledge view
Looking down at Chicago from The Ledge at the Skydeck on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower. Photo courtesy Ranvestel Photographic/Choose Chicago

Holiday fun at Art Institute of Chicago

Wish we were in Chicago in December so we could attend the annual Holiday Treasure Hunt and Tea Party at Art Institute of Chicago.  This year, it’s on Sunday, Dec. 9. We’re also missing the annual Hanging the Wreaths on the Lions there (it’s earlier in November). I’m OK going to the museum without the additional holiday event crowds, though. I’ve never been there, and it’s been named the No. 1 museum in the world so I’d better fix that.

Related post: Tips For Taking Kids To The 3 Biggest Chicago Museums

Art Institute of Chicago lion statue with Christmas wreath
The lion statues in front of the Art Institute of Chicago get a holiday makeover each year. Photo courtesy Adam Alexander Photography Photo/Choose Chicago

Holiday dining to remember

While researching dinging options, some restaurants in Chicago stood out for making dining between Thanksgiving and Christmas a special occasion, if only for unique decorations. First on the list is The Walnut Room at Macy’s, which was the first restaurant in a department store ever opening in 1905. Word is, at Christmas time, there is a 45-foot-tall tree, which sparkles with 3,000 ornaments and 6,000 LED lights, in the dining room. A bit more casual is Butch McGuire’s, a bar that goes all out for Christmas with thousands of lights and a double-decker model train. The Local Tourist says children are welcome for lunch and brunch.

Dine like a spy

OK, this is not holiday related, but my kids are at an age when a visit to SafeHouse Chicago sounds so perfect, it has to happen when we’re there. SafeHouse is often described as a spy-themed bar and club, but if you go during the day, you can dine at a restaurant that sounds surprisingly family-friendly (at least, that’s what it sounded like to me on this post on The Beckham Project). My kids’ imaginations will have a field day at this place.

Window shop

How could I not when the stores will be decorated for Christmas shoppers? I hear Macy’s has a good display each year.

Ice skate outdoors

One of my friends who lived in Chicago for years recommended two different places to ice skate: McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in Millennium Park, with its iconic skyline views, and Skating Ribbon at Maggie Daly Park, which breaks the mold of the typical oval ice rink. Rumor has it there may be a special Skate With Santa event. I’m crossing my fingers for an unusually warm winter day so we can visit.  

McCormick Tribune Ice Rink at Millennium Park in Chicago
Nighttime at the ice rink at Millennium Park in Chicago. Photo courtesy City of Chicago/Choose Chicago

Be in Chocolate Heaven

What’s the best drink for the holidays? Hot chocolate. Xoco has a churros and a spicy hot chocolate that are calling to me, but there are so many places to try, from Mindy’s HotChocolate to the over-the-top “hotter chocolate” creations at BomboBar.

Why stop with hot chocolate? Chocolate at the Pen is a chocolate bar at the Peninsula Hotel held every Friday and Saturday night and it is the stuff I’ve been dreaming about. Also, word is there’s a Nutella bar at Eataly (in addition to a ton of Italian food that’s rumored to be stunningly good).

Lights, Santa & animals

Winter isn’t typically the most popular time to visit a zoo, but I bet things get a little busy at ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo. It’s been running for 24 years. This evening event is FREE (just like the zoo itself), and I hear Santa waits for kids at the Kovler Lion House. My question – how many animals do we actually see at ZooLights? 

ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago
ZooLights runs from mid-November to early January each year at Lincoln Park Zoo. Photo courtesy Adam Alexander Photography Photo/Choose Chicago

Stroll the indoor gardens

Conservatories and indoor gardens are my favorite in the winter – they’re like a little oasis in the cold. Two places in Chicago have holiday displays to visit. Wonderland Express at Chicago Botanic Gardens features miniature trains, indoor snow and beautiful gardens from mid-November to early January. Garfield Conservatory has its annual Holiday Show from mid-November to early January, too, and this one has a bonus of being FREE.

Wonderland Express at Chicago Botanical Garden
Christmas celebrity sighting: Mrs. Claus at Wonderland Express at Chicago Botanic Garden. Photo courtesy Chicago Botanic Garden/Choose Chicago

Golden ticket to ride

How special is this? There’s The Polar Express Train Ride in Chicago. I’m visiting Chicago a little too early to do this one, though. It’s an Amtrack event from Chicago Union Station Nov. 30 through Jan. 1. Best part? You can wear PJs.

Making use of reciprocal membership perks

I’ve written about reciprocal membership perks, which you’ll want to read here. My Omaha Children’s Museum membership gets us FREE admission into quite a few Chicago museums. Two are on my list to visit: The Field Museum and the Museum of Science + Technology. One reason I want to go to Museum of Science + Technology this particular time of year is that there’s the annual display called “Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light.” This year, it runs Nov. 15 through Jan. 6, 2019.

Decorated trees at Museum of Science and Industry. The museum has an annual display called “Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light.” Photo courtesy J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry/Museum of Science and Industry

See the gaudy Chicago Christmas lights

Time Out called the Christmas lights in Lincolnwood Towers as “straight-up Griswald sh**.”

I’m intrigued.

Getting “Snowed Inn”

I’ve been looking into Chicago hotels that cater to families and Loews Chicago might win for my favorite holiday/winter package: Each year, they have a “Snowed Inn” themed package that includes hot cocoa & cookies, an in-room movie, and a tent set up with a little kids campfire – PLUS, for the parents, valet parking. This year, they’re also adding passes to ride the Centennial Ferris Wheel for those who book on select weekends. The location can be beat, either, when it comes to seeing the most popular Christmas sights in the city. I’ll be staying there during our stay!

Read reviews and book a stay through TripAdviser!

Loews Chicago hotel at night
Loews Chicago is a hotel near Navy Pier, Michigan Avenue shops, and a ton of restaurants. Photo courtesy Loews Chicago

Santa goes high-tech

Santa HQ, presented by HGTV, at Fashion Outlets of Chicago sounds like a high tech experience that elevates a simple visit to see Santa. It involves iPads and apps and some nifty machines that calculates how naughty or nice you’ve been.

Once-in-a-lifetime experiences

Maybe seeing a beluga isn’t exactly holiday related but no Chicago bucket list is complete without mentioning Shedd Aquarium. When I read about some of their animal encounters, like one with a beluga, I knew I needed to add it to my bucket list. Alas, the age requirement is 12 and older, so it would just be me and the beluga, my kids would just have to watch. 🙂 They can, however, join me for a penguin encounter. Fun!

Santa and a beluga whale at Shedd Aquarium
Santa and a beluga whale at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Shedd/Choose Chicago

Check back later this year for a details on our trip and see how many of these items we checked off!

My Chicago Christmas Bucket List - A big wish list of sights to see around the holidays, restaurants to visit, and not-to-miss holiday and winter traditions.

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