At the Shedd Aquarium, it is possible, at times, to imagine yourself as a fish swimming in a crowded school — especially if you try to head downstream while everybody else in the place is going up.
Drawing more then 2 million visitors each year to its relatively small neoclassical building, the place can get cramped. "You basically just have got to muscle through," one teenager told his companions recently.
But if you wanted peace and quiet, you'd sit at home and stare at the goldfish your kid brought home from the school fair. C'mon, Goldie. Jump!
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The benefits of the Shedd easily outweigh the inconvenience of occasional long waits to enter or the jostling in the main floor galleries or at the railings beside the beluga whale tanks.
There's a reason this lakefront architectural gem — note the wave motif at the building's top edge — annually leads zoos and museums in the city in paid attendance. Billing itself as "the world's aquarium," the institution strikes a neat balance between traditional, tanks-in-the-walls displays and the more modern approach of open pools and naturalistic habitats. Along the way, it reminds visitors that although most of our planet is covered in large bodies of water, what's inside them remains, to a surprising degree, mysterious, almost otherworldly.
In one tank, you might spot Granddad, billed as the oldest aquatic animal in any public aquarium in the world. The Australian lungfish came to the Shedd in 1933, three years after the place opened. He doesn't look like much or do all that much — unless you count connecting past to present.
The Grand Cayman blue iguana sits magisterially on its rock, a scaly reminder of the scientific research that the aquarium staff conducts in the Bahamas and of the fact that not every animal in an aquarium needs to be wet all the time.
In the Amazon rain forest display, the daylight coming in through the skylights will surprise you, especially after your eyes have begun to adjust to the darkened aquarium milieu. More shocking are the titi and Goeldi's monkeys and the arapaima, man-sized river fish.
Those are all in the upstairs galleries, laid out like spokes surrounding the central hub, the aging but vibrant 90,000-gallon Caribbean Reef tank, which looks like something out of a Jules Verne novel. Catch one of the regular visits Shedd divers make into the tank. What ensues is not quite a feeding frenzy, but it is at least a feeding brouhaha.
And when you want more space, more of a feeling of openness, head downstairs to the two lower-level lakefront additions: From 2003 is the Wild Reef exhibit, which puts visitors inside a Philippine coral reef, tanks of fish surrounding them, even overhead.
But the older and more effective of the two is the spectacular Abbott Oceanarium, from 1991, which seems to merge into Lake Michigan — until the scrim comes down for the dolphin (and whale and penguin and, yes, dog) show.
With a Pacific Northwest theme, the oceanarium showcases white-sided dolphins, the aquarium's prized white belugas, sea lions and sea otters.
You can also catch a breath — and some relief from crowds inside — in the Stingray Touch exhibit, new in 2013, out on the south terrace during warm-weather months. De-barbed rays glide around in a shallow pool as visitors try to will them close enough to the edges to be stroked. Indoors, there's also a new-in-2013 pool where you can pet sturgeon.
Both are interesting experiences and welcome changes from the usual distance between aquarium animals and their visitors, but dogs they aren't.
Founded by John Shedd, a president of the department store Marshall Field & Co. in the early 20th century, the aquarium shares the city's Museum Campus with the Adler Planetarium and the Field Museum of Natural History (and Soldier Field, where the Bears play, and, perhaps, the George Lucas Museum, announced in June 2014).
You might be tempted to try, in one day, the Shedd-Adler-Field trifecta, but be prudent and limit yourself to, at most, two. En route from one to another, be sure to walk the Shedd grounds, which feature gorgeous gardens on all sides. Especially spectacular is the cascading welcome garden in the middle of the roundabout to the south of the Shedd and east of the Field.
Parking, in surface lots, is expensive and limited; early arrival helps. Otherwise, try public transportation, a taxi, a vigorous walk across the park from the South Loop or one of the city's shareable Divvy bikes. Perhaps best of all, you can stay on theme and boat there, in one of the water taxis that Shoreline Cruises runs between Navy Pier and Shedd about every 20 minute.
Don't forget: To visit the floors below the oceanarium. Penguins frolic on one side of the room, while across the way, a kiddie play zone lets fledgling humans mess around in a strikingly similar habitat, minus the extreme cold and the fishy smell. This is also where you'll find the underwater viewing areas for the dolphin and beluga pools. There's even an adjunct cafe down there.
Don't miss: Yes, the animals are splendid (you'll find a special place in your heart for Cruz, rescued, blind, as a sea lion pup). But a favorite thing is just to take a break on the north terraces outside the Bubble Net Food Court. Looking over Chicago Harbor, Grant Park, Navy Pier and the Loop skyline, it's one of the best views Chicago has to offer, yours for the price of a cold drink.
Don't bother: I'm not a particular fan of movies as part of the zoo/museum/aquarium experience. If you insist, they are available at the Shedd, but remember that movies are also available on Netflix.
Pro tips: To avoid lines, come earlier or later in the day — the Shedd stays open till 6 p.m. in the summer — and buy your tickets ahead of time online. Sunday mornings are good; the crowds are much smaller, and the galleries extend their hours until 10 p.m. in the summer on Wednesday nights for Jazzin' at the Shedd.
Illinois residents can get in free 52 days per year (check the website). On regular days, adults can pay $40 for an all-experience pass, which gives you the run of the place, but the $8 general admission (not available, unfortunately, online) still lets you see a lot of the aquarium; it's one of the better sightseeing bargains in Chicago.
When: Summer hours through Labor Day: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and weekends
Where: 1200 S. Lake Shore Drive
Tickets: $8-$40; 312-939-2438 or sheddaquarium.org