Before my family moves from a city, we create a bucket list of places we want to visit one last time. After ten moves in eleven years, we are finally settled in the Chicago area. However, if we were to move again, these places would be on our moving bucket list. Whether you are moving to Chicago or visiting Chicago for a weekend, here are our favorite things to do in Chicago with kids.
Things to Do in Chicago With Kids When the Weather is Nice
Travel by water taxi
The best way to travel in Chicago is by boat. You don’t even need to have a final destination in mind. The taxi ride itself is worth the cost as you enjoy the city skyline from the Chicago River. Take a water taxi from Ogilvie or Union Station to Navy Pier (Michigan Ave. stop), River North, or Chinatown. For the best deal, purchase a 10-ride pass online, and you can share the pass among your entire family. As of June 2019, the cost of the 10-ride pass is $20 on weekdays and $50 on weekends, but it’s only available online. Tickets purchased on the boat will cost you $6.00 for a one-way ticket.
Visit the beach, a splash pad or the “face fountains”
Chicagoans know how to do summer. In my opinion, Chicago is the #1 city in the world to visit during the summer. The Oak Street, North Avenue and Fullerton beaches are a short distance from River North or Lincoln Park Zoo. If you’re lucky, you may time your visit when the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels zoom over Lake Michigan during the Chicago Air and Water Show in August. If you are in Millennium Park, your kids will love getting soaked by the human faces (also known as Crown Fountain). There are also splash pads scattered throughout the city. Bring a swim suit, towel, and flip flops.
Enjoy the city skyline while the kids play at Maggie Daley Park
A more recent addition to downtown Chicago, you won’t want to miss the playground at Maggie Daley Park. However, if you have young kids, the park gets crowded, so you may need to keep a careful eye on the little ones. We’ve only done the free playground (it’s awesome), but there are tons of activities to choose from such as a climbing wall or mini golf.
Visit the Bean (Instagram photo op)
While you are downtown, take some family photos at the Bean. It’s technically called “Cloud Gate” but if you ask for directions to Cloud Gate, you’ll get a blank stare from Chicagoans. Instead ask, “Can you tell me where the giant bean is?” Once you snap some family pics, go under the bean and look at your reflection. Instead of seeing your mirror image, you see yourself as the world sees you. Mind blown, I know. Lift up your right hand and your left hand waves back. The kids will get a kick out of that.
Go ice skating in downtown Chicago
If you visit Chicago during the winter season, the city transforms into an ice skater’s dream. You can either visit a traditional ice skating rink by the Bean at McCormick Tribune Ice Rink or take a spin around the Maggie Daley Park in the Skating Ribbon.
Take a bike ride along Lake Michigan
The bike path along Lake Michigan is one of the most beautiful bike paths in the country. Rent bikes for the entire family at North Avenue beach or use the Chicago bike share system, Divvy. The crowds thin out as you head south and pass downtown. For a spectacular view of Chicago, bike to the Shedd Aquarium and look towards the city.
Watch a free outdoor movie at Grant Park
Pack a blanket and a picnic dinner to watch a movie under the stars at Grant Park. Here’s the summer lineup.
Listen to a free concert at Millennium Park
If you’d rather listen to music than watch a movie, stroll over to Millennium Park for a free music concert. You can sometimes catch the Chicago Symphony Orchestra practicing for an evening performance at the Pritzker Pavillion, so it’s not a bad place to sit and enjoy your lunch.
Visit the Lincoln Park Zoo & Farms
I raised my kids at the Lincoln Park Zoo. It’s free and it’s fun and it’s fabulous. Check out the polar bears, the primate house, the seals, and the big cats. The kids also enjoy climbing in the indoor playground (aka. the Children’s Zoo). If you’re traveling with younger kids, don’t miss the Farms exhibit. There are farm animals, a giant tractor, and some hands-on activities. Go to the Farms on Wednesday mornings for a Sing Along with Mr. Singer. To avoid zoo parking fees, take the CTA bus (151 or 156) or an Uber from downtown.
Drive up north to the Chicago Botanic Garden
A 30 to 45-minute drive from the city, the Chicago Botanic Garden is my happy place. Entry is $25 per vehicle on weekdays and $30 on weekends. Take a Bingo sticker sheet from the front desk so the kids can look for butterflies and tomatoes as you walk through the gardens. There are also free musical concerts throughout the summer and one geared specifically to young kids on Wednesday evenings at 5:30 PM.
Things to Do in Chicago With Kids When the Weather Isn’t So Nice
Let the Kids Explore at the Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier
From toddlers to young teens, there’s something for everyone here. Older kids will gravitate towards the Climbing Schooner while younger kids will like the Kids Town Market and the Play It Safe Firetruck. There’s underground parking, so you can leave the winter coats in the car. Check about reciprocity with your local children’s museum. While you’re at Navy Pier, see if there are other activities that your kids would enjoy like the Ferris Wheel.
See a real U-505 Submarine at the Museum of Science and Industry
You will be impressed by this historical submarine and the interactive exhibits. The U-505 submarine is a “Must See”. The Science Storms are awesome, too. If I had to pick one and only one museum to take the family to in Chicago, it would be this one. The Museum of Science and Industry is cool and educational and a little less crowded than the other museums that are closer to downtown.
Watch the Beluga Whales and Dolphins at the Shedd Aquarium
I love aquariums and Chicago has one of the best. The views from the Shedd Aquarium are spectacular as you watch the beluga whales, dolphins, and otters perform in the Oceanarium.
Meet the World’s Largest Dinosaur at the Field Museum
If your kids are into dinosaurs, this is the museum for you.
See the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago
Before you go to the Art Institute, you may want to read The Sixty-Eight Rooms by Marianne Malone. It’s about kids who find a key that magically shrinks them so they’re small enough to sneak into the museum and explore the different Thorne miniature rooms. They travel into the time that the room represents and they meet the characters from that time period (similar to The Magic Tree House books). Here are some other fun exhibits for families to check out at the Art Institute.
Become a Ninja Warrior at Little Beans Cafe (Evanston, IL)
If your kids have had enough with the museums and they just want to run around and be ninjas (who doesn’t?), let them harness that energy into the Ninja Warrior Course at Little Beans Café. Younger kids can play in a mini town or they can play sports in the half-court gym. [Addendum: My ten-year-old daughter said Little Beans was her favorite choice because it’s more fun than going to a museum].
[Image provided by Little Beans Cafe].
See a show at Emerald City Theater or Broadway in Chicago
The Chicago theater scene is outstanding. You can get reduced rates at HotTix, Goldstar or Groupon. Try the box office, too, for better pricing. We’ve never seen a bad show in Chicago with the kids.
Visit the American Girl Store and Lego Store (but hold onto your wallet)
This may be the most expensive activity you do in Chicago with the kids, so be careful. Admire the beautiful dolls and the salon and the restaurant at the American Girl store. Then, head next door to the Lego Store. If you’ve been saying “No” throughout this shopping trip, your defenses may be down so beware of the Scooped Cookie Dough Bar at the bottom of the escalator.
Places to Volunteer with Kids in the Chicago Area
You may not think about volunteering when you’re on vacation, but my family has so much fun when we go to these places. If you’re in Chicago for an extended time, here are some great opportunities for family bonding.
Volunteer at Bernie’s Book Bank (Lake Bluff, IL)
Bernie’s Book Bank distributes children’s books to at-risk kids throughout Chicagoland. My family loves volunteering here because we’re surrounded by books, we’re helping others, and we’re working hard towards a common goal. The kids feel a sense of accomplishment when they look at their completed pile of stickered, sorted books ready to give to those in need. Shifts are two hours and kids of all ages can participate.
Help Other Kids at Feed My Starving Children (multiple locations)
Feed My Starving Children is a Christian non-profit that provides nutritional meals to malnourished children around the world. Kids of all ages can get involved in hand-packing the meals. You may be the person adding the soy or weighing the contents or sealing the bags. Energizing music plays while you pack the meals and, at the end, you learn exactly how many people were helped by your efforts. Two-hour commitment.
Do Kind Crafts at The Kindness Connection at Northbrook Court (Northbrook, IL)
Do crafts with your kids and help others at this unique store in a mall (which also has an AMC movie theater and an indoor play space). Think Build-A-Bear meets arts & crafts space. When you walk into the store, you can choose your project and your recipient. You can choose to help veterans, children, seniors, or animals with projects ranging from making stuffed animals to creating jewelry. Check out the drop-in hours before you visit, because they vary from mall hours.
[Image provided by The Kindness Connection]
Places to Enjoy Tasty Treats with Kids in Chicago
Visit the Cupcake ATM
Sure, you could go inside Sprinkles Cupcakes, but my kids prefer to order their cupcakes from the ATM. The video feed shows you the behind-the-scenes action as the mechanical arm fetches your cupcake. What’s not to love?
Check out Dylan’s Candy Bar
It’s colorful. It’s filled with candy. It’s on Michigan Avenue.
Go out for Deep Dish Pizza
When in Chicago, you eat deep dish. It’s just what you do. I like all the different pizza places (Lou Malnati’s and Gino’s East), but my friend saw Jude Law at the Giordano’s on Rush St. Once. A long time ago. But, still… you never know. It takes an hour to make a deep dish pizza, so if the kids (or parents) get restless, consider calling ahead to order.
Stop in for a quick bite at Eataly
If you don’t want to do a whole sit-down meal, you can peruse the food and drink options at Eataly, an Italian marketplace. (You can also dine in). Grab some bread, salami, cheese, tiramisu, and a glass of wine, and you’re ready to continue sightseeing. This isn’t a stroller-friendly place as it can get crowded and the aisles are narrow, but it’s a feast for the eyes.
Take the kids to R.J. Grunt’s for Temperature Soup
Across from the Lincoln Park Zoo, you’ll find one of the first Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants. I like tons of their restaurants, but a great family-friendly option is R.J. Grunt’s. You can get burgers, shakes, and Temperature Soup (the cost of the soup is the temperature of the lake – the colder it is, the less you pay).
For a splurge, go to an all-you-can-eat chocolate bar or tea at a fancy hotel
I never thought my kids would say, “I can’t eat any more chocolate,” but that’s what happened after a celebratory evening at the Chocolate Bar in the Peninsula Hotel. I powered through, though, and got my money’s worth. The chocolate bar is pricey, but it’s an unforgettable and delicious experience. If you’d rather feed your kids more than chocolate, you can treat the family to a lovely afternoon tea.
[Image provided by The Peninsula Chicago].
If You Can Get a Baby-Sitter…
There are a million phenomenal restaurants in Chicago but I’m not a foodie. Instead, my husband and I like to enjoy what Chicago does best – comedy. It’s no wonder that all of the greats started out here. Again, not hyperbole. It’s just the facts, ma’am. If you get a chance, go to an improv show at Second City or watch stand-up at Zanies.