When our family moved to the Chicago area nine years ago, we were pleasantly surprised by the wealth of kid-friendly activities the city has to offer. Chicago almost feels like a city built with children’s entertainment in mind.From the Lincoln Park Zoo to the Museum of Science and Industry, the city offers destinations for children of all ages, which makes it a perfect destination for a family getaway.
Chicago is a city made for walking (except in the dead of winter). Gorgeous architecture abounds, but there is also a sparkling lakefront, a charming river, world class restaurants and endless shopping. These are the features that make the city attractive to adults, but children find the city appealing for many other reasons. In creating this post, I decided that my kids (ages 7, 9, and 11) would be the best ones to ask about their favorite Chicago attractions. Hopefully, their perspective will help guide you in choosing the sights you want to visit with your family.
Top Sights Your Kids Will Want to See in Chicago
Museum of Science and Industry
This museum is located south of downtown in the Hyde Park neighborhood and will require transportation via bus, train, or taxi if you do not have your own car. It is the one museum in town that my kids ask to visit over and over again. The building itself was originally built for the 1893 Columbian Exposition as the Palace of Fine Arts. Today it is home to a Zephyr train, U-505 submarine, and a Boeing 727. Yes, all of these fit inside the building and you can explore inside each one of them. The kids love exploring each and every exhibit, with their favorites being the vortex show, the model train railroad, and the baby chick hatchery. There is an IMAX theater with rotating content, just check the website www.msichicago.org before you go to find current events and exhibits. The museum may be further afield than other city attractions, but it is definitely worth the visit!
2. Skydeck at Willis Tower
As a parent, I would consider this a one and done experience. Don’t waste your money if there is low visibility because the only reason to go is the view. I will say, kids go crazy for the experience, but my wallet thought the $19 price tag for adults was a bit steep. (Kids ages 3-11 are $12 and under 3 are free). Your money will buy you a brief history of the building, an elevator ride to the top floor, breathtaking 360° views of Chicago, and a chance to “step out” onto a 4 foot glass ledge 103 floors above ground, if that sort of thing appeals to you. This is a great photo opportunity and a chance to see and do something that is unique to Chicago. The kids will always remember the experience, and I guess that alone is worth the cost of admission.
3. The Bean, Crown Fountain, and Millennium Park
Millennium Park is centrally located along Michigan Avenue and provides a great place for a family to unwind. During the summer it is host to many free concerts, performances, and festivals, but the rest of the year it is a great place to gather and let the kids run free. One of the main attractions is the 66 foot long sculpture known as “Cloud Gate”. My kids (and most Chicagoans) call it “The Bean” because it looks like a giant stainless steel bean. A reflection of the Chicago skyline can be seen from all sides and you can even walk underneath the sculpture. People from all over the world stop here for their “fun house” photos and the kids want to visit every time we head downtown. Adjacent to this you will find the Crown Fountain and tons of wet, screaming children. The fountains are actually two separate fifty foot towers that display images of Chicago residents on a giant video screen. When the face on the screen smiles, water comes pouring from their mouth, dousing the children that have gathered below. Your children will quickly decide to join in the fun. The best part about all of the above attractions: they’re free.
4. The Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, and Shedd Aquarium
These three museums are located in the area known as Museum Campus, next to Soldier Field (where the Chicago Bears play football). The kids ranked these above in their order of preference, and I’m inclined to agree. If you are going to see all three, you may want to look into the Chicago CityPASS which offers a combined discount when visiting all the sights.
The Field Museum is great for all ages with its world famous T-rex skeleton, ancient Egyptian mummies, and newly restored Hall of Gems. There is a family play area on the lower level where kids can play musical instruments, dress in animal costumes, and dig for fossils. As a practical matter, there are a lot of stairs on the north and south side of the building, so if you have a stroller, use the entrance on the east. Also, lines tend to be shorter on the north side of the building since it is the furthest from the parking lot.
The Adler Planetarium is not on my kids’ favorite list, but I thought I should mention it. The Adler is everything you would expect from a planetarium. Exhibits revolve around space and stars, with some hands on activities. It doesn’t take more than a couple of hours to see everything, but if you are short on time, skip it.
The third museum on the campus is the Shedd Aquarium. If you have been to Sea World, do not go here. You will be hugely disappointed. The dolphin show is mediocre at best and the only redeeming animals are the beluga whales and penguins. The rest of the place consists of a bunch of fish in large aquariums. Great if you like that sort of thing, but even our kids think this place isn’t worth a visit.
5. Lincoln Park Zoo
Located just north of downtown in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, you will find one of the very few zoos in the United States that has free admission. It does however, charge $20 for parking, unless you can find free parking on the street. You can reach the zoo by taxi or bus if you don’t have a car. The kids will enjoy the gorillas and chimpanzees, the Children’s Zoo with its amazing climbing canopy, the carousel, and the farm area. The nicely manicured grounds provide a lovely background for strolling while visiting the animals. For a free city zoo, this really can’t be beat.
6. Navy Pier and the Chicago Children’s Museum
If the weather is great, then Navy Pier is the place to be. I would describe it as a boardwalk/mall with a ferris wheel and children’s museum thrown in for good measure. During the summer, tourists and locals alike congregate at Navy Pier for fireworks in the evening and picnics along the lakefront. The pier has a 150 foot ferris wheel that provides a great view of the city day or night, a swing ride, miniature golf, and different midway attractions. There are many restaurants to choose from and it is easy to spend an afternoon on the pier. It is also the starting point for most waterfront tours. The Chicago Children’s Museum within Navy Pier is probably best suited for kids ages 9 and under. It features a climbing tower, dinosaur excavation pit, a water works station and many other play areas. Tons of fun for the little ones!
7. Art Institute of Chicago
Not your typical kids’ museum, but mine were pleasantly surprised on our most recent visit. Admission for adults can be steep, but kids under 14 are free. The museum occasionally offers free days, so keep an eye out for those. The museum will not appeal to all children, nor all ages, so if you know your kids don’t like art museums, skip this. The museum has two wings, the original building and the new modern wing. The highlights for our kids were the Impressionist rooms, the Medieval Arms and Armor room, and the Ancient and Byzantine collections. We like to play a game in each room to engage the kids. We call it “What’s My Favorite”. When we enter the room, everyone finds their favorite piece, and we take turns trying to guess which piece they have selected. Then we try to discuss their reason for choosing that particular piece. Wow, the things kids will say. The other steadfast rule we have is no one leaves a room before everyone is finished. This helps keep them corralled.
Shockingly, my kids were pretty spot on with their choices. I would agree with most of their selections and would be remiss if I didn’t throw in a few shout-outs for their favorite places to eat. Best bets for breakfast include, Yolk (Streeterville) and Hash House A Go-Go (Gold Coast neighborhood). For a unique hot dog experience you will want to visit Hot Doug’s (north side near Wrigleyville) or have a burger at DMK Burger in Lincoln Park (near the zoo). Those with a sweet tooth won’t want to miss the cheddar and caramel Chicago mix popcorn at Garrett Popcorn (Navy Pier or Michigan Avenue) or stop in for a cupcake at Sweet Mandy B’s (also in Lincoln Park). My son with peanut/tree nut allergies can eat at all of these places (except for the popcorn).
I can honestly say, Chicago is an October sort of city even in the spring (Nelson Algren) because there truly are great times to explore the city with children and most of those fall between the months of May and September. Don’t get me wrong, I love all the city has to offer, but there are some times of the year that make for better sightseeing. The people here are friendly and the city is cleaner than most big cities I have visited. Bring the kids the next time you travel to Chicago. You won’t be disappointed.