I was blown away by Chicago. There are so many family things to do in Chicago and everyone fell in love with the city, including the kids. Museums chock full of family-friendly activities, Parks and playgrounds that kids will love. The river and lake give balance to the stunning architecture that will have you craning your neck upwards. Deep dish Pizza and Chicago hot dogs are a culinary experience for foodie parents and the kids aren’t complaining either.
Family things to do in Chicago
Best time to visit Chicago as a family?
April to October are the best times to visit Chicago. With late Spring and early Fall offering the best Weather. Though Summer can get hot and humid it is a great time to visit with many free concerts, events and lake-based activities.
Where to find accommodation for families in Chicago?
Chicago is a very walkable city and coupled with a good public transport system you don’t need a car when visiting Chicago. Stay in Downtown Chicago when visiting Chicago with kids. You will be close to most of the family things to do in Chicago staying in the Downtown area.
The River North Area in Downtown Chicago (West of the Magnificent Mile) has some good budget options for families which include breakfast and indoor pools, with plenty of restaurants in the area.
How to save money in Chicago
1. Take the train from the airport
Catch the train from the airport into the city, you can purchase a ticket with cash or credit card before you board the train. There are attendants to help you. Purchase a multiday pass if you are planning on using public transport a lot during your stay.
2. Buy snacks and drinks at the grocery store
Purchase snacks and baby food at my favorite supermarket Trader Joes, they also sell wine and beer, you’ll find stores throughout the city including one just off the Magnificent Mile.
3. Consider a CityPass
Purchase a City Pass to bundle your attractions and save on your family trip to Chicago.
4. Check for local deals on Groupon
Check Groupon a week or tow before your visit to find discounted attractions, experiences, and dining option.
5. Buy a reciprocal museum membership
Consider purchasing a science museum annual pass in your home state and get free access to the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium and Museum of Science and Industry (check the fine print).
6. Walk and take public transport
Walk and use public transportation when possible. Use car sharing apps like Uber or Lyft to save money on Taxis. Don’t want the hassle of a car seat use a Mifold, RideSafer Vest or Bubblebum rather than lug a car seat.
7. Use travel points
Use points or earn points by staying at a chain hotel in Downtown Chicago.
8. Carry a reusable water bottle
You will find water fountains in museums and parks and they can be refilled in restaurants and cafes when you are purchasing food.
Family things to do in Chicago with kids
Eat Deep Dish Pizza
If this is your first trip to Chicago trying deep dish Pizza is a must. Deep dish pizza is almost like a cross between a pie and a pizza and is very different to its thin crusted cousins. A buttery crust is layered with with a thick layer of creamy, stretchy mozzarella, next is the topping, sausage is the classic, spinach, mushroom and pepperoni are also popular, all this is covered in freshly made tomato sauce. The Pizza can take 45 minutes
Chicago is a great city to walk around and it is worthwhile incorporating a walk along the popular river walk while you are exploring city. Enjoy the views across the river to the sky scrapers straddling each side while boats flow past with tourists waving and snapping picks. Be prepared to take some stairs so the walk is best done without a stroller.
Millineum park is perfectly positioned with Lake Michigan on one side and Chicago’s sky scraper skyline in the other. The contrast between the green of the park, the grey blue of the water and the sharp architectural lines of the city behind is a stunning contrast. There is a lot to do in Millennium park with different events happening throughout the year and free concerts and outdoor movies in the throughout the summer in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Ice Skating in the winter.
The Cloud Gate
The most popular attraction in Millennium park is the Cloud Gate sculpture. Known affectionately by locals as “The Bean” this smooth, curved reflective sculpture mirrors the surrounding skyscrapers and on lookers. Kids will enjoy wandering around the sculpture and noticing how their proportions change as the reflective curves warp their image.
There are usually a lot of people visiting the sculpture so don’t to expect to get a photo sans tourists like you see in the guidebooks. There is plenty of open space and despite the crowds there is room for everyone.
50ft LED screens spill water onto the ground creating a shallow reflective pool. The large block screens display faces of Chicago residents. The fountain makes a great place for kids to cool off in the hot summer months, bring a change of clothes or pack a swimsuit for puddle jumpers.
Magey Daley Park
From the Cloud Gate walk through the Jay Pritzker Pavillion and across the sculptural metal BP bridge into Magey Daley Park. Here you will find a climbing wall, mini gulf and 5 playgrounds themed for different ages and abilities. Large tube slides for older kids and a splash fountain for younger ones. The rolling hills and valleys of rubber turf is soft on tumbles and provides a dynamic to the park that will keep kids entertained for hours.
There is a splash zone where little ones can cool off. Shade is patchy so bring a hat and sunscreen during summer months and a refillable water bottle (there are water fountains throughout the park).
Visiting the Art Institute Chicago with kids
The Art Institute in Chicago is a world-renowned museum, it’s collection of Impressionist artworks is second only to the Louvre in Paris. The collections here are very diverse contemporary and modern international and American art, art from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas as well as a collection of Arms and Armor, glass paperweights and miniatures.
A visit to the Art Institute is Chicago’s number one attraction. The building is large and once you are inside the crowds quickly disperse.
Queues for entry can be long (though they were fast-moving). You can buy your tickets online (even while waiting in the queue) to take the fast track entrance or try your luck at the Modern Wing Entrance.
An itinerary for the Art Institute Chicago with kids
Download the app before you go and pick up a map.
You won’t have time to visit all the exhibitions in the museum so plan what are your must-sees and take it from there.
Once you have an idea of what you would like to see head to the Ryan Learning Centre in the Modern Wing. Here you can make a custom family tour with the Journey Maker. This creates a kind of treasure hunt with tasks to complete as each art piece is found.
From the Ryan learning centre, we chose to head to the top of the Modern Wing starting in the International Modern Art exhibits. I find my children find Modern Art more relatable and engaging I love hearing their own interpretation of the pieces.
We then went down a level to view contemporary art on the second level of the Modern Wing. This level connects back to the main building past the Balcony Café, toilets and water fountains. Take the opportunity to refuel and freshen up here.
This takes you through to the Impressionism galleries where you will see recognizable artworks from artists such as Van Gogh and Monet.
Since we wanted to see some American artworks we headed to the Modern American Art Galleries housed on the second floor of the south wing but connected to the main building only from the first floor. Here we were able to view one of North America’s most well-known paintings Grant Wood’s American Gothic.
Before leaving we headed down to the basement level of the main building beneath the grand staircase to take a look at the collection of paperweights and the miniatures collection. The kids loved the miniatures collection which are small scale replicas of rooms in period homes, they are very well done. I was glad I had left this room until last, they were quickly loosing stamina but they had a renewed energy coming here, they loved picking out little details in each diorama and left the museum with a positivity that will help the next time we tackle an art gallery.
Try to arrive at the Buckingham Fountain around the hour. One of the largest ornamental fountains in the world the Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain sends a central jet of water 50 metres into the air every hour for 20 minutes. Check the wind direction before you choose where to wait for this spectacle or risk getting wet!
The fountain runs between May and October and is lit up in an array of colours at night.
The fountain is in Grant Park near to Millennium Park, Maggie Daley Park and the Chicago Art Institute so can be visited when in the area for one of these Chicago attractions.
The Field Museum is one of the largest Natural History Museums in the world. The museum is best known for its T-rex Sue which is the most complete specimen of a T-rex found to this day. I was lucky enough to see a cast of Sue the T-rex during a traveling exhibit in New Plymouth, New Zealand and it is really impressive.
After our recent trip to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and having to prioritize our time in Chicago we decided to skip the Field Museum on this visit but it will be at the top of our places to explore with the kids on our next visit to Chicago.
Not only does the museum have great Dinosaur displays, there is the interactive Crown Family Play Lab, an Egyptian area which is entered through a pyramid and a hall of gems for budding geologists or Minecraft enthusiasts.
Museum of Science and Industry
Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry is a fantastic place to take kids. The huge museum is housed in the former Palace of Fine Arts a historical grand building with decorative pillars and a green dome. The modern interior feels futuristic and the exhibits are interactive and hands-on.
Some of the Museum highlights include stepping inside a German submarine which was captured by the USA in WWII, seeing baby chicks hatch in front of your eyes in the Genetics exhibit, Learn the weird ways of the weather while stepping inside a tornado and simulating a Tsunami in the Science of Storms Exhibit,
In the Imagine Factory, see physics at work as kids gets to engineer and play sending plastic balls around the room in vacuum shoots and water channels (register for timed entry at the exhibit), Board a train to learn the history of rail in the Train Exhibit, Learn about the mathematics of nature and the patterns that make up this world but first you’ll have to find your way through the mirror maze in the Numbers in Nature Exhibit (register for timed entry at the exhibit).
Plus many more exhibits included in the admission price.
There are also special exhibits which incur an additional cost.
There is too much to see in one visit, to learn more about all the exhibits use the planning feature on the museum website.
If you are already a member of a science museum in the USA check for reciprocal free entry.
If you plan to visit other attractions you can also save money by purchasing a Chicago City Pass.
Architecture boat tour or Water Taxi
Chicago is a magnificent city to see from a boat and not only do you get to cruise the river but many of the boat tours also take in the view from Lake Michigan. Boat tours that go onto the lake have the added experience of going through a lock, a watertight compartment that is filled with water to raise the boat to lake level and then drained to get the boat back down to river level.
We went with Wendella boats on their river and lake architecture tour. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and had enough cheesy jokes to keep the kids and whole boat entertained for the duration of the 90-minute trip.
Chicago has a fascinating architectural history with many famous architects starting or establishing their careers here. Don’t worry if you knowledge or interest in architecture is non-existent, just being on the water, watching the passing people and boats, cruising under bridges and looking up to an ever-changing cityscape while listening to stories of a city that once literally rose out of the ashes is a great way to get to know Chicago better.
Check Groupon for discounted tickets.
For the budget-conscious taking the Chicago Water Taxi is another option, at only $6 per one way fare or $10 for a full day you can ride the water taxi getting on and off as you please.
ComedySportz Chicago a family-friendly comedy show
Chicago is known for its comedy clubs and especially the improv style of comedy. Some famous comedians started their careers in Chicago. With foul language and racy jokes and most comedy clubs are strictly adults only. ComedySportz Chicago is a guaranteed family-friendly comedy club. With improv “battles” held every weekend.
We checked it out for ourselves, buy your tickets online to secure a seat, take the red or brown line from the city to Belmont Station and you’ll find the club a few doors down. Alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks are available for purchase as well as pretzels or chips, we ate before arriving to ensure the kids wouldn’t get hungry during the show.
The show is fast-moving, interactive and all-around clean fun. Kids can volunteer to go up for some of the scenes and throw out ideas from the crowd. The show is 2 hours long with a short intermission. There were families with babies as well as teenagers and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.
Go up the Sears/Willis Tower
For 2 decades the Sears Tower was the worlds tallest building. Surpassed by the Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 1996. The name has since been changed to the Willis Tower.
The Skydeck at the Willis Tower gives a spectacular view over Chicago, Millennium Park, Buckingham Fountain, and Lake Michigan.
The view straight down is what we came for. The Willis Tower Skydeck has a unique attraction named the “Ledge”. Two glass boxes protrude out from the tower and visitors can step out into the box to get an unobstructed view straight down. A knee wobbling experience.
The Skydeck sees thousands of visitors every day and waits can reach upwards of an hour. To avoid queuing for too long you can pre-purchase your tickets, buy a fast pass ticket, make a booking at the restaurant or visit first thing in the morning or late at night.
We arrived about 15 minutes before opening, there were probably about 100 others in the queue at the same time, we waited for about 10 minutes once we reached the elevators and then waited another 10 minutes in the queue at the top to have our turn on the Ledge.
The Skydeck is also included in the Chicago City Pass which can save time and money if you are visiting other included attractions.
Visiting the Adler Planeterium was on our list of things to do in Chicago with kids but we simply ran out of time. The Adler Planeterium is also included with many reciprocal science museum memberships as well as an option on the Chicago City Pass. We will be back to explore the universe here next time we are in Chicago for a weekend with kids.
The Shedd Aquarium is a popular attraction to visit in Chicago with kids. The Beluga whales that are on display here are one of the big drawcards. We had recently visited the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans so didn’t feel the need to consider this aquarium as well.
If you are considering a visit please take a moment to research and consider the ethics of any aquarium or zoo that you visit and decide whether it is right for your family.
I hope you love Chicago as much as we did.