Updated: June 15, 2016
The 15 Best Things to Do in Chicago with Kids
- Chicago City Pass – Admission to some of Chicago’s top attractions. Great for saving money.
1. Chicago River by Boat
Open Daily, 9 a.m. – 9 p.m.
The absolute best way to start your visit to Chicago with a win-win for adults and kids is to tour the city’s great architecture (win for the adults!) by boat (win for the kids!). If your kids are under 12, stick to shorter tours, which tend to be more casual and family-friendly. (Teens might be ready for some of the longer 90-minute tours that go into more architectural details).
My pick for best of the boats goes to family-owned Wendella Sightseeing Tours, in operation since the 1920s and run by the Borgstrom family. Choose the Chicago River Experience Tour (Adult: $19; Child: $16.50; 45 minutes), which departs from the Wendella Dock at 400 N. Michigan Ave., near the Wrigley Building, on the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and the river. Arrive 30 minutes before your scheduled tour. You can take your stroller on board, but be aware that you need to descend steps to reach the dock. Drinks and snacks and restrooms are available on board, and you will be seated – the ride can be chilly, so bring a jacket! Not only do you get to ride the iconic Chicago Water Taxi boats, but this river-only tour provides you with views of the Main Branch and part of the South Branch of the Chicago River including Willis Tower.
2. Chicago Riverwalk
Open daily, 6 a.m. – 11 p.m.
A dramatic change of scene from street level, the Chicago Riverwalk is another fantastic option for taking in the grandeur of the skyscrapers along the river’s edge. Ramp and elevator improvements provide universal access between street and river levels, making it very accessible for families with strollers.
A continuous walkway from Lake Michigan to Lake Street on the south bank of the Chicago River, Chicago’s $110 million Riverwalk project (it will be completed in late 2016) can be accessed from many points, but families might want to start at the Clark Street Bridge and walk east to the lake. From west to east, you’ll see notable landmarks including Marina City, Trump International Hotel & Tower, the Wrigley Building, Tribune Building, NBC Building, Centennial Fountain, and the Aqua. The riverwalk is great for walking, biking, running and roller blading — there are areas to rent bikes and kayak, and areas to just sit, relax and watch the boats sail by.
3. Millennium Park
Open daily, 8 a.m. – 11 p.m.
A trip to Chicago wouldn’t be complete without a photo of your family’s reflection in ‘The Bean,” a stunning sculpture that’s essentially a large fun-house mirror, with a warped reflection of the Chicago Skyline in the background. On a warm day, your kids will want to splash and play in Crown Fountain, featuring two 50-foot glass block towers facing each other across a black granite plaza, water cascading down their sides. Faces of Chicagoans are projected through the glass blocks – look out, because their mouths spew water when you least expect it!
The stunning centerpiece of the park is the Frank Gehry-designed band shell, The Jay Pritzker Pavilion, behind which is the BP Pedestrian Bridge, which curves and winds its way over Columbus Drive. When you reach the bridge’s precipice, you’ll be overlooking the lake as well as Maggie Daley Park, named for the former First Lady of Chicago, which opened in spring 2015.
4. Maggie Daley Park
Open daily, 6 a.m. – 11 p.m.
Chicago’s newest park, situated on a formerly neglected 25 acres in the northeast corner of Grant Park, opened in 2015 to rave reviews. This enormous playground is already a hit with families. The park features a quarter-mile skating ribbon that undulates as it winds around a 40-foot-tall climbing wall. The skating ribbon is so large that it can accommodate up to 700 people!
If ice isn’t your forte, maybe climbing is. The world’s largest rock climbing wall, with 19,000 square feet of climbing, sits at the center of the skating ribbon and costs $29 for first-time climbers (that includes a lesson) and $7 for experienced climbers. It’s open 10 a.m.-8 p.m., seven days a week. Even if you’re not a climber, find a picnic table and watch climbers as they traverse the wall. For the younger kiddos, multiple themed play spaces surround the climbing wall, including “The Sea” and “Slide Crater.”
5. 606 Trail, AKA “The 606”
Open daily, 6 a.m. – 11 p.m.
Opened in Spring 2015, this 2.7-mile was trail created from an abandoned elevated rail line on Chicago’s west side and is also known as the Bloomingdale Trail. Popular with joggers and cyclists, the trail is a perfect outdoor excursion for families, and can be accessed by four ground-level parks, from Humboldt Park to Bucktown as it connects neighborhoods with tree-lined paths. Start at Julia de Burgos Park (named after the Puerto Rican poet), located at 1805 N. Albany Ave., and head east, toward Churchhill Park (1825 N. Damen Ave.), which has a scenic plaza where you can overlook bustling Damen Avenue. Warning: the trail has a dearth of public bathrooms, so plan accordingly. Most restaurants will accommodate parents with kids in tow, but you could find yourself a fair distance from a restaurant with no public restrooms in sight.
6. Garfield Park Conservatory
Open daily, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., Wednesdays until 8 p.m.
After a hail storm destroyed 60 percent of this historic conservatory’s glass roof in 2011, a $16 million renovation today has the Conservatory back and looking better than ever. With two acres under glass, the Conservatory (designed in 1907 by great landscape designer Jens Jensen), the Conservatory is one of the largest gardens under glass in the world.
The Elizabeth Morse Genius Children’s Garden and the Play and Grow Garden offer kids the opportunity to immerse themselves in a botanical wonderland, with a seven-foot seed climbing wall and a twirling stem slide. Part playground, part children’s museum and part greenhouse, curious kids can unravel the many mysteries of plant life or hunt for some of the most unusual specimens found in the Conservatory. Young explorers will encounter the Sensitive Plant, so shy that it cringes when touched, and the Balsa Tree, which emits a hollow sound when the trunk is tapped.
7. Wrigley Field
Days and times vary based on game schedule
Root, root, root for the Cubbies at this, one of the nation’s most historic ballparks. Since the Cub’s acquisition by the Ricketts family in 2009, change has been afoot at Wrigley Field, and a historic restoration and expansion project, dubbed “The 1060 Project” (the field’s address is 1060 W. Addison St.) is underway. The project started after the 2014 season ended, and will be completed in four years.
Visitors can already notice structural upgrades, a 75-foot LED video board in left field (offering an opportunity to watch replays, catch live in-game stats and montages of great moments in Cubs history), expanded concessions, new and improved (and sorely needed) restroom facilities, and much more. While renovations are underway, the Cubs remain a top attraction for families. Buy a hot dog and a box of Cracker Jacks and enjoy the vista, because just about any seat in this jewel box of a ballpark is a good one (families should avoid the bleachers, which get a bit rowdy). Despite the renovations, the ivy-covered outfield walls, the 75-year-old hand-operated scoreboard and views of Lake Michigan glimmering in the distance haven’t changed one bit, and hopefully never will!
8. Lincoln Park Zoo
April-May 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Memorial Day-Labor Day weekdays 10 a.m.-5 p.m., weekends 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; September-October 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; and November-March, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Free, and open 365 days a year, Chicago’s beloved Lincoln Park Zoo is not to be missed. Families with young children will want to rent a wagon, pile the kids in and tow them around the zoo’s scenic walkways (strollers are also available to rent). Make sure to check the Zoo’s website for the newest baby animals (as of this writing, we have two darling red panda cubs named Clark and Addison, after the streets that intersect at Wrigley Field). Absolutely do not miss taking a spin on the Endangered Species Carousel, where you can hop on one of 48 artisan-crafted wooden animals (tickets are $3).
9. Green City Market
May-October, outdoors in Lincoln Park, Wednesdays and Saturdays 7 a.m.-1 p.m.; November-April, indoors at Peggy Notebaert Nature Center, Saturdays 8 a.m.-1 p.m.
Chicago’s biggest and best farmer’s market, Green City Market is located at the south end of Lincoln Park between Clark and Stockton Drive (approximately 1817 N. Clark). Interact with the folks who make and grow your food – whether it’s cheese from Wisconsin, jam from Michigan, or veggies from Indiana – at this bustling 60-booth market. To participate, all producers must make or grow their foods within 250 miles of Chicago, from certified sustainable farms.
Each market day features products for children to sample, one of the markets efforts to get kids to try new, healthy foods – there are even cooking demonstrations designed just for kids. Not just for locals stocking their fridge, the market offers booths where you can pick up a snack or meal made with products from many of the farmers selling goods nearby.
10. Barrel of Monkeys: That’s Weird, Grandma
Most Mondays at 8 p.m.
The Neo-Futurist Theater, 5153 N. Ashland (tickets $6 for children; $12 for adults)
Laugh until you weep at Chicago’s most humorous, kid-inspired theater, now in its 14th year. Bold, smart and funny, this fast-moving variety show takes child-written stories (generated in Barrel of Monkeys’ creative writing classes, taught in Chicago Public Schools) and adapts them to the stage. You’ll see as many as 16 short skits, presented in rapid-fire approach. The talented cast creates one to three new sketches and songs each week, meaning you’ll never see the same show twice.
While created for the young set, the shows are appropriate for all ages (there are some subtle jokes thrown in for the parents) and will appeal to young and old. It’s a fun first theater experience for kids, and visiting the Andersonville neighborhood where the Neo-Futurist Theater is located, is also sure to delight. For a family-friendly pre-theater dinner, stop in at nearby Reza’s, 5255 N. Clark St., for kebobs, fluffy basmati rice and hummus).
11. Navy Pier
Open year-round; Hours vary according to season; Free admission
Sometimes berated by Chicagoans as the city’s #1 Tourist Trap, Navy Pier does in fact rank as the state’s top tourist attraction. Tourism is the point here, so if you can’t beat ‘em why not join ‘em? The most visible icon, the giant Ferris wheel ($6 per ride) will soon be replaced with a new wheel that’s 50 feet taller — just in time for Navy Pier’s centennial celebration in 2016.Navy Pier is currently undergoing a $300 million reinvention project designed to create a more upscale appeal, including new restaurants and the addition of a boutique hotel.
For families, the main attractions include Seadog boat rides and the Chicago Children’s Museum (see next entry). The Seadog Extreme Thrill Ride is a scream, as you cruise along with rock-n-roll blasting, getting splashed as the boat does 180-360 degree spins, all while your upbeat host keeps up a lively narration about Chicago. To ride, kids must be 48 inches tall. Tickets are $29.95 for adults; $19.95 for kids through age 12.
12. Chicago Children’s Museum
Monday – Wednesday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m.- 6 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (Thursdays offer free admissions via Target Free Family Night, 5-8 p.m.) $14 for children and adults
Located on Navy Pier, Chicago Children’s Museum features several must-experience exhibits that appeal mostly to kids under the age of 8. Favorites include the Dinosaur Expedition exhibit, which lets kids dig for dinosaur bones in an authentic excavation pit; WaterWays, an interactive system of pulleys, pumps, and pipes showcasing the wonders of water; and the ever-popular Kids Town, an early-learning exhibit featuring a real CTA bus, mini-grocery store and kid-sized cityscape. Perfect for a rainy day or a stop after a Seadog boat ride at Navy Pier, the museum is slated for expansion in the coming year, so be sure to check the website before visiting.
13. The Skydeck at Willis Tower
April – September 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; October – March 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
Daredevils, here’s your chance to step outside the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and get an amazing family photo in the process. The Ledge is the latest addition to the Skydeck, located on the 103rd floor of Willis Tower. The Ledge provides a glass balcony experience 1,353 feet in the air and extending out 4.3 feet from the Skydeck. The Skydeck itself provides incredible views (on a clear day, you can see four states), so if sitting on a piece of glass 103 stories in the air isn’t your thing, there are still plenty of thrills to be had.
My favorite time to visit is after 5 p.m., when you can watch the sunset (get there 30-45 minutes ahead of time). If you can stay a little longer, you’ll be treated to an unforgettable view of the Chicago skyline, as it becomes a nightscape of twinkling lights.
14. Museum of Science and Industry
Open daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas; Hours vary depending on season, see website
My personal favorite of Chicago’s many world-class museums (including The Field Museum of Natural History, John G. Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum, all of them worthy of a visit), the Museum of Science and Industry never fails to enthrall.
Don’t-miss exhibits include the U-505 German submarine (the only U-Boat of its kind in the United States), Coal Mine, The Farm (with its chick hatchery) and Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle, an absolutely enchanting exhibit of tiny treasures. After a couple of hours on foot touring exhibits, it’s well worth it to spend some extra dollars if the movie showing in the fabulous Omnimax Theater is of interest to you. Best yet, you can look forward to lunch, as the museum’s food court is well above average, and Finnegan’s ice cream parlor, based on a real 1917 Hyde Park ice cream shop, offers fabulous shakes and sundaes.
15. Chicago Botanic Garden
Free admission; $25 parking per car on weekdays and $30 on weekends
Take a suburban jaunt to scenic Glencoe, home of the Chicago Botanic Garden. For kids, half the fun is riding the Metra train (the suburban train line) and walking a short distance to the garden from the Braeside Metra train station (you’ll take the Metra Rail Union Pacific North Line, departing from Ogilvie Transportation Center in the Loop. For a schedule, contact Metra at (312) 836-7000 or metrarail.com).
You won’t want to miss at least a short stroll through some of the 26 gardens and four natural areas. My top picks include a stunning English Walled Garden and a 17-acre, peaceful, lakeside Japanese Garden. Kids clamor to see the Model Railroad Garden, with 18 trains running through tunnels, over bridges and around buildings that are replicas of the landscape of America – intricately handcrafted from all natural materials. It really is an incredible sight and source of fascination for kids and adults. Admission to the railroad garden is an additional fee of $6 for adults, $4 for children (3–12 years) and free for children 2 and under.