Chicago is practically tailor made for family getaways, offering a wealth of interactive museums, fabulous parks and jaw-dropping architecture.
Is Chicago good for kids?
From tots to teens, there’s something for every child in the Windy City – without the aloof attitude or supersized footprint that make some big cities feel like no-fly zones for tiny tourists. Research the many kid-friendly happenings in town at Chicago Parent and Chicago Kids. Discovering the city as a family is easy on the budget, too: children under age 7 ride free on the L train and public buses, while those ages 7 to 11 pay a reduced fare.
Best things to do in Chicago with kids
Ferocious dinosaurs at the Field Museum of Natural History, an ark’s worth of beasts at Lincoln Park Zoo, lakefront boat rides and sandy beaches are among the top choices for visiting Chicago with kids. Add in magical playgrounds, fun tours and family-friendly food, and it’s clear that Chicago is a kid’s kind of town.
Get a bird’s-eye view at Chicago’s skyscraper viewing decks
An up-close encounter with Chicago’s legendary architecture is a can’t-miss for visitors of all ages. Wee daredevils will delight in the city’s pair of high-altitude viewing decks: 360° Chicago on the 94th floor of the 875 N Michigan Ave building and the 103rd-floor Skydeck at the Willis Tower. As if the observatories’ heights weren’t dizzying enough, glassy viewing alcoves reward brave little ones with the sensation of being suspended over the city. Not sure which to pick? Skydeck scores points for sheer loftiness, while lakeside 360° Chicago has the edge in the panorama department.
Gaze up at the skyline on a Chicago boat tour
For a ground-up view of the skyline and a fun boat ride to boot, treat tweens and teens to the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s river tour, which delivers an overview of the city center’s most important buildings from aboard a double-decker cruiser. If your children are too young to know their Burnham from their Mies, forego the formal tour and hop on the Shoreline Sightseeing water taxi. In addition to serving up spectacular lakefront scenery, the service links two of the most popular ports of call for visiting families: Navy Pier and the Museum Campus.
When is the best time to go to Chicago?
Little art historians in the making will love the Art Institute of Chicago
Over at the Art Institute of Chicago – free for under-14s – a real-life audience with some of the most recognizable paintings in the Western canon (think American Gothic, Nighthawks and A Sunday on La Grande Jatte) may stir your child’s inner Picasso. Dollhouse fans will be enchanted by the tiny universe of the Thorne Miniature Rooms. The Ryan Learning Center provides art-making activities and interactive games, such as puzzles featuring famous works. Even the most jaded teen will crack a smile for selfies with the iconic stone lions that stand sentry on the museum’s front steps.
25 best free things to do in Chicago
Go Jurassic at the Field Museum
Bring on the dinosaurs. The sprawling Field Museum of Natural History captures little imaginations with colossal fossils. The Crown Family PlayLab on the ground floor lets kids excavate bones and make loads of other discoveries. The Field Museum houses some 30 million artifacts – beetles, mummies, gemstones, Bushman the stuffed ape – all tended to by a slew of PhD-wielding scientists (the Field remains an active research institution). The collection’s rock star is Sue, the largest Tyrannosaurus rex yet discovered. (She even gets her own gift shop.) The museum is vast, so get a map at the desk and make a plan of attack before you set out.
Learning gets seriously fun at the Museum of Science and Industry
For an interactive experience to suit a broad range of ages and interests, it’s hard to top the Museum of Science and Industry. Families could spend a week here and not see it all. Big kids will get a kick out of descending into a coal mine, transmitting secret messages in the whispering gallery and playing astronaut at the Henry Crown Space Center, while little ones will love peeping at the adorable hatchery chicks and catching their reflections in the mirror maze.
Encounter a delightful menagerie at Lincoln Park Zoo
Wildlife enthusiasts are in for a treat at Lincoln Park Zoo, where chimps swing from the trees and Japanese macaques chill in hot springs. With its relaxed pace, the adjacent Farm-in-the-Zoo is geared to the littlest visitors. Be sure to stroll the boardwalk that links the two, where you’ll find an otherworldly honeycomb-like pavilion that makes the ultimate Chicago family photo op. Perhaps best of all for parents, the whole experience is free – even parking, if you’re lucky (or patient) enough to score a spot on Stockton Dr, just steps from one of the zoo’s main entrances.
Just up the street, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum earns high marks with youngsters for its butterfly haven, a light-filled indoor garden that’s home to 1000 winged beauties.
Let little ones let of steam at Millennium Park and Maggie Daley Park
When the kids are looking to let loose, Chicago is at the ready with miles of lakefront and a plethora of parks. With its vertiginous crow’s nests, climbing wall and wintertime skating ribbon, the Loop’s Maggie Daley Park is a crown jewel in the city’s park system – though parents of tiny tots should note that an abundance of boisterous big kids and hiding spots can make it a bit nerve-jangling. The wide-open spaces of nearby Grant Park, best known for pretty Buckingham Fountain, may be a better match for small ones. Millennium Park, home to the super-photogenic interactive sculpture Cloud Gate (better known as “the Bean”), is a winner with kids of all ages.
Make a splash at Chicago’s many beaches
Come summer, more than two dozen lifeguard-manned beaches beckon. Waves are typically pint-sized – perfect for petite swimmers. Tucked behind the Museum Campus, 12th Street Beach gets props for its manageable size, proximity to the Loop and cool view of the Adler Planetarium. At North Avenue Beach, gutsy teens can test their balance on a stand-up paddleboard. This beach is the most crowded, since its selling point is the location near both downtown and Lincoln Park Zoo. The steamboat-shaped beach house is totally kid friendly, with bathrooms and lockers plus a concessions stand serving ice cream and burgers.
Experience nature under a glass roof at Garfield Park Conservatory
When the weather tanks, Garfield Park Conservatory offers a year-round burst of balmy air and verdant greenery. Built in 1907, these two acres under glass are a lovely spot to while away a few hours sauntering around rooms of palms, ferns, orchids and koi-filled ponds. Between May and October 10 acres of outdoor grounds include a lily pool, a carnivorous-plant bog and the Monet Garden, which is based on the Impressionist painter’s flower patch at Giverny, France. Kids can get down and dirty with roots and seeds in the indoor Children’s Garden.
Life is always a carnival at Navy Pier
Amusements abound on Navy Pier, a half-mile-long wharf. Families will love the giant whirling swing, sky-high Ferris wheel, hand-painted carousel, remote-control boats, fountains to splash and more. Popcorn, ice cream, burgers and other treats add to the carnival atmosphere. The pier is also home to Chicago Children’s Museum as well as several boat-cruise operators. Polk Bros Park, at the pier’s entrance, has a fountain little ones can splash in, plus performance lawns for free concerts and movies.
Where to eat with kids in Chicago
Just about all but Chicago’s most exclusive restaurants will accommodate children without batting an eye, though for your family’s own comfort you might find it best to have your doggie bags in hand by 6:30pm, when dinner crowds can make maneuvering strollers and high chairs awkward. Adventurous eaters will love slurping noodles beneath the pagodas of Chicago’s Chinatown and digging into enormous dosas amid the sari shops and Indian candy stores of Devon Ave: both neighborhoods offer numerous dining spots that are casual and easy on the wallet.
Certain restaurants go the extra mile to welcome little guests. Lincoln Park’s retro RJ Grunts soothes post-zoo fatigue with kid-sized shakes and burgers along with a complimentary stroller valet, while over in hip Ukrainian Village, Quad Cities–style pizza spot Roots encourages tiny diners to play with their food, distributing dough balls to be squashed and stretched while dinner’s in the oven. Grown-up topping options like duck sausage and a lengthy Midwestern beer list will keep parents happy, too.
Kids get the royal treatment each afternoon at the Drake Hotel’s Little Prince and Princess Tea, an elaborate spread of dainty nibbles served up in the hotel’s grand Palm Court. Fanciful decorations and carolers make holiday season visits here particularly magical. Parents and rugrats alike will be sweet on the inventive ice cream at West Town’s Black Dog Gelato and the rich hot chocolate at Logan Square’s Katherine Anne Confections.
Where to stay with kids in Chicago
Home-sharing sites offer rental apartments scattered around Chicago’s vibrant neighborhoods. If self-catering is not your family’s thing, you’ll find a bevy of boutique hotel options, as well as all the usual chain suspects, clustered around the Loop, Streeterville and River North neighborhoods – all good bases in terms of proximity to many of the city’s top kid-centric attractions.
Some hotels make a point of rolling out the red carpet for little ones. Up in quirky-cool Andersonville, the lovely Guesthouse Hotel offers spacious kitchen-equipped suites and a thoughtful menu of free-to-use kid essentials that run the gamut from car seats to sippy cups.
Top neighborhoods to explore in Chicago
How to get around with kids in Chicago
Taxis and ride-sharing services are readily available – but rather than scrambling to stash strollers and secure child seats in an unfamiliar vehicle, consider riding the L, Chicago’s system of elevated trains and subways. Most major sights are within an easy walk from an elevator-equipped station, indicated on system maps by an accessible icon. Tickets can be purchased at station kiosks.
Attractions tend to be quietest first thing in the morning. Some spots, like the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum of Natural History, have designated stroller and wheelchair entrances where lines are often significantly shorter. If you plan to hit more than a couple of signature attractions, consider a CityPass, valid for admission to your choice of five out of seven major sights. In addition to saving your brood a few bucks, it also includes fast-track entry to spots like the Willis Tower’s Skydeck – no small thing when little legs grow tired and crankiness looms.