Ferocious dinosaurs at the Field Museum, an ark's worth of beasts at Lincoln Park Zoo, lakefront boat rides and sandy beaches are among the top choices for toddlin' times. Add in magical playgrounds, family cycling tours and lots of pizza, and it's clear Chicago is a kid's kind of town.
Millennium Park is a hot favorite. Kids love to run underneath and touch 'the Bean' sculpture, while Crown Fountain serves as a de facto water park to splash in. Nearby Maggie Daley Park offers imaginative playgrounds where kids can swing and climb for hours. Lincoln Park has a free zoo where lions roar and apes swing. At the southern end of the zoo, kids can get up close to goats, ponies, cows and chickens at the Farm-in-the-Zoo, and they can also see ducks along the Nature Boardwalk. The train ride and the carousel (each $3 per ride) – with its wood-carved pandas, cheetahs and tigers – bring squeals of delight.
Sand and swimming! Lifeguards patrol the city's 26 lakefront beaches throughout the summer. Waves are typically pint-sized – perfect for pint-sized swimmers. North Avenue Beach is the most crowded (and you do have to share it with skimpy-suited 20-somethings), but the selling point is the location near both downtown and Lincoln Park Zoo. The steamboat-shaped beach house is totally kid friendly, serving ice cream and burgers, and it has bathrooms and lockers. Montrose Beach is further flung, but it also has bathrooms and a snack bar. It's less crowded and more dune-packed and nature-filled. Remember to check the beach website (www.cpdbeaches.com) before you head out to make sure the water isn't off-limits due to high winds or bacteria levels.
- Navy Pier
Amusements abound on the half-mile-long wharf. A giant whirling swing, the sky-high Ferris wheel, a musical, hand-painted carousel, remote-control boats, fountains to splash in are all here, and then some. Popcorn, ice cream, burgers and other treats add to the carnival atmosphere.
Bobby's Bike Hike and Bike & Roll rent children's bikes and bikes with child seats. Both also offer child-friendly tours. Try Bobby's 'Tike Hike,' which rolls by Lincoln Park Zoo and a statue of Abe Lincoln. Kids aged 10 and under are welcome on the 4.5-mile route. Bike & Roll's 'Lincoln Park Adventure' is also suitable for kids.
- Boat Rides
The schooner Windy departs from Navy Pier and offers a pirate-themed cruise on most days, plus kids can help sail the boat. Water taxis offer another wind-in-your-hair experience. The boats that toddle along the lakefront between Navy Pier and the Museum Campus are popular with families.
- Chicago Children's Museum
It is the reigning favorite, geared to kids aged 10 and under, with a slew of hands-on building, climbing and inventing exhibits. Bonus: it's located on Navy Pier.
- Field Museum of Natural History
Bring on the dinosaurs! The Crown Family PlayLab, on the ground floor, lets kids excavate bones and make loads of other discoveries. It's open Thursday to Monday from 10am to 3:30pm.
- Museum of Science & Industry
Families could spend a week here and not see it all. Staff conduct 'experiments' in various galleries throughout the day, like dropping things off the balcony and creating mini explosions. The Idea Factory lets scientists aged 10 and under 'research' properties of light, balance and water pressure.
- Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
This museum is somewhat overlooked, but its butterfly haven and marsh full of frogs provide gentle thrills. Bonus: it's located in Lincoln Park by the zoo.
- Art Institute of Chicago
The Ryan Learning Center provides interactive games (like puzzles of famous works) and art-making activities.
Theater & TV Fun
Chic-A-Go-Go (www.facebook.com/chicagogo) is a cable-access TV show that's like a kiddie version of Soul Train. Check the website for taping dates and locations to join the groovy dance party.
- Chicago Children's Theatre
This theater puts on terrific shows. The stories are often familiar, as they're frequently adapted from kids' books. Many use puppets or music. Performances take place in the group's spiffy new West Loop facility.
- Emerald City Theatre Company
The Emerald City Theatre Company is another kid-focused troupe. It presents well-known shows such as School House Rock Live, as well as original, lesser-known works like Three Little Kittens. Performances are at the group's on-site theater and at other venues around town.
- Chicago Kids & Kites Festival
On a Saturday in early May, hundreds of colorful kites soar and dip around Montrose Beach. The city supplies free kite-making kits, and professional flyers demonstrate how to harness the wind. Face painting and balloon artists round out the fun.
Lollapalooza isn't just for arm-flailing, mosh-pit-thrashing adults. Kidzapalooza is a festival within the giant rock festival. In addition to the stellar line-up of kid-favorite bands, budding rock stars can bang sticks in the Drum Zone and get a Mohawk in the kids' area.
- Magnificent Mile Lights Festival
During the free Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, held the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Mickey Mouse and a slew of family friendly musicians march in a parade and flip on Michigan Ave's one million twinkling lights.
Need to Know
- Resources For kid-friendly happenings, see Chicago Parent (www.chicagoparent.com) and Chicago Kids (www.chicagokids.com).
- Transport Children under age 7 ride free on the L train and public buses; those age 7 to 11 pay a reduced fare.