A 90 minute train ride or drive from our Milwaukee home, Chicago is a go to spot for my family when we have the travel itch, but not a lot of time off work or trip budget. After dozens of visits to the Windy City, here are our 16 favorite places to visit with the kids, but more importantly, 39 tips and ideas to better plan your time at each attraction!
1. Starbucks Reserve Roastery
Fuel up, parents, by starting your day at Chicago’s Starbucks Reserve Roastery. Try a gourmet blend or concoction from one of their mixologists.
The kids will enjoy the Roastery too! Here’s why:
- They have the Midwest’s only curved elevator that encircles their mammoth roasting casks.
- Watch pastries ‘fall from the sky’ on a conveyor as they are sent down from the 2nd floor kitchen.
- Surprise kids with a hot chocolate and they’ll be just as stoked about the coffee stop as you are.
If you’re in Chicago on the weekend, you’ll want to visit right when the Roastery opens at 8am. Otherwise, the line to get in the door stretches around the block.
2. Cloud Gate, AKA “The Bean”
Inspiration for the kidney bean shaped design of Cloud Gate came from liquid Mercury. Anish Kapoor won a design contest for Millennium Park in 2004 and doesn’t love its rampant nickname, “the bean”. Now, nearly 20 years later, it is an iconic photo stop in one of America’s greatest cities.
- Arrive early in the morning if you want to try to capture a photo without swarms of people. Note that sometimes if a morning heats up quickly, there may be condensation haze on the sculpture.
- Give your kids the camera and let them get creative from every angle.
- Wow them with fun facts!
◈The structure weighs in at an impressive 110 tons.
◈Most of the interior is made of wood.
◈Can you believe, the exterior consists of 168 steel panels welded together? Yet, they appear seamless!!
◈It is cleaned daily to remove fingerprints and smudges.
3. Millennium Park is the epicenter of things to do in Chicago with kids
In addition to Cloud Gate, the sprawling Millennium park hosts an entire day’s worth of fun for your family. The photo below shows just how massive the park is, with the round speck in the center of image being Cloud Gate, the park spreads to the right from there.
- Check out the playground and Play Garden at Maggie Daley Park
- Give Rock Climbing a go
- Compete in a game of mini golf
- Splash in the water at Crown Fountain which is a digital screen with the faces of Chicago made to look as if they’re spitting water out.
Note: Pets are not allowed at Millennium Park.
4. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago with Kids
The Shedd Aquarium is a must in Chicago with kids. The aquarium is the most visited in the whole country.
- A visit to the Shedd Aquarium can be overwhelming on the weekends, so if you have a week day included in your Chicago stay, here’s where to spend it with the kids. Most other attractions are still manageable on Saturdays and Sundays.
- With small children, the base admission felt like plenty to see in one visit. We spent 3 hours and easily filled the time with the “aquarium only” ticket.
- Save money and please picky eaters by packing your own lunches. Carry ins are allowed as long as they are consumed in one of the dining areas.
- Get in the mood for underwater exploration by reading the Shedd Secrets.
- Do the best attractions first before crowds build, plus if the kids get fussy you can leave without feeling you missed a highlight. I suggest hitting up the floor to ceiling tank and then the touch tanks in the Oceanarium.
- Slow down and notice the attention to detail in the historic building. Keep an eye out for a clock that has animals instead of numbers, fish mosaics in the walls, and stingray and seashell light figures.
5. Field Museum
The Field Museum in Chicago does an incredible job of bringing history alive for kids.
- The main attraction for us and my dino loving boys was Sue the T-Rex. It really was as monumentally impressive as you’d expect. That said, think twice before bringing really young children into the somewhat graphic, “Waking Sue” 3D movie they offer. If you’ve visited before, you may remember Sue was standing proudly in the atrium. She’s now in the upper level in an expanded dinosaur/prehistoric exhibit.
- Of the dining options in the museum, Explorer Café carries the most kid friendly fares; i.e. burgers and pizza.
- On Saturdays from 9am-10am the Play Lab is reserved for up to 40 children who have sensory processing needs. Outside of that timeslot, it gets quite chaotic.
6. Museum of Science and Industry
I still remember visiting Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) as a child and I was excited to share its treasures with my own kids.
Here are the best exhibits to enjoy with young kids (Ages 1-7):
- Genetics and Baby Chicks Hatchery
- Fairy Castle
- The Idea Factory (water play included) – There’s a nursing room here as well.
Also, if you happen to be visiting in December 2022, their overnight at the museum, Snoozeum is returning! Dates TBA soon.
7. Adler Planetarium
Who knew a Planetarium could be so well geared toward little kids? They have a fantastic play space where even kids under 5 will have a blast at this museum.
- The Community PlayLab is designed for children 6 and under. This is where we escaped the bustle of the Planetarium and my 4 year old had some quiet time doing independent play.
- The Planet Explorers exhibit is perfect for ages 3-8.
- The base ticket price for museum entry without add-ons is $19 for adults, $8 for kids (ages 3-11). It is also included in a Chicago CityPass if your family has gone that route.
Between the PlayLab and Planet Explorers and breezing through the less child oriented exhibits, you can easily spend 3 hours at the Adler Planetarium on your visit to Chicago with kids.
8. Grant Park
Grant Park is often referred to as Chicago’s Front Yard. It encapsulates the museum campus, so if you’re already heading to the Planetarium, Aquarium, or Field Museum, give the kids some time to run out some energy at the beautifully maintained Grant Park.
9. Willis Tower and Step Onto The Ledge
This skyscraper will forever be the “Sears Tower” in my head. For my entire childhood, I marveled at how it was the tallest building in the world, a title it has now lost to Dubai. However, it remains the highest observation deck in North America.
- Be flexible on your timing to visit the SkyDeck. You’ll want a clear day for optimal visibility.
- Afraid of heights? Skip this. My husband usually opts to stay at ground level.
- They built “The Ledge” which is a glass box that extends beyond the floor so you can feel as if you’re standing on air and see the city below your feet. Very surreal feeling.
- Personally, I don’t think my heart could let my kids walk out on this ledge yet, after seeing others’ jump up and down making me sick to my stomach!
10. Lincoln Park Zoo
This zoo hasn’t charged an entry fee since its opening day in 1868. That’s pretty incredible considering that this zoo packs a serious punch and couldn’t possibly be explored in a single day. Map
- Go in with a plan. Prioritize the animals your kids love the most.
- Then be sure to save free play time at the Children’s Canopy.
- Check their daily schedule for polar bear feedings and seal training for a unique zoo experience.
11. Architecture Boat Tour (Wendella)
This was one of our most memorable tours. We saw this familiar city in a whole new way. Wendella offers a 45 or a 90 minute river architecture tour.
- The 45 minute duration was perfect for a boat cruise with the kids while we learned some of Chicago’s tumultuous past.
- The lower level does have air conditioning if you tour on an exceptionally hot day, but it will get crowded.
If you opt out of the river cruise option, make sure you still spend some time exploring the Riverwalk. A good place to start is right outside the Trump Tower.
13. Navy Pier
This attraction is intentionally listed last as it is an epic tourist trap. Navy Pier isn’t a place locals prefer to take their kids nor is it quintessential Midwest in any way. That said, your kids would LOVE it.
14. St. Patty’s Day
Chicago is THE best place to be in North America on St. Patty’s Day.
If you have the kids along, make sure to give yourself ample time, no joke, plan five times longer than you think, to make your way to the parade route. We were 6 blocks away, and gave ourselves 30 minutes. We traversed only ONE BLOCK in that time due to shoulder to shoulder crowds and waiting for crosswalk signals and ended up missing the parade one year.
15. Air and Water Show
You have to check out the Air and Water Show in Chicago with kids! The pilots do jaw dropping stunts and use special effects like red and blue smoke. It’s the largest free event of its kind and it will blow the kids away. The even takes place August 20-21, 2022 and is free!
- Find a spot at either the North Avenue Beach or Oak Street Beach and watch the show for free!
- Bring noise cancelling headphones for little kids.
- Pack a picnic and lots of water and sunscreen.
16. Celebrate the Season in the Windy City
It’s not half bad at Christmas either, and by that, I mean it is one of the best places in America to share Christmas Magic with your kids.
The Joffrey Ballet puts on an extravagant and beautiful Nutcracker and a German Style Christmas Market (Christkindlmarket) is just the right atmosphere to put you in the holiday spirit.
Looking for easy day or weekend trips from Chicago? Check out these related posts:
- 8 Kid-Friendly Stops for Your Chicago to St. Louis Road Trip (4 hours 40 minutes)
- St. Louis with Kids: 10 Unmissable Places for Toddler Fun (4 hours 40 minutes)
- Hiking the Stunning LaSalle Canyon (with Kids) (1 hour 50 minutes from Chicago)
- Milwaukee Kids’ Activities to Thrill Your Family This Summer  (90 minutes from Chicago)