With about 10 million residents, Chicago is the third-largest city in the U.S., only behind New York City and Los Angeles. However, this Midwest city doesn’t necessarily feel as big and overwhelming as the other 2 sometimes do.
Located on the shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago is home to some of the country’s best restaurants, museums, music, outdoor activities, and more. It’s no surprise that “The Windy City” has been voted Best Large City in the U.S. by Condé Nast Traveler readers for 4 years in a row.
With 2 major airports, Chicago Midway International Airport (MDW) and Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD), getting to the largest city in Illinois is easy no matter where you are coming in from.
Although it can get very cold in the winter, the other 3 seasons are full of things to do for kids and adults alike. With everything from kayaking in the Chicago River and then heading up to the top of one of the world’s tallest buildings, to eating some deep dish pizza and then catching a baseball game at Wrigley Field, no matter what your style, you will find more than enough activities for you and your family in Chicago.
If you are ready to start planning your trip to Chicago with small kids, let’s take a look at some fun activities!
The Best Activities in Chicago With Kids
Navy Pier is one of Chicago’s most popular attractions for both tourists and locals thanks to its awesome lineup of activities, rides, dining options, and events throughout the year.
In the summer you can enjoy fireworks, live music, shows, and even go for a cruise on the lake. To get off your feet and get a 360-degree view of Chicago and Lake Michigan, go for a ride on the Centennial Wheel, a massive Ferris wheel that brings guests 200 feet above the pier. This is even a good option in the winter thanks to the climate-controlled gondolas.
Add in an IMAX Theatre, the Chicago Children’s Museum, a beer garden, and plenty of food and beverage options and you have a one-stop shop that will keep everyone happy.
2. Explore the Chicago Botanic Garden
One of the most visited in the U.S., the Chicago Botanic Garden is 385 acres of flowers, trees, gardens, ponds, and bridges that are perfect for exploring at your own pace.
For the younger visitors, the garden offers programs for kids ages 2 to 18 where they will learn about how plants connect to everything, including art, science, history, and culture.
If you are looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, connecting with nature is easy to do at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
3. Play at Chicago Children’s Theatre
Chicago is a big theatre town with lots of history, so it is no surprise that getting kids involved in the arts at an early age is a popular idea. That is where Chicago Children’s Theatre comes in.
This professional theatre company is dedicated to creating impressive theatrical productions and programs for the community, featuring and inspiring young people and their families.
With specialized workshops, classes, and programming for children from 0 to 13, if your little one is interested in theatre, consider checking out the Chicago Children’s Theatre.
4. Try the Local Cuisine
Chicago has really put itself on the map when it comes to the food scene. Whether it’s a hot dog stand or a Michelin-starred restaurant, if you are hungry in Chicago, you won’t be for long.
When talking about kid-friendly foods, there are 2 things that Chicago is known for that the little ones will like: pizza and hot dogs. But not just any pizza and hot dogs, we are talking about Chicago deep-dish pizza and a Chicago dog.
The deep-dish pizza is known for its high crust edges so that the cheese and tomato sauce can fill in the whole pie. The origins and the best version are constantly debated, but one thing that everyone can agree on is that it is good!
A Chicago-style hot dog is traditionally served on a poppy-seed bun topped with mustard, onions, relish, tomato, a pickle wedge, pickled peppers, and then sprinkled with celery salt — no ketchup. If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is.
Both of these options are must-tries when in town — just be ready to take a nap after!
5. Have Some Fun on the Beach or Water
Chicago may not jump to mind when you think about heading to the beach, but with over 2 dozen beaches along Lake Michigan, you should consider packing your bathing suit.
These conveniently located beaches are spread along the 26 miles of Chicago lakefront and mix in perfectly with the Lakefront Trail, bars, restaurants, and other fun attractions. If you want to get on the water, you can rent a kayak, paddleboard, or even a Jet Ski.
And don’t forget about the Chicago River, which is another popular spot to rent kayaks to get a fun perspective and tour of the city’s incredible architecture.
6. Brave the Willis Tower Skydeck
If you want to get one of the most incredible views of Chicago and a bit of a thrill at the same time, head up to the top of the Willis Tower. The Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower) is 108-stories tall and was the tallest building in the world for 25 years.
On the 103rd floor, Skydeck visitors can get breathtaking views up to 50 miles away and even 4 different states. If that isn’t impressive enough, head out onto The Ledge, which is a glass box sticking out the side of the building 1,353 feet above the ground.
The Ledge is a unique adrenaline rush — knowing that you are safe, but feeling like you aren’t. The kids will either love it or hate it!
Hot Tip: Ready to book your trip to Chicago? Here are the best Chicago hotels to book with points for max value and the best cheap hotels in Chicago.
The Best Museums in Chicago With Kids
7. The Art Institute of Chicago
Widely known as one of the world’s greatest art museums, The Art Institute of Chicago has almost 1 million square feet of exhibits right in downtown Chicago. With masterpieces from Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, and more, you might get distracted from the fact that small kids may not appreciate them as much as you do.
Well, fortunately, there are attractions for them, too. With a Family Room and the Ryan Learning Center, there are plenty of activities and exhibits for the little ones to get their hands on. And to get them excited for their trip, you can create your own JourneyMaker at home to help map out their visit.
To top it off, kids under 14 (18 for Chicago residents) get free admission!
8. Chicago Children’s Museum
When it comes to museums for kids, nothing beats an actual children’s museum, and the Chicago Children’s Museum is no exception.
If you are planning to visit Navy Pier during your trip, you should definitely stop by this museum as your little ones are sure to have a blast. With fun, hands-on, exhibits like the Art Studio, Tinkering Lab, Treehouse Trails, Dinosaur Expedition, and the Zoom Room, there is something for kids of all ages.
Besides being fun and a great learning experience, it is a great way for your kids to burn some energy!
9. Field Museum
One of the largest and premier natural history museums in the world is the Field Museum. Opened in 1894, this Chicago institution attracts millions of visitors per year to visit the immersive exhibits and incredible collection of over 24 million objects.
With artifacts and fossils dating back millions of years, pieces from the Qing Dynasty in China, and even human mummies from ancient Egyptian burial chambers, the exhibits are as stunning as they are rare.
The family-friendly exhibits are perfect for your little explorer, and the central location of the museum is an easy addition to your Chicago itinerary.
10. Lincoln Park Zoo
One of the oldest in the country, the Lincoln Park Zoo is popular due to its great exhibits, and also because admission is free!
With a focus on care, conservation, and community, kids will learn about the animals they are seeing and how we can help protect and care for them. With some great youth programs and even zoo camps, there are plenty of activities focused on the little ones.
Whether it’s a ride on a carousel, little train, or visiting the petting zoo, your kid will be sure to have a blast.
11. Shedd Aquarium
The Shedd Aquarium originally opened back in 1930 and has been a major destination ever since, often being the most visit aquarium in the U.S. With new additions and over 32,000 animals, there is a lot to see.
The aquarium is located on the Lake Michigan shore as part of a lakeside campus that is also home to the Field Museum of Natural History and the Adler Planetarium, so you can have a full day of exploring without going far.
Little ones will have plenty to do, including exploring the Wild Reef, getting hands-on in the Polar Play Zone, and getting to know the animals that call the neighboring Great Lakes home.
Although admission can be a little pricey at around $40 per person ($10 less for kids ages 3 to 11), you can save some money and visit multiple attractions by purchasing a CityPASS.
The Best Sports in Chicago With Kids
12. Wrigley Field
For any sports fan, a trip to Chicago means a trip to Wrigley Field, the home to the Chicago Cubs Major League Baseball (MLB) team.
This old school park was built in 1914 and is just as charming today as it was thanks to its ivy-covered brick wall and its iconic red marquee sign over the main entrance. Located on the North Side of Chicago, “The Friendly Confines” of Wrigley Field is a great place to spend a summer evening watching a game.
If you are lucky enough to catch a game on a Sunday, be sure to get there early as the first 1,000 kids under the age of 13 to arrive at the ballpark get to run the bases and will receive a cool wristband.
Hot Tip: Be sure to stop by the “First-Timer’s Booth” near Section 133 to get your kid their “My 1st Cubs Game” certificate.
13. Gallagher Way
If you’re going to catch a Cubs game or otherwise find yourself in the Wrigleyville neighborhood, be sure to check out Gallagher Way, an open-air backyard just outside of Wrigley Field.
The big lawn is always busy with events, whether it be a pre- or post-game party, a movie showing, fitness classes, or concerts. No matter what is on the schedule, it’s going to be fun.
With food, drinks, and plenty of space for the kids to run around, this is a fun spot to visit with the family.
14. Chicago Sports Museum
Chicago is a big sports town, so if you want to see and experience some of the coolest immersive and high-tech sports exhibits, you need to visit the Chicago Sports Museum.
With the Fan Zone, Hall of Legends, and skill challenges to measure up against the greats like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Cy Young, kids and adults will have a ball here.
The 23,000 square foot experience is relatively cheap — admission for adults costs around $10, $6 for children 3 to 11, and free for under 3.
The Best Walks in Chicago With Kids
15. Chicago Riverwalk
Chicago is a stunningly beautiful city, both in natural beauty (Lake Michigan and the Chicago River) and in its architectural design. One of the best ways to experience the city is by strolling along the Chicago Riverwalk, a mixed-use public space on the south bank of the main part of the Chicago River.
But there is much more to do along the Riverwalk than just stroll. With 6 unique coves, each with its one set of attractions, you could spend your entire trip just getting to know this part of town.
Throughout the Chicago Riverwalk, you will find everything from restaurants and ice cream shops to a floating garden and boat rentals. Parents will like The Water Plaza (one of the coves) where they can relax by the fountains while the kids jump around in the spray.
No matter what section you decide to check out, you are bound to enjoy yourselves. Did we mention that it’s free?
16. Maggie Daley Park
Maggie Daley Park is a new and stunning 20-acre green space in the Loop community area of Chicago. Connected to the famous Millennium Park and full of fun activities, a stop here is sure to be a good time.
Opened in 2014, this park has been been a popular spot thanks to its unique Skating Ribbon — a 1/4 mile long ice skating path that meanders throughout the park. Additionally, the park has many other attractions including the 3-acre Play Garden that is full of unusual and unique play structures that will help spark some imagination in your little ones.
Add in rock climbing, picnic groves, and an 18-hole mini-golf course, and you can easily see why this park is so popular.
Hot Tip: Need a rental car for your upcoming trip? See our guide on how to book cheap car rentals in Chicago, including price comparisons.
17. Millennium Park
A trip to Chicago is incomplete without a stop at Millennium Park to take a photo next to the famous Cloud Gate, aka “The Bean.”
This 24-acre park is more than a just spot for a photoshoot — visitors can spread out on the massive greenspaces, walk through the beautiful gardens, play in the interactive fountains, enjoy some free events, and more, right in the heart of downtown Chicago.
Located in the Loop, getting to Millennium Park should be easy for most tourists who are staying downtown.
18. The 606 Trail
The Bloomingdale Trail, also known as The 606 Trail, is a 2.7-mile path of multi-recreational activities built on an abandoned elevated industrial train rail.
This gorgeous and very popular trail is full of green space, living works of public art, observatories, and more. Anyone that wants to check it out can go for a walk or run, or even rent a bike from the city’s bike-sharing program.
With a hand full of small parks along the trail, packing some snacks and having a picnic during your exploration is a great idea.
Chicago really is one of those cities that has it all. You can go from the beach (in the summer) to some world-class museums and then out to have some spectacular food without leaving a single neighborhood.
While many of the activities are best enjoyed in the summer, Chicago in the winter can be a very cool (pun intended) experience with activities like the Skating Ribbon at Maggie Daley Park and the year-round Ferris wheel at Navy Pier.
The best part of all of these great activities is that they are not only kid-friendly but that they are something that everyone in the family will enjoy.
Next time you are searching for a fun family vacation, adding Chicago to that list is a smart move. If you have any questions or think we should add something to this list, let us know in the comments or join our private Facebook Group, Level UP Travel!