Where to Play, Learn and Eat in Chicago with Kids

Ask anyone from Chicago and they’ll tell you that the Windy City is second to none. They’ll also tell you that it’s a great family vacation destination. Here are some highlights to help you make the most of your family trip to Chicago.

Great Outdoor Space

Kids need time outdoors. Not only does fresh air work wonders, they need space to run, play, laugh, yell, imagine, explore, and be awesome. Chicago has some wonderful locations for doing all of that and these are some favorite outdoor play spaces:

With the Chicago skyline as the backdrop, Maggie Daley Park is a 20-acre urban oasis where kids can climb, slide, and swing in this amazing playground. The Play Garden is the main attraction, and it’s divided into several different areas, some of which have age specifications and others, like the Enchanted Forest, that are great for all ages. The Slide Crater seems to have the most going on. It’s awesome, but parents, prepare yourself, because keeping track of kids can be a challenge. There’s also a mini-golf course, climbing wall and skating ribbon. For the ribbon, you can also rent scooters and rollerblades in the summer and ice skates in the winter. Admission is free, although rentals, climbing wall, and mini golf are extra.

Millennium Park is one of Chicago’s top tourist destinations. There are a lot of things to do: see your reflection in the Bean, explore Lurie Gardens, check out the latest art installation, cool off in the Crown Fountain.

Speaking of Crown Fountain—it consists of two glass block towers with changing faces on them, and a thin layer of water between the two. Kids love to run and splash in it. At times, the faces “spit” water in a gushing stream, causing peals of delight from little ones who just got soaked. In short: Bring a change of clothes.  Family-friendly activities, including music performances, arts and crafts, are held during summer weekdays. Enjoy a concert or music festival at Pritzker Pavilion.

Chicago is located directly on Lake Michigan, and the city has more than two dozen free public beaches. Depending on the day, it feels more like the ocean. (No disrespect to Lake Michigan, which is the sixth largest freshwater lake in the world.) Some favorites are North Avenue Beach (if you love people watching and lots of action), Montrose Beach on the North Side and Rainbow Beach and Park (60 acres on the South side). The beaches are open every day, but “beach season,” when swimming is allowed, typically runs Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Marvelous Museums

Want to broaden your kids’ horizons and have them learn a little on vacation but have a blast while doing it? Chicago’s museums are the perfect place to do just that, and this summer in particular, they have come up with exciting exhibits to elicit “Wow!”s from kids and adults alike.

The Field Museum just added Maximo, a titanosaur. At 28 feet tall and 122 feet long, you can’t miss him when you walk in the Great Hall. Guests can walk under and around the skeleton cast and touch it, or take a selfie with his face from the second floor. When visiting the Field with littles, don’t miss the Crown Family PlayLab for kids ages 2-6 that’s open Thursday to Monday, 10 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.

The Shedd Aquarium is located on the shores of Lake Michigan and is home to beluga whales, dolphins, sharks, otters, penguins, and more. The new exhibit Underwater Beauty is not only breathtaking, it’s great for kids as different section focus on colors, patterns, rhythms, and shimmer. Fear not, grown-ups, it’s presented in an interactive way that’s mesmerizing to all ages, and the 100 different species featured are fascinating. Buy your tickets online to skip the line, go early to avoid crowds, and the area just outside the cafeteria is a great place for a photo of the Chicago skyline.

Have Buzz and Woody fans or a Lightning McQueen lover in your house? See Incredibles 2 this summer? The Science Behind Pixar exhibit at the Museum of Science & Industry explores how the folks at Pixar use science, math, and imagination to create your favorite characters and the movies in which they star. Math scares me, and I loved it. My husband majored in math, and he was impressed. Don’t miss the coal mine, the baby chick hatchery, the indoor tornado and the other awesome exhibits at the MSI.

The Art Institute of Chicago, which is across the street from Millennium Park, offers free admission for kids 13 and under. It’s huge, but to keep you from being overwhelmed, help is available. Stop by the Family Room to use JourneyMaker, which lets you choose a storyline, such as Superheroes, Time Travelers, or Strange and Wild Creatures, and creates a personalized guide to the museum based on how you answer some questions. You can also create your guide online at home in advance of your trip. There are often drop-in, free activities encouraging families to create art. Eating lunch from the Museum Cafe outside next to the fountain in the McKinlock Court is really lovely.

Extra Excitement

Thrills abound around Chicago. Whether it’s stepping out on the glass ledge 1,353 feet in the air at the Skydeck in the Willis Tower or doing Tilt at the 360 Chicago observation deck on the 94thfloor of the Hancock Tower, there’s a lot of excitement.

I find the Navy Pier Centennial Wheel that goes up 200 feet to be a bit of a thrill ride, too, but I’m wimpy.

If you’re really hardcore, check out the speedboat thrill rides on the lake.

Great Food

Hangry is no way to go through life, or vacation. Chicago’s food scene makes it easy to stay well-fed and happy.  For hot dogs, head to Portillos, which also has a yummy chopped salad. Try out the chocolate cake while you’re there!

For pizza, ask around and see the strong opinions everyone here has on the topic. You can’t go wrong with either Lou Malnati’s or Giordano’s, though I’m sure there are people eager to disagree.

Foodies will love Eataly, and the La Pizza and La Pasta restaurant there offers kid’s pizzas in fun shapes Sunday to Thursday. Don’t miss the gelato and Nutella offerings on the first floor.

SafeHouse is a spy-themed restaurant that’s pretty impressive no matter how old you are, though I’m sworn to secrecy on the details. I can say there’s a scavenger hunt that can be interactive family fun, or keep the kids busy while you enjoy an adult beverage. Ask if the Cone of Silence table is available.

Whether you’re looking for food, fun or learning, Chicago has something for each member of your family to enjoy. And that’s why it’s one of the hottest tourist spots in America.

Shannan Younger

Shannan lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her husband and teen daughter. She's a recovery attorney who now blogs at BetweenUsParents.com, ChicagoNow, and as part of the Chicago Parent Blogger Network. Her writing has appeared on the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop, Scary Mommy, BonBon Break, Brain Child and In the Powder Room, and her essays have been included in two anthologies by The HerStories Project. She is also freelance writer for regional magazines. Shannan was in the 2013 cast of Listen to Your Mother, despite the fact that her daughter often fails to do so.

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