Chicago is known for delicious deep dish pizza, Wrigley Field, and stunning architecture. Whether you’re looking for a romantic weekend getaway or a family staycation, Chicago has you covered. From museums to parks to food, these are things you don’t want to miss on a Chicago family vacation! Make sure to add these to your Chicago bucket list.
Chicago bucket list for families
We spent fourteen years in Chicago exploring everything the city has to offer. These are some of our favorite experiences for kids of all ages, unless otherwise noted. Don’t miss these Chicago bucket list ideas!
Chicago Museums for kids
You can spend the entire day visiting Chicago museums! There is something for all ages in Chicago. While we do acknowledge that museums are educational, the kids don’t have to know.
Opened in May of 1930, Shedd Aquarium quickly became a Chicago landmark. Shedd Aquarium is a sanctuary that supports global conservation programs, and they were the first aquarium to have an educational department. The aquarium can get quite busy; visiting early on Sunday mornings is your best bet to want to avoid the crowds.
The Adler Planetarium is a great place to explore with kids. There are plenty of hands on exhibits detailing space exploration and astronomy, as well as numerous sky shows!
Located on “Museum Campus” next to the Shedd Aquarium and walking distance to the Adler Planetarium is The Field Museum. Consider purchasing a Chicago CityPASS to get discounts on admission for all three. This museum is known for its dinosaur exhibits, hall of gems, and artifacts from around the world.
Museum of Science and Industry (MSI)
Quite possibly our favorite museum in Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry does not disappoint. There’s a full size U 505 submarine, airplanes, and a train. Kids will love the chick hatchery, the science of storms, and the coal mine, but that’s just the beginning. Plan on spending a half a day or more in this awesome hands on museum.
Art Institute of Chicago
Most families try to avoid art museums, but we’ve always found a way to entertain kids at a museum. Some of the highlights include their impressionist collection (Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, and Degas to name a few), the Thorne Miniature Room, American Art, and medieval art. Try one of the museum’s treasure hunts and the kids will never complain.
Chicago Children’s Museum
Young kids will love this three story museum with everything from a dinosaur dig and multiple play structures, to a tinkering lab and water play station. Located inside Navy Pier, there’s plenty to do for kids age 10 and under.
Chicago History Museum
What kid doesn’t want to dress up like a hot dog? That’s one of the many interactive exhibits kids will love in this museum that covers Chicago history through the years.
Peggy Notabaert Nature Museum
Exhibits at the museum include everything from live animals to kid friendly play spaces to nature trails. This museum is a hands-on education for all ages.
Lincoln Park Zoo
Lincoln Park Zoo is located just a few minutes north of Chicago, and is a picturesque oasis for animals of all kinds. It’s one of the few FREE zoos left in the country. Admission to some zoos is $30+ per person, but this Chicago zoo is FREE!
The Brookfield Zoo is massive, spanning over 216 acres so plan to spend the day exploring. Favorite exhibits include the penguin encounter, Great Bear Wilderness (with polar bears), and the Hamill Family Zoo (complete with animal encounters). Kids love it!
Chicago Botanic Garden
Another surprisingly FREE stop on our list is the Chicago Botanic Garden. If you love taking pictures, this is definitely one of the best places for photography in Chicago. Take an educational trip to the Botanic Garden and you’ll make memories that last a lifetime.
Parking at the garden is $25 per vehicle, $30 during holidays. Illinois residents with an EBT card get a discount and only pay $10 for parking, while active duty military and reservists get free parking.
Take a walk through the Children’s Garden and Maze Garden, have lunch at Ginkgo Restaurant overlooking a beautiful lake, and go on a troll hunt. Kids will love all of the outdoor space to explore.
Garfield Park Observatory
If you’re looking for something to do on a rainy day in Chicago, head to the observatory. This indoor botanic garden has beautiful spaces to explore with play areas for children, a koi pond, and over 10 acres of outdoor gardens to explore.
Of course you have to see a Cubs game while visiting the Windy City, but Wrigley Field tours are also a must if you have any baseball fans in your family! Learn about the history of this ballpark that has been around for more than 100 years.
Must See Chicago Attractions
Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, most famously known as “The Bean”, is the reason most tourists visit Millennium Park. Take a look during the day and enjoy the clouds, then visit at night for a completely different experience.
John Hancock Center
Some of the most breathtaking views of the city can be seen from the John Hancock Center. It’s worth seeing day and night, so make two visits if you can! If there’s a thrill seeker in the family, be sure to experience TILT. TILT offers a downward facing view of the city from 1,000 feet up. Not for the faint of heart!
Navy Pier is a favorite amongst tourists for shopping, sightseeing, cruises of Lake Michigan, and more. Take an elegant dining cruise or an upscale private charter of Lake Michigan, finishing the evening off with shopping, a ride on the Ferris wheel, and fireworks (in the summer). Navy Pier has something for everyone.
Catch a free concert in the summer and go ice skating in the winter; Millennium Park has year-round events. Rent a bike or scooter to save yourself some walking. The Chicago skyline is beautiful all the time, so don’t forget to snap a photo or two. Millennium Park is one of the best free things to do in Chicago with kids, so don’t miss it!
Maggie Daley Park
The best playground downtown, this park features multiple play structures, a climbing wall, and in winter an ice skating ribbon.
This is where tourists go for awesome views of the city. If the weather is bad, there won’t be a view, so save it for another day. Admission can be pricey, but if you have a CityPASS, you can save money. The tour includes an elevator ride to the 103rd floor where you can take in the 360° views of Chicago. The Skydeck offers a chance to go out on a 4 foot glass box 103 floors above street level, if that sort of thing appeals to you. It’s a great photo op and kids won’t forget it.
- Architecture Tour on the River – one of the best ways to see the city from the water and learn about its unique buildings. BOOK IT HERE.
- Seadog Cruise – Older kids will love this high speed boat ride on Lake Michigan.
- Six Flags Great America Amusement Park – about an hour north of downtown in Gurnee, this is the ultimate place for Chicago family fun and the largest amusement park in the area.
- High tea – Chicago has several awesome options for afternoon tea, including the Drake, Ritz, Peninsula, and Langham hotels.
- Bobby’s Bike Hike – several Chicago bike tours to choose from including food and neighborhood themed. BOOK YOUR TOUR HERE.
- Urban Kayaks – awesome kayak tour along the Chicago River or rent your own.
Pilsen is home to one of the largest Latino communities outside of Mexico. Be sure to eat all of the amazing food, check out the street art, and the National Museum of Mexican Art.
Don’t miss dim sum at Triple Crown, Aji Ichiban candy store, the unique architecture of the public library, and bubble tea at Joy Yee Noodle. The Chinese New Year Parade, Autumn Moon Festival, and summer dragon boat races are not to be missed.
Be sure to enjoy a meal in one of the restaurants, visit the National Hellenic Museum (with the largest collection of Greek American artifacts in the world), and sample the treats at the Panhellenic Pastry shop.
Did you know that Chicago has 26 miles of lakefront, and beach access is free? Be sure to add one of these to your Chicago itinerary:
- Ohio Street Beach not far from Streeterville, this smaller beach usually has smaller crowds than other beaches.
- Oak Street Beach is located on Lake Shore Drive, so you get a view of the magnificent skyline while swimming.
- Montrose Beach also on Lake Shore Drive, is the largest beach in Chicago. Montrose Beach has a dog-friendly area where pups can splash in the water and play off leash in a fenced off section of the beach.
Chicago Hiking Trails
- The 606 – this elevated trail was built on an abandoned train track. The trail is less than 6 miles round trip, making it perfect for families.
- Skokie North Shore Sculpture Park – just north of the city, this path features two miles of trails with over 60 sculptures.
- Lakefront Trail – beautiful 18 mile walk along Lake Michigan with the city on the opposite side. Several places to stop along the way, including Navy Pier.
Chicago Food Halls
- Time Out Market – 18 unique restaurants and some of the best chefs in town. This family friendly market is not to be missed.
- French Market – European style marketplace near Ogilvie Transportation center. Don’t miss Happy Lobster and Vanille Patisserie for dessert.
- Latincity – focus on Latin American street food, with tacos and tortas for the kids and margaritas for the adults.
- Revival Food Hall – all local fast casual food. Don’t miss Smoque BBQ and Mindy’s Hot Chocolate for a sweet treat.
- Eataly – Italian market with a grocery, take away, and sit down restaurants, with gelato for dessert.
- Foodlife – located inside Water Tower Place, this is super convenient for families exploring Michigan Avenue.
Pizza Places in Chicago
- Coalfire Pizza – Try the Pistachio Pesto on thin crust.
- Pequod’s Pizzeria – Locals love this pizza joint, but be ready to wait since each pizza cooks for 45 minutes. It’s been called “the best deep dish pizza in the Universe”.
- Lou Malnati’s Pizza – Try the butter crust!
I haven’t visited every pizza place in Chicago (yet), but I can vouch for all the above. You can’t fully experience Chicago without some tasty grub.
Not a pizza fan? Try the hot dogs! We’re partial to Super Dawg and Portillo’s but there are plenty of hot dogs in Chicago!
Don’t miss Stan’s Donuts, Garrett Popcorn, and the Nutella Cafe. Need more ideas? Don’t miss our list of the best kid-friendly restaurants in Chicago!
Chicago hotels with kids
Looking for a place to stay? Here are the best Chicago hotels for families.
You’ll never run out of things to do in Chicago, whether you’re a visitor or a long-time resident. We love Chicago because there is always something to do and we always enjoy checking things off our Chicago bucket list.
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