Fabulously Fun Things to Do in Illinois with Kids

Cindy Richards Avatar
The Bean in Chicago's Millennium Park is one of the top things to do in Illinois with kids.

From walking in the footsteps of the 16th US president to racing along a thrilling roller coaster to feasting on Chicago-style deep dish pizza and hot dogs, Illinois offers many vacations’ worth of fun things to do with kids.

I raised my kids in Chicago. These are my family’s favorite spots across the state for learning science and history, giggling at penguins and, of course, getting a selfie of the whole family at one of the city’s iconic spots during your family’s getaway to Illinois.

Chicago's lakefront
Chicago’s beautiful lakefront. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Must-See Chicago Attractions

You have to start any Illinois family vacation in Chicago. The city has so much to offer, from a gorgeous lakefront to thriving neighborhoods to one of the last free zoos in the country to kayaking on the Chicago River to a baseball game at the iconic Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.

These are the Chicago attractions we visited over and over, starting when my kids were still in strollers.

SheBuysTravel Tip: If you plan to do several Chicago attractions, buy a CityPASS. You’ll have money on admissions and, even better, you’ll be able to skip the long lines of people waiting to buy tickets!

Read More: The best kid-friendly hotels in Chicago.

kids watching sea lion at the zoo
Kids can check out sea life from underwater at the zoo. Photo credit: Jamie Bartosch

Lincoln Park Zoo

This small, charming zoo sits in Lincoln Park, close to the lakefront. It’s small enough for little legs to walk and has a sweet petting zoo. My kids’ favorites were always the polar bears. We would head there on the first warm spring day and watch the polar bears diving into their pool from above and below.

Admission to the zoo is free, except for special events like the not-to-be-missed Zoo Lights at the holidays.

Lincoln Park Conservatory

Also free, this small conservatory sits at the northwest corner of Lincoln Park Zoo. It’s a quick walk-through and a nice spot to warm up on a chilly fall or winter day.

My family’s favorite conservatory, however, is the Garfield Park Conservatory, easily reached by the Green Line of the L.

belugas and penguin
Belugas and a rockhopper penguin at the Shedd Aquarium. Photo credit: Shedd Aquarium

Shedd Aquarium

The cute penguins at the Shedd became internet sensations during the pandemic when they went on field trips around the aquarium and the city. And the Shedd’s rockhopper and Magellanic penguins are definitely a must-see attraction.

Plan to spend at least two hours exploring the aquarium. If it’s a nice day, bring a picnic lunch to eat on the lawn overlooking Monroe Street harbor and the city’s gorgeous skyline..

Adler Planetarium
Photo Courtesy of Alder Planetarium

Adler Planetarium

Just down the street from the aquarium, the planetarium is another of my kids’ favorites. We loved lying back in our seats to watch the overhead Sky Show and climbing into the Historic Atwood Sphere, the original planetarium.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The lawn around the Planetarium is the best spot to get a great shot of the skyscrapers of Chicago’s beautiful skyline.

T. rex at the Field Museum
At more than 40 feet long and 13 feet tall at the hip, Sue is one of the largest Tyrannosaurus rex specimen discovered. SUE is also the most complete—around 90 percent—and on view at the Field Museum. Photo credit: Field Museum, Lucy Hewett

Field Museum of Natural History

Also on the city’s Museum Campus, the Field Museum is my husband’s favorite museum and my kids loved visiting Sue, the T-Rex there.

Live shows are always a hit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Hyde Park. Photo credit: J.B. Spector, Museum of Science and Industry

Museum of Science and Industry

This hands-on science museum in Hyde Park is the largest science museum in the western hemisphere and my favorite Chicago museum — I’ve been going since my first field trip in the third grade! When my son was little, he could spend an hour watching the giant model train set, my daughter loved the fairy castle and hubby never misses a chance to walk through the U-505 World War II German submarine.

If you visit at Christmas, plan to spend some time wandering among the display of Christmas trees showcasing ornaments from around the world.

More than 9 million people a year visit Navy Pier in Chicago.
More than 9 million people a year visit Navy Pier in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Choose Chicago

Navy Pier

Visit on a lovely spring, summer or fall day and plan to spend the entire day here. There is plenty to keep the whole family busy — from the Chicago Children’s Museum (one of the best in the country) for the little ones to a speedboat tour for the teens to the terrific Chicago Shakespeare Theatre for the adults. And the whole family can climb aboard the 200-foot Ferris wheel for a slow ride that offers incredible views of the skyline. Go at night for the most dramatic views!

If you’re having too much fun to leave, spend the night at  Sable at Navy Pier Chicago, Curio Collection by Hilton, the only hotel on the pier.

Millennium Park

Best known for the Bean (the place for that must-take family selfie), Millennium Park is so much more. In the summer, look for free concerts and family fun activities and take time to splash in the Crown Fountain then walk across the bridge to Maggie Daley Park where you can ice skate in the winter.

The Art Institute of Chicago

You can walk across the bridge from Millenium Park to this venerable art museum, home to the largest collection of Impressionist art outside of Paris. If you’re bringing the kids, plan for a shorter visit. And check out the museum events calendar to see what’s happening before you go. The museum also offers accessibility accommodations and has sensory maps to help families find quiet spaces.

SheBuysTravel Tip: If your kids aren’t quite ready for a venerable art museum, at least walk by the Michigan Avenue entrance for a selfie with the Art Institute’s lions. When the Chicago sports teams are winning, they might be decked out in a Chicago Bears jersey or a Cubs hat. At Christmas, they get evergreen wreaths.

Willis Tower Skydeck

The tallest building in Chicago and the second tallest building in North America, this is the home of the Ledge. That is the glass box that juts out from the 103rd floor. If you’re brave encough, you can step out for a family photo.

The Skydeck at Willis Tower — most locals still call it the Sears Tower — is the place to go on a clear day for expansive views of Lake Michigan and the surrounding states — you can see Indiana, Wisconsin, northern Illinois and sometimes even Michigan.

Discovery Center Museum, Rockford

Another terrific children’s museum in Illinois, the Discovery Center Museum is located on the Riverfront Museum Park campus in downtown Rockford, which is also home to the Rockford Art Museum and Burpee Museum of Natural History.

With more than 300 interactive exhibits, this museum was a huge surprise to us. We had planned to spend about an hour and ended up spending more than half the day there!

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, in Springfield, Ill.

Springfield has more Lincoln sites and artifacts than any other place in the world. The best of the bunch: the fabulous Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, where kids can play dress-up in Mrs. Lincoln’s Attic and imagine themselves reading before a fire just like Abe did growing up in Kentucky and Indiana.

The other half of the museum, which offers a graphic look at the horrors of slavery, can be a bit intense for younger kids, but is a powerful lesson in America’s not-so-happy history for tweens, teens and adults.

While you’re in Springfield, swing by Lincoln’s Tomb. Stop at the huge bust of Lincoln’s head in front of the building and rub his nose for luck (it’s become shiny because so many people do so). Then, inside, you’ll see the solemn, final resting place for the president, his wife Mary, and all but one of his sons.

Lincoln’s New Salem, Petersburg

Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site is a reconstructed pioneer town made to look much as it did when Lincoln arrived in 1831 (with the modern addition of paved paths and ramps that make much of the site wheelchair- and stroller-friendly). Costumed volunteers pose as teachers, weavers, blacksmiths and shopkeepers and demonstrate how such jobs would have been performed in Abe’s time.

This is a fun stop for kids who like history — and for kids who just need some time to run around. There also are a few miles of hiking trails here.

The site is free, with a suggested donation.

twin waterfalls at Starved Rock State Park in Illinois
Waterfalls abound at Starved Rock State Park, especially in the spring and early summer. Photo credit: Jason Patrick Ross via ShutterStock

Starved Rock State Park, Oglesby

Every spring and fall saw my family taking a day trip to hike in this beautiful state park. Spring brings waterfalls to the sandstone cliffs and the fall brings brilliant reds, yellows and oranges of fall foliage.

Note that while there are plenty of hiking trails and other outdoor activities, rock climbing is not allowed on the fragile sandstone walls of the canyons.

Six Flags Great America, Gurnee

While there are rides for the younger kiddos, this amusement park close to the Wisconsin state line is the go-to spot for thrill-seeking teens. And, on sultry summer days, the whole family will want to climb onboard the Aquaman Splashdown water slide purposely to get soaked.

Six Flags is open seasonally. Check the calendar before making your plans.

Extend the fun by staying at the Great Wolf Lodge in Gurnee. Before you book, read our full review of the indoor waterpark resort.

Woman at John Deere Pavilion
Pretend drive a tractor at the John Deere Pavilion on a road trip to Moline Illinois. Photo courtesy of Visit Quad Cities

John Deere Pavilion, Moline

If you have a truck-loving kiddo, plan a stop at this free western Illinois display of giant John Deere tractors. Kids (and lots of adults) climb aboard and pretend to drive these machines. While you’re in the Quad Cities, treat everyone to ice cream at Lagomarcinos’ turn-of-the-century shop in downtown Moline.

SheBuysTravel Tip: If your kids can’t get enough trucks, head two hours northeast from Moline to Peoria and the Caterpillar Visitor Center where the visit begins with a virtual ride in the bed of a massive two-and-a-half story Cat 797F Mining Truck.

Cindy Richards is a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist who serves as the Editor-in-Chief of SheBuysTravel.com. She also is the mom of two now grown kids who have traveled with her since that first, fateful plane ride when one preschooler discovered a barf bag in his seat pocket and his sister, finding none in hers, demanded, “I want a barf bag too!” She has been a reporter, editor and columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune, an editor at Chicago Parent and Catalyst Chicago and an instructor in the graduate school at Northwestern’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism.
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