Best Things to Do with Kids in Chicago

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cyclists on lake path

Once your belly is filled with Chicago’s famous deep dish pizza, hot dogs or Italian beef sandwiches, you’ll need to make some hard choices: chair swings at Maggie Daley Park? Splashing in Crown Fountain? Tilting over the top of a skyscraper? Laughing at an improv comedy show? Or one of dozens of other options?

As a lifelong Chicagoan and mother of two, I’ve visited nearly all of Chicago’s family-friendly attractions many times. Here are some of my favorites, and places I frequently recommend to friends visiting with kids.

Whether you’re looking for an educational experience, a place to let the kids run around and burn off energy, a dose of culture, sightseeing, or good places to go with the grandparents, you’ll find options on this list.

Read More: Best Family-Friendly Hotels in Chicago

comedy troupe onstage
An improv troupe at Second City. Photo credit: Jamie Bartosch

See an Improv Comedy Show

Chicago’s improv comedy scene is legendary. Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Eugene Levy and literally dozens of other celebrities started their careers on Chicago’s improv stages. See them on stage before they’re famous!

The most famous improv comedy club, Second City, hosts a bunch of shows, most of which are appropriate for older kids. For a G- or PG-rated show, I recommend Comedy Sportz. The competition-styled improv show contains lots of audience interaction are staged at Second City at 8pm Fridays and 6pm Saturdays. A full schedule of Comedy Sportz shows is at its CSz theater on North Avenue.

Read More: Fabulously Fun Things to Do in Illinois with Kids

High Tea at the Drake Hotel

A longtime mother-daughter tradition in Chicago is to dress up and have afternoon tea at the iconic Drake Hotel. In the hotel’s luxurious Palm Cart room, a live harpist plays as tea is served in china cups along with tiered trays of delicious bite-sized sandwiches and desserts. (Tip: if your child is a picky eater, they’ll bring you a cheeseburger and fries). If you can’t get a reservation here, there are several other lovely afternoon teas throughout the city.

Bike along Lake Michigan

You must go early in the morning because Chicago’s lakefront bike path can get very crowded and treacherous, especially for those not used to urban biking. But you will be rewarded with postcard-like views of Chicago’s skyline all along the lake shore. You’ll bike past things like Buckingham Fountain, Lincoln Park Zoo, Navy Pier, and my kids’ favorite spot, the dog beach at Belmont Harbor.

man and two children planting flowers
Kids can get up close and personal with conservation & wildlife at the conservatory. Photo credit: Jamie Bartosch

Garfield Park Conservatory

This massive, gorgeous, 100-year-old garden is one of Chicago’s hidden gems. Greenhouses filled with different types of plants, like cacti or palms, make you feel like you’re walking into different worlds. The 10 acres of outdoor gardens are perfect for lounging, letting the kids run, and soaking in the beautiful flora and fauna.

I recommend driving or Uber-ing there rather than taking the Green Line train from downtown, because the Garfield Park neighborhood can be a little rough. But the conservatory is safe and worth visiting. Admission and parking are free but donations are requested. Another great garden option: Chicago Botanic Garden in the northern suburbs.

tilt skydeck
Visitors experience the moving skydeck at Tilt nearly 100 stories up. Photo credit: Jamie Bartosch

High in the Sky

If you’re brave enough, take an elevator to the top of Willis Tower (most locals still call it the Sears Tower) — one of the tallest skyscrapers in the U.S. — and walk out onto the ledge at SkyDeck, the glass boxes that jut out from the 103rd floor.

If you’re REALLY brave, try Tilt at 360Chicago (formerly known as the John Hancock building). From the iconic skyscraper on Michigan Avenue, you step into a glass box and hold on to the handles as the box slowly tilts face down, 1,000 feet over the Magnificent Mile. It’s impossible not to scream “Whoa!”

blue man group performing
Enjoy a fun, exciting and definitely unique show with the Blue Man Group! Photo credit: Jamie Bartosch

Blue Man Group

When this show starts, you’re gonna think to yourself, “What the heck is this?” But by the time it’s over, you’ll have been entertained by these non-speaking, blue paint-covered men. Drum beating, contests, audience participation, and an end-of-show confetti drop is all part of the fun.

If you sit in the front rows, you’ll be provided with a raincoat because of all the splashing liquid. Discounted tickets are often available, so poke around online.

immersive gamebox game room
There are tons of ways to play at Immersive Gamebox. Photo credit: Jamie Bartosch

Oakbrook Center

If the weather stinks – as it often does in Chicago – this swanky suburban mall has a lot of different fun, indoor activities under one roof (not to mention, great shopping and restaurants).

Located in west suburban Oak Brook, Illinois, the mall includes a high-tech, new indoor mini golf course, Puttshack; a recently opened virtual reality and arcade spot, Immersive Gamebox, where the whole family can play games together; an escape room called Escape the Room Oak Brook; and to wrap up the day or night, there’s an AMC movie theater.

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 free, lakefront zoo is charming with hundreds of animals and lovely gardens. Pet animals in a barn, watch apes goof around at the Regenstein Center for African Apes, or see the seals whiz through the water.

The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is across the street. It’s a natural history museum aimed at kids that’s operated by the Chicago Academy of Sciences.

During the holidays, the Lincoln Park Zoo’s ZooLights display is outstanding.

Millennium Park

This park in the heart of downtown Chicago is home to some of the city’s most iconic sites: the mirrored sculpture “Cloud Gate” (better known as “The Bean”); the water-spewing Crown Fountain, an excellent stop on a hot day (Bonus: there is lots of seating around the fountains so you can sit while the kids play); Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a free concert venue with a large lawn area; and the playground, play garden and climbing walls at Maggie Daley Park, which has a fun ice skating ribbon in the winter.

Wander just a bit further into Grant Park and you can see Buckingham Fountain, a massive, ornate, century-old fountain along the lakefront.

people at Navy Pier concert with ferris wheel
A crowd enjoys live music at Navy Pier. Photo credit: Jamie Bartosch

Navy Pier

Is Navy Pier touristy? Yes. Are things overpriced? Yes. Is it fun? Also yes.

With several rides, including a giant Ferris wheel, plus ice cream shops, restaurants, sightseeing boat rides and the Chicago Children’s Museum, you won’t lack family-friendly activities to do. It’s one of Chicago’s most scenic spots.

My favorite thing to do at Navy Pier is buy a Rainbow Cone (an iconic Chicago brand!) and sit on a bench and eat it while admiring the skyline and watching the boats sail by. On Wednesday and Saturday nights in the summer, there are free fireworks shows.

Slime!

Not my cup of tea, but I’m willing to bet there are parents who read this and think, “My kid will love this!” Sloomoo Institute is dedicated entirely to different ways to play with slime, including a slime waterfall that you need to wear a raincoat for. Nickelodeon fans, rejoice.

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

Museums, museums, museums

Chicago has SO. MANY. MUSEUMS. You can’t make a bad choice, because all of Chicago’s museums are world-class and fabulous. When my kids were younger, the ones they liked best were the Shedd Aquarium (because they loved watching the penguins, sea otters and sharks play around); and the Museum of Science and Industry in the Hyde Park neighborhood (because there was lots of interactive stuff to touch and play with).

A fun option for kids ages 5-12 is to do a sleepover at the Shedd Aquarium. You can also splurge on one of the Shedd’s private experiences with penguins, sea otters or beluga whales.

You can’t go wrong with the Adler Planetarium, the Art Institute of Chicago, The Field Museum of Natural History (home to the famous T-Rex dinosaur skeleton, “SUE”), the DuSable Museum of African American History (where there’s a cool new virtual reality exhibit) and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, where you can walk through a greenhouse with 40 species of free-flying butterflies.

LEGO fans will want to trek out to northwest suburban Schaumburg for the two-story LEGOLAND Discovery Center that includes rides, a 4-D movie and, of course, lots of LEGO play areas.

Children’s museums are always a hit with little ones, and the city and suburbs have several. Our favorites? The Kohl Children’s Museum (in north suburban Glenview) and the Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier.

Teen girls will swoon over WNDR Museum. Rooms full of colorful, interactive, multi-sensory art exhibits will make great Instagram posts.

See a Broadway show

Chicago’s theater offerings are on-par with New York’s, and the theaters themselves are gorgeous. While tickets to the most popular shows can be pricey, you can often find deals at HotTix.org. “Annie,” “Aladdin” and “Hamilton” are among the shows playing in the summer of 2023.

Water taxi ride

Don’t have the time, money or attention span for a boat cruise? Take a 10-minute water taxi ride across the city. Chicago Water Taxi’s boats wind through skyscrapers on the Chicago River, and make stops in Chinatown, Michigan Avenue and the Ogilvie train station. All for a few bucks per person.

American Girl Doll store

There are 11 other stores like this around the U.S., but Chicago’s American Girl Doll shop is a must-see for fans. The two-level store on Michigan Avenue offers lots of experiences, such as girl and doll hair styling, and great shopping.

Maybe your doll needs an ice cream truck, a Harry Potter-themed outfit or canopy bed? It’s all there, and more.

art on the mart
The nightly light show projected on the Merchandise Mart building is a must-see. Photo credit: Jamie Bartosch

Chicago River Riverwalk

One of the nice free things to do in Chicago on a sunny day is to walk the paved path along Chicago River. There’s interesting artwork, places to stop and sit, lots of boat docks and restaurants, and at night, you can watch the free Art on the Mart light show on the Merchandise Mart building.

Chicago Magic Lounge

For ages 16 and older (must be accompanied by an adult), this lounge dazzles with cool magic shows and trick demonstrations at your table. Totally unique out for older teens.

Eat!

You’re in Chicago with kids, so you’ll have to eat deep dish pizza, hot dogs (it’s OK for people 18 and younger to put ketchup on their hot dogs — but sacrilege for adults — expect the locals to give you a look if you do!) and Italian beef sandwiches.

But Chicago has much more than fast food, even if it’s really good fast food. Here’s a full look at Chicago’s best kid-friendly restaurants.

Jamie Bartosch is an award-winning journalist based in suburban Chicago. Her stories have appeared in dozens of publications, including USA TODAY, A&E, The Telegraph (U.K.), and the Chicago Daily Herald. A longtime contributor to SheBuysTravel, and the mother of two college students, Jamie’s stories provide honest, useful information to help parents save time, save money, and maximize their family fun.
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