Considering or planning a family vacation to Chicago may be a daunting task. The Chicago area is a massive concrete jungle of urban and suburban landscape connected by a web of highways and interstate. Where do you even start? The goal of this article will be to help give guidance on some “must-do’s” when visiting the US’s third largest city.
So why would you take advice about Chicago travel from a Texas family?!? Glad you asked! I am a native Chicagoan. I lived in Chicago the first half of my life. I loved exploring the city and spent plenty of time wandering those streets and highways!
The article will divide the city into general geographic areas and will highlight activities in that area. The majority of travelers to Chicago will not have a car. If they do travel there by car, they often choose to keep the car parked to avoid having to navigate Chicago’s notorious traffic. So…let’s jump in!
Museum Campus and Grant Park
This general area is the busiest tourist area of the city and for very good reason! But don’t let this deter you, there is plenty of room for everyone to enjoy! This area is huge! The museum district has three museums: The Field Museum of Natural History, The Shedd Aquarium, and the Adler Planetarium. All three are world class museums.
The Field Museum is massive. It has dinosaurs (full size!), Egyptian tombs and mummies, and history and artifacts for cultures and places dating back millions of years! It is truly amazing to have so many cultural and historical artifacts under one roof. This museum is a true treasure!
The Shedd Aquarium houses 32,000 animals from around the world. Highlights include the Amazon habitat and the oceanarium with beluga whales, sea others, dolphins and more. The tropical reef exhibit is impressive with its incredible color and aquatic creatures! The aquarium was one of my favorites growing up and still is a favorite today!
What kid doesn’t love planets and stars? The Adler Planetarium is the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. It has excelled in bringing STEM concepts to children in ways that makes them WANT to learn! But don’t worry, adults will fall in love with astronomy too! Exhibits are hands on and immersive.
This would be a great time to recommend CityPASS. We have used CityPASS in other cities and it is a tremendous value. When you purchase a CityPASS Chicago, you get access to the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum, and SkyDeck Chicago. Then you can choose two more attractions from this list: Art Institute, Museum of Science and Industry, 360 CHICAGO Observation Deck, and Adler Planetarium. Purchasing a CityPASS Chicago saves you 50 PERCENT from buying those tickets separately!!
Grant Park could probably be its own section! There is so much to do there! Grant Park runs from the Museum Campus in the south to Randolph Street to the north. From east to west, Grant Park fills in the space between Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue. Let’s move from south to north!
The south end of the park is a bit light on attractions, but there are some things that may spark your interest! The skate park (also bike friendly) is highly rated. Skateboarders and bmx bike riders rave about it! The south end is also home to a dog park and some softball fields.
As you move north, you come across the crown jewel of Grant Park, Buckingham Fountain! This massive and elaborate fountain has been wowing visitors since 1927. It is impressive during the day, but at night the fountain comes alive with an amazing light show. It is no wonder why this is one of Chicago’s most photographed attractions.
As you continue north, you will come up on Maggie Daley playground. This large urban playground has awesome play structures, a splash pad, gardens, climbing areas, swings, slides and more. The playground is designed for kids 12 and under. This is one of the best playgrounds we have seen!
Head west from Maggie Daley Park and you will come to two more of Chicago’s most photographed items. The Crown Fountain is two LED screen columns that double as fountains with a splash area. Then there is Cloud Gate, or more commonly known as “The Bean” which is a large mirrored bean shaped monument.
Hyde Park is located several miles south of downtown and is home to several great attractions. It is a bit off the normal tourist trail, but definitely worth the trip.
The DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center is one of the greatest collections of African-American history, culture, and art in the nation. Located within beautiful Washington Park, a visit to the DuSable combines history and outdoor beauty.
The Museum of Science and Industry is an all-time favorite. The museum is very hands-on and designed to stimulate the mind for those both young and old. Notable exhibits include the coal mine, the U-505 submarine, Science of Storms, and many, many more!
The Museum of Science and Industry is one of the choices for CityPASS Chicago. Learn all about and make your purchase here.
Loop-River North- Magnificent Mile
Willis Tower– I’m sorry y’all, this will ALWAYS be there Sears Tower! Regardless, this 110-story building has an observation deck on the 103rd floor. The views from the SkyDeck are breathtaking! If you want to add a little extra adrenaline, you can enter The Ledge. The Ledge is a clear box that juts out from The SkyDeck putting you 1343 feet above the city streets below you!
Navy Pier is a true gem located right on Lake Michigan. Here is a list of some of the attractions that you will find at Navy Pier. 1. The Chicago Children’s Museum 2. The 200’ Centennial Ferris Wheel 3. Historic Carousel 4. Wave Swinger 5. Fun House Maze 6. Eating, drinking, and shopping galore 7. Lake Michigan and Chicago River Cruises
The Sloomoo Institute is an immersive and hands-on tribute to….SLIME. You get to learn all about, watch, feel, and CREATE your own slime! Vibrant colors and delicious scents are all available as you create your own slimy creation.
360 CHICAGO is the observation deck located on the 93rd floor of the John Hancock Building. You are able to walk around the entire floor, allowing you views of the city and Lake Michigan from all directions. One thing that makes this different from the Sears Tower (or Willis if you must) is TILT. Tilt is an experience that has you stand on a platform where you grab two handles. This platform then tilts away from the building, allowing participants to look DOWN onto the city below!
The Chicago Sports Museum will be a hit for any sports fan, regardless of your team allegiance. They offer high tech experiences to put you into real game type situations. Shoot hockey pucks! Take free throws. See how you compare to Michael Jordan! The museum is also home to an enormous amount of Chicago sports memorabilia.
From the above list, Willis Tower and 360 CHICAGO are both part of the CityPASS Chicago deal. CHECK OUT THE SAVINGS HERE.
Lincoln Park and North
Lincoln Park Zoo is located in the larger Lincoln Park adjacent to Lake Michigan. While not the largest zoo you will visit, it is very nice and it is FREE. Yes, you read that correctly. FREE!
The Blue Man Group at the Briar Street Theatre is a long running production that combines musical, visual, and technological experience with audience interaction. It is a thoroughly enjoyable experience that leaves the audience laughing and rocking along to a show they will never forget!
Wrigley Field and Gallagher Way is the home of Chicago’s only real baseball team (yes, we know the White Sox exist also, but come on now…). On non-game days, you can take a tour of the historic ballpark and enjoy shopping and dining at any of the numerous restaurants that now occupy Gallagher Way outside the stadium. If the Cubs are in town, we highly suggest catching a game. Baseball at Wrigley Field is an experience unlike other baseball stadiums.
Chicago has over 70 distinct neighborhoods. Many of them have strong ethnic ties that allow you to almost feel like you are in another country. Many neighborhoods have beautiful architecture and quaint shops as you wander the main streets. For the best list of Chicago’s neighborhoods, click here.
Where to Eat?
One of the best things about Chicago is the restaurant scene. There are soooooo many restaurants of various styles and ethnicities. If you want it, Chicago probably has it. Normally I include a section of my review where I list kid or family-friendly dining options. But Chicago just has so much variety. I will provide this super short list of some guaranteed kid-friendly options.
Where to Stay?
Like restaurants, Chicago has TONS of hotel options. The hotels I am listing below all come with guest reviews of 8.0/10 or higher. They all have pools (because we know all kids love to swim). All are centrally located in either River North or Mag Mile area. And lastly, all of these hotels qualify when you select Expedia’s “Family Friendly” filter option.
- InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile
- Holiday Inn Chicago Downtown Wolf Point
- Aloft Chicago Mag Mile
- Doubletree Chicago Magnificent Mile
- Loews Hotel Chicago
- Royal Sonesta Chicago River North
- Hyatt Centric Chicago Mag Mile
- Sentral Michigan Avenue
- Courtyard by Marriott River North
- Sheraton Grand River Walk
- Ritz Carlton Chicago
- The Peninsula Chicago
- Level Chicago River North
Pack Your Bags for Your Family Vacation to Chicago!
Regardless of what you family enjoys, Chicago has you covered. World class museums, art galleries, theatres, sports, outdoors activities, beaches, and outstanding cuisine are all things you will find in the US’s third largest city. Use our guide as a framework for planning your family vacation to Chicago.
And by the way, ketchup does NOT belong on hot dogs. Chicago pizza is the only pizza. If you see a hole in the wall joint that sells hot dogs, it will probably be the best hot dog you’ve ever had. And if you want good pizza, try Pizano’s on North State Street.
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