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Chicago with Kids: 9 Fun Family-Friendly Activities

SmarterTravel

Chicago is a kid’s kind of town. Families find plenty of things for kids to do in Chicago year-round including interactive museums, kid-friendly educational tours, lively historical sites, and fun outdoor activities. Best of all, lots of these experiences are free.

What to Do in Chicago with Kids

Family fun in Chicago is nonstop—just like your children! Discover nine exciting activities to do in Chicago with kids.

Navy Pier

Navy pier

As if a 200-foot Ferris wheel, an IMAX theater, live music, boat rides, and an indoor garden of leaping fountains weren’t enough for families to enjoy on Navy Pier, there’s the Chicago Children’s Museum, too. Daily arts programming and more than a dozen exhibits about nature, sports, safety, science, art, and architecture are geared for kids up to 10 years old. At Navy Pier’s internationally acclaimed Chicago Shakespeare Theater and its new 850-seat venue called The Yard, families experience the Bard’s works and other visiting international performances. One of the most fun things to do in Chicago with kids is a Lake Michigan boat ride. Families love the thrilling speedboat Sea Dog and the pirate-themed sails aboard schooner Tall Ship Windy. Spectacular, free fireworks shows at Navy Pier light up the summer skies on Wednesday and Saturday nights.

Lincoln Park

Lincoln park

Just 15 minutes from the Loop, 1,208-acre Lincoln Park is one of the most fun places for kids in Chicago. The lakefront park has a huge sandy beach, baseball diamonds, bike paths, a public golf course, a free zoo and two family-friendly museums. The Chicago History Museum introduces visitors to the city’s rich cultural, industrial, political, and sports history. The hands-on “Sensing Chicago” exhibit engages little ones. Daily baby butterfly releases at the butterfly haven in the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum delight kids, as do the interactive exhibits about Illinois’ natural environment. Recently restored and expanded Theater on the Lake stages summer performances while the prairie-style theater building’s restaurant serves upscale Midwest fare year-round.

Lincoln Park Zoo

Lincoln park zoo

More than 1,200 animals live at this 49-acre, free neighborhood zoo opened in 1868. An African penguin colony waddles around the Robert and Mayari Pritzker Penguin Cove. Polar bears swim and lumber about the Walter Family Arctic Tundra. Japanese snow monkeys soak in pools at the Regenstein Macaque Forest. Daily educational programs and special seasonal events, such as ZooLights over the holidays, attract both local and visiting families.

Biking and Segway Tours

Biking and segway tours

You can cover a lot of ground wheeling around Chicago. Here are two of our favorite rolling tour operators to help you experience Chicago with kids. The two-hour, 4.5-mile Tike Hike from Bobby’s Bike Hike is a bike tour for families with kids age 10 and under. For teens, try the Electric Bikes @ Night Tour or the Southside Old Chicago Gangster Tour, which includes sampling Chicago’s famous Italian beef sandwiches. Absolutely Chicago Segway Tours offers 10 themed itineraries along the lakefront, Michigan Avenue, and Chicago River. Safety-conscious guides instruct riders on how to operate the easy-to-maneuver Segways before leading guests on two-hour tours covering city history, architecture, and culture. Children must be at least 12 years old to ride.

Chicago Cultural Center

Chicago cultural center

Visitors stand in a kaleidoscope of pastel-colored light beneath the world’s largest Tiffany stained-glass dome at the free Chicago Cultural Center, constructed in 1897 as the city’s first public library. Now it hosts free concerts, lectures, family-friendly films, art exhibits, and theater performances. Take a free guided tour highlighting the landmark’s history, beautiful marble and mosaic interior, Tiffany dome, and ornate Grand Army of the Republic Hall.

Maggie Daley Park

Maggie daley park

One of the most fun places for kids in Chicago is Maggie Daley Park in the northeast corner of Grant Park. Open year-round, the park offers 20 acres of trees, gardens, and elevated, landscaped vantage points for stunning views of Lake Michigan and Chicago’s iconic skyscrapers. Kids clamber across massive suspension bridges, climb ropes, and glide down twisting slides. Fees are charged for the 40-foot climbing wall and miniature golf, both open spring through fall. The winter ice skating ribbon is free with skate rentals available.

Garfield Park Conservatory

Garfield park conservatory

Designed by landscape architect Jens Jensen and built in 1908, this 2.8-acre, crystal-roofed greenhouse ranks as one of the world’s largest conservatories. Admission is free for visitors to wander serpentine paths through nearly 10,000 plant varieties. Families dig the Children’s Garden, a greenhouse blooming with child-friendly vegetation and giant sculptural displays showing a plant’s life cycle. Free weekly drop-in programs include mini greenhouse tours, seed planting workshops, storytelling, and concerts. Kids make mud pies and scramble around a tree trunks obstacle course in the Play & Grow Garden, while the Sensory Garden features seasonal beekeeping demonstrations.

Chicago Lakefront Beaches

Chicago lakefront beaches

A day at the beach is one of the most popular summer activities in Chicago with kids. You can swim, paddle, walk, bike, sail, play volleyball, and build sandcastles at Chicago’s Lake Michigan beaches. Many beaches have lifeguards on duty; more than half are handicap-faccessible; and all are free and open year-round. The best two beaches for families are both within 15 minutes of the Loop. Chill for a day on the sprawling sands of lifeguard-monitored North Avenue Beach, where an open-air sports facility offers roller hockey, dodge ball, and fitness classes. Rent kayaks, paddleboards, wakeboards, Jet-Skis, and lounge chairs at the vintage ocean liner-shaped bathhouse-concessions building. Close to Navy Pier on a protected inlet, quiet Ohio Street Beach is perfect for novice swimmers and sand-digging toddlers.

Brookfield Zoo

Brookfield zoo

Just 30 minutes west of the city, Brookfield Zoo is a fun place to go in Chicago with kids. You’ll undoubtedly find your favorite animal among the more than 2,000 creatures living on the zoo’s 216 acres—including polar bears, grizzlies, bald eagles, and 2,000-pound bison. Kids can talk with animal trainers, help feed some critters, and check out hands-on exhibits and arts programs. You can also take a quiet, quarter-mile stroll around the lake in the Salt Creek Wilderness area, a perfect place to picnic.

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—Original reporting by Kit Bernardi

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