This kid-centric tour of Chicago is brought to you by Nicole Wiltrout, who blogs about traveling with her two children at Arrows Sent Forth. The helpful tips were first published on Expedia in 2012 as part of the “Kids in the City” summer travel campaign, an effort that highlighted family-friendly urban destinations throughout the United States.
For us Midwesterners, Chicago is the place to go when we seek big-city adventures. The city is an ideal destination during the summer months, when you can cool off by catching a breeze along Lake Michigan, taking in a ballgame, or experiencing one of the many summer festivals. Here are my picks for where to play, stay, and eat with kids in the Windy City.
What to do with kids in Chicago
Visit world-class museums. I never conclude a weekend getaway in Chicago without visiting at least one of the phenomenal museums in town. Fortunately, all of the options are kid-friendly. If you’re traveling with little ones, I recommend the Chicago Children’s Museum on Navy Pier, or Shedd Aquarium. Older children will enjoy the Field Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago, which has a wonderful new children’s wing. If your family includes kids of all ages, focus your time around Museum Campus, where the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium are within steps of each other.
Whatever you do, don’t miss my favorite Chicago museum, the Museum of Science and Industry. The museum is worth the short train ride to its location near the University of Chicago; it has exhibits that will entertain and educate kids and adults of all ages, and is incredibly hands-on.
Check out the park of the millennium. Millennium Park is a hub in the city, with meadows, fountains, and outstanding and iconic public art such as the Cloud Gate Sculpture (commonly referred to as “The Bean”). Summer brings a free family fun fest that features kids’ shows, story times, and an activity zone. There are also many concerts and events held here.
Take in towering views: If you’ve got daredevils in your family, you won’t want to miss the chance to head up 103 stories to the top of the Willis Tower (formerly named the Sears Tower). Called the SkyDeck, this attraction is known for its glass sky ledge, where you’ll step out onto a glass “box” that extends over the side of the building. It’s not for the faint of heart! If you’d rather a tamer experience, put the John Hancock Building Observatory on your list. It is cheaper and less crowded.
Make time to explore: I think the best part of any trip to Chicago are the discoveries you make wandering around. I love taking simple walks along the lake shore or the Chicago River. There are wonderful architectural tours, Segway rides, even horse and carriage rentals that cover part of this ground, too. Another favorite pastime of mine is window-shopping along Michigan Avenue, which has kid-friendly stores such as American Girl and Niketown. Also, even if you can’t snag tickets to a Cubs game, walking around Wrigleyville is a fun and lively experience.
Viewfinder Tip: Allow extra time if you’re taking Chicago Transit Authority trains. This system is one of the most expansive in the country, but it is notoriously slow.
Where to eat with kids in Chicago
No trip to Chicago is complete without sampling the city’s iconic deep-dish pizza. For the best pizza, try spots such as Gino’s East, where customers can sign their names on the wall; Giordano’s, with convenient locations all over the city; and Pizzeria Uno, a national chain that started in Chicago. Especially if you’re with kids, be sure to place your pizza order as soon as you sit down, since these heavenly pies typically take at least 45 minutes to cook.
Another Chicago staple, the hot dog, can be ordered up all over the city at many street vendors. (Just be sure to pass on the ketchup, or you’ll be instantly recognized as a tourist.)
Ed Debevic’s is more than a Chicago landmark, it’s an outrageous dining experience that will have even the grumpiest teenager laughing. The restaurant offers typical diner food, but what makes it special is the “service” you receive—the staff is famous for being downright rude to customers. If you time your visit right, you may be treated to one of their mini-shows, which usually involve servers dancing on the countertops.
Where to stay with kids in Chicago
Embassy Suites Downtown Lakefront. A short walk from Navy Pier and Millennium Park, this property is a great, family-friendly option. Beyond the free breakfast and indoor pool, the nightly reception means that moms and dads can grab free drinks at the bar while kids help themselves to a buffet of snacks.
Majestic Hotel. This small property is the closest hotel to Wrigley Field. Accommodations here have a great old-time feel, but still offer family-friendly conveniences such as extra sitting rooms, small kitchen appliances, and free continental breakfast. I’ve even managed to snag coveted free street parking when staying here.
How to save money visiting Chicago with kids
Invest in a CityPass. If you plan to visit several of the main attractions, you’d be well-served to purchase this pass, which gives you 50 percent off admission fees. Each pass is valid for nine days, and may even allow you to bypass some of the ticket and admission lines.
Leave your car at home. Parking at Chicago-area hotels can run anywhere from $20 to $50 per day, so ditching the car will help cut costs. You don’t really need a car in Chicago anyway; many attractions are within a short walk of each other, and public transportation services are easy to navigate.
Do what’s free. Chicago has a great lineup of free events throughout the summer including Taste of Chicago and the Chicago Air and Water Show. Another option: Checking out some of the smaller ethnic festivals in various neighborhoods. Chicago also home to the Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the only remaining free zoos in the country. You even can spend the day at one of the city’s 23 swimming beaches along the 26 miles of lakeshore.
What do you like to do in Chicago with children?