14 unmissable things to do in Chicago with kids

Last updated on November 16, 2023

A guide to the best things to do in Chicago with kids, including plenty of Chicago family activities that adults will love too.

Is Chicago good for kids?

Chicago is one of those places that seems to etch itself on a child’s mind. I think it’s partly due to the skyscrapers that must appear even more colossal and dwarfing from a kids’ eye view. Plus it’s also a place that pulses with that big-city buzz and is filled with memorable sights and attractions.

There are loads of fun things for kids to do in Chicago, from family-friendly museums to epic playgrounds and zoos. You can even hit the beach or ice skate, depending on the season. And don’t forget to try a deep-pan pizza – an easy win with kids!

We loved our time there and have put together a guide with our pick of the best things to do in Chicago with kids (plus another guide on the coolest places to stay in Chicago with kids).

How to save money on a Chicago family vacation

A good way to save money on your Chicago family trip is to invest in a city pass, all of which offer savings of up to 50% on the top attractions.

There are a few Chicago city passes to choose from, including the Chicago CityPASS, Chicago C3 CityPASS or Go City: Chicago Explorer Pass. They are all fairly similar, but here’s a brief breakdown.

Chicago CityPASS: The Chicago CityPASS is valid for nine days and gives entry to Shedd Aquarium, Skydeck Chicago and the Field Museum, plus two of the following attractions: Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Science and Industry, 360 CHICAGO Observation Deck or Adler Planetarium. Prices start at $118. Check latest prices and book now.

Go City: Chicago Explorer Pass: With the Go City: Chicago Explorer Pass, you can choose between a 3, 4 or 5 attraction pass and you can use it over 60 days. There are 25 attractions to choose from, including many from this list, such as Skydeck, Adler Planetarium, Legoland Discovery Centre and the Navy Pier Centennial Wheel. This one has the most choice out of the city pass options. Prices start at $80. Check prices and reserve now.

Chicago C3 CityPASS: As the name suggests, with the Chicago C3 CityPASS, you get access to three of Chicago’s top attractions from a choice of seven, including Shedd Aquarium, Skydeck and the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s valid for nine days. Prices start at $88. Check latest prices and book now.

14 unmissable things to do in Chicago with kids

Have fun in the Play Garden at Maggie Daley Park

The Play Garden at Maggie Daley Park is probably one of the best playgrounds in the world. It’s certainly one of the best we’ve ever been to.

Winding paths take you through different areas where you’ll find all manner of climbing frames and fun, interactive play things, from ships to a towering lighthouse. It’s top of our list for attractions in Chicago for kids.

A highlight is the slide crater where there’s a ring of varying slides and a striking suspension bridge across the middle. In warm weather, there’s plenty of water play areas. And in the winter, don’t miss the ice skating ribbon that winds around the park (used for roller blades and scooters in the summer). And there’s also a climbing wall and mini golf.

Another good park option in Chicago is Grant Park with its wide, open spaces and photogenic Buckingham Fountain.

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Take a selfie in ‘The Bean’

The Bean (or Cloud Gate as it’s officially known) has become one of Chicago’s most iconic sights. And it’s definitely one that kids enjoy. The giant stainless silver sculpture by Sir Anish Kapoor marks the entrance to Millennium Park in The Loop and is an unmissable thing to do in Chicago with kids.

Its shiny surface offers endless photo opps with you and the city skyline reflected on the bean. And our kids also just loved running around it, pulling faces and enjoying the unusual structure. It’ an unmissable family thing to do in Chicago.

The Bean is right next to the Crown Fountain, Jaume Plensa’s interactive video sculpture that sees huge images of Chicago residents spouting water from pouting lips. It’s another not-to-be-missed sight in Chicago. And also be sure to take a look at the nearby Jay Pritzker Pavilion by Frank Gehry’s, typical of the architect’s surreal, swirling designs.

After exploring Millennium Park, head over the bridge to the incredible Play Garden at Maggie Daley Park (see above).

Brave the Ledge at Skydeck

Our son Otis often talks about the Willis Tower and how exciting it was to go all the way to the top and stand on the nerve-wracking glass box, AKA ‘The Ledge’, peering down onto the street below. It’s certainly a memorable experience!

The Willis Tower itself is the third tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. Visitors can travel to the Skydeck observation area, 1,353 feet in the air, where the 360-degree views of the city are stunning. To take it to the next level, step out onto ‘The Ledge’ a series of glass boxes that extend 4.2 feet from the Skydeck.

Before reaching the Skydeck, you travel through an interactive exhibition that brings to life Chicago’s history, including the opportunity to take selfies with fun, Chicago-themed backdrops. Buy tickets for Skydeck here.

Tilt at 360 Chicago is another good option for seeing amazing views of the city. Housed in the former John Hancock Building, on the Magnificent Mile, the experience gives visitors the opportunity to lean face-forward on tilted glass while staring down at the city below – a pretty hair-raising experience! A benefit of 360 Chicago is that you get a good view of the Willis Tower too. Buy tickets here.

In a city that’s often cold, this is one of the best Chicago indoor activities for families.

Try a deep pan pizza

Have you even been to Chicago if you haven’t tried a classic deep-pan pizza? It’s an essential part of any Chicago trip and one that normally an easy win with kids.

We went to Lou Malnati’s, which was super family friendly and atmospheric. For a more neighbourhood feel, and what many consider the best pizza in Chicago, go to Pequod’s Pizza.

Visit the zoo

Lincoln Zoo Chicago
Photo by Abel Arciniega for Choose Chicago

Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago is completely free to visit and has nearly 200 animal species including rhinos, lions, monkeys, penguins and more.

Besides the animals, there are lots of fun things to do at the zoo, including a carousel, feeding times, talks and the cute Lionel Train adventure that takes you on a journey around part of the zoo.  

Other animal adventures in Chicago include the world renowned Brookfield Zoo, set in a 216-acre nature park, and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, which has an impressive butterfly garden.

Go to the Ice Cream Museum

Oh my, we didn’t get to do this, but it looks incredible!

At the Ice Cream Museum, guests get to wander through 14 ice-cream themed installations, including a mini golf game, the Sprink-L line train carriage, and a pool filled with ice cream sprinkles!

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Plus you get the eat unlimited ice cream on your journey round. Kids will be in heaven! Book tickets now.

Take a ride at Navy Pier

Navy Pier is no doubt a tourist trap, but it’s also a fun Chicago family attraction with plenty for kids to enjoy. Our kids loved riding the Centennial Wheel and watching the boats from the pier.

Other attractions include swings, a carousel and remote-controlled boats. This is a particularly fun family thing to do in Chicago at night when the city lights up.

Visit the Children’s Museum

There’s also a big indoor area on Nay Pier, The Family Pavilion, which houses the impressive Chicago Children’s Museum.

Younger kids (it’s aimed at toddlers to age 10) can explore all sorts of interactive exhibits, including the opportunity to play grown-up in Kids Town, get creative in the art areas, build a city skyline and create their own stories.

The Cloud Buster trail is a highlight where you get to explore a maze of unusual tunnels and obstacles, suspended above the main pavilion.

Visit Shedd Aquarium

Photo by Abel Arciniega for Choose Chicago

The Shedd Aquarium is one of the world’s largest aquariums, home to thousands of sea creatures and birds. Kids will love seeing shoals of colourful fish, beluga whales, dolphins, sharks, stingrays and more. There are also animal chats and feeding times throughout the day.

And you can book live animal encounters too, including shark feeding(!), getting up close to stingrays, or the chance to meet a penguin. They also do special events such as sleepovers at the aquarium. Check prices and book your ticket now.

It’s one of the best family friendly things to do in Chicago.

Explore the Field Museum

Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History is a perfect family day out in Chicago. As soon as you walk in, you’re faced with the impressive Maximo, a huge skeleton of a titanosaur dinosaur – you can even touch it!

There are more dinosaurs to explore (including Sue, the biggest T-Rex ever discovered), as well as mummies, gems, fossils, and more.

Don’t miss the Family PlayLab where kids can play scientist and have a go at excavating bones themselves.

There’s also a 3D movie theatre that you can buy tickets for at an additional cost.

Check prices and book now.

Stargaze at the Adler Planetarium

The Adler Planetarium is another attraction on the Museum Campus (alongside the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum). It’s one of the world’s oldest planetariums and will be a hit with all lovers of the cosmos.

There are lots of educational, interactive space exhibits to explore, including the Clark Family Welcome Gallery where you walk through a surreal environment of changing lights, video projections and unusual architecture.

And of course, there’s the planetarium itself, which features shows for all ages. We saw One World, One Sky, where Sesame Street characters take you on a journey of the night sky! The Adler Planetarium is included in the Chicago CityPASS and Go City: Chicago Explorer Pass.

Get creative at the Legoland Discovery Centre

We love a Legoland Discovery Centre, which are found all around the world, normally in big cities. Kids get to explore a wonderland of Lego, including Lego rides and plenty of Lego to experiment with.

Lego Discovery Centres always tend to have a ‘Miniland’ re-creation of the city they’re located in, and in Chicago it’s no different with all the iconic Chicago landmarks made from Lego.

The Legoland Discovery Center is included in the option on the Go City: Chicago Explorer Pass. It’s an awesome thing to do in Chicago for kids.

Explore the Art Institute of Chicago

Photo by Abel Arciniega for Choose Chicago

Sometimes you want to do a family activity that’s just as much for the adults as for the kids, and the Art Institute of Chicago is a good example. It’s rated as one of the best galleries in the world and has works by some of the masters, including Dalí, Picasso, Pollock and Chagall. Plus it’s also home to the world’s largest collection of impressionist paintings outside of Paris, including Monet, Seurat, Van Gogh and Renoir.

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Kids will likely enjoy seeing the art, but there are also art activity areas and interactive art games. The miniature rooms are often a kid’s highlight, where a study of interior design has been imagined in the form of a sort of dolls’ house.

Entry to the museum is free for those aged 14 and under – making it one of the best free things to do in Chicago with kids. Check adult prices here. To avoid queues, get a skip-the-line pass or even do a semi-private tour (max 8 people).

It’s a good option when searching for what to do in Chicago that’s kid-friendly but also a big hit with adults.

Visit the Museum of Science and Industry

Our kids are science-obsessed and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) is amazing for all ages up to adult. There’s an impressive U-Boat to explore, plus lots of interactive science exhibits. You can even simulate a tornado and a tsunami that barrels towards you.

The Henry Crown Space Center is a highlight for kids who love space (hands up from our kids!).

It’s an amazing activity for kids in Chicago. Children under 3 are free. And adult tickets are $21.95 and kids are $12.95.

Hit the beach

Pby Abel Arciniega for Choose Chicagocover Chicago

Beaches weren’t something that came to mind when I first thought of Chicago. But while it’s not by the sea, it is lakeside and has some beautiful beaches to enjoy. Of course, they come into their own in the summertime, and there are more than 20 beaches manned by lifeguards.   

One of the most central options is 12th Street Beach. And North Avenue Beach is really popular and close to Lincoln Zoo. It makes for a fun family day out in Chicago.

Where to stay in Chicago with kids

Homewood Suites Chicago

We’ve written a full guide to the coolest places to stay in Chicago with kids, including our bargain hotel that had an incredible city view.

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