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Plan the perfect family vacation to Chicago with TPG’s tips for how to get there, when to visit and where to stay on points.

You might not think of Chicago as a beach destination, but on hot summer days, the sandy shoreline of Lake Michigan becomes a party scene. Families enjoy barbecues and splashing in the calm water. In winter, park meadows are flooded to create seasonal skating rinks. Overall, Chicago offers plenty of opportunities for recreation, as well as fun and enriching activities and sights.

To some extent, you may want to let the weather guide your visit. If you visit during summer and the humidity is brutal, get out on the lake or find some air conditioning at one of the Windy City’s wonderful science museums.

Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. (Photo by @kmaria75 via Twenty20)
Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. (Photo by @kmaria75 via Twenty20)

If you’re braving a Chicago winter, and/or you really want to hit all the major attractions, you may benefit from purchasing a Chicago Go Card: a hop-on hop-off scheme that can be customized to include select destinations. (Prices vary depending on whether you buy an all-inclusive pass or one to visit a certain number of attractions.) Another discount-bundle option is the Chicago CityPASS ($108 adult, $89 kids 3–11), which can save your family on admission costs to the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, and either the Adler Planetarium or the Art Institute of Chicago.

(Note: Most attraction tickets code as entertainment on your credit card statement so be sure to use one of the best credit cards for entertainment spending for all of those purchases.)

In This Post

1. Wrigley Field

Outside Wrigley Field. (Photo by Kubrak78 / Getty Images)
Outside Wrigley Field (Photo by Kubrak78/Getty Images)

The ballpark that fans call the “friendly confines” of the Chicago Cubs, Wrigley Field, is a must-see for baseball fans. Built in 1914, it has been updated a little over the years to add modern comforts, but it retains the old-fashioned charm of its ivy-covered brick walls, numerous day games and the bleacher bums holding forth decade after decade. If you’re in town when the Cubs are playing a home game and want to take in a game, ticket prices start around $25 per person. If it’s not a game day, visitors can also pay the same price to join a tour that visits the press box, bleachers and team dugouts.

2. Navy Pier

A view at dusk of the Centennial Wheel on Navy Pier. (Photo by Gautam Krishnan / Unsplash)
A view at dusk of the Centennial Wheel on Navy Pier. (Photo by Gautam Krishnan/Unsplash)

A few blocks north of the Chicago River, Navy Pier (free to enter, 10am–10pm Memorial Day to Labor Day, other hours vary by season) extends out into Lake Michigan. It’s home to the Centennial Wheel ($18 adult, $15 military and ages 3–11, free under 3), which gives visitors not only a fun Ferris wheel ride but also breathtaking views of the Chicago skyline from nearly 200 feet in the air. The wheel is part of Pier Park, where you’ll also find the Pepsi Wave Swinger ride, a carousel, climbing walls and other amusements.

Navy Pier is home to the Chicago Children’s Museum (10am–5pm daily, till 8 on Thursday, $14.95 children and adults, $13.95 seniors, free kids under 1). This attraction offers a play space for small children and hands-on exhibits on dinosaurs, the power of water and more; there’s also a Skyline exhibit from the National Science Foundation that teaches about the art, architecture and engineering that went into some of Chicago’s tallest buildings.

Navy Pier is also the place to board cruises on Lake Michigan. Several providers offer architecture tours, fireworks tours and basic lake cruises. Prices and times vary by type of tour. For example, Shoreline Sightseeing offers a 40-minute Classic Lake Tour that costs $25 for adults and $10 for kids (infants ride for free, discount coupon available on the provider’s website). Its informative architecture tours top out at $43 for adults and $24 for kids; again, infants ride for free. A lake cruise can be a high point of your trip, especially on a hot day. Research the options before you go and look for online discounts.

The Navy Pier website provides a schedule of free and ticketed events, including the cruises as well as concerts and theater. You’ll also find information about taking a water taxi to other lakeside locations, such as the natural science museums.

3. Natural Science Museums

Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum and Adler Planetarium are clustered on a campus off Lakeshore Drive, south of Navy Pier. The exceptional Field Museum (daily 9am–5pm) hosts permanent and temporary exhibitions that use state-of-the-art technology, including film, to realize the worlds of dinosaurs, ancient Egypt, Audubon’s Birds of America and more. When you explore the fascinating realms created here, you’ll understand why this is an expensive museum to visit: A ticket, which includes all general-admission exhibitions and ticketed exhibitions plus one 3D movie, is $38 adults, $27 kids 3–11, $33 seniors and $33 students with ID. Discounts are offered for Illinois and Chicago residents, teachers, active military and those who participate in the EBT Museums for All plan. The museum also offers a few free-admission days each month. See the website for details.

(Photo couresty of Field Museum)
The Chicago Field Museum (Photo courtesy of Field Museum)

Since 1930, the Shedd Aquarium (weekdays Sept.–May 9am–5pm, weekends and June–Aug. 9am–6pm) has offered visitors a look at creatures from the sea as well as from the Great Lakes. Exhibits include the Abbott Oceanarium with Pacific white-sided dolphins, sea lions and sea otters from the Pacific Northwest; Wild Reef, which explores exotic corals, sharks and stingrays; and a Polar Playzone where young children learn about the behavior of penguins and other arctic creatures. Daily events include special animal encounters, talks and more. Admission: $39.95 adult, $29.95 child 3–11, free under 3. Discounts available for Chicago residents.

The Shedd Aquarium, Chicago. (Photo by Kubrak78 / Getty Images)
The Shedd Aquarium (Photo by Kubrak78/Getty Images)

The third destination on the museum campus, the Adler Planetarium (daily 9am–4pm, Memorial Day to Labor Day open till 6) offers exhibits and shows to teach visitors of all ages about the first moon mission, historic telescopes, the solar system and more. There are experiences for all ages, including “One World, One Sky: Big Bird’s Adventure,” in which Big Bird and Elmo describe a trip to the moon. Admission: Basic Pass $24.95 adult, child $19.95; All Access Pass adult $34.95, child $29.95.

Adler Planetarium, located in downtown Chicago. (Photo by Benkrut / Getty Images)
The Adler Planetarium, located in downtown Chicago. (Photo by Benkrut/Getty Images)

4. Museum of Science and Industry

The Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. (Photo by Benkrut / Getty Images)
The Museum of Science and Industry (Photo by Benkrut/Getty Images)

This unusual museum explores the intersection of nature and innovation. At the Museum of Science and Industry (9:30am–4pm, see site for days with extended hours), kids can tour a real submarine, control simulated aircraft and descend into a recreated coal mine — and by all means, do not miss the hatchery. The draw to this popular exhibit on the life cycle and genetics is an incubator full of baby chicks hatching. You might want to save the hatchery for last, actually, because it will be hard to tear kids away from the sight of those tiny chicks pecking their way into the world before beginning to peep and fluff out. Admission is discounted if you purchase tickets in advance online: Museum entry for permanent exhibitions: $21.95 walk-up/$19.95 online, $12.95 walk-up/$10.95 online kids 3–11. Additional experiences/temporary exhibits cost several dollars more each; see site for details.

5. Lincoln Park Zoo

Reflection Of Downtown District In Lincoln Park Zoo Pond (Photo by Diarimar Rodriguez/EyeEm / Getty Images)
Reflection of Downtown District In Lincoln Park Zoo Pond. (Photo by Diarimar Rodriguez/EyeEm/Getty Images)

If you’ve got spending fatigue, head to the free 35-acre Lincoln Park Zoo (daily weekdays 10am–5pm, Memorial Day–Labor Day weekends 10am–6:30pm, early closing at 4:30 Nov.–March). A downloadable Welcome Guide will help you plan your visit. This is one of the oldest zoos in the United States; great apes, lions, bears, rhinos and many more amazing animals have lived here since 1868.

6. The Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago Lions. (Photo by Christopherarndt / Getty Images)
The Art Institute of Chicago lions. (Photo by Christopherarndt/Getty Images)

Definitely take your kids to the Art Institute (10:30am–5pm, late hours Thursday to 8pm, closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day). Even if they don’t have the patience for a lengthy visit, if you’re an art lover, you won’t want to leave the Windy City without seeing Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom,” Chagall’s “America Windows,” Hopper’s “Nighthawks” or any other number of great works. If you are organized and take advantage of the AI’s online guide for visiting families, you can make a beeline for your favorite paintings and then get your kids engaged in the Ryan Learning Center, which offers art projects and interactive exhibits designed especially for children. For families with young children, the Art Institute is also a money saver. Admission: $25 adults; $19 teens, students and teens 14–17; free under 14.

7. 360 Chicago

View from the top of 360 Chicago (Photo by Gautam Krishnan / Unsplash)
View from the top of 360 Chicago (Photo by Gautam Krishnan/Unsplash)

For more than 50 years, the 100-story structure formerly known as the John Hancock building (now simply called 875 North Michigan Avenue) has been an iconic part of the Chicago skyline. This building houses offices, restaurants and 360 Chicago, an observation deck that, on a clear day, affords 80-mile views. This attraction also includes the Tilt thrill ride, a moving platform that leans groups of up to eight people out over the edge of the skyscraper. Admission: $22 adult plus $8 for Tilt; $15 youth 3–11 plus $8 for Tilt, free under 3. Additional packages and discounts for locals are available.

Bottom Line

In addition to the attractions listed in this post, the city itself is a blast to explore with your family. Pack a picnic and enjoy the annual Grant Park Symphony Orchestra’s free summer music festival. Head to Greektown, the Mexican American neighborhood of Pilsen or one of Chicago’s famous deep-dish pizzerias for a delicious meal. You’ll have fun getting to know the city’s diverse neighborhoods and cuisine.

Keep planning your Chicago trip:

Featured photo of the Navy Pier swings by Grace Ho/Unsplash.

Know before you go.

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