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8 things to do in Chicago with kids

Sept. 05, 2022
13 min read
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Filled with world-class museums, trailblazing architecture and expansive parks and gardens, the "City of Big Shoulders" is packed with activities that inspire and entertain young minds, no matter what the season.

You might not think of Chicago as a beach destination, but on summer days, and even through fall, the sandy shoreline of Lake Michigan becomes the city's beloved playground. Families enjoy barbecues and splashing in the water, cyclists and rollerbladers ply the lakefront bike path and volleyball nets and paddle boards scatter the beaches.

Many Chicagoans will tell you that fall is their favorite season with warm (less humid) temperatures, dramatic foliage, holiday spirit, and the start of a busy cultural and sporting events calendar. In winter, park meadows are flooded to create seasonal skating rinks and cosy leather booths beckon foodies to the city's legendary steakhouses.

Overall, Chicago offers plenty of opportunities for recreation as well as fun and enriching activities and sights.

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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. @KMARIA75/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 — three days costs $167 for adults or $121 for children age 3 to 12 years — or one to visit a certain number of attractions.

Another discount-bundle option is the Chicago CityPASS ($114 adult, $83 kids 3–11), which includes admission to the Shedd Aquarium, Willis Tower Skydeck and the Field Museum and then your choice of (pick two): the Museum of Science and Industry; 360 CHICAGO Observation Deck; Adler Planetarium; Art Institute of Chicago.

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(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.)

Wrigley Field

Wrigley Field in 2019, following a $550 million renovation. MADDIE MALHORTA/BOSTON RED SOX/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 undergone a massive renovation 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 at home and want to take in a game, ticket prices start around $30 per person (unless they are having a good year). If it’s not a game day, visitors can also pay the same price to join a tour that visits the press box, clubhouses, bleachers and team dugouts. Tours are also offered on game days but do not include a visit to the clubhouses or dugouts.

Millennium Park

Designed by British artist Anish Kapoor, the beloved "Bean" is Chicago's most crowd-pleasing public work of art. MASSIMO BORCHI/ATLANTIDE PHOTOTRAVEL/GETTY IMAGES

Unveiled in 2004, Millennium Park quickly shed its budget-blowing controversy to become one of the city’s celebrated public spaces. Framed by Chicago's iconic skyline to the west and Lake Michigan to the east, it’s where Chicago’s history, cultural cachet and mold-breaking vision intersect.

There are monumental feats of art and engineering, whimsical gardens and a playground that captures the imagination of teens and young children. Offering some of the city’s best free entertainment, the park's headline act is the Pritzker Pavilion, a classic Frank Gehry postmodern construct with billowing steel ribbons and an overhead trellis of woven pipes that supports a sublime sound system — it’s an exhilarating setting for free summer concerts.

Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, known affectionately as the “Bean,” invites interaction with its fun-house reflective surface primed for selfies beneath the skyline. Famed sculpture artist Jaume Plensa designed Crown Fountain which, much to the delight of scampering kids, shoots out water from a rotating series of Chicagoans' faces.

The 3-acre Maggie Daley Park is one of the best playgrounds in the nation, with themed play areas, a 40-foot climbing wall, mini golf and a skating ribbon.

Navy Pier

A view at dusk of the Centennial Wheel on Navy Pier. GAUTAM KRISHNAN/UNSPASH

A few blocks north of the Chicago River, Navy Pier (free to enter, 10 a.m.–10 p.m. 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 (10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, till 8 p.m. on Thursday, $19 children and adults, 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 $26 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.

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 9 a.m.–5 p.m.) 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 $42 adults, $31 kids 3–11, $37 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.

Chicago Field Museum, home to Sue, the best-preserved T-Rex specimen ever discovered. FIELD MUSEUM

Since 1930, the Shedd Aquarium (weekdays Sept.–May 9 a.m.–5 p.m., weekends and June–Aug. 9 a.m.–6 p.m.) 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 is one of Chicago's most visited attractions. KUBRAK78/GETTY IMAGES

The third destination on the museum campus, the Adler Planetarium (daily 9 a.m.–4 p.m., Memorial Day to Labor Day open till 6 p.m.) 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: adult $19, child $8; admission plus two sky shows, adult $35, child $24.

The Adler Planetarium in downtown Chicago. BENKRUT/GETTY IMAGES

Museum of Science and Industry

The Museum of Science and Industry. BENKRUT/GETTY IMAGES

This exceptional museum explores the intersection of nature and innovation. At the Museum of Science and Industry (9:30 a.m.–4 p.m., 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.

Lincoln Park Zoo

Chicago's iconic skyscrapers reflected in the South Pond Natural Area at the Lincoln Park Zoo. DIARIMAR RODRIGUEZ/EYEM/GETTY IMAGES

If you’ve got spending fatigue, head to the free 35-acre Lincoln Park Zoo (daily weekdays 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Memorial Day–Labor Day weekends 10 a.m.–6:30 p.m., early closing at 4:30 p.m. 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.

The Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago lions, which were commissioned for the Columbian Exhibition in 1893. CHRISTOPHERARNDT/GETTY IMAGES

Definitely take your kids to the Art Institute (10:30 a.m.–5 p.m., late hours Thursday to 8 p.m., 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 students and teens 14–17; free under 14.

360 Chicago

View from the top of 360 Chicago in the John Hancock Center. 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: $39 adult, including Tilt; $29, including Tilt, free under 3. Additional packages (including drinks) 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. You’ll have fun getting to know the city’s diverse neighborhoods and ethnic cuisine. Stroll around the leafy German enclave of Lincoln Square, graze on Scandinavian-inspired baked goods in eclectic Andersonville, or explore galleries and parks in the Mexican American neighborhood of Pilsen. Be sure to sample some of Chicago's iconic dishes — Al's Italian beef sandwiches, deep-dish pizza, Chicago-style hot dogs — or (for foodie kids) the city's boundary-pushing restaurant scene.

Additional reporting by Caroline Lascom.

Featured image by Navy Pier Swings (Photo by Grace Ho / Unsplash)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • Welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first six months

Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Apply for American Express® Gold Card
at American Express's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best for the well-traveled foodie
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
3XEarn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.

    60,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $250
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

Pros

  • 4x on dining at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x)
  • 3x on flights booked directly with the airline or with Amex Travel
  • Welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first six months

Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees