Taking the Kids To Chicago’s Top Attractions
Chicago is a popular weekend destination for families, but the city has more than enough things to do to fill a four-to-six day trip. And most of the city’s most popular tourist activities are exceptionally kid-friendly and fun for families.
Here is an itinerary of the most popular things to do on a Chicago vacation and tips for seeing them all with kids. (Also read what local families like to do in Chicago.)
How To See Chicago’s Top Attractions With Kids
In this post:
• The Shedd Aquarium
• The Field Museum
• The Adler Planetarium
• The Museum of Science & Industry
• The Art Institute of Chicago
• SkyDeck Chicago
The Shedd is one of the best aquariums I’ve ever been to. If you have limited time this is the must-do kids activity. Weekdays bring school classes and families with small children; weekends and school breaks bring families and tourists. It’s always busy and I recommend an early start so you can leave when the crowds get too large.
Exhibits cover the Amazon, coral reefs and local lake and river eco-systems. I loved the Pacific Northwest part of the aquarium. As you walk in you feel like you’re heading deep into a Northwest pine forest. The trail leads to the Oceanarium, home to Pacific sea creatures including adorable beluga whales, white-sided dolphins, sea lions and sea otters. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows make you feel like the aquarium is an extension of Lake Michigan outside. The exhibit continues downstairs, where you can see the giant tanks from below. Also downstairs is the Polar Play Zone, with touch tanks and play activities for the 6-and-under set.
The aquarium has 4D movies that cost an additional fee. I saw the BBC production Coastal Predators, which was beautifully done, just educational enough and not scar. With kids ages 8YO and up I think it’s worth the extra fee.
Note: The Shedd’s Soundings Café is surprisingly good. Kids reliably like the macaroni & cheese, baked quesadilla and turkey sloppy Joe sliders. Parents can order freshly made sandwiches and wraps, meal-sized salads that aren’t all lettuce, and decent burgers. Pass by the coffee counter to order at the main counter and your meal is delivered to your table. Don’t eat right after the noon Oceanarium show; it’s peak lunchtime.
The Field is the city’s natural history museum. It’s huge but some things will interest you and your kids more than others and there’s no need to see everything.
I always love seeing mummies, but my tween finds them creepy. The Egypt exhibit that houses them is fun to see anyway because it features a market that highlights typical jobs and roles that have modern counterparts.
Head to the Playlab for drop-in activities with kids aged 2YO-6YO. Kids older than that can visit the Science Hub for hands-on activities and talks with scientists. One of the unique things about the Field is that a lot of laboratories are near the exhibits, behind glass, so you can watch the staff work. Some groups hang up signs to explain what they’re working on. I wish they all did.
A ticketed exhibit running through 2020 lets you “shrink” to a size smaller than an insect and explore all the things that go on below the dirt that we can’t normally see. As long as your kids won’t be afraid of bugs that are bigger than they are it’s one of the most kid-friendly exhibits at the moment.
Note: Special and ticketed exhibits are included in the all-access museum ticket.
More than other planetariums I’ve been to, the Adler feels like it was designed with kids mind. Planet Explorers is a big interactive space for 3YO-8YO. It’s included with admission but you need a timed ticket to use it. The pre-school set will like a Sesame Street movie where Big Bird teaches Elmo about the night sky (get an all-access ticket to see the movies).
Check out the Community Design Lab for more advanced hands-on projects (like turning you iPhone into a telescope), and the Space Visualization Lab offers the opportunity to talk with scientists.
Astronaut James Lovell left the planetarium a trove of personal artifacts from his several space missions, including the aborted mission of Apollo 13. It offers a unique point of view on our early space missions, included that of the families waiting and watching back on earth.
Once a month, the Doane at Dark event allows guests access to the planetarium’s Doane telescope for nighttime stargazing. It’s free and weather dependent.
Note: The Shedd, The Field Museum and the Planetarium are next to each other along Lake Michigan, so it can be tempting to try to do them in all in one day. With older kids who have some stamina you can do The Shedd and the Adler with a lunch break in between. But you’ll have to pick and choose what you see at both. The Shedd can take the better part of a day if you want it to and so can the Field Museum. Unless you see absolutely everything the Adler is a half-day excursion.
The Museum of Science and Industry is enormous with a diverse collection of fun, interactive exhibits for school-age kids and tweens. Most of the best require an upgraded admission pass and several require timed tickets. This is a close second for can’t-miss kids activities and another place where an early start really helps.
Some cool things that don’t cost extra: The new Science of Pixar exhibit, the automated Toymaker 3000 assembly line, the sprawling and detailed Chicago-to-Seattle model train (good if you have preschoolers with you), and the Idea Factory plant lab for kids under 10YO. Parents who grew up in the 1970s will want to visit All About You to check out the Twinkie that still hasn’t degraded after being unwrapped since 2009.
Some of the most enticing add-ons include the Fab Lab, where kids 6YO and up can create projects like laser cut creating cards and items from a 3D printer. Tour a coalmine or a historic submarine. Or take a virtual walk in space.
This is an all-day outing and one that’s sure to leave your kids exhausted.
If you’re visiting with kids plan on spending an hour to two hours, depending on their age and interest in art. Even with teens you’ll have to prioritize what you want to see in this sprawling museum. My favorite wings are the impressionists and American Art.
Bring your family in via the Modern Art entrance, opposite Millennium Park, and head to the Vitale family room. Here you can create your own tour with the digital JourneyMaker. Choose one of eight themes like Superheroes, Time Travelers, or Wild Creatures. Then choose a handful of art pieces that fit the theme and print out your custom itinerary. It’s a good way to focus your visit and explore a few pieces of art in-depth.
After you’ve seen as much art as you like, visit the Artist’s Studio in the Ryan Learning Center. Here the whole family can create an original work based on what you’ve seen during your visit.
Note: The casual downstairs café has outdoor garden, great for kids who want to move around while you finish your lunch. The more formal 34rd floor restaurant has a terrace with a great view of the park and a snowman.
Bonus: After the museum, head over to Millennium Park to let your kids run free for a bit.
My experience is that kids love observation decks. For about ten minutes. Then they will ask you how long you can look at buildings for and strongly suggest leaving. Tweens and teens will be in selfie heaven her. Just tell younger kids to be patient while you take in the skyline and the lake, get oriented and take some candid family photos on the glass-enclosed ledges.
The newly renovated entrance has glass walls, interactive screens and a short movie that offer facts and trivia about the Willis tower and Chicago pop culture and history. It’s mildly entertaining and helps to pass the time if lines are long.
Note: If you’re scared to step out onto the glass-bottomed viewing decks, take a photo in front of a green screen on your way out (right). No one will know the difference!
*CityPass offers a passbook for Chicago that includes entry to these attractions as well as the 360 Chicago Observation Deck. Shedd admission includes one movie, MSI includes an add-on and motion simulator ride, and the Field Museum and Aquarium are all-access. It includes discounted admission and skip-the-line access at all venues.
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*CityPass and Choose Chicago sponsored our visit to the city. We promised no specific coverage in exchange for the trip and our opinions are always our own. We also have an affiliate relationship with CityPass, if you click the link and buy passes, we might earn a small commission.