The Best Kid-Friendly Things to Do in Chicago

To do: Meet the dinosaurs. Swim in the river. Gorge on ice cream.

A dinosaur display at Chicago's Field Museum

Chicago’s Field Museum is a dinosaur lover’s dream. This year, a Jurassic-era Archaeopteryx fossil is back on display.

Photo by Lucy Hewett

Chicago gave the world skyscrapers and the Ferris Wheel, brownies, and Walt Disney. Its residents relish a good laugh, as evident from their homegrown improv comedy and embrace of a bean-shaped sculpture as a city landmark. That appreciation for play makes Chicago a fertile ground for families seeking a hearty blend of culture, entertainment, outdoor activities, and crowd-pleasing fare. Here’s how to have family fun in Chicago.

Activities for dinosaur devotees, theater fans, and magic geeks

As a local parent, I credit the cultural institutions of Chicago with helping to raise my son (now 24), who spent every chance he got at the Field Museum, a centerpiece of Chicago’s Museum Campus downtown. It’s most famous for its dinosaur collection—including the towering T. rex “Sue”—but it’s also a treasury of meteorites, Egyptian mummies, and a Pawnee Earth Lodge. Children aged two to six can learn through play at the engaging Crown Family PlayLab.

When you’ve had your fill of dinos, hit the Shedd Aquarium right next door to meet beluga whales, sea otters, and sea lions. Don’t miss the dolphin show in the grand theater overlooking the lake. The aquarium has multiple autism-friendly resources, including a sensory-friendly app, special programs for small-group animal encounters, and sound-reducing headphones.

From the aquarium, it’s a beautiful walk along the lake to reach Navy Pier. Its anchor, the Chicago Children’s Museum, engages children from infants to tweens with age-targeted exhibits. Babies can crawl around Kids Town while their older siblings “drive” a pretend bus. Don’t be surprised if you can’t pull your kin away from Cloud Buster, an artist-designed 37-foot-tall climbing structure. When it all becomes too stimulating, check out a free pair of sound-reducing headphones.

Devote another morning to Hyde Park and its Griffin Museum of Science and Industry, which takes an interactive approach to man-made and natural wonders. There’s a German submarine you can enter, a coal mine you can descend into, and a diesel-electric train you can board, plus exhibits covering everything from Midwestern agriculture to space exploration. During periodic low-sensory mornings, the lights and sound are turned down on many exhibits, which also open early, when the museum is less crowded.

Among evening entertainment choices, be abracadabra-awed at the Rhapsody Theater, a vaudeville-era hall in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park that was recently remodeled and reopened as the home of magic shows—most of them for all ages—in Chicago.

Don’t miss whatever’s playing at Chicago Children’s Theatre. The company operates out of a former police station in the West Loop, staging professional productions that run the gamut from musicals to interactive puppet shows and theater productions. “We have always found their shows as entertaining as the kids did,” says Sarah Parisi, the author of The Ultimate Kids’ Adventure Guide to Chicago.

People on the water at North Avenue Beach in Chicago, Illinois

North Avenue Beach features an accessible access path and offers beach wheelchairs for free use.

Photo By Jon Bilous/Shutterstock

Outdoor play for cyclists, boaters, animal lovers and beachgoers

Folks new to Chicago may be surprised to learn that it’s a beach town. Mighty Lake Michigan laps two dozen beaches along 26 miles of shore. Find your favorite by cycling some of the paved 18-mile Lakefront Trail. Bike and Roll Chicago offers several rental locations, two at Navy Pier and Millennium Park, and all kinds of wheels, including kids’ bikes and family-friendly surreys.

On the north side, North Avenue Beach, home to changing rooms, food concessions, and beach-chair rentals, is a great place to start and, in the summer months, an ideal cooldown after visiting the Lincoln Park Zoo across the street.

Free admission makes it easy to repeat visits to the locally beloved zoo, a 49-acre host to 200 species such as polar bears, red pandas, and nearly extinct Jamaican iguanas. Don’t miss the great ape house to watch families of chimps and gorillas, the African exhibit for unusual species like the klipspringer (a type of antelope) and pygmy hippo, the pride of lions that you can view from both indoors and out, and the daily sea lion feeding.

Back downtown, Millennium Park is a deserving magnet centered by the reflective, kidney-bean–shaped sculpture Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor, better known as The Bean. But there’s so much more here, including the Lurie Garden, a natural prairie ringed by privacy hedges, and the Crown Fountain featuring the faces of Chicagoans broadcast across a pair of 50-foot video towers spitting water onto a plaza, which kids love to dash through. (Pro tip: Bring a towel.)

The traditional take on family travel in Chicago funnels broods to Navy Pier, the more than half-mile pier jutting into Lake Michigan that was originally built for military use and is now a carnivalesque attraction of rides—including a nearly 200-foot-tall Ferris Wheel—boat tours, and loads of restaurants. Tweens and teens love it, especially the high-speed Seadog Cruises boat tours. However, it can generate sensory overload among younger and more sensitive visitors. Be prepared for crowds.

To experience some of the delights of Navy Pier, including the free fireworks shows Wednesday and Saturday nights in summer, without the throngs, rent an electric motorboat from the Chicago Electric Boat Company on the Chicago Riverwalk and tour the Chicago River. You can’t miss Art on the Mart, a digital display projected nightly onto the 2.5-acre façade of the Mart, a riverfront landmark.

“Go get pizza and take it on the boat on the river for a beautiful evening,” says Jacqueline Russell, the co-founder and artistic director of Chicago Children’s Theatre, who saw a bald eagle and river otters on her last boat trip.

Little Goat Diner chef Stephanie Izzard and a stack of pancakes with banana

Little Goat Diner offers takeout at its Grab N Goat walk-up window.

Photos by Stoffer Photography

Food fun for the whole fam

In a town where hot dogs and deep-dish pizza lead the hit parade, it’s easy to find picky-eater–pleasing food in Chicago.

On those sunny days when you can’t imagine trying to clean up the kids to go out, hit The Dock at Montrose Beach. The outdoor beachfront patio on the North Side keeps the food casual—burgers, tacos, and a kiddie menu—and the vibe is beach party, with live bands nightly. The littles can get their wiggles out playing in the nearby sand.

It can be tough to get a reservation at chef Stephanie Izard’s restaurant Girl & the Goat. But the chef, who is also a mom, recently opened a North Side spot called Little Goat Diner, where she brings her talent for ample flavor to a diner menu zested with global ingredients. Think Japanese okonomiyaki with sunny-side eggs, plus kimchi Reubens, alongside patty melts and ice cream sundaes showered in chocolate-covered Cheez-Its, all served in a retro space of snug booths and lunch counter stools.

Bundle dinner and a show from a picnic table at Briny Swine Smokehouse & Oyster Bar, a new Carolina barbecue joint in Lincoln Park with a regular lineup of local blues bands. Owners Brandon and Katherine Rushing, along with their eight-year-old daughter, moved to Chicago after establishing their successful Briny Swine in Edisto Beach, South Carolina. Feeding all ages, the restaurant does killer pork rinds with pimento cheese, tender ribs, and a kids’ menu—chicken fingers, pork sandwiches—for 12-and-unders.

For an interactive culinary trip, take the family to Phoenix Restaurant in Chinatown for its legendary dim sum. Waiters work the room wheeling carts filled with Cantonese dim sum—usually bite-sized dumplings, buns, and noodle portions—to order by sight. Walk it off by strolling around the thriving neighborhood of Asian groceries, bakeries, and teahouses.

Fans of Hulu’s The Bear meet the Chicago faithful in Bucktown at Margie’s Candies, an ice cream parlor born in 1921. You can get shakes, cones, and cups, but it’s all about the sundaes at Margie’s (Sydney from “The Bear” downed a massive Margie’s banana split in season two, episode three). “It’s one of the most iconic, fun experiences in Chicago,” says Russell, who frequented Margie’s over the years with her daughter. “It warrants ice cream for dinner, once a year.”

Elaine Glusac is a freelance writer, the Frugal Traveler columnist for the New York Times, and on Instagram @eglusac.
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