Family Travel Survival Guide: Chicago

Family-favorite activities in the Windy City
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Chicago's The Field Museum
Kids will love Sue, the T. rex, at Chicago's The Field Museum (Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau)

Visit the "Chicago for Kids" interactive website and download a free audio tour of points of interest including: Millennium Park, the "L," and North Avenue Beach. Customize your Chicago experience in style with a hop-on hop-off trolley and double-decker bus tour. (Purchase tickets in advance at a 10 percent discount.) Segways are the hot new two-wheeled way for tourists to get around the city—though only for families with kids ages 12 and up and weighing at least 100 pounds. City Segway Tours, Chicago Segway Tour, and Absolutely Segway Chicago are all conveniently located downtown.

Chicago is situated on Lake Michigan with the Chicago River running through the heart of downtown, which means ample choices for waterborne family activities. Take a dinner cruise on Lake Michigan with a spectacular skyline view only available to boaters with Mystic Blue Cruises (check the website for special deals). Chicago Line Cruises offers 90-minute historical and architectural cruises, and kids under age six ride for free. Shoreline Sightseeing offers skyline lake tours (including firework-viewing outings), architectural tours of the Chicago River, and water taxi service. Adventurous families can kayak the Chicago River by day with Kayak Chicago or take a family-friendly, sundown float trip to view fireworks at the Navy Pier. Not all boat tours run year-round, so check each operator for details.

The Loop: Michigan Avenue
Millennium Park is a public art space that's refreshingly family-friendly. Wear water-ready shoes in warm weather so kids can splash around at the uniquely interactive Crown Fountain. Be sure to bring your camera for funhouse photos of the family reflected in Cloud Gate (a sculpture whose shape will immediately reveal why locals nicknamed it "The Bean"). The Art Institute of Chicago is directly south of Millennium Park on Michigan Avenue (have kids look for the iconic lion sculptures out front). Pick up a family museum guide and "gallery games" (both free) to keep kids engaged during your visit, and grab a healthy, affordable lunch featuring locally grown and produced ingredients at the Garden Cafe.

Lakefront: Museum Campus and Navy Pier
Even non-dino-philes will appreciate that grandeur of Sue, the resident T. rex at the Field Museum. Kids will love the realistic exhibits like the Nature Walk on the main floor and getting their hands dirty in the Crown Family Play Lab. The three state-of-the-art theaters in the Adler Planetarium will suit the fancy of future space explorers and stargazers alike (there are no advance ticket sales, so arrive ahead of scheduled show times). When visiting the Shedd Aquarium, the Oceanarium is a must-see exhibit, with its spectacular view of Lake Michigan and popular beluga whale, dolphin, and sea otter exhibits.

The Chicago Children's Museum is located at the nearby Navy Pier, where families can also ride the iconic Ferris wheel, catch an IMAX movie, go shopping, or grab a bite at one of the many restaurants.

Scale a Skyscraper (or two)
Tall buildings are a point of pride for Chicagoans, perhaps because the first skyscraper was built here in 1884, standing ten stories tall. From the recently renamed Willis Tower (still the Sears to dyed-in-the-wool locals) to the skyline-famous John Hancock Center, a trip to the top of one of these beauties is a must-do and an adventure at any age. Located on Michigan Avenue along the Magnificent Mile shopping district, the Hancock Observatory offers unparalleled views of Lake Michigan and a total of four states, as well as an open-air observation deck (don't worry; there's a super-strong protective screen). Skydeck Chicago in the Willis Tower (the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere) may not directly overlook the lake, but The Ledge—glass boxes extending four feet outside the tower—will prove equally unforgettable.

Neighborhood Fun
These attractions are a cab or train ride away from any downtown hotel. The Lincoln Park Zoo offers free admission and an intimate setting—pack a picnic lunch for the abundant green spaces along Cannon Drive. Nearby Peggy Notebaert Nature Center contains several hands-on exhibits for little kids, but its highlight is the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven. The Chicago History Museum is about a mile south of the Notebaert Nature Center, with interactive exhibits highlighting the city's past. Even if the Chicago Cubs aren't in town, a tour of "the friendly confines" of historic Wrigley Field is a short walk from the Red Line on the North Side, and Chicago White Sox fans can visit U.S. Cellular Field on the South Side.

Published: 22 Dec 2010 | Last Updated: 2 Jan 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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