Author: Ron Bozman
Tags : Baby, City Break, Illinois, Kids, Multigen, Museums & Culture, North America, Teens, USA
With museums, theatre and outdoors fun galore, Chicago is a happening destination for family travelers of all ages. You can plan a visit at any time of year -- it's never too windy in our book. So even if the First Family has shown you all of their favorite Chicago haunts, read on and you may learn about a few more from us. For more general information, contact Choose Chicago Tourism (312/744-2400).
Great Fun for the Kids
(Toddler to Age 8)
Model Railroad Garden at Chicago Botanic Garden
1000 Lake Cook Road
Glencoe, IL 60022
This summer-only display is irresistible, because the "Landmarks of America" exhibition has 18 garden-scale trains traveling on 17 tracks, over 26 bridges, and past 50 miniature landmarks. Come see the Southern Pacific Daylight, the Chicago Northwestern Commuter (known as a fallen flag line), the Union Pacific and every child's favorite, Thomas the Tank Engine.
Chicago Children's Museum
700 East Grand Avenue at North Navy Pier
Chicago, IL 60611
Take the kids to this museum and you can all explore. There are a great number of exhibits catering to preschoolers, such as the Waterways playroom and the BIG Backyard (an urban garden with giant insects and interactive flowers). The Dinosaur Expedition is modeled after the 1997 Saharan expedition and features an authentic excavation pit. KidsTown is great for young tots while the Tinkering Lab and Unboxed (which invites kids to create with cardboard) are for slightly older kids. This museum also has permanent exhibits on science, art, and bathrooms filled with facts about local inventions, such as roller skates, the zipper, and Cracker Jacks. If you are in town on Thursdays make sure to take advantage of Free Family Night for all, and on the First Sunday of each month, kids play and explore for free.
Lincoln Park Zoo
2001 North Cannon Drive
Chicago, IL 60614
A welcome respite from bustling downtown, the nation's oldest zoo rests on 35 acres of parkland in the heart of the city. Besides an animal collection that's a real treat in nice weather, there is the Lincoln Pritzker Children's Zoo featuring a Walk in the Woods exhibit recreating the woodlands of North America with native creatures, such as the River Otter and American Beaver. With one of the largest zoo-based Conservation and Science Centers, many exhibits encourage visitors to learn by not only viewing, but by participating. In the Farm-in-the-Zoo, for instance, you can feed and milk the cows, as well as watch the daily milking demonstrations. There is also a farmhouse kitchen where guests can learn where food comes from. Did we mention that admission is always free?
6912 North Glenwood Avenue
Chicago, IL 60626
Besides the MainStage, The KidSeries are special-for-children productions including a regular schedule of new productions, classic tales or musicals based on children's books, ranging from "Lyle Lyle Crocodile" to "The Mystery of Priate Ghost" and "The Emperor's New Threads."
Fun for Older Children
(Up to Age 18)
Make a bee-line for Museum Campus, a pedestrian-friendly area which is home to the following three renowned museums:
Field Museum of Natural History
1400 South Lake Shore Drive (at Roosevelt Road)
Chicago, IL 60605
This world-class museum has hands-on exhibits to help kids discover the ancient worlds of dinosaurs (don't miss Sue, the largest T-Rex skeleton ever found), Egyptian mummies, and extinct civilizations. Your family will learn about the power of volcanoes, exotic mammals, different types of birds. Special Family Adventure Tours can picked up at the Inforamation Desk or downloaded from their web site.There's so much to see here -- don't try to do it all in one day.
John G. Shedd Aquarium
1200 South Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60605
Home to over 32,500 animals, Shedd is the world's largest indoor aquarium. The Oceanarium recreates a Pacific Northwest coastal habitat for Beluga whales, dolphins, sea otters and harbor seals, all seen through underwater viewing windows. In the main aquarium, habitats from all over the globe are represented. If you take your time, you’ll find the Amazon Rising exhibit fascinating. There are plenty of hands-on exhibits, opportunities to try a scientific experiment, a dolphin show and periodic "Sleep with the Fishes" overnights for families.
Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum
1300 South Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60605-2403
Journey into space through galleries and eight different fun and informative shows that are presented in three theatres on a rotating basis. Don't miss the Star Rider Show, and the shifting educational programs in the Sky Theater. "One World, One Sky" is particularly recommended for families with young children. A recent renovation brought in many new planetarium features and exhibits designed for families.
Museum of Science + Industry
5700 Lake Shore Drive at 57th Street
Chicago, IL 60637-1414
A thorough look at how things work, with over 25 exhibits designed for hands-on interaction. Our favorites are the coal mine tour which make you feel as if you are 600-feet below the surface, the chick hatchery where you can actually watch chicks hatch and hop around, and a genetics exhibit explaining the mysterious DNA and showing off a number of genetically modified creatures (nothing grotesque). The Great Train Story including interactive exhibits and realistic terrain with trains, structures, bridges and skylines that help visitors explore rail operations in the United States on a trip from Chicago to Seattle. "ToyMaker 3000" is an exciting exhibit where visitors can watch robots making new toys. The remarkable YOU! the Experience permanent installation allows families to explore all aspects of the body in depth by using state-of-the-art multi-media.
Shop On The Magnificent Mile: Michigan Avenue
625 North Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611
Everything your child's heart could ever desire can be purchased on Michigan Avenue, at major department stores and boutiques. There are also the American Girl Place, a Disney Store, a LEGOStore and endless amounts of pricey boutiques. This place is crowded beyond belief on Saturdays and Sundays and worth a look -- even if you only plan to window shop.
Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust
951 Chicago Avenue
Oak Park, IL 60302
If there's a budding architect in your family, don't miss the birthplace of Prairie Style architecture at sites in and near Chicago, or the special events planned for Wright's 150th anniversary. First, tour the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in nearby Oak Park. This was Wright's architectural laboratory from 1898 to 1909, the first 20 years of his career, where he designed more than 150 buildings. It was also where he and his family lived. Additionally, there is a walking tour of the Oak Park community, where visitors can view the exteriors of many buildings which were designed at the restored studio. Back in town, the 1909 Frederick C. Robie House, located on the campus of the University of Chicago, and described by Wright as "the cornerstone of modern architecture" is open for touring.
Fun for the Whole Family
Boat Tours On Lake Michigan and Land Tours of Chicago
There are several ways to see Chicago -- taking a boat tour is one of the best. Families wishing to do this can choose from a variety of options: some tours run at night, others during the day, several companies run dinner cruises, and others have entertainment that will appeal to kids. Budget-watchers may prefer the cheap Chicago Water Taxi which closes during the winter months. Guided bike tours are another option, and the variety of choices expands in summer. Bike rentals are available at various locations in the parks and on the waterfront. Chicago Segway Tours, urban touring on brilliant, two-wheeled personal mobility devices, provides a novel and fun way to see a city, especially for folks with walking limitations. Children must be at least 12.
360 Chicago, Observatory of John Hancock Center
875 North Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611
One of most stunning urban views around, particularly at night. Telescopes enable you to see Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin on a clear day. For an extra thrill from 1,000 feet above the ground, get tickets to Tilt, an 8-person attraction in a glass alcove that extends out from the building facade and tilts down, so you can 'float' over the view.
The Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60603
The huge, influential collection dating back to 3000 B.C., plus its special blockbuster shows, make this a worthwhile stop on almost any visit. The museum houses 5,000 paintings and 4,000 sculptures from America, Europe, Africa and Asia, plus photography, prints and drawings, textiles and exhibits on architecture and design. Younger kids will ogle the Thorne Miniature Rooms, 68 model rooms with impeccable tiny reproductions, the collection of Arms and Armor, and the Picture Book Gallery which presents original art from children's literature. Located within the modern wing is the Touch Gallery, designed for the blind to learn by touching various sculptures but open to all so that families can examine art in a hands-on way.
600 East Grand Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611
Celebrating its 100th anniversary as a shipping and recreational facility, Navy Pier has undergone renovations and reimaginings, and is in the middle of transitioning to a new role. Located on Lake Michigan, it encompasses more than 50 acres of parks, gardens, shops, restaurants, the fabulous Children's Museum (described above), and the 150-foot-high Ferris wheel, together welcoming 9 million visitors a year. Stop by for a special event, to see a performance, visit the enlarged food court, enjoy the breezes off Lake Michigan, or study the many environmental provisions that are transforming the shoreline. The Polk Bros Park, with its outdoor water play fountains, is a treat for all ages.
Loop "The Loop" with CAF
Since November of 1897, trains on the Inner Loop have been transporting both Chicagoans and tourists on elevated tracks above Wabash, Van Buren, Wells and Lake Streets. You can always board an elevated train on your own, but we like the Chicago Architecture Foundation's tours. Downtown by "L" and Chicago's South Side by "L" provide commentary on the architectural treasures seen en route, as well as a brief history of this public transportation marvel.
331 East Randolph Street
Chicago, IL 60601
Another enticing way to take a breather in the busy city, this expansive green space, the principal downtown park, contains tennis courts and softball fields. The dramatic Buckingham Fountain is worth a look. Large-scale public events, such as the summer Blues Festival, occasionally bring the bustle into the park. The north side of Grant Park expands into Millenium Park, complete with an ice rink, a theater, and an outdoor music pavilion. A footbridge designed by Frank Gehry connects the two parks.
Sky Deck at The Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower)
233 South Wacker Drive
Chicago, IL 60606
At 110 floors, 1,450 feet high, the Willis Tower is the tallest building in the Western hemisphere. Its observation deck allows families the chance to see the best of Chicago from all angles. On a clear day, the new Sky Deck, at 1,353-feet-high offers a view 40-50 miles away, which means Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois are all visible as long as you walk around the deck. The Sky Deck tour includes a scavenger hunt for kids in which they can use binoculars and try to locate different sites in the Chicago area. The Ledge is a plexiglas box jutting four feet out from the building, in which you can stand and look straight down a quarter-mile above the pavement. There are three of these and they’re wildly popular for photo-ops.