Whether you’re new to the Windy City or a local who's eager to plan a staycation, it’s time to rediscover Chicago. Browse these things to do in Chicago with kids, and your only problem will be ticking every box before you (and your little one) need to take a nap.
Free Things to Do in Chicago With Kids
There are tons of fun things to do in Chicago with kids, and not all need digging into those college funds. These attractions produce laughs and please kiddos without breaking into a single piggy bank.
1. Millennium Park
Located in Grant Park, Millennium Park explores what life would be like if humans shrunk to 1/1000th the size of your average kidney bean. That’s not quite the point of the infamous Cloud Gate, aka “The Bean,” but it’s hard not to compare yourself to a giant, uber-reflective legume when you’re standing right in front of it.
The Bean is only one attraction held by the sprawling Millennium Park campus. It’s also home to Lurie Garden and the Crown Fountain. The latter is an interactive video sculpture by artist Jaume Plensa made of two 50-foot glass towers and a central reflecting pool.
Photograph the kids posing in front of zoomed-in photos of Chicago locals, and they’ll feel like part of the city’s fabric.
Elevate your Chicago Stay!
Ready for a whimsical twist to your Chicago visit? Make the most of your day with high-flying Cirque du Soleil acts and vibrant shows!
2. Maggie Daley Park
Maggie Daley Park is technically part of the Millennium Park Campus, but this spot is so special, it deserves a separate mention.
Ever wonder what would happen if Alice (of Wonderland fame) and Wonka (with the zany chocolate factory) joined forces? They might come up with the park’s Play Garden, a wacky, sensory explosion of fun activities for kids like suspension bridges, rollicking skate paths, tube slides, soaring climbing walls, and a Chicago-themed 18-hole mini golf course.
After your kids exhaust themselves via micro scooters, a custom-built metal play ship, and the kid-powered Lighthouse Tower, take a moment to catch your breath at the Cancer Survivor’s Garden.
This hidden gem is an oasis of life and love in the middle of a concrete jungle. It stands as a tribute to healing and hope and as a reminder that these moments with your mini-mes are precious.
3. Lincoln Park Zoo
The 35-acre Lincoln Park Zoological Gardens can trace its beginnings to two pairs of swans donated by NYC’s Central Park. Those four swimmers were soon joined by feathered and furry friends worthy of Noah’s Ark, including elk, some wolves, a quad of eagles, a puma, and peacocks.
Lion and primate habitats opened in the early 1900s, and more naturalistic exhibits followed past the 1980s.
Today, visitors have access to a veritable cornucopia of critters living in man-made environments that mimic the tundra, forests, African plains, barnyards, and even American riverbeds. Sign the kids up for seal training and feeding sessions. Or, if you’re sure your little monkeys won’t get mixed in with the local residents, attend a seminar on ape cognition care.
Its engaging lessons combined with train rides and an endangered species carousel are everything your family needs to soak up representation of Earth’s many ecosystems.
The Lincoln Park Zoo is also only a short walk from the Lincoln Park Museum. This impressive collection of history can spark an interest in culture for your kids.
Kid-Friendly Museums in Chicago
What if the best things to do in Chicago with kids were educational? Please their scientific side and treat them to a close-up of the cosmos. These museums are brimming with opportunities to learn and laugh. Be sure to check out their event calendars in case your trip or time off coincides with a special to-do.
4. Museum of Science and Industry
Science and industry aren’t often the top buzzwords that come to mind when you’re dreaming up kids’ entertainment ideas. Yet, the Museum of Science and Industry caters to children through hands-on and interactive experiences. This is one of the largest science museums in the country.
Parents can appreciate information on Pompeii and the ocean plastic crisis, while younger visitors get sucked into films shown in the only five-story, domed, wraparound movie theater in Chicago and pretend to helm a German submarine by entering a real U-505. It’s so cool, they won’t even realize their brains are soaking up knowledge like tiny sponges.
5. Adler Planetarium
Visiting Adler Planetarium is one quick stop for parents with a reloadable Ventra card but a giant leap toward destiny for would-be astronauts beginning to explore the outer reaches of the universe. The planetarium features shows that blend pop culture, kiddie entertainment, and lots of outer space.
6. The Field Museum of Natural History
The Field Museum is one of the largest museums of its kind in the world, which is part of why it attracts millions of info-loving visitors every year.
Even kids with microscopic attention spans will love the museum’s hands-on activities and experiences and array of fossils, gems, and meteorites. Older kiddos can get lost in the on-site library’s collection of over 275,000 books, photo archives, and journals.
Exhibits, such as Inside Ancient Egypt, shine a light on a specific slice of life. In this case, the spotlight is on 23 human mummies and assorted, mummified animals paired with a slew of hieroglyphs. Challenge your kids to interpret the symbols, and imagine what it would be like to live in the shadow of pyramids and communicate through pictures.
7. The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
Chicago’s celebration of natural history continues at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. This spot focuses not on the worldwide past, but on what Chicago and the state of Illinois were like before humans dominated the landscape.
Kids can wander through a live butterfly house, partake in a green home demonstration, or sit agog as they get wrapped up in the details of one of the museum's more than 100 educational programs.
Chicago Attractions for the Whole Family
Kid-friendly fun is all good, but finding activities that keep the entire family entertained and engaged is travel mastery.
8. Navy Pier
Think of Navy Pier as Chicago’s upgraded answer to NYC’s Coney Island. There are games galore, tons of rides, and of course, the highly lauded Centennial Wheel.
Some of the fun is distinctly nostalgic, such as the Navy Pier carousel. But there’s also a futuristic bend, thanks to Virtual Rush: Chicago, an innovative 4D experience that takes users on an interactive, motion-based tour of the city and challenges them to compete with other riders to collect artifacts and rack up points.
Located near Michigan Avenue, Navy Pier is also the launching pad for cruises on Lake Michigan and down the Chicago River. Spend the day seeing what light at yonder window breaks, courtesy of the Pier-based Chicago Shakespeare Theater, then enjoy a family dinner out on the water. In between, take time to wander about the Pier district.
The local art community has put its stamp on the space. It hosts exhibitions and creates masterpieces that are standouts yet somehow feel organic.
There’s also the nearby Chicago Children’s Museum, with three floors dedicated to STEM experiments, art programs, and imaginative play. From Storyland and Water City to Cloud Buster and the Pritzker Playspace, the museum is a testament to how much fun you can have when play and learning collide.
9. Shedd Aquarium
Make like a fish and swim upstream (or across town, as the case may be) to Shedd Aquarium, an enormous watery ecosystem that’s been open since 1930. The tanks and other habitats are home to some 1,500 species, including beluga whales.
Permanent exhibits such as Seahorse Symphony and Amazon Rising scored this indoor aquarium a few coveted industry awards, and there are opportunities to reach out and touch resident stingrays, sea stars, and sturgeons. Feed the barbed bottom dwellers, then let your techiest kid lead the way through the rest of the museum using the Shedd Go app.
Pro tip: The aquarium offers periodic free admission to Illinois residents, as well as area first responders and active-duty U.S. military personnel. Reserve tickets online before your visit.
10. Brookfield Zoo
You’ll have to leave Chicago proper to visit Brookfield Zoo, also known as the Chicago Zoological Park. It’s such a small journey in comparison to the heaping helping of animal awesomeness that awaits.
The 216-acre nature park zoo first opened in 1934 on land donated by Edith Rockefeller McCormick. In the century since, the zoo has become a leader in conservation and education, introducing visitors to 3,481 creatures representing 511 species.
Any day is a great day to visit the zoo and have an encounter with penguins or snack time with a giraffe, but keep your eyes peeled for special events. The zoo is particularly festive around the winter holidays when Holiday Magic takes over and transforms the property with over 2 million sparkly LED lights.
11. Chicago Botanic Garden
Kids can never have too much nature, and in some cases, a place like Chicago Botanic Garden could be your little ones’ only exposure to frolicking flocks of butterflies and trees so big and lush they seem straight out of a fairy tale.
The Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden teaches hungry helpers where their broccoli and tomatoes come from, and they can even participate by watering the plants.
The front lawn or esplanade is where families go to let kids run or to set up a little picnic. Somewhere between BLTs on the grass and packing up to leave, stop by the Model Railroad Garden.
Thomas the Train is chugging along by miniatures inspired by landmarks, such as Old Faithful and Mount St. Helens. The boom of the exploding volcano will pale in comparison to the sound of your kids’ joy once they spot good ol’ Thomas.
12. Cubs or White Sox Game
Sporting News has named Chicago as the Best Sports City three times, and baseball is one of the region’s favorite pastimes. Nothing quite captures the city’s love for its teams like a celebratory Chicago parade that honors the winning team, a tradition that unites the community in a vibrant display of pride and joy.
As soon as you buy tickets to Wrigley Field, download the MLB app to access fun in-app activities and prizes. The park has plenty of snacks that will appeal to pint-sized palates, plus a nursing pod to attend to the littlest family member’s culinary needs.
Stop by the First Timer’s Booth, and you’ll get a certificate to commemorate your kiddo’s initial Cubs outing, or, even better, be one of the first 1,000 children in line on Kids Sunday, and get a chance to run the bases after the game.
Guaranteed Rate Field has a 15,000-square-foot area called Xfinity Kids Zone that gives budding Sox fans a chance to practice their swings and pitching skills while gazing out over left field.
13. Ride the “L” Train
Unlike the subway in NYC, many of the “L” trains run on elevated tracks, giving you an incredible panoramic view of everything whisking by outside your train window. Hop off at the Cermak-Chinatown stop to check out the Nine Dragon Mural Wall, pose with the iconic Chinese zodiac statues, and gobble down some har gow.
Get back on the train to go window shopping along the Magnificent Mile, and transfer to the Green Line to dawdle around the koi ponds and waterfalls that make up Garfield Park Conservatory (also free to visit).
Don’t forget to stop by Bronzeville. This historic area is known as the Black Metropolis of Chicago, which makes sense given its close associations with Black icons, such as musician Louis Armstrong, poet and author Gwendolyn Brooks, and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells.
Another notable stop on the L train brings you to Willis Tower — the tallest building in Chicago. This beautiful feat of architecture is home to the tallest observation deck in the world, the Willis Tower Skydeck, and the thrilling Ledge. This series of glass boxes gives you a heart-stopping aerial view of the city skyline.
Tickets on the “L” train aren’t technically free. As of October 2023, a regular fare is $2.50 per person, which includes up to two additional rides within 2 hours. But it’s a small price to pay for what basically amounts to a ticket to the city.
The Windy City Is Fun for the Whole Family
There’s no age limit on exhilaration or exploration. Children of all ages — and their parents — will find so much to explore in Chicago. From petting zoos and public parks to big metal beans and an actual U-boat, the Windy City is built to power imagination and give the whole family a chance to come together in pursuit of a single goal: fun.
While you’re enjoying the city, don’t miss out on some memorable date ideas Chicago has to offer for those moments when you can sneak away for some adult time.
Make sure to leave room for entertainment, too. Check out the current slate of our shows in Chicago, and get ready to see what happens when we put adjectives such as thrilling, moving, edgy, and dreamy into a bottle and shake it up.