A Family Friendly Guide to Chicago
Why your family will have a blast visiting Chicago, regardless of the season: What to see and do, where to eat, and where to stay on your next visit to the Windy City
The possibilities are endless when it comes to choosing what you will do while visiting Chicago but one thing is certain — your kids will be begging to return. There’s something for everyone (and oh, the food!) and we want to help you find something that will be a good fit for your family in the big city.
Things to Know
Chicago is the largest city in proximity (easy driving distance) to Champaign-Urbana. The city itself is reported to have around 2.7 million people — much larger than St. Louis or Indianapolis. The trip to Chicago takes just about 2.5 hours from Champaign-Urbana, give or take up to an hour depending on what part of the city or suburbs you are visiting. Due to frequent traffic jams in and out of the city, we recommend you plan your trip outside of rush-hour travel or consider taking the Amtrak or Metra trains into the city. The train is a great option if 1) you have older kids and don’t need to worry about car seats and 2) you are staying generally in the downtown area for your visit.
Where to Stay
This largely depends on what you plan to do during your visit. You can have a completely different kind of trip in Chicago based on where you stay. Of course, you can stay right downtown (look for hotels that mention Magnificent Mile or Millennium Park).
You can also stay in the North Shore area to enjoy a concert at Ravinia Festival, visit the Chicago Botanic Garden, or swim at a suburban beach (for a fee, $10 or more per person, FYI).
Another favorite (and money saving) option is to snag a hotel room in the Rosemont area (if you want to have easy access to downtown via the Blue Line public transportation trains) or head even a little farther out and stay in the Schaumburg area near IKEA and Woodfield Mall. Attractions in Schaumburg include Gameworks, LEGOLAND and Medieval Times.
What to Do — Top Three Outdoor Picks
Visit Chicago any time of year you want to get away, you’ll never be lacking for things to do. We’re going to include both outdoor and indoor picks for you to choose from in this guide. First up, get outdoors with these great options.
- Play at the expansive Maggie Daley Park. So much more than your traditional playground! There’s a climbing wall and mini-golf for a fee, but it doesn’t cost anything to just play on the playground. During the winter, a beautiful skating ribbon opens up and you can bring your own ice skates or rent them there. From Maggie Daley Park, it’s a short walk to Millennium Park where you can see the famous “bean” and get great pics of the Chicago skyline while you play.
- Get wild and visit a zoo! There are two great zoos to choose from in Chicago. Lincoln Park Zoo is much closer to the downtown area (and a short walk to North Avenue Beach) and Brookfield Zoo is located in the suburbs. Lincoln Park is free and Brookfield has an admission fee. Brookfield is larger and while Lincoln Park is smaller, it is still a great zoo with an urban feel. Lincoln Park has an impressive farm area and Brookfield will offer more exhibits and animal interactions, like feeding giraffes.
- Head north to the ‘burbs for the Chicago Botanic Garden (pictured below). 400 acres of sheer beauty await and while admission to the Garden is free, you’ll pay plenty for parking to drive onto the grounds. Pack a cooler and make a whole day of it. During the winter, the Wonderland Express is open all winter break long and is a majestic experience, especially if you have train lovers in the family. In the summer, don’t miss the Model Railroad Garden, open mid-May through mid-October.
What to Do — Top Three Indoor Picks
We could rattle off THIRTY ideas on things to do indoors in Chicago, but we’ll lump ’em together and try to give you the three most “can’t miss” groups of attractions instead. Know that, beyond what’s mentioned here, you can find TONS to do indoors in Chicagoland.
- Visit a museum. Chicago is famous for its many museums and they even feature free days each year to help you keep the costs down on your trip. Favorite museums include the Field Museum of Natural History (pictured below), the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier, Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, to name a few. Schwoo! That’s a trip in and of itself. Have a museum membership, like the Orpheum, that participates the ASTC or ACM reciprocal programs? Assuming your local museum meets the 90-mile or greater distance criteria, you’ll get free admission any day to the Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry and Adler Planetarium. Children’s museum members will get 50 percent off at the Navy Pier children’s museum, too.
- Catch a family-friendly show. It’s not New York City, but Chicago’s entertainment is top notch. But be prepared, you’re typically going to shell out some dough for most of the shows mentioned here. Some favorites with kids are Blue Man Group (matinee performances on weekends are good choices, typically for kids ages 3 and up as young kids aren’t allowed), a performance at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (especially if you have teens studying these classics), one of the Broadway in Chicago shows (we like following the $25 tickets on the 25th of the month on their Facebook page) or Medieval Times in the ‘burbs for an action packed choice. The Paramount Theater in Aurora is a great choice, too, as their shows tend to be less expensive than Broadway in Chicago and they have family-friendly shows in their rotation regularly.
- Shop … either for real or just window shopping! Some of our favorite (indoor places) to shop are Water Tower Place, where you can find the famous American Girl store and LEGO, too. Navy Pier is loaded with fun little places to shop indoors year-round. And again, if you’re willing to drive, Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg is worth the drive, and you can stop by IKEA while you’re out there too (remember you can drop your kids off for a little bit for some supervised play if they’re potty trained and between 37″ and 54″ tall).
Where to Eat
- Get a deep dish pizza. These meals aren’t exactly quick service (to use some Disney language) but if you plan them as part of your adventure, we think you’ll find a pizza place you’ll love. Chicago is known for its deep dish, like Giordano’s and Lou Malnati’s, which have locations all over the city. Want to plan a whole day around pizza? You can hit a Chicago pizza tour as part of your trip.
- Navy Pier (I know, mentioning it again) is loaded with kid-friendly dining options. Beyond the typical fast food joints you’ll find there, you can stop in the Billy Goat Tavern (cheezborger, cheezborger, cheezborger!) for a burger and fries. You’ll also find that kids are pretty much all over at Navy Pier, so take them into Bubba Gump or Harry Caray’s, to name a few other options.
- Everyone knows the Cheesecake Factory but did you know that the Grand Lux Cafe, owned by the same parent company, is another great option? Chicago’s is located right on Michigan Avenue and if you stop in during off-peak hours (like say 2 or 3 p.m.), you may be able to score a table by the window and watch the excitement below while you eat in the closest restaurant to a castle you’ll experience in Chicago (well outside of Medieval Times, that is).