If you’re looking for somewhere to take your family that would appeal to all ages you might consider Chicago. Its home to world class museums, amazing architecture, fun parks and fantastic shopping! I’ve been there more times than I can count and it never gets old! Unfortunately the weather can leave a lot to be desired so timing is everything when planning a visit, but if you time it right, it’s a great spot to take the kids!
My little one and I were there this past June for a family wedding in the suburbs, but we couldn’t be so close to Downtown and not take advantage of all that it has to offer, so we spent two nights Downtown and two nights in the burbs. You might think that because I’ve been so many times I would just forgo the usual sites and visit just one or two… Nope, we did our best to fit it ALL in! Are you ready!?
Chicago has a City Pass which includes many of the attractions mentioned in this article. If you think you might visit more than one of them it’s definitely worth it!
Definitely take a walk down the Magnificent Mile! It’s a 13 block stretch of North Michigan Avenue that runs from the Chicago River to Oak Street. All along on both sides you’ll find shopping, restaurants, and world famous landmarks like the John Hancock Center, The Historic Water Tower and the Tribune Tower to name just a few.
The Tribune Tower is of particular interest to me because not only is it an impressive piece of architecture, but there are stones from famous landmarks around the world embedded in the facade! We used to stop here when I was a little girl and I remember looking at all the stones, but I had never been to any of the places. This time when I went back I had been to many of the places! Who knows maybe that’s what helped to spark my love of travel? Oh, and there is a Dylan’s Candy Bar located on the ground floor so if you’re in need of a break from all the walking, you’re in luck, or at least the kids are!
If you’re looking for magnificent views of the city then 360 Chicago located at the top of the John Hancock Center might be just what you’re looking for. Its part of the Chicago City Pass.
Keep walking along Michigan Avenue and cross the Chicago River and you’ll come to Millennium Park. This is a wonderful place especially on a warm spring or summer day! You’ll find many activities of interest to the entire family here including, concerts, gardens, art and architecture, water splash fountains for the kids to play in, tours and more!
A park favorite is the Cloud Gate Statue that is often called The Bean. It’s quite a marvel and we all love looking into it and at it! Millennium Park is a true oasis in the middle of the city. I’ve been both in the day and in the evening and I highly recommend! There are restaurants throughout the park and there are also many hot dog stands if you’re looking for a quick bite on the go.
Just south of the park on the same road you’ll find the Art Institute of Chicago. Voted the #1 Museum in the world 2014 by Trip Advisor it is a definite must-see. The building is quite beautiful with giant iconic lions perched out front. Definitely don’t climb on the lions, even for a photo, or you’ll hear a loud roar followed by an even louder voice telling you to get off of the lions.
Once inside you’ll definitely recognize some of the great works. Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, American Gothic by Grant Wood, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat and many many more! Before he lost interest, it had been a pretty long day, Elliot was quite excited to recognize a Vincent Van Gogh painting he had studied in his after school art class! Don’t miss the Modern Wing which has a stunning view of the Millennium Park Band Shell.
My saving grace with Elliot were the Thorne Miniature Rooms. There are 68 miniature rooms each one set inside a small glass window. They are all constructed on a scale of one inch to one foot with every single detail created perfectly. Like tiny little doll houses but without the dolls. We all loved this and it was a perfect way to end our visit!
If you have limited time like we did you can pick up a brochure with a list of the top must-see items in the museum and where to find them. The Museum is open late on Thursday evenings and if you have younger kids this might be a good time to split up and take turns. Maybe one visits the museum while the other stays with the kids at Millennium Park? Then a switch? The Art Institute is also part of the Chicago City Pass.
Finally, if you haven’t run out of steam yet you might like to visit Buckingham Fountain located about a 10 minute walk from The Art Institute in Grant Park. In my humble opinion the fountain is best visited at night because of the spectacular light and music show that takes place most evenings for 20 minutes every hour on the hour. I recently learned that it is one of the largest fountains in the world! Beautiful!
Let’s see some science Museums! There are many great museums to visit in Chicago, but conveniently three of the most popular are located in the same place.
Just head south from the downtown area about two miles or so, and you’ll come to the Museum Campus. The Campus is a large park which sits on the shore of Lake Michigan and is home to three of Chicago’s most popular science museums. The Field Museum of Natural History, The John G. Shedd Aquarium, and The Adler Planetarium.
They are not only world renowned institutions, but they are housed in incredibly iconic buildings impressive all on their own. If you time it right you can probably fit in two out of the three in one day! We chose the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium! All of them are part of the Chicago City Pass, but if you’re planning on purchasing tickets individually I highly recommend purchasing online before you arrive as the lines can get very long.
The Field Museum
I’ve been visiting the Field Museum since I was a little girl and I never get tired of it! I love that I’m lucky enough to share my joy of this special place with my own children and seeing them get the same delight out of our visits that I do is something quite special! The Field Museum is a magical place with three giant floors each full of countless wonders.
Upon entering the museum you’ll be standing inside Stanley Hall which is two stories high and the length of the building! It’s huge and awesome with many hallways leading off in every direction. Can you tell I love it here? A few of our personal favorites from the permanent collection are: Sue the T-Rex, The Lions of Tsavo, The Grainger Hall of Gems, and Evolving Planet. We also love to see the Bushman the Gorilla exhibit and the Narwhals who are located on the basement level. Of course they have special ticketed exhibits too. Most recently we saw Vikings, Mammoths, Underground Adventures and Lichens! While these were all very worthwhile, there is plenty to do at The Field Museum without purchasing tickets to special exhibitions.
If you get hungry the museum has two restaurants, the Field Bistro and the Explorer Cafe. We ate at the Field Bistro on our last visit and we liked the food. I also noticed that you can purchase beer and wine in the new bar portion of the restaurant.
The Shedd Aquarium
The Shedd Aquarium is just a few steps from the Field Museum and its high on our Aquarium list! There are many unique creatures here and many wonderful exhibits showcasing different types of habitats from around the world some of which are: Amazon Rising, Caribbean Reef, Abbott Oceanarium, Polar Play Zone, Waters of the World, At Home on the Great Lakes and Wild Reef.
This is another place we’ve all been enjoying since we were young and we have definite favorites here too! High on our list are the Beluga whales, the penguins, the Caribbean Reef, the snapping turtle and of course Granddad. Granddad came to the Shedd in 1933 and according to their website Granddad is the oldest aquatic animal in an aquarium in the world.
The building’s architecture is incredibly grand and even the chandeliers have an aquatic theme! They just don’t make them like this anymore! The front of the building has been named a national historic landmark! If you get hungry there are little kiosks with snacks located throughout the building and there is also a cafe.
Another Museum! Yes, I’ve saved the best for last!
The Museum of Science and Industry is one of my all time favorite museums! It opened its doors in 1933 and is the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere. It’s definitely an all day affair! Located in the Hyde Park area of Chicago It’s not too far from downtown, about six miles from The Field Museum.
This place is magical! Really! While the other places we visited are spectacular in their own right, they don’t allow for much other than looking, observing and reading. The Museum of Science and Industry is a place where you learn by DOING! Yep! You get to touch almost everything! There are levers to pull and buttons to push, you can make storms and tsunamis, do experiments, create a toy top and watch it go down the assembly line, tour a real submarine from WWII, go into a coal mine, learn about genetics by visiting the baby chicks, climb aboard farming equipment, and visit Colleen Moore’s Fairytale Castle… just to name a few!
Are you interested in ships, trains, or space? It’s here! How about bicycles, airplanes and the human body? Yep, it’s all here too! They have live demonstrations, special exhibits and so much more!
My must-see exhibits are: The U-505 Submarine, Colleen Moore’s Fairytale Castle, Science Storms, The Great Train Story and the current special exhibit. On our last visit the special exhibit was Numbers in Nature and it involved a mirrored maze which Elliot lead us through!
We love to have our photo taken at the old fashioned photo studio and have tried to take one every visit for the past 13 years!
I just can’t say enough about how great this place is. It’s a fact that we’ve never been able to see everything we wanted to see before the closing announcement came over the loudspeaker. It’s just that great!
The museum has a number of food options including an old time ice cream parlor located in the Yesterday’s Main Street area, a food court and a coffee shop. The pastries at the coffee shop were very good!
Many exhibits at the museum have an extra fee associated with them though there is plenty here to see and do without adding on. It’s also part of the Chicago City Pass.
While the places mentioned above are definitely some of my favorite Chicago things to see and do, there are many others we love that are also worth mentioning and if we would have had more time we would have tried very hard to visit some of them.
The Lincoln Park Zoo is a wonderful place to visit! It’s free and it’s open 365 days a year.
If you love shopping then you might like to check out the very posh Oak Street located at the end of the Magnificent Mile.
Oak Street Beach is a popular spot in the summer! There are places to eat, bike rentals, beach chair rentals, restrooms and great views of the city skyline.
If you’re an architecture buff there are many examples of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work throughout the Chicago area and the famous Robie House is located not too far from the Museum of Science and Industry.
Where to Stay
Although there are many great places to stay in Downtown Chicago on this trip we chose The Drake Hotel located at the end of the Magnificent Mile. Not only is it on the National Historic Register, but my parents got married there 50 YEARS ago this past 4th of July! I thought it might be fun for them to revisit the place where they got married all these years later!
I did alert the hotel to our special occasion and there was a bottle of champagne and chocolate covered strawberries waiting for them when they entered their room! What a nice touch! They offer “family” rooms with two double beds and two complete bathrooms which made for a much smoother morning routine. The location and service are great and I would definitely stay here again!