We are from Wisconsin, so Chicago is a great affordable weekend destination with kids! There is so much to do for everyone. Every time I go, I can’t wait to go back! Read ahead for a list of top things to do with kids in Chicago. The main reason for going on our last trip was not for the kids though, it was for me! If you are an animal lover, check out my article on Chicago’s Beluga Whale Encounter. Read ahead for great activities for all budgets for kids and the young at heart in Chicago.
Many of the quintessential Chicago experiences are included on the City Pass. I foolishly didn’t plan to do that many, so I didn’t get the pass. I wish I would have, as it would have saved us a ton of money. If you aren’t sure where to start your planning, I recommend going to the City Pass website and picking a few things that fit your family.
Chicago’s City Pass
The following activities are included with the City Pass.
1-Shedd Aquarium -I’m partial to animals, so this sort of thing always makes my to do list. This is an amazing aquarium with huge tanks featuring beluga whales, dolphins, octopuses, eels, a sting ray touch tank, sharks, and more. There is a kids’ submarine near the beluga whale underground tank and a play area by the penguins as well.
2-Skydeck at Willis Tower- Going to the top of one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world was a great way to explore the big city. The museum at the bottom has some interesting facts and cool photo ops, and once you take the speedy elevator to the top, the views are amazing! The “Ledge” is on the west side and was such a trippy/scary thing to try. You have limited time on the ledge, but I loved it.
3-The Field Museum -This Place is huge, and you won’t see it all in a single day, so pick what is most interesting to the family and start exploring. We made sure to see Sue, the most complete T-Rex fossil ever found, and we were not disappointed. The Egypt Exhibit felt sort of immersive. Enter on the first floor, and you can walk down a narrow pyramid-like structure to the ground floor exhibit. Check out the Biomechanics section as well, as there are lots of hands-on exhibits.
4-Architecture Boat Tour-My husband and I went on here pre-kids. He was skeptical about it but ended up loving it! Even if you know nothing about architecture, the information about the buildings was interesting and kept our attention. I think my rambunctious 4 and 5-year-olds would be too restless, but once they are a little older, we will return.
5-We don’t have personal experience, but other things that can be included with the City pass are the Art Institute, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Adler Planetarium, and the 360 Chicago Observation Deck.
More Fun Things that are Not Included in the City Pass
- Navy Pier-Check out the huge Ferris wheel and some carnival rides. There are lots of chain restaurants and gift stores as well on the Pier.
- The Children’s Museum (On Navy Pier)-I didn’t include this in our last itinerary, and when I saw part of the play area while we were exploring Navy Pier, I completely regretted the decision! It looks top-notch, and I can’t wait to bring the kids to explore.
Free Activities Right Downtown
The big city can get pricey quickly, but if you are intentional, it can remain a reasonable trip. Free or cheap activities are a great way to save money and make your trip to Chicago with kids more affordable. Plus, if there is a kid meltdown, there are no hard feelings about leaving early.
1- The Maggie Daley Park. It is in Millennium Park and is a huge playground! There are lighthouse slides, boats to climb in, ferry gardens, and a huge climbing structure.
2-The Cloud Gate, aka the Bean, is a classic Chicago Landmark. This fun and free structure is a great place to walk and enjoy gawking into. Take some pictures, have a picnic, and enjoy the beauty of Lake Michigan.
3-The Buckingham Fountain is right downtown and, during the summer months, has water display shows on the hour. After dusk, this includes a free light show.
4-Take a Lake walk and enjoy the views along Lake Michigan. There are beaches north and south of the city.
Free Activities Close to Downtown
1-Public Transport. My kids love trains, boats, and buses, so what better way to enjoy the city than public transport? It was cheap, fun, and a great way to get where we were going. Try the Metro, a city bus, and a Water Taxi for the full experience. If you are uncertain about using public transport, rest assured that it is getting easier as technology improves. Be sure to have the Google Maps app and click on the metro icon. It tells you which bus or train to take and when the next one will arrive.
2-Chinatown. This safe and diverse part of Chicago is a great place to spend an afternoon. Check out the Ping Tom Memorial Park, buy a cheap souvenir, and grab some Dim Sum (we went to Triple Crown), or a fruit smoothie. Chinatown is a 20-minute train ride south of downtown.
3-Visit the Lincoln Zoo. This free zoo has chimpanzees, otters, penguins, rhinoceroses, and more. For $4 a person, you can ride the train or the carousel. Next to the zoo is a nature museum for between $8-$16 per person, with excellent reviews. This is 30 minutes north of downtown on the train.
4-The Garfield Conservatory is a free indoor garden. They have free drop-in activities for kids and free and fee-based programs for adults on beginner beekeeping and more. How cool! The Conservatory is a 30-minute train ride west of downtown.
Ways to Make Chicago with Kids More Affordable
Picking a safe and affordable hotel is a great way to keep the budget in check. I ended up splurging on the Hilton downtown on Michigan Ave, and I won’t go there again. The hotel was fine, but it was expensive, and so was the parking. We didn’t end up stopping at the hotel during the day like I thought we would. We could have stayed farther away, enjoyed public transit into the city, and saved a lot of money. Next time, I plan to look at the Lincoln Park or Chinatown area.
Pick a hotel with continental breakfast and pack a picnic for either lunch or dinner so you only have to buy one meal. Keep in mind that you don’t have to go to 5-star restaurants to get great food in the city! In an unfamiliar city, I will google search for restaurants near me with high ratings and a large number of reviews. You can filter the search by price, so you are only getting reasonably priced food.
Using a credit card to accrue travel points is a great way to help make trips more affordable. We generally get around 10 free hotel nights a year by using points. There are lots of options. We currently use the Capital One Venture Card, which has excellent sign-on bonuses. It has a $95 dollar annual fee but there is currently a 75,000 point sign-on bonus which is roughly equal to $750 dollar of travel credit.
Places to Splurge
We are always looking for ways to make Chicago with our kids more affordable but sometimes a little splurge can make a huge difference in your trip enjoyment. Here are a few ideas for ways to add impact to your trip for a few extra bucks.
- My splurge for this trip was the Beluga Whale Encounter at the Shedd, and it was amazing! You get into the water with the whales! There is a strict height and age requirement, so there are no kiddos here, but they have other animal encounters, including penguins for those down to age 6.
- Have more money than time? Grab the expedited passes for the Skydeck and skip to the front of the line.
- Grab a hotel right downtown to minimize travel time and maximize convenience. We stayed at the Hilton on South Michigan but you could go way more luxurious if you wanted to.
- Experience a Bike Taxi. This one was a splurge for my mother-in-law; she was exhausted, and the thought of the 1-mile walk home was too much for her to bear after a long day. In hindsight, we realized we could have taken a city bus for way less, but the experience of the bike taxi was fun. You will see them driving around in the tourist areas, just flag one down and ask for the price for your group and destination.
Chicago is a huge and under rated city. It is an excellent place for an affordable trip with kids. There are so many more fun things to explore and discover. Did I miss your favorite one? What else do you love to do in Chicago? I can’t wait to check it out on my next trip.