20 Can't-Miss Chicago Icons

Yes, you went to the Bean before you had kids, but are you ready to tackle it with toddlers and bickering tweens in tow? Our team of editors has done just that. We packed up our kids, diaper bags and sippy cups and headed to Chicago's can't-miss icons. Check out our top picks.

The Field Museum

Dig for dino bones and learn about natural history through play and activities. Walk through the Evolving Planet exhibit to learn about the history of life from tiny fossils to an exhibition hall filled with life-size dinos. Grab lunch at the on-site McDonald's or Corner Bakery. The museum is easy to navigate with strollers, even on crowded days, and ample parking, which costs $16 for the first four hours and $19 after. Avoid driving to the museum during Chicago Bears games--Soldier Field shares parking with the museum and home games can making parking almost impossible.

Adler Planetarium

With the opening this year of its new Deep Space Adventures, Adler has something to interest even the youngest kids in your family. And take time to explore the rest of the museum--we haven't found a kid yet that doesn't like looking through telescopes and checking out lunar space craft (learning how astronauts go to the bathroom is a kid-favorite). Before you head down to Adler, keep in mind that you'll pay for parking, admission plus extra for star shows, and, as with any of the big Chicago museums, grabbing lunch there doesn't come cheap. To go on a budget, pack your lunches and pay a nominal fee to put everything in a locker until you're ready to eat. The Adler does offer a couple of free days every month--check the website for specific days--but be prepared for longer lines on free days.


John G. Shedd Aquarium

We've always loved the Shedd Aquarium--nothing beats the Wild Reef exhibit where you're completely surrounded, from below your feet to over your head--by sharks, sting rays and every imaginable kind of sea life. But now the newly renovated Oceanarium brings a bit of showtime to the whale and dolphin show with the Fantasea program. Plus, younger kids can get their hands wet in the touch tank and other interactive exhibits in the Polar Play Zone area. The Shedd is easy to navigate with a stroller and the cafeteria that juts into Lake Michigan makes for a fun place for lunch.

Museum of Science and Industry

For all those parents who barely made it through high school science classes, The Museum of Science and Industry proves that learning about science can actually be fun. Very young kids will enjoy watching baby chicks hatch or climbing on farm equipment, while older kids (and parents) can learn about the human body in one of the museum's newer exhibits, You! The Experience. Check out the new exhibit on storms--stand in a giant tornado or finally understand what's going on when you see a bolt of lightning. The Idea Factory is a hands-on exhibit just for younger kids, but the museum does limit the number of families in the exhibit at one time and during busy days, the wait may be longer than some kids can handle. The museum has attached parking and is easily navigated with strollers. Check the musems' website for free days, which are offered every month.

Millennium Park

Is it weird to send your kids off to play in some giant-headed guy's spit? Not in Chicago, where Crown Fountain is a top destination on hot summer days. Flanked by giant walls that display the ever-changing faces of ordinary Chicagoans, Crown Fountain is an entertaining, free way to let kids frolic in the heat. While you're at Millennium Park, visit The Bean and admire yourself in its shiny reflections and pack a picnic lunch to enjoy on the expansive grounds of the park. During the summer, you can often watch entertainers rehearse in Pritzker Pavilion or enjoy free activities in the family tents that sprout up in the park. Millennium Park is easy to get to via public transportation, or park in one of the nearby parking garages (convenient but pricey). Millennium Park alone makes a great destination, or pair it with a trip to The Art Institute (just across the street) for some indoor/outdoor fun.

Brookfield Zoo

This zoo just keeps getting better and better. The newly opened Great Bear Wilderness lets you get nose-to-nose (safely) with grizzly and polar bears, while the Hamill Family Play Zoo lets young kids play veterinarian or cuddle hamsters. The ape house is a favorite, as you navigate the tropical worlds of monkeys and the great apes (no strollers allowed, so be prepared to park and carry). The zoo has numerous spots to purchase lunch or snacks, plus plenty of inside and outside animals that you can enjoy even if the weather's bad. Paid parking is located just north and south of the zoo. Bring a stroller, or rent one--the zoo is quite large, so be prepared for lots of walking.

Lincoln Park Zoo

The best thing to love about Lincoln Park Zoo, other than all the amazing animals? The fact that it's one of the few remaining free zoos in the country. Lincoln Park lets you immerse yourself in animals, from sitting so close to gorillas that you can look into their eyes (just a pane of unbreakable glass between you) to the treetop canopy climbing area where kids can let loose their inner monkey. Don't miss the old standbys--the farm in the zoo and the children's zoo. Bring cash so kids can ride the carousel or the zoo's train, which both charge a nominal fee. Parking is nearby, but expensive ($30 for a 5-hour visit). Bring a stroller or wagon--the zoo is large for little feet. Dining and snacking options abound or pack a lunch and have a picnic at the nearby Lincoln Park lagoons.

360 CHICAGO Observation Deck

Get great views of Lake Michigan and Chicago--on clear days you can see our neighboring states. If you're brave, try out the open air views where you can step into a screened-in area and breath the air 94 floors up. Grab a set of headphones to hear an interactive audio tour that lets you learn about the different sites you see from above the clouds. If you don't want to wait in line you can pay extra for a fast pass that moves you to the front. Elevators get crowded during peak times--try visiting before 11 a.m. or after 4 p.m. for least crowded times. Parking is located in the same building.

Skydeck Chicago

Okay, we'll never get used to calling it Willis Tower, but still, you can't miss the Skydeck and it's newest attraction The Ledge. The Skydeck gives you incredible panoramic views of the city, but take it one notch further by stepping out onto the glass-encased ledges that jut four feet out into the air. Visit early or late to avoid crowds, or purchase a fast pass to bypass the crowds. Parking is located nearby.


This is truly an incredible way to immerse your children in the culture of the Far East. Poke around in crowded stores filled with items from China (not stroller-friendly), check out the nearby parks with Chinese zodiac sculptures or visit one of the many restaurants that run along Chinatown's main strip. Chinatown has many fests throughout the year celebrating its culture--the parades are well worth the crowds and traffic jams. There's parking in Chinatown but be prepared to pay and, during crowded times, to walk several blocks from the lots to the main attractions.

Art Institute of Chicago

Kids can experience art through touching and interacting in the Faces, Places and Inner Spaces" exhibit or the Touch Gallery. Go online to learn more about the different artists in the gallery before you visit. Family and kids' art activities are frequently planned--check the website before you go to take advantage of these free or low-cost activities. Combine the trip with a visit to Millennium Park and Crown Fountain just across the street.

Chicago Children's Museum

Burn off energy climbing, dig for dino bones or splash in water tables at this 2-story children's museum on Navy Pier. Exhibits have padded, enclosed infant areas so it's easy to watch several children at once. The Pier offers lots of places for lunch and snacks, plus on sunny days it's fun to walk outside and watch the boats and all the people. Park in Navy Pier parking to visit the museum.

Kohl Children's Museum

This is a great museum for toddlers and young kids, who will love shopping in the kid-size groceries, playing in the doll day care or splashing around in the water table room. Stop for a bite to eat at Cosi Cafe and run around outside in the park that has sculptures and playground equipment. An advantage to a suburban museum--this one has free, nearby parking.

DuPage Children's Museum

This 3-story museum lets kids build with real hammers and saws, splash in water tables, get blasted in the AirWorks exhibit and play make-believe in the Interact with Art Gallery. There's lots of designated areas just for the under-2 set and plenty of nearby, free parking.

Children's Museum in Oak Lawn

Play dentist, shop in the grocery store or build with real tools and wood. This museum is all about moving and imagining and has plenty of interactive exhibits for the 10-and-under set. Free parking is available and places to eat lunch or grab a snack are nearby.

Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

The best part of this kids' nature museum is the butterfly haven where more than 75 exotic butterflies enchant both kids and grownups. Other exhibits let kids splash, climb and explore. Lunch is available in the museum's restaurant and paid parking is available nearby.

Navy Pier

Save your pennies for this trip--a visit to Navy Pier can cost a bundle but it's sure worth it every once in a while. In the spring and summer, numerous boats dock at the pier and offer everything from speedboat rides to canine cruises. Visit the Chicago Children's Museum or take a ride on the giant ferris wheel. Restaurants and shopping abound on the Pier and there's ample paid parking available.

Chicago History Museum

You love Chicago history but are afraid your kids won't be that into it? Make their first stop at this museum the Sensing Chicago exhibit, where they can make themselves into a giant hotdog or smell the good, and bad, smells that make up the city. Hands-off objects are behind glass, so kids can explore without worrying they'll break something. Paid parking is about a half-block away. Mondays are free and crowding isn't bad on free days.

The Morton Arboretum

Head straight to the Children's Garden and your kids may never want to leave. Traipse through the maze or wade in the creek, or plan to visit when there are family activities or kids concerts. Take a hike on the trails or pack your bikes for a ride around the arboretum. There's free parking and a restaurant on-site.

Chicago Botanic Garden

With inside and outside gardens, you can visit even on rainy days. Plus there are plenty of kids and family drop-in activities offered to let kids get their hands dirty and learn about plant life. The garden is free, but you'll pay $20-$25 for the on-site parking.

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