Note: Many of these attractions and events have been canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19. Please check out these summer activities for Chicago families to enjoy while social distancing.
Some days, summer seems to flit by in an instant. Then there are the days that drag on and on. While filling the summer break calendar with things to do seems daunting, we’ve done the work for you: Fun in and around Chicago to make this the best summer yet. Below are events and activities that families enjoyed in 2019 — we’re looking forward to having them back in 2021!
1. See a baseball game.
The easiest parks to reach by bus or L are on the North and South sides (Wrigley and Guaranteed Rate fields). On Sundays, kids run the bases after seeing the White Sox play and the Cubs have summer camp days and back-to-school nights just for junior fans. There are another five parks that offer lower cost tickets and family fun. To watch future MLBers, trek out the Kane County Cougars in Geneva. To see former or future big leaguers, head to see teams in Schaumburg, Joliet, Crestwood and Rosemont.
2. Check out a Chicago Fire game.
A trip to see the Fire at SeatGeek Stadium will help quench any family’s “futball” thirst. While in Bridgeview, head south on Harlem Avenue and spend some time at Haunted Trails, a putt-putt/go-kart/arcade combo.
3. Watch a Chicago Sky game.
Summer is prime WNBA season, and the Sky play downtown at Wintrust Arena.
4. Pick strawberries.
Strawberries are at their best in mid-June. Because of the weirdly cold spring season, the growing schedule for fruits and veggies could be impacted, so check before going. In the suburbs, try Stade’s Farm in McHenry and Tom’s Farm Market in Huntley.
5. Bike the Lakefront Trail.
With 17 miles stretching from Ardmore on the north to 71st Street on the south, the trail passes Lincoln Park Zoo, Soldier Field, Navy Pier and the Museum of Science and Industry, as well as a slew of parks.
6. Ride the rails at the Illinois Railway Museum.
Climb aboard in Union. While there, check out the train-themed playground. Thomas the Tank Engine chuggs into town in July.
7. See the unusual.
Get in a full day of fun
8. Eat a turkey leg at the Bristol Renaissance Faire.
Located in Wisconsin, visitors could spend a whole day just eating all the food offered. In addition to entertainment ranging from fire whips to daily troupe comedies to chalk art to actors’ fashion, there’s more than enough to do.
7. Be a pioneer at Blackberry Farm in Aurora.
The living history museum gives visitors a chance to ride a train, hay wagon, tractor, boat and pony. Free admission for Illinois residents runs on select Wednesdays through the summer.
8. Head back in time to Naper Settlement.
Families can take a trip back to the days of settlers heading west for a different life.
9. Drive the coastline.
One of the prettiest parts of the drive to St. Joseph is hopping off I-94 and traveling the coastline up Red Arrow Highway. Stop off at a look-out point and you can see Chicago on a clear day. Once there, kids will love riding the Silver Beach Carousel. Spend some time at the Curious Kids’ Museum, a hands-on discovery center.
Scope out a factory tour
10. See how soap is made.
Method’s South Side Soapbox is open for tours at 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. every Wednesday. Reserve a spot at email@example.com. While you’re on the South Side, tour the area to see artifacts from the Pullman Mansion or take a guided or self-guided walking tour.
11. Satisfy your sweet tooth at Long Grove Confectionery Company.
Take a trip through the factory that produces caramels, chocolates and turtles. A free chocolate treat comes at the end. Reservations required at longgrove.com; $2 to see the sweet treats factory.
12. Visit Windy City Harvest Farm.
For an urban farm, take a tour at the Harvest’s headquarters at Arturo Velasquez Institute at Richard J. Daley College. $5 student, $10 adults, available for walk-ins from 11 a.m.-noon on Fridays. You’ll see the greenhouse, hoop house, aquaponics system and outdoor growing beds.
13. Drive to Wisconsin for Jelly Belly.
Free tours include interactive exhibits and games good for all ages of jelly bean eaters. Tours include free samples and a ride on the Jelly Belly Express.
14. Taste the best at Eli’s Cheesecake World.
Every day at 1 p.m., learn all about the city’s favorite cheesecake and best of all, sample the taste of the day. Free, but space is limited. Call ahead at (773) 308-7000.
15. Eat gummies at Albanese Confectionery.
For gummies galore, head to Merrillville, Ind., for a self-guided tour at Albanese Confectionery to see how gummies are made, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. And since you are there anyway, if you have a family of thrill-seekers, travel just a few miles down the road to Edge Adventures Aerial Park. (Pro tip: Buy zipline tickets in advance.
Rainy day fun
16. Take the Metra.
Suburban Metra trains are a great way to get head out to the suburbs. Train stops in Oak Lawn and Elmhurst are surrounded by activities that won’t require an Uber or a taxi. A quick dash up the block in Oak Lawn is the Oak Lawn Children’s Museum (open Tuesdays-Sundays), featuring exhibits for even the youngest adventure seeker. In Elmhurst, the History Museum (open Tuesdays-Sundays) is a half block to the east and the York Theatre (with $5 Tuesdays) is two blocks to the north.
17. Learn a new board game.
Cat & Mouse Games in the West Loop holds a board game happy hour on Tuesdays, a First Fridays Family Game Night and Pokemon Card leagues on Saturdays. Coffee shops across the area are popping up with games available upon request.
Try out something old
18. Take an architectural tour.
Guided tours through the city are run by bus, foot and boat. Kids can learn about how the city was built — and then rebuilt after the fire — and how each generation of designers left their mark.
19. Get the best views.
20. Walk through the Water Tower.
No, not the mall, the one across the street. The Historic Water Tower was one of the few buildings to survive the path of the 1871 fire.
21. Revisit The Museum of Science and Industry.
It’s one of the last standing buildings from the 1893 Columbian Exposition. If you’re in for trying something “old”—or trying it again—take the U-505 tour to see the WWII sub. This summer, the “Wired to Wear” and “Makers United” exhibits are a must for elementary-aged kids and older.
22. Watch an “old” movie.
Some of these titles might not seem so ancient, but the Rialto Square Theatre is hosting a #TBT Summer Movie Series of throw-back events: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Field of Dreams and The Sting and will appear on the screen.
23. Grab a brownie at Palmer House.
Also part of the World’s Fair lore was the invention of the brownie. (As the story goes, Bertha Palmer asked the pastry chef to create a dessert suitable for ladies that could be carried. The result: the brownie.)
24. Travel to the past.
The Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County in Libertyville has the world’s only scientifically accurate replica of a Dryptosaurus, a 420-million-year-old fossil-covered rock and a one-room schoolhouse replica.
25. Stare at the dinos.
Meet the largest dino ever discovered at The Field Museum as the 122-foot-long titanosaur, Máximo takes up one-third of the museum’s Stanley Field Hall, with its head peeking over the 28-foot balcony to the second floor. You can now even talk with him through text at 70221or online. Joining it will be life-size replicas of giant flying reptiles called pterosaurs. Sue the T.rex has made her move to new, interactive digs that teach us even more about these creatures.
Fun for the technologically advanced
26. Take a class at The Laboratory.
The group’s monthly “night out” workshops give parents a chance to make sure the children are learning something while they’re out with friends or seeing a show. Programs require preregistration.
27. Build a robot at Robot City Workshop.
The workshop has all manner of beginner and all-levels classes — including “Robot Date Nights” for parents Wednesday-Saturday. If you build it, your kids can, too.
28. Learn to Minecraft.
Power Up Tech Academy in Chicago teaches kids how to play Minecraft so they can attend any of their other Minecraft events—or just play at home with friends.
29. Try a drop-in class at Adler Planetarium.
The free classes with museum admission cover everything from how to program a roving robot to testing space rocks. While you’re there, see their new “Imagine the Moon” sky show.
Fun with furry friends
30. Take a lakefront cruise.
Seadog Cruises — speedboat tours that launch from Navy Pier — lets pooches ride free as families see the city from Lake Michigan. Mercury has a canine-specific cruise that sails on Saturdays and Sundays beginning in July.
31. Bark at a baseball park.
Pups can be baseball fans, too. Several area ballparks offer accommodations on special days to four-legged friends. The White Sox have one Sept. 10, the Chicago Dogs in Rosemont on July 10 and Sept. 1, and the Schaumburg Boomers are happy for fans to bring dogs to games on June 30 and Aug. 18.
32. Take your cat to Lady Gregory’s.
Cats are welcome to sit with diners on the patio at Lady Gregory’s in Old Town. A gluten-free brunch is served on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
33. Meet the whales at Shedd Aquarium.
The 4D movies are worth the price of admission, and kids can touch stingrays, sturgeons and sea stars.
34. Refresh in a water playground or park.
Free water playgrounds can be found in 27 neighborhoods across Chicago from Uptown to Roseland. If you’re looking for more rapid waterways, take a trip north to Six Flags Great America in Gurnee or west to Raging Waves in Yorkville.
35. Cruise the river.
A Chicago boat tour will show off the skyline and your kids will love the trips under the city’s many bridges.
36. Stake a chair for the Chicago Air and Water Show.
Planes, skydivers and boats from the show can be seen from the North Avenue Beach, along the lakefront or even in boats on the water. This year marks the 60th year of the free event (Aug. 17-18).
37. See a waterfall.
Check out Lake Katherine Nature Center in Palos Heights. The summer also means family fishing day in June and stargazing at night in the gardens.
38. Clean up the beach.
So, you’ve taken the kids to Shedd to see the fish, take them to a Shedd GLAD (Great Lakes Action Days) event. These are good for families with kids old enough to help identify and clean (ridding the beaches of invasive plants, cleaning debris, surveying salamanders). There are dates and locations available all summer throughout the city and suburbs.
39. Swim at Pelican Harbor Aquatic Park.
Bolingbrook Parks runs the aquatic facility that includes both indoor and outdoor pools and slides. The cost is less than $10 per person, even during peak hours (after 4 p.m. or on weekends and holidays). The indoor play areas are great, too, on rainy days.
40. Rent your own boat to see the Chicago River.
If you have older, more experienced water farers, take a shot at renting your own vessel to traverse the Chicago River or one of the lagoons or lakes in the area. Check out Chicago River Canoe and Kayak, or cut the cardio workout with Chicago Electric Boat Company.
41. Climb the steps at Grosse Point Lighthouse National Landmark.
Located in Evanston, there are 141 steps to the top of the light tower. The park district runs tours on Saturdays and Sundays at 2, 3 and 4 p.m.
42. Enjoy more than just water.
With 80,000-square-feet of indoor water park space and more than 400 hotel rooms, Great Wolf Lodge in Gurnee can be a weekend getaway without the long road trip hassles. The water park is for hotel guests only, but Great Wolf Adventure Park, which includes an arcade, ropes course, bowling, mini-golf and a rock-climbing wall, is open for visitors.
Win with an Instagram scavenger hunt
43. Start at the “Route 66 Begins” sign.
Located on the corner of Adams Street and South Michigan Avenue — across from the Art Institute. Before you move on, snap pics of the lions that guard the institute, then head to Buckingham Fountain and the Bean.
44. Walk/stroller the alphabet.
Pick a five-block radius and use street and building signs to take photos of every letter of the alphabet. Ask your kids to find the letters for you — the A from the Chicago Theatre, the B from NBC Tower…
45. Find the marquee at Wrigley Field.
Iconic in movies and TV shows, even if you can’t stay for a game, have the kiddos stand in front of the sign that lives on the corner of Clark and Addison.
46. The “Chicago” mural in Logan Square.
If you’re looking for a great summer postcard for the grandparents, park your children in front of the “Greetings from Chicago” mural at 2226 N. Milwaukee Ave.
47. See air balloons.
Eyes to the Skies Festival in Lisle features hot air balloon shows and rides, music, food, a craft fair and a huge area for kids July 4-6.
48. Take a taste.
49. Sing a song.
The eclectic sounds of Chicago play out at the Jazz Fest, Grant Park Music Fest and Millennium Park Summer Music Series, and that’s without leaving a five-block radius. More can be found at local fairs and local and national bands take the stages at ribfests, food fests and summer spectaculars all summer long.
50. See a movie at Millennium Park.
The summer movie series gives film fans—and picnickers—a chance to enjoy movies at Jay Pritzker Pavilion. If you can’t get downtown, check out your local parks.
51. Sing along at the zoo.
Lincoln Park Zoo gives Mr. Singer a stage on Wednesdays and Fridays at the Main Barn.
52. Sit outside Wrigley Field for a concert or movie.
The western gate at Wrigley Field houses a farmers market and gathering place, with concerts for youngsters and movies for fans all summer long.
53. Visit an exhibit at the National Museum of Mexican Art.
Located on West 19th Street, the museum is open Tuesdays-Sundays and is always free. It’s also a good rainy day option for art-loving youngsters.
54. Walk through history at the DuSable Museum of African American History.
Located in Washington Park, the museum is free to all every Tuesday.
55. Make art at The Art Institute of Chicago.
Kids 13 and under are always free at the Art Institute (17 and under for Chicago residents) and the Ryan Learning Center has an artist’s studio open at 10:30 every morning.
56. Find your spirit animal.
Head to Chinatown Square Zodiac statues (while picking up a little history) and let the kids run off the yummy bubble tea they just had to have.
Fun for tweens and teens
57. Take a hike.
If you’re more of a landlubber, going for a hike makes for a great outing with older kids. It’s amazing how much kids will start to talk when they’re in the woods. Make a day of it at Starved Rock or Matthiessen State Park or just head to your nearest county forest preserve.
58. Watch the fireworks at Navy Pier.
This is the best of both worlds. It’s fun to stay out late without a meltdown, and the look on your kid’s face gives you a glimpse back in time to when they were little. Fireworks are every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. and Saturday at 10:15 p.m.
59. Elevate your frozen treat consumption.
While ice cream is amazing at any age, if your adolescent is working hard to eschew anything “babyish,” make it a special outing. Head downtown to Eataly for gelato, the Nutella Café for ice cream or JoJo’s Milk Bar for out-of-this-diet shakes.
60. Check out a college.
Your kid doesn’t have to be ready to apply for you to visit one of the many great campuses nearby, including Northwestern, University of Chicago and DePaul. Check out the bookstore, take the tour and hang out on the quad.
61. Roam The 606.
Check out the full 2.7 miles of elevated pathway and explore each of the four Chicago neighborhoods it connects. Put your kiddos in charge of the trip and have them research where they’d like to stop along the way. (May we suggest a cookie from Roeser’s Bakery?)
62. Make a sugar crawl.
If your tweens and teens have a sweet tooth, do a sugar crawl around River North and River East, visiting favorite purveyors of sweet treats such as Dylan’s Candy Bar, Sugar Factory and Molly’s Cupcakes.
Try something new
63. Count the bricks.
For the first time in North America, more than 40 new animals take up residence at Brookfield Zoo. Brick Safari marks the return of an elephant to the zoo, plus a panda, tiger, dolphin, giraffe and more. Don’t miss a chance to get your selfie in a safari Jeep made of Lego bricks.
64. Count more bricks.
The award-winning exhibit, Nature Connects: Art with Lego Bricks by Sean Kenney, marks its return to Morton Arboretum. With 15 new sculptures, including a bee mid-flight, an oak tree sprouting from an acorn and a crimson-crested woodpecker. Not to miss will be some of the fan favorites: a peacock, an 8-foot-long dragonfly, a monarch butterfly and a family of deer. Kids can create their own Lego masterpieces in the Children’s Garden.
65. Enter a new water feature slowly.
Nothing says summer like playing in the water and that’s why families will love the new major addition to Santa’s Village Azoosment Park. Santa Springs features zero-depth entry to a 10,000-square-foot wading pool with a two-story interactive water play structure with giant tipping buckets and six water slides. Complete the day out with thrill rides, kiddie rides, games and more than 200 animals.
66. Break records in the air.
Maxx Force, a triple-record breaking roller coaster at Six Flags Great America, is thrill on speed and, as the tallest double inversion of any roller coaster in the world, puts riders upside down more than 17 stories high. Plus, its state-of-the-art launch system takes riders from 0 to 78 mph in under two seconds — the fastest acceleration in North America.
67. Take in a show.
The Year of Chicago Theatre includes a full summer focused on great shows. All summer long, viewers can catch a run of Cats, The Music Man and Les Miserables, among that variety of local and national productions.
68. Find trolls in the trees.
Last summer, six giant, fantastical trolls took up residence at The Morton Arboretum. The 20-foot-tall trolls became the first large-scale U.S. exhibition from Danish artist Thomas Dambo and take visitors on a journey to find the larger-than-life guardians of the forest. Some of the trolls are easy to find while taking the Troll Hunt, and for other kids will have to seek and find. While at the arboretum, check out the Mud Kitchen and Word Garden, great spaces for kids to be inspired by nature.
69. Try Lincoln Park’s organic space.
Think city kids don’t spend time in nature? Think again. The Wild Sapling Play Forest is an organic space in a shaded corner of the Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo at Lincoln Park Zoo encourages budding naturalists to get hands-on, literally. There are dig pits filled with finely grained dirt, sensory panels, a log tower and a tunnel made of metal vines. Kids can also zig-zag across a balance beam of boards placed between tree stumps. Don’t forget to visit the bears next door.
70. Seek out toys in plants.
Little ones are encouraged to play with toys that are actually plant parts scattered around the Play & Grow Garden at Garfield Park Conservatory. They can also work on balance and strength on the stump obstacle course or use fine motor skills while playing with pebbles. Those activities will have kids feeling good about both themselves and the natural world. It’s all outdoors, but if a storm pops up, there’s plenty inside the conservatory to keep families busy.
71. Make a fort.
Mini-houses make great laboratories, forts, castles or whatever your kids want them to be at Indian Boundary Nature Play Center. Opportunities to touch and explore texture abound. There are other options for interacting with nature around the park, whether kids want to search the prairie garden for bugs and butterflies, find frogs in the wetlands or spy surfacing turtles in the pond.
72. Trek to where birds gather.
Wahoo Woods, named for a bird, is a great destination for bitty builders with a fort building area stocked with sticks, hay bales, loose stones and small branches. Kids will also find rock climbing features and trails. It is located behind the Dundee Library so you can have a mix of both outdoor and indoor fun in one outing, but it’s best to hit the library first, then go get dirty.
73. Climb to new heights.
Whether it’s climbing the multi-tiered tree house, making music with chimes or investigating the beaver dam, kids will find lots of options for open-ended play at Bison’s Bluff in Schaumburg that will help develop both agility and creativity in this Schaumburg Park District space. The water features, including a stream, are popular, so consider bringing water shoes and/or a change of clothes. And if it’s an abundance of nature you seek, Bison’s Bluff is located in Spring Valley, which has three miles of trails as well as the Vera Meineke Nature Center.
74. Search for native plants close to home.
The NaturePlace, located on 2.8 acres in the southwest corner of popular Welles Park, near the Lincoln Square neighborhood, features natural play features and native plants. If the time in the great outdoors builds up an appetite, head to the other end of the park and grab some crepes at the Crepes in the Park stand.
75. Build cooperation.
The Wander Woods Nature Play Space at Heller Nature Center in Highland Park was designed to promote a child’s sense of wonder and interest in discovery and built-in cooperation with the Chicago Wilderness organization. It is intended to be child-led and offers gentle nudges if necessary in the form of one-word suggestions and basic tools such as water, mud, sticks, wheelbarrows and shovels sprinkled among the trees.
76. Elevate all of your senses.
The Chicago Botanic Garden’s Nature Play Garden, with rolling hills that seem straight out of a storybook, and a multi-sensory garden in the Regenstein Learning Campus, is set to really shine this summer. There are places for climbing, hiding, resting and more. The willow tunnel is a great place for kids to explore (and a cute spot for photos). There are “rooms” defined by walls of arborvitae and hornbeams and water features like a runnel and boulder bubbler.
77. Pet a goat.
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This article originally published on June 11, 2019. It has been updated with the most recent information.