12 fun, cheap ways to explore Chicago as a family in 2016

If your New Year’s resolutions as a family include visiting new places and having more adventures together, you can accomplish them without leaving Chicago. It can be easy to fall into a rut of visiting the same places, but here are 12 different activities to do around the city, one for each month of the year.

January

Pretend that you’re on vacation at one of my favorite spots to beat the winter cold: Garfield Park Conservatory, located on the west side at 300 N. Central Park Ave. Leave the wind chill and gray clouds outside as you step into a lush and humid tropical wonderland. Check out solarise: a sea of all colors, a series of art installations at the conservatory that invite visitors to interact with color, light, and nature in new ways. Learn more here.

February

The Lunar New Year begins on Monday, Feb. 8. There are celebrations all around the city throughout the month. Our favorite celebrations are in Chinatown, and you can also catch the Argyle Street Lunar New Year Parade in Uptown on Feb. 13.

March

There’s no shortage of events around the city for St. Patrick’s Day, but you can’t go wrong heading to the northwest side to the Irish American Heritage Center is dedicated to fostering Irish heritage, culture and traditions in America. On March 12, following the downtown Chicago St. Patrick’s Day Parade, it will host the St. Patrick’s Day Festival, which is a large-scale, family-oriented celebration features traditional and contemporary Irish music, dance, and children’s activities. Kids 12 and under are free. It’s located at located at 4626 N. Knox Ave. Find more information here.

April

Take full advantage of the first signs of spring and hit The 606, the 2.7 mile long elevated trail that debuted last summer which connects to six neighborhood parks at ground level. It’s more than just a trail, though, with art installations, educational programming and more. Check out the map with access points here. You don’t have to do it all in a day. Take it one park at a time and make it a project for the month, or longer, and enjoy the entirety of the trail over several visits.

May

Lincoln Square is a great place to explore as a family, and Old Town School of Folk Music at 4544 N. Lincoln Avenue hosts Playdate at Old Town School: Spring has Sprung on May 14, 2016. You be thinking “And Mayfest is in May, too, right?” I had the same thought, but it will be held June 2-5 this year. There’s another Mayfest not far away, though, at 3100 Ashland on May 20-22, with Chicago Kids Day on May 21, if you’re eager to kick off festival season.

June

Hooray for summer reading! The Chicago Public Library has a great summer reading program, and it’s a wonderful time to venture to the Harold Washington Library Center in the South Loop. (Check out the Maker Lab, and don’t miss the Winter Garden on the ninth floor.) Or try a new neighborhood branch and enjoy one of the many free programs. You can find a list of the 80 locations here.

July

Chicago Summer Dance is the largest annual outdoor dancing series in the United States and it celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Head down to the Spirit of Music Garden in Grant Park, located at 601 S. Michigan Ave., for this free event that is fun for the whole family.

On Friday and Saturdays, lessons are offered from 6-7 p.m. and the music and dancing runs from 7:30-9:30 p.m. On Sundays, lessons start at 4 p.m. with music and dancing from 5-7 p.m.  There are 44 live bands, so there’s a wide variety of music to get you and your kiddos up and on your feet. It runs June 24 through September 11, and you can find more info here.

August

Hit the beach! There are 26 miles of public beaches in Chicago, and chances are you haven’t checked them all out yet. Make your day into an adventure by selecting a beach that’s new to your family and checking it out. You can find a list of Chicago beaches here. One suggestion: check out 12th Street Beach, which is next to the Adler Planetarium on Northerly Island. Have your older kiddo plan out how to get there using public transportation.

September

Back to school is a great time of year to visit the many colleges and universities around the area, and you don’t have to have an older kid to enjoy the amazing environments, including that at the University of Chicago, an academic powerhouse. The University’s Information Center is located at 5801 S. Ellis Avenue and the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) also offers docent-led tours of Hyde Park and the UChicago campus. Heading up to Evanston to check out Northwestern University is also a great option, and the Segal Visitors Center is open on Saturday mornings in September as well as weekdays and is at 1841 Sheridan Road, Evanston.

October

October is Italian Heritage Month, which sounds like a good reason to head to Taylor Street, where you can find Chicago’s Little Italy and some truly amazing food. While you’re in the neighborhood, check out the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame at 1431 W. Taylor Street. You can see Mario Andretti’s Indy 500 racecar, Rocky Marciano’s first heavyweight championship belt, Vince Lombardi’s last coat worn as coach of the Green Bay Packers and swimmer Matt Biondi’s Olympic Gold Medals.

November

The Chicago International Children’s Film Festival runs Oct. 28 through Nov. 6, and is the largest annual festival of films for children ages 2-18. It’s a great opportunity to view some amazing films as a family.

December

The Art Institute of Chicago is a fun place to visit around the holidays, from the massive wreaths adorning the iconic lions out front to the tiny decorations decking the halls of the Thorne Miniatures Rooms. They offer Holly Days Admission which is always free for kids under 14, and there are many other wonderful, free programs for kids. Adult Illinois residents get in free on Thursdays from 5-8 p.m., or you can get a Museum Adventure Pass from your Chicago Library branch that makes a visit free for the family.

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