Kids’ favorite must-see downtown activities

You could fill a week with downtown sightseeing and still barely scratch the surface of what Chicago has to offer. But what are the must-dos for a kid’s first trip to our city’s center? We asked local kids (and their parents) to fill us in on what they consider a guaranteed good time.

For a Chicago-style playground:

Maggie Daley Park

Twenty acres of winding paths, shady trees and picnic-worthy stretches of green grass adjacent to the Loop make Maggie Daley a popular park for people of all ages. The massive, three-acre playground is the main draw for young ones, though—and the sprawling structures, inspired by “Alice in Wonderland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” can accommodate up to 600 kids at once. If some of the three-story slides and enclosed climbing zones seem downright scary for toddlers, keep in mind there are distinct zones for different ages.

Kid Pick: “The big ship is the best because you can use the captain’s wheel and ride the boat with all your friends.” —Nathan, age 4

For a Chicago-style view:

Navy Pier’s Centennial Wheel

Combine the carnival pleasure of a giant ferris wheel that stretches 150 feet in the air with the breathtaking beauty of Chicago’s skyline along the lake, and you’ve captured the joy of riding Navy Pier’s Centennial Wheel. The six-seat gondolas are fully enclosed, so even toddlers can move around as the view changes without fear of giving their parents heart palpitations.

Kid Pick: “Big boats! Big water! Round and round!” —Levi, age 2

For a Chicago-style shopping spree:

American Girl Place

Water Tower Place is the go-to shopping spot on the Magnificent Mile, and it boasts toy stores and candy stores aplenty. But save time for the American Girl Place, which anchors one corner and spans two floors and 52,000 square feet. There are all manner of dolls, clothes and accessories, of course, but your doll-crazed kid can also spend hours reading in the front book area, getting her doll’s hair braided or ears pierced in the upstairs salon or getting her doll some TLC at the doll hospital. Lunch at the full-service restaurant upstairs might seem pricey at $22 a head, but it’s surprisingly scrumptious and the kid-centric spread is expansive: mini-hot dogs, cinnamon rolls and crudités for appetizers, entrees like mac and cheese and tic-tac-toe pizza, and little chocolate mouse flowerpots to finish. Your kids will leave stuffed—and smiling.

Kid Pick: “I like the little chair for my doll, so she could eat right next to me. She liked the hot chocolate the best.” —Naomi, age 5

For a Chicago-style marvel:

The Chicago Architecture Foundation tour

You could walk around downtown, gawking at the architecture—or you could follow a trained tour guide and get filled in on the history, engineering and stories behind those iconic skyscrapers. Tour operators abound, but the Chicago Architecture Foundation is a standout. For small kids uninterested in architecture, take advantage of a boat tour from April to November. Being on the boat is adventure aplenty, and you won’t have to schlep them between stops. For older kids with an interest in architecture, they’ve got plenty of options: pedways, railways, trolley tours and a “must-see” walking tour that connects Willis Tower and Water Tower.

Kid Pick: “I liked learning about the engineering that helped the buildings break new records, and I thought the tour guide did a good job of telling stories.” —Zeke, age 10

For a Chicago-style tradition:

The Palm Court

Princess Diana, Queen Elizabeth and the Empress of Japan are just a handful of the prominent guests who have raised a pinkie while sipping tea at the Drake Hotel’s Palm Court. But if china teapots, fancy pastries and white tablecloths make you nervous, fear not: In the nearly 100 years since afternoon tea has been happening here, they’ve figured out a thing or two about catering to kids. Your young one can skip the lobster tarts and earl grey tea in favor of turkey tea sandwiches, plain scones with jam and a personal pot of hot chocolate. The wait staff is relaxed and accommodating, and the harpist adds an extra oomph of entertainment so you can linger longer.

Kid Pick: “My favorite part was the turkey and cheese sandwiches—no cheese! And it was so fancy.” —Esther, age 3

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