7 affordable winter getaways near Chicago for families

Regardless of whether winter is your favorite time of year, there’s still a ton of fun to be had in the Midwest. Your family can have a blast snow tubing, ice skating and skiing, then warm up with a cup of hot cocoa. Or if you’d rather keep it indoors, there are museums, sporting events and water parks to explore. Set off on one of these short, budget-friendly trips this winter!

Lake Geneva, Wis.

Distance from Chicago: 83 miles

Not just a summer destination, this delightful little resort town not far from the Illinois and Wisconsin border is also a winter wonderland. You can snowshoe, cross country ski, sled, ice skate and more. Walk amongst the cute shops and cafes downtown (Simple Café is my favorite) and even splash your way around the water park at Timber Ridge Lodge.

Ziplining in the winter is exhilarating and there’s no better place to do it than with the happy-go-lucky guides at Lake Geneva Canopy Tours. Cuddle up at the majestic Grand Geneva Resort, where they host lavish buffets, or save a few bucks and make it a day trip. Find your way into some savings with Lake Geneva deals here.

Two upcoming events you won’t want to miss include:

  • Ice Castles return to Lake Geneva in January, but in a new location at lakeside Geneva National Resort. These artistic ice creations are nothing short of spectacular. Your family will love sliding, climbing though tunnels and making winter wishes in sparkling ice fountains. Illuminated at night, the ice castle is a joyful exhibit of the magic you can experience in the cold.
  • Lake Geneva Winterfest will be celebrating its 25th year Jan. 29-Feb. 2. Families don’t mind braving the cold for the United States National Snow Sculpting Competition, magic, music and more.

St. Louis

Distance from Chicago: 297 miles

While a visit to the City Museum should be on every family’s wish list, the new St. Louis Aquarium (opening Dec. 25) is also a great reason make a trip to The Lou. Located in the historic St. Louis Union Station, this new aquarium is home to thousands of aquatic creatures, including one of the largest collection of sharks in the Midwest. Feel like walking above shark-infested waters? The Shark Bridge will allow you to realize this dream. Then go take a spin around the new St. Louis Wheel, get lost in a mirror maze, and climb your way across a rope bridge—activities all offered at the reimagined St. Louis Union Station.

The City Museum is a super cool funhouse that kids will absolutely not want to leave. With tunnels, a 10-story slide, reclaimed objects, tons of ramps to run up, swings, blocks and even cocktails for the parents, it’s definitely a fun day for all. The Gateway Arch is another iconic St. Louis attraction, with a new museum that brings to life the important role St. Louis played in our country’s westward expansion. Discounts on St. Louis attractions can be found here.

Wilmot Mountain, Wis.

Distance from Chicago: 66 miles

If you love to ski, snowboard or slide down snow-covered hills on inner tubes, Wilmot Mountain is the perfect day trip or short getaway for your family. Nothing says winter quite like sashaying down the mountain on a sunny day. Tubing should be available soon. Twenty-two tubing lanes, 120 skiable acres, trails, chair lifts and more will make you feel like you’ve been transported to a winter playground, yet you’re only about an hour away from home.

Even the littlest members of the family can learn to ski with the new Threes on Skis lessons for three-year-olds. Bunny Hill Basics is perfect for those 13 and older who have never skied before. Wilmot even hosts fun events like Super Heroes Day and a Leap Year Party. So close to home, you don’t even have to spend the night; but if you’re looking for lodging, here are some recommendations.

Wisconsin Dells, Wis.

Distance from Chicago: 195 miles

The Waterpark Capital of the World is a fantastic destination to head to with your family when it’s cold outside. With so many entertaining activities, everyone is practically guaranteed to have a good time. Plus, you can snag deals for all sorts of Wis Dells attractions here.

My family loves Kalahari for their thrilling water park and indoor Tom Foolery’s Adventure Park. We also greatly appreciate the coziness and unforgettable kids activities at Great Wolf Lodge.  Bounce out cooped up energy at Knuckleheads Trampoline Park, then sear your meal at Hot Rocks steakhouse.

Muskegon, Mich.

Distance from Chicago: 185 miles

One of the coolest winter sports available to the public in Muskegon, Mich. is luging — yes, that Olympic sport where riders lay on sleds and whip down icy chutes. You can now do it because the luge at Muskegon Winter Sports Complex is open to and accessible for all ages 8 and up. One of only four luge courses in the country, this one is shorter, features six curves and will get your blood pumping when you reach up to 30 mph, yet is designed for the general public. 

Looking for a bite to eat? Rad Dad’s is a taco and family-friendly tequila bar located right in the hockey arena downtown. Grab a bite with no ticketed needed on game nights. Delta Hotels by Marriott Muskegon Downtown recently underwent a $5 million renovation and is quite affordable in winter.

Milwaukee, Wis.

Distance from Chicago: 92 miles

Milwaukee offers a fantastic, smaller city urban escape that’s not too far from Chicago. Try curling (similar to shuffleboard on ice) with the Wauwatosa Curling Club or snowshoe in Three Bridges Park. Ice skate around Milwaukee’s version of Rockefeller Center, Slice of Ice at Red Arrow Park or skate indoors at Pettit National Ice Center.

Attack of the Giant Monsters 2 is a model train show at Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory running mid-January through March. Classic giant movie monsters will be lurking in the trees of the miniature models cities they are attacking. Purchase some local produce, bakery items or handmade soap at the Milwaukee Winter Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. 

The new Fiserv Forum is a fun stadium to bounce in your seats to a Milwaukee Bucks basketball game. You can also cheer on the Admirals at a hockey game. Kids, seniors and families can snag some discounts here

Columbus, Ohio

Distance from Chicago: 357 miles

Columbus is an affordable, family-friendly Midwest destination you may have not considered, but should. The Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is a beautiful place to walk around and get some fresh air with the fam. The indoor and outdoor gardens are brimming with greenery, and feature Chihuly glass sculptures, glass blowing demonstrations and a permanent evening light display that will take your breath away.

COSI (Center of Science and Industry) should also be on your list as it’s an engaging, inspiring, hands-on museum offering over 300 interactive exhibits, such as Unseen Oceans and Turtle Power!, featuring Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle team-building challenges in their secret, underground lair.

Score Columbus Blue Jackets Hockey tickets for four, including hot dogs, popcorn and Pepsi, with The Jackets Family Value Pass or glide your way around the Blue Jackets ice skating facility, The Chiller. Explore Easton Town Center, a shopping, dining and entertainment center lined with hotels. Hot dog lovers, including those whom are vegan and vegetarian, will want to take a bite out of Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace


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