Kids. Chicago. Not always a pairing made in heaven, given weather constraints during the worst months of the year, but frankly, even parents raising kids in the Windy City for decades confess that their kids grow up long before they’ve exposed them to all of the child centric activities sprawled across this thriving metropolis. We recommend starting your adventure at Grand Central Station. Choose activities you think your kids might like best, but keep an eye on your wallet: One of the best things about Chicago is that amid pricey sites—like the Field Museum and Planetarium—memories are also ready to be made on the slimmest of budgets.
For Girls Only
Skip to the next “family fun activities” idea if you’ve only got boys. Chicago is the epicenter of the American Girl phenomenon and Mecca is located at Watertower Place, a popular, trending destination on its own that’s a healthy trek from Union Station by foot or a short cab ride away. The place is so well-known, no address necessary for taxi drivers, but as a parent, it’s a wise move to visit the Chicago headquarters’ website to prepare for your excursion. Understand, up front, that your mini-princess will ask for everything she sees as you traverse a universe of little girls carrying dolls, so set limits and allow her to choose one thing like a matching outfit, ear piercing and hair styling (for the doll). Bring the camera. This can be the grandest experience of all for a little girl with big dreams and if you’re strategic, you won’t have to re-mortgage your house to pay for the full experience.
The Children’s Museum
Let the kids run up and down Navy Pier before you expose them to one of the finest children’s museums in the U.S. Age-appropriate exhibits and activities keep boys and girls moving at a fast clip. Save money by showing up Thursday nights when corporate sponsor Target waives fees from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. If that’s too late, the first Sunday of each month is also free. Exhibits fire up imaginations since many of them are interactive and appropriate even for preschoolers. If you’re a member of a police department, a firefighter, veterans or you’ve got military ID, claim four free tickets at the museum entrance. Food’s available at the museum food center. Give your kids a chance to ride the free Navy Pier Ferris wheel and they may let you browse quirky shops on the pier in peace.
For over 80 years, the John G. Shedd Aquarium has brought the biological riches of the seven seas to Chicago’s lakefront where 32,000 kinds of aquatic life–plus an impressive center for global conservation research–delight children with the shortest of attention spans. To maintain a facility of this magnitude, tickets can be pricey, but if you’re an Illinois resident, corporate sponsor Ford Motor Company underwrites 52 free days a year and the Shedd Aquarium website doesn’t keep these dates a secret! With the money you save, feed the family at the The Bubble Net where a family-friendly menu of pizza, burgers, burritos and veggie options await or opt for mac and cheese, slushies and hot dogs at the Deep Ocean Café within the Polar Play Zone.
Bean There, Done That
Millennium Park is a must-see stop for all ages and particularly for parents: It’s big, it’s green and it’s free. Grab food from McDonald’s or a deli lining Michigan Avenue, the trendy boulevard that separates the cityscape, buildings, shops and cafes from a lush wonderland of sight, sound and sensory fun. Take photos of the kids lying with the soles of their shoes pressed against the huge, silvery bean sculpture so the reflection looks like they’re holding it up with their feet. There you go: Christmas card ready in a digital snap. Giant electronic graphics populating structures bordering the bean are fascinating to watch and throughout the gigantic park (weather permitting), gardens, festivals and concerts offer free entertainment for all ages. Look for food trucks along Michigan Avenue if you choose not to pack a picnic—they’ve become an important part of the Chicago scene.
The Big Train Adventure
Film-makers love Union Station for its 20,000 square foot Great Hall, but it’s also a family-friendly venue. Give your youngsters a chance to play the magical piano or let them run around to blow off some steam. It’s not likely commuters will complain; they rarely look up from their smart phones! Feed the kids once they’ve exhausted themselves on the concourse by heading for station eateries congregating along the mezzanine where everything from gourmet pretzels to Big Macs and frosty frozen yogurt in downtown Chicago is sure to please the pickiest eaters. All done? Grab a gourmet coffee and head for the METRA ticket window. Buy round-trip tickets for everyone and hop on board the first train leaving the station. Expect to have exhausted kids on your hands by the time you return to Union Station.
Spur of the Moment Ideas
With kids, it’s all about planning, packing and schlepping, so if you’d like a break from the routine and just want everyone to breathe the freedom that comes with impromptu decisions, turn to Chicago Parent magazine for tips on the latest, hottest (and most affordable) places to take little ones throughout the year. A kid-friendly art show here, a sailboat race there, a snowman-building competition that invites kids to dream big while you shiver in the cold and recall your own childhood. This multicultural city boasts expansive offerings—festivals, street fairs, concerts and more–from Grant Park to west-side neighborhoods. Most are walkable, even with toddlers in tow, and kids receive the equivalent of a real-life education in ethnic diversity disguised as fun.