Whether you call Chicago home or you're visiting for the weekend, know this: The city may be built on world-class institutions and amazing restaurants, but it's also brimming with amazing things to do with kids. We have the inside scoop on can't-miss children museums in Chicago for curiosity seekers, amazing Chicago attractions that will delight the entire family, and sprawling Chicago parks for a dose of fresh air. As an added bonus, we have it on good authority that every destination on the list is fun for parents, too. What are you waiting for? Let the little ones in on the action with our guide to the best things to do with kids in Chicago.
RECOMMENDED: Discover more of the best things to do in Chicago
Best things to do with kids in Chicago
What is it? Housed inside Navy Pier, this cultural institution is built especially for tikes.
Why go? The kids think they're playing, but you know they're absorbing all kinds of amazing information through amazing, hands-on exhibits like the Sound Playground, which is packed with noisemakers like a six-foot drum, a pluckable instrument, typewriters and phones.
What is it? One of the country's last free zoos, situated on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Why go? The 35-acre attraction connects visitors with animals from all over the world—from aardvarks and African penguins to trumpeter swans and zebra tilapia—and a variety of seasonal events and special programming keep families coming back again and again.
What is it? A 20-acre public park located in the heart of the Loop that houses one of the most epic playgrounds we've ever seen.
Why go? When the sun is shining, set the kids loose at the Play Garden or let them put their skills to the test on the Climbing Wall, with supervision from the park staff. The fun doesn't stop when winter rolls around; return for a lap or two around the Skating Ribbon when the snow starts to fall.
What is it? One of the world's largest indoor aquariums—and home to thousands of scaled, finned and feathered animals.
Why go? For a chance to get up close and personal with schools of colorful fish, playful otters, beautiful stingrays, not-so-scary sharks and hard-shelled turtles. There are eight exhibits to explore and additional experiences you can tack on during your visit, like 4-D shows, Animal Chats with Shedd experts and Animal Encounters.
What is it? A West Loop theater devoted to entertaining tots and their families.
Why go? To see plays with educational undertones and positive messages that the whole family will enjoy. Audiences never get watered-down performances at CCT—expect live music, immersive sets and excellent talent on the stage every time.
What is it? A Lincoln Park institution dedicated to connecting city-dwellers with nature and environmental sciences.
Why go? To take a deep breath of fresh air without leaving the city. The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is home to a handful of educational, family-friendly exhibits, like Conservation Quest, where littles learn about where energy comes from and how we use it. The main attraction is the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven, a 2,700-square-foot greenhouse filled with more than 1,000 winged creatures waiting to land on you.
What is it? A cosmic exploratorium that gives earthlings a peak into the vast universe.
Why go? Astronauts in training can gaze into the unknown through a series of permanent exhibits and hands-on activities that explore the solar system. Keep an eye out for special events, like STEAM-focused Pop-Up Programs that are included with general admission.
What is it? A deep dive into natural history—and one of Chicago's most beloved institutions.
Why go? Archaeologists in training can check out ancient mummies, get a closer look at towering dinosaur skeletons and marvel at rare jewels in the Grainger Hall of Gems.
What is it? A 50-acre landmark located on the shoreline of Lake Michigan that's packed with restaurants, retail and attractions for the entire family.
Why go? Take a spin around the year-round Centennial Ferris wheel, see a show at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater or run around the Chicago Children's Museum—all of which are housed on the massive Pier. Don't forget to treat the kids to a loaded Rainbow Cone before hitting the road.
What is it? A stunning, glass-topped botanical conservatory that's home to hundreds of plant species and interactive exhibits.
Why go? Get your green fix while wandering the Palm House, Fern Room, Dessert House and outdoor gardens. The littles will adore the Elizabeth Morse Genius Children’s Garden, which is outfitted with a playscape that's surrounded by blooming plants.
What is it? One of the largest science museums in the world.
Why go? Boasting an array of family-friendly programming on everything from tornados to robots, MSI is a must-see Chicago attraction. Little ones will love the Baby Chick Hatchery and the awe-inspiring Mirror Maze; teens will dig exhibits on energy, glaciers and space exploration.
What is it? The first and only African-American children's museum in the country.
Why go? Little ones ages 3 to 9 can peruse permanent exhibits that are packed with information about African-American inventors and doctors, STEAM basics and Bronzeville landmarks.
What is it? Twenty-seven breathtaking gardens spread across 385 acres within driving distance of downtown, in Glencoe, Illinois.
Why go? Aside from offering preschool and middle school classes, youngsters will get a kick out of the Butterflies & Blooms exhibition, a habitat that's filled with hundreds of live butterflies native to Asia, South America, North America and Africa.
What is it? A South Side ice-cream shop that's been scooping iconic cones, milkshakes and banana splits since 1926.
Why go? To try the signature five-flavor Rainbow Cone, with scoops of chocolate, strawberry, Palmer House (vanilla with cherries and walnuts), pistachio and orange sherbet. Psst: They've got a stand at Navy Pier, too!
What is it? An 103rd-floor observation deck located on top of the Willis Tower—complete with glass boxes that hang out over the side of the building.
Why go? If you're looking to see more of Chicago than you'd be able to take in on a walking tour, the Skydeck is your best bet. Views from the 103rd floor are expansive, allowing guests to see up to four states and 50 miles out. While you’re up there, learn about the city’s landmarks from a multilingual computer program and about its history from wall exhibits.
What is it? A sprawling, 30,000-square-foot space dedicated to the iconic plastic building toy.
Why visit? With the a Kingdom Quest interactive laser ride, 4-D movie theater, daily building workshops and the ever-popular Miniland featuring Chicago landmarks, you can easily spend half a day here.
What is it? One of the largest Latino cultural organizations in the entire country.
Why go? It's a great excuse to teach the kiddos about Mexican culture through photography, folk art, textiles, paintings and sculptures. Visit on select Saturdays throughout the year to hop in on themed courses for kids ages 7 to 12.
What is it? One of the oldest African-American–focused museums in the country.
Why go? To check out documents and artifacts from the lives of overlooked or unjustly marginalized movers and shakers, plus a collection of vibrant African-American art.
What is it? A 94th-floor observatory deck perched atop the John Hancock Building.
Why go? Don't let a rainy day put a damper on your sightseeing adventure in Chicago. Pack up the kids and head straight up to 360 CHICAGO for epic views of the Chicago skyline, Lake Michigan and major landmarks. Plus, kids will get a kick out of TILT, a glass-enclosed platform that quite literally tilts visitors out over Michigan Avenue.
What is it? A hub of contemporary artwork on the South Side of Chicago.
Why go? For stimulating youth classes and workshops, which expose kids to ceramics, painting, photography, drawing and so much more. Or to simply peruse the always-changing lineup of bold exhibitions from artists around the world, with an emphasis on women and people of color.
What is it? A 2.7-mile elevated path that runs through Logan Square, Wicker Park and Humboldt Park.
Why go? Also known as the Bloomingdale Trail, the 606 connects Chicago's hippest 'hoods. It's also dotted with beautiful parks and art installations, making it a one-stop shop when the sun is shining. Walk or run the path with a stroller, or let the kids take their bikes or scooters for a test drive on the elevated pathway.
What is it? Chicago's most epic (and perhaps most well-known) public park.
Why go? If for nothing else, to let the kids make funny faces in the reflective surface of Cloud Gate (a.k.a. "The Bean") and splash around in Crown Fountain, a public art installation that's anchored by video-screened sculptures. Or plan your visit around major festivals and happenings, like outdoor movie nights, theater productions and dance parties.
What is it? A hub for music, dance, theater and visual arts courses for kiddos (and adults) of all ages.
Why go? Enroll the littlest rockstars in Wiggleworms, an early-childhood music program centered around singing, dancing and fingerplays. For older kids and teens, there's group classes on drums, guitar, piano and voice as well as courses that explore the joy of dance and theater.
What is it? A totally free-to-visit cultural landmark that offers gratis programming, musical performances, art exhibits and more.
Why go? Housed in the building that served as the original Chicago Public Library, the Chicago Cultural Center is crawling with activities for the entire family. Stop by for Juicebox shows on the first and third Friday of every month, or pop a squat and gaze up at the beautiful Tiffany stained-glass domes.
What is it? Chicago's central library named after the city's first black mayor, Harold Washington.
Why go? Chicago's main library is home to a staggering 1.2 million books, but that's just the beginning. It also boasts free music practice rooms, a children's library that has its own floor, artwork and, of course, the beautiful Winter Garden on the top floor.
What is it? A local dance company that has brought the best of traditional and contemporary African dance to Chicago for over 40 years.
Why go? Muntu's mesmerizing performances will keep even the squirmiest kid interested, and if that's not enough, enroll the older kids in the Umoja Dance Intensive workshop, with classes spanning subject areas like West African, hip-hop, jazz, ballet and African drumming.