Sometimes as adults we take the little things for granted. We see things from jaded eyes without a lot of wonder and amazement. Often times, it’s just the little things we see in our everyday lives, but sometimes it’s the bigger, rarer things too. For me, living in a big city for so many years, I do take those little things for granted. But, seeing them through a child’s eyes, it’s like seeing them for the first time. Opening our adult eyes to see things as kids do, with adventure, excitement and awe, is a lesson we all can learn from.
After playing tourist in my own city of Chicago, for many years, and showing visitors around, I know a lot of great hot spots. But it’s rare I have to entertain a 6 year old, and the list of what to do and see changes quite a bit. In the best way possible though! My niece Ella recently visited, so I researched a lot on the best things to do with kids of her age. (She first visited when she was 3, so the list of what we could do now changed a bit!) We had a game plan, but of course, with kids in tow, you have to play by ear too. Seeing her joy at all the sites and sounds of the big city brought me just as much joy. It made me appreciate all the great things the beautiful city of Chicago has to offer, those that maybe I take for granted now and don’t “see” everyday. There is something for kids of all ages, even us “grown-up kids,” as Ella refers to me.
To have a fun filled visit to Chicago with your little one(s) here are the things Ella and I recommend you do…
- Water Tower Place: This mall, right in the heart of the Mag Mile has a lot to offer kids! There is the American Girl store, the Lego store, a Dr. Seuss art exhibit, a glass elevator that zooms from floor 1 to 7 in seconds, a delicious food court and the best donuts in Chicago, Do Rite Donuts. I got Ella an American Girl doll (well, the Target version – kudos to them for the great knock-offs) and we took her to lunch at the American Girl Café. Situated at the end of a row of doll amenities (a hair salon, ear piercing, bakery), is a lavishly styled café, where they have highchairs for the dolls and even bring them a little tea set. It’s reasonably priced food, and pretty tasty too.
- Disney Store: I can remember the magic I felt walking into a Disney Store as a kid, and I have to say I still feel it today. The cast members (aka employees) are smiling and kind, Disney music booms over the speakers, a movie always plays in the back of the store and there is Disney memorabilia everywhere you look. My princess loving niece had a blast roaming the store and picking out her very own Ariel doll.
- Navy Pier: It’s a tourist trap for certain, and a place most locals avoid, but something about Navy Pier has always drawn me in. I love the hustle and bustle, all the fun activities and the things that bring you back to childhood, like pirate ships, a Ferris wheel, a mirror maze and so much more. Not only does Navy Pier offer tons of quick service food options, as well as fine dining, they have snacks galore. On top of the treats there is a movie theater, the Chicago Children’s Museum (it’s an awesome hands on museum for small children), many different boat cruises, live music, and lots of shops. And best of all, stunning lake and city views!
- Rooftop Views: Big buildings are a big draw of a big city. Many kids visiting Chicago will not have seen skyscrapers soaring into the clouds before. In their minds, there is probably nothing more thrilling than being up at the top of those big buildings. And you can make that happen! Whether you have a kiddie cocktail 94 floors up at the Signature Room at 875 N. Michigan Ave. (ne John Hancock building) or get a thrill riding TILT at the 360 Observation Deck, it’s a classic Chicago stop. Across town, atop the Willis Tower (ne Sears Tower) you can literally take a step out over the city, in a glass box suspended over 1,000 ft. in the air. If you want a mid-town view, river and all, you can head to London House, where I took Ella for her first view of Chicago from the sky, 23 floors above the street. She was pretty amazed how high up we were, and loved taking pictures of the view. Little tip – if you don’t plan to eat or drink, don’t wait in line, just tell them you are there to look at the view!
- Millennium Park: Situated in the loop and near the lake, this beautiful green space in the middle of the concrete jungle offers countless activities for children. From the famous Bean sculpture, to the new Maggie Daly park (which has tons of great jungle gyms for kids of all ages), and everything in between you could spend an entire day here. You might splash your feet in Crown Fountain, eat lunch at Park Grill, smell the flowers in the Lurie Garden, catch a concert or movie under the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, and maybe, depending on the season, play putt putt golf or go ice skating. Millennium Park is a must see destination for any visitor to Chicago, especially the little ones.
- Museums: Chicago is home to many world class museums, all of which are must sees in my opinion! The ones that kids are bound to love are the Chicago History Museum, the Museum of Science & Industry (very hands on) and Shedd Aquarium.
- Lincoln Park Zoo: This is a gem in the middle of one of Chicago’s hottest neighborhoods. LP Zoo is free, has beautiful grounds, incredible views of the city and gives an old-world Chicago feel. Plus you get to see flamingos, penguins and maybe a lion or two. Depending on the day you visit you might even be able to swing by the Green City (farmer’s) Market. And, right across the street is one of my favorite Chicago restaurants, which is definitely kid friendly, RJ Grunts. It’s a classic burger joint that shouldn’t be missed. Tip: There will probably be a wait, so put your name in and let the kids play in the park across the street.
- Play at the Beach: Kids love to swim, and the lake temperatures don’t seem to scare them away. It’s a great activity to get them outdoors, enjoy skyline views and tire them out – they’re going to need a good nights sleep, after all, there is a lot to do on this list! Chicago has many beaches, but I recommend Oak Street beach with kids. It’s right downtown, cleaner than most and has a family friendly atmosphere. There are lifeguards on duty in the summer, bathrooms nearby and even a restaurant.
- Eat: You have to eat while in the city and your options in Chicago are certainly endless. From our famous deep dish pizza (Giordano’s) to Chicago Style Hot Dogs (Portillo’s), there is something for every taste bud. There are even some specialty places the kids will love. Sugar Factory is a unique spot with a huge menu full of yummy dishes, including sweet treats, cool adult beverages (smoking cocktails) and even rainbow colored hamburgers for the littles. JoJo’s Shake Bar offers milkshakes most kids could only ever dream of. Think shakes topped with cookies, brownies, cotton candy and even ice cream sandwiches. If you visit in the warmer months, sit outside under the disco balls and have a feast. Ella called this spot a “party place” and danced her way through dessert (break the rules, have the shake first!) and dinner.
- Public Transportation: City dwellers hop on and off the CTA busses and trains all day, every day and think little of the mundane task. But for a kid visiting the big city, riding public transportation is a true thrill. You have to get around anyway, so make this your mode of transportation. It’s most economical to do a multi-day unlimited ride pass, and kids under 8 ride for free.
- Ride the Escalators: Who knew escalators could be a great form of entertainment? A six year old does, that is for sure! We rode the escalators in The Shops at North Bridge mall for a good 35 minutes. It’s one of those simple things adults take for granted that is big thrill for a little kid. It’s free and fun, you can’t beat it. Just make sure you tell your kiddo to hold on tight and stand behind them on the way and in front of them on the way down. (Although we have an amazing children’s hospital, emergency room visits are not on this list of fun things to do when visiting Chicago.)
- Go for a Walk: It’s the simplest and cheapest option on the list, but possibly the most fun. Kids love to explore and a big city is the best place to do just that. Play a game like Eye Spy as you stroll, or maybe do your own historical walking tour. Take in the surrounding sites like kids do – look up, down and around and soak it all in!
I hope this list helps you make the most of your time in the city, whether you are visiting or live here! These are truly the best things to do with kids in Chicago. No matter what activities you pick from the list, your kids will have a blast and you both will have memories to last a lifetime!
Signed with Style,
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