By Bonnie Anderson, The Domestic Budget Goddess
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I didn’t think that a big city would ever fit this mold. I mean I can’t even keep track of my kids in my own house some days and paying to take 5 kids to anything adds up quick. That was until we moved just a few hours from Chicago. Over the past 3 years we have explored many of the things to do in Chicago with kids and even tried out a few things that maybe weren’t the best options. . . I’ve never heard “my legs are tired” so many times in my life!
Chicago is a family-friendly city but that doesn’t mean that everything is made for families. You may be tempted to make your Chicago sightseeing plans based on the typical traveler’s guide, but not all of these are kid-friendly; and while there are some choices that would be “good,” there are others that would be “better.” When you travel with kids your time and money are precious. By making your plans based on these tried and true suggestions you will rest assured that you are investing in the “better” things and not wasting your time and money on things that are just “good.”
Chicago is made for families. . . and reliable walking shoes and strollers.
Of course, when you’re on vacation, it is also important to know where you should really spend your money. There are tons of cheap things to do in Chicago with kids but I have also highlighted a few things that are worth splurging on to make sure that you get the full Chicago experience.
1 | DON’T Visit the Willis Tower Skydeck
Popular. Long lines. Lots of waiting. Impatient kids. Hungry kids. Expensive.
INSTEAD, Have Dessert at the Signature Lounge (Splurge)
I think this is one of the best-kept secrets of Chicago. The Signature Lounge is on the 96th floor of the Hancock building which has views that are comparable to those at the Willis Tower, AND you can sit down and enjoy the view while you have a drink, appetizer, or dessert (each adult must order a beverage). These can run anywhere from $10-$20 which may be more than your average donut, but the view makes it worth every penny and you can take a load off those feet for a while and enjoy a cold drink.
Children are allowed in the lounge and they even have non-alcoholic beverage options. The limeade we had last summer was out of this world! Also, don’t forget to take the little miss to the potty to check out the best view in Chicago hidden in the women’s restroom windows.
The pictures don’t do it justice. Sorry guys, you will never see the real thing, the men’s restroom does not have this view.
2 | DON’T Walk the Magnificent Mile
LOTS of walking. Tired little feet. Limited selection of kid’s stores. Expensive shops. Crowded streets.
INSTEAD, Play at Maggie Daley Park
Those little feet would much rather be running around the massive 20-acre park made especially for kids. Named after Maggie Daley, the former first lady of the city who died in 2011, this park (which used to be a parking lot) is a dreamland for any kid and is at the top of my list of things to do in Chicago with toddlers. There isn’t any better way to get those wiggles out.
3 | DON’T Drive in Chicago
Congestion. Aggressive drivers. Pedestrians. Taxis. One-way streets. No parking. Expensive parking. Anxious kids in the back seat.
INSTEAD, Ride the Train or Divvy Bikes
The ‘L’ is a very clean and well thought out public transit system. For my train-loving toddler, it is always the highlight of our trip. The ‘L’ takes you within walking distance of any key place you wish to go in the city and kids under 7 ride free. We often get a hotel room by the airports (cheaper rates) and ride the train into downtown. I don’t have to close my eyes while my husband drives like Jason Bourne and my kids enjoy the city from the train windows.
Riding the ‘L’ will save your sanity and save those little feet.
Riding Divvy bikes out to the Alder Planetarium will give you the best views of the city.
4 | DON’T See a Broadway Show
Small selection of family-friendly shows. $160 nosebleed seats. Stress of keeping kids quiet. Late shows. Tired kids. See the show on tour.
INSTEAD, Go to a Cubs Game (Splurge)
If you really want the full Chicago experience, your money would be much better spent going to the iconic Wrigley Field and seeing a Cubs game. At these games the noisier the kids are, the better! Since moving to Illinois my son has become an avid Cubs fan (especially after winning the world series in 2016) and has made it mandatory to attend at least one game a year.
Cubs baseball and Chicago dogs. Every kid’s dream.
5 | DON’T Visit Navy Pier
Nothing to do. Long walk. Expensive
INSTEAD, Visit a Museum
You will never be bored if you take advantage of the array of museums Chicago has to offer. This is by far one of the best things to do in Chicago with kids. They are world-renowned museums for a reason. You could literally spend an entire day at any one of these museums and not see everything. They are massive.
Our favorite museums include (in order):
- The Museum of Science and Industry
- Shedd Aquarium
- Field Museum of Natural History
- Alder Planetarium
6 | DON’T Pack a Sack Lunch
INSTEAD, Eat the Food that made Chicago Famous (Splurge)
I don’t know any kid that doesn’t love pizza, and Chicago is famous for its deep dish. Of course, every pizza joint will claim that they are the best and only authentic Chicago pizza, but our favorite is Lou Malnati’s. The “Malnati salad” is topped with the perfect sweet dressing. Their pizza is pretty excellent too, just make sure you order ahead of time as deep dish pizza can take up to 45 minutes to bake.
If you need something quick, grab a Chicago dog from one of the food trucks next to Millennium Park or share a big bag of Garrett’s popcorn, just be prepared with lots of wipes for those cheesy orange fingers. Eating the your way through the city may qualify as a splurge if you go all out, which I recommend that you do. If you stay for a week you could easily try a new pizza place every day. When it comes to seeing Chicago, eating the food they are known for is part of the experience.
A Chicago Dog is meant to be eaten on the street. Just don’t skimp on the fixings, including the jalapeno. And don’t you dare ask for ketchup!
7 | DON’T Do An Architecture Tour
Fascinating and informative, but not for kids. Just an expensive boat ride.
INSTEAD, Visit Lincoln Park Zoo
If you are looking for cheap things to do in Chicago with kids, Lincoln Park Zoo should be at the very top of your list. You don’t get any cheaper than FREE! You will forget you are sitting right along the shores of Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago as you check out some impressive wild animals.
8 | DON’T Go to the Art Institute
Quiet space. Expensive admission. Lots of running space. Kids getting lost. Adult atmosphere. Priceless works of art. Don’t touch!
INSTEAD, Stroll Through Millennium Park
Lets be honest, all kids want is a license to run around and be loud, and this park has LOTS of running space comprising of 24.5 acres and filling up the entire block between Michigan Avenue and Columbus Drive. You would never guess that this area used to be covered with unsightly railroad tracks and parking lots.
My kids couldn’t get enough of their reflection in “The Bean”.
Fountain. It’s hard for a toddler to resist splashing in the shallow reflecting pool at the bottom of two 50-foot glass block towers with projected LED screens.
Millennium Park is also a great place for cultural events so make sure and check out the special events calendar online before you go.
Domestic Budget Goddess, Core ContributorBonnie loves finding a great deal that can get her closer to the next exciting adventure with her husband and 5 kids. Her degree in Family and Consumer Sciences has helped her to claim the title of the “domestic budget goddess” by neighbors and friends throughout Central Illinois and Northern Utah.