Chicago Travel With Kids: a guide to what to do on your Chicago vacation

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A travel guide to Chicago with kids: the best activities and where to stay and eat for vacation with babies, toddlers and kids, itinerary, itineraries, windy city, zoo, museum, boat tour, diner

My family just came back from Chicago and I thought it was such a great place to take kids.  I mentioned it to a few friends who all asked me to send them my suggestions, so I thought I would share them with all of you!  

My son was 22 months at the time of this trip, but lots of these tips are applicable to a broad range of ages.

Why Chicago?

My husband was going for a conference, so the only added cost would be our plane tickets.  I also knew that it was a walkable city with a lot of kids activities, so I figured I could easily handle a lot of alone time with my son.  

When to Go?

We went in the fall, and the weather was great.  I would avoid it in the winter but the rest of the year is fair game.

Where to Stay?

We stayed at the Downtown Marriott, which is located on Museum Mile.   The location was perfect!  There are lots of great restaurants and shopping within a stone's throw.  

twinning Outside our hotel 

twinning Outside our hotel 

Our hotel room was  recently renovated, modern and well-laid out.  We had huge windows and a great view of the city.  There was a big sitting area near the windows, where I put my son's sleeping tent (this is a must have for travel with toddlers)

There was also a bench near the window that I set up as a diaper changing station, and I had a large desk where I did work while my son napped.

Here is the bench that we set up as our diaper changing station.  we love parasol diapers (they eliminated our messy blowouts) click here or use code "best" for 20% off your first order.  You can also get disposable diaper changing pads here (great for airplanes and public restrooms too).  

Here is the bench that we set up as our diaper changing station.  we love parasol diapers (they eliminated our messy blowouts) click here or use code "best" for 20% off your first order.  You can also get disposable diaper changing pads here (great for airplanes and public restrooms too).  

Getting There / Getting Around

We flew United Airlines from Newark.  The flights were fully booked but we were invited into the cockpit, which is always fun.  

We took Ubers to and from our hotel.  Both times, the cars arrived within five minutes and were affordable.  We traveled with this car seat and the drivers were super patient while I installed and uninstalled it. 

We walked everywhere because it is a great way to get to know the city.  If you ask for walking directions, ask whether that is the nicest route.  Twice we were given directions (including from the hotel concierge) that entailed walking on a sketchy street when one street over would have been infinitely more pleasant.  

Activities

We had only 2.5 days and chose to visit the zoo, the Children's Museum and go on an architectural boat tour.  Here are details on each of those activities, as well as some honorable mentions of places I would have liked to go if I had more time.  

Lincoln Park Zoo

At the Lincoln Park Farmer's Market en route to the zoo

At the Lincoln Park Farmer's Market en route to the zoo

We  walked to the zoo from our hotel, which should take 35 minutes, but took us close to an hour because we stopped at a Farmer's Market and stopped to watch some sports in the park. The entire walk was scenic, no sketchy streets.  

This zoo is awesome, and it is free.  You don't even need to wait on line to get in.  The gates are wide open.  We chatted with some families while there who said that they visit every weekend.  

My son loved the zebras and flamingos, but his favorite part of the zoo was the corn pool, which was part of the fall festival.  Entrance to the area that had the corn pool, bales of hay and a corn maze cost $3/person, and was definitely worth it.  If you are going during another time of year, definitely check out the zoo's events calendar for other special events.

There are beautiful gardens at the main entrance.  This would be a really nice spot to have a picnic lunch.  There is also a playground right across the street from the main entrance.  

lincoln park zoo garden www.theverybestbabystuff.com

Children's Museum at Navy Pier

I took my son to this museum alone as my husband was spending the entire day at a conference.  This museum was definitely a highlight of our trip.  I've been to a bunch of children's museums, and so far this one is my favorite.

We arrived when it opened and the staff recommended that we start in the "Zoom Room: the ultimate toy car experience" as it gets the most crowded.  We spent a long time there.

Here are some more snapshots of how he spent his time:

Pretend fire truck  

Giant dominos

A giant chess set

A pom pom throwing aparatus and dinosaur dig

Kidtown and waterworks

We spent over two hours at the museum and didn't even hit every area that was appropriate for his age.

My  skipped a lot of activities that are designed for older kids.  So don't hesitate to visit if your kids are a few years older.

Museum Logistics

The museum has ample stroller parking (you could even leave a car seat) but it is unattended and at your own risk.  The area is, however, next to the member check in, so it seems secure.

In addition to extra clothing, bring extra socks for your tot.  My son had a blast in the waterworks room but his socks and shoes got soaked.  Luckily it wasn't very chilly out and I was able to stroll him back to the hotel barefoot.  

barefoot at chicago children's museum from The Very Best Baby Stuff

I walked both ways but heard that Uber and car services add a $5 surcharge to drop you here, so you might consider getting dropped at "Lake Point Condominiums" and walk about four minutes to avoid the fee.  

There are plenty of restaurants in the building, as well as gardens and some amusement park rides outside, so if you can, leave some time to walk around the area.  

Architectural Boat Tour

My husband and I enjoyed this.  My son was a bit young for it.  He didn't have any appreciation for the buildings but got very excited by all the other boats, as well as by cars and trains passing on bridges overhead.  At least his ticket was free!

 

Activities I Would Have Done with More Time

Here are some honorable mentions of activities I would have liked to do if I had more time.  

Shedd Aquarium

I've been told that this aquarium is absolutely amazing.  I also heard that it gets crowded, so you should try to arrive early.

Art Institute

Has a free kids room.

Museum of Science + Industry

This loos like an incredible museum but my impression is that kids 3+ would appreciate it more.  

Adler Planetarium

Ideal for older kids.  

Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

Parks

  • Maggie Daley Park (geared toaward older kids, but something for all ages)
  • Lakeshore East Park (located nearthe loop area)
  • Goudy Square Park
  • Millenium Park (don't miss the Cloud Gate Sculpture, also known as the "bean")

Indoor Play 

  • Little Beans Cafe is a cute indoor play space that also serves food
  • Happy Play Cafe (can feed parrots, pet bunnies and play in the indoor play area, but no food served)
  • Barnes and Noble has story times on weekends

What to Eat

My husband was at a conference about half the time, so between me not having an interest in drawn out meals alone with a toddler, my son taking monster naps, and us attending receptions in hotels for some meals, I didn't get to go to many restaurants.  I brought breakfast foods for my son, including these healthy spinach banana pancakes.  Look out for my upcoming post on travel with a toddler for more details on what foods I brought with us.  

Doc B's Fresh Kitchen 

We had dinner with friends at the River North location, which was right by our hotel.  This is the perfect adult restaurant that is kid-friendly and somewhat trendy.  The food and drinks were great, the restaurant was spacious and they have a secret kids menu (now you know to ask for it).  

Eataly

This was also right by our hotel.  We enjoyed a delicious carby dinner here (I didn't take any photos but shared it on my Instagram story) .  We have an Eataly within walking distance of my NYC apartment, but never go because it is a zoo.   The Chicago one is a bit less crowded and better laid out.  We did need to wait 20 minutes for a table but it was prime time on Saturday night.  

I passed by late one morning and saw that they serve breakfast too.   

Yolk

This is your basic family friendly diner, except that it is in a bright sunny modern location and the food is a step up from diner food.  They also immediately bring out crayons and paper for the littles.  

 

I recommend the cheesy egg sandwhich -- now I know how well scrambled eggs, pesto and cheddar cheese go together!  

We ended up going to Yolk twice because it was so easy and toddler friendly.  

Dollop Coffee

This coffee shop is down the street from Yolk.  It is also on the way to Navy Pier and the architectural boat tour, so we went here three times.  Their coffee is delicious and the shop has a great set up.  

Donuts

There are artisanal donut shops all over Chicago.  I was up early with my son one morning and needed somewhere to take him before the museum opened, so we went to Glazed and Infused, which opens at 7:00 am daily.  My son and I shared a red velvet and it was yummy but super sweet.  If donuts are your thing, you might want to do some research on what is the best shop in the area.

Restaurants/Eateries I Would Have Visited with More Time

  • Original Pizzeria Uno
  • Ghirardelli's
  • Nordstrom (good for lunch)
  • Bar Toma (kid friendly)
  • Purple Pig (excellent but not kid friendly)

Those are all of my Chicago-specific tips.  Check out my post on tips for traveling with a baby.  I wrote it when my son was six months old, and most of the tips still apply at 22 months.  But also look out for my upcoming post on travel with a toddler.  

Did I miss any awesome Chicago tips?  What are your favorite places to travel with kids?