Chicago With The Kids
City trips with kids are exhausting : Who did I think I was kidding booking 4 nights in Chicago at the end of our visit to see friends in the States!? All they were really interested in was scouring Target for American candy and bagging a deal in the Levi’s outlet mall – how were we ever going to convince them that they needed to forget consumerism for just one minute and enjoy the architecture and urban-cool? Food, that’s how. A few months ago, when I started researching this trip, I quickly discovered how much of a foodie city Chicago is : Chicago food even has its own hashtag on Instagram and it was becoming quite clear we were going to have no need for our belts by the end of 4 days! But as my google maps was filling up with yellow stars on the best places to get Chicago dog’s and deepdish pizza I also put together a nice little itinerary to keep the brood entertained for a few days too. I will endeavor to share with you our highlights, all the places worth seeing and of course, what I’m known for, some hidden gems too! All tied together with the places you need to stop for all the best eats in Chicago.
The Best Hotel For Families In Chicago
First off, you need a good location and somewhere that’s not going to cost an arm and a leg. After a lot of research we found an awesome hotel in a brilliant location and I’m not going to lie – I did a little happy dance, possibly even a cartwheel, when we opened the door to our room! Best Western, River North is centrally located down town, only a 5 to 10 minute walk from all the main sights and is really close to some great places to eat with kids too. The room is so large (and stylish), roomy enough for 2 double beds and a sofa bed, comfortably sleeping our growing 3 kids. There is on-site parking if you need it for a little extra charge and the staff couldn’t have been more helpful. The hotel itself has a heated indoor swimming pool on the top floor and it was nice to see they weren’t even remotely anal about children swimming without adults, plus you don’t need those ridiculous bathing caps that other hotels insist on. Next to the pool is an outdoor decked area with amazing views over the city and you’re more than welcome to take your cocktail up there to lounge on a bed and soak up the cityscape, whilst the kids are dive bombing in the pool. Travelling with kids often has you in the room more than you would if you were travelling without, so to have this option of a rooftop area to relax at was definitely the best selling point for us.
Day 1 In Chicago
Chicago is the kind of place which simultaneously makes you want to run though the streets to find the gems and know it better but also find a vantage point to take it all in and that’s probably why the world and its dog head to the Willis Tower for the SkyDeck, one of the main tourist attractions on Trip Advisor for Chicago. And, I’m sure the views are breathtaking but when you’re travelling en-masse with kids in tow you have to weigh up your priorities and decide if you think $22 per person is within your budget or if you’d rather blow $100 as a family on something else. We opted for something else and found a hidden gem for an equally amazing view. So, after a traditional Chicago breakfast of coffee and vanilla glazed doughnut topped with streaky bacon at Do Rite Donuts on West Randolph Street start your day at the Richard J Daley Centre over the street. This is the official Civic Centre (or court house) of Chicago and once upon a time was the tallest building in Chicago. The lobby is quiet and you start to think you shouldn’t be here, but after a quick word with a security guard as to whether we could see the view he was absolutely delighted we were there in his building, and not at the Willis Tower. You have to go through a metal detector so be sure to leave your AK47 at home that day, and you will need to take out your camera battery to proceed any further. Don’t worry though – phones are allowed. Take the lift to the 30th floor, which includes an obligatory stomach lurch at the speed the lift gets so high – another highlight for the kids! Once you’re at the top you’re actually mingling with a handful of lawyers and defendants who seem bemused to be sharing their workday with a young family of 5 but Chicagoans are so friendly and are more than happy to show off their city. The view is only 180 degrees really but boy are you high and it’s so beautiful – it’s also quite nice to think you just saved yourself a hundred bucks.
The Richard Daley building is backed by a lovely courtyard too which just so happens to be home to a huge Picasso sculpture that no one else seems to be noticing. There are nearby in-ground fountains to appease the kids as you admire the real masterpiece here. The untitled 50 foot landmark was gifted by Pablo to the city in 1967 and has shown up in a few movies over the years like The Fugitive, Batman – The Dark Knight and The Blues Brothers.
Tip – My kids know that if they want feeding they have to humour me a bit with my passion of photography – so if you’re the same as me and love a good Instagram win, Macy’s (N. State street) and the Chicago Theatre (Lake Street) are a stones throw from where you now stand. They’re not quite in the direction of The Bean for which I will next introduce you to but they are worth a slight detour for the iconic theatre sign and the internals of a beautiful department store.
Cloud Gate – AKA The Bean
What everyone comes to Chicago to see – the huge silver kidney bean. It really is something else, and having our very own Anish Kapoor sculpture in my hometown of Nottingham, I feel an even stronger connection to this blazing beauty. Unless you can be bothered to rise at 5am, which lets face it – has a stronger probability if you are travelling with kids, then you will have to share Cloud Gate with 50 million gazillion other people. But it is epic! And, the little reflections of people in the highly polished steel curves kind of only add to the beautiful effect anyway. 168 steel plates are seamlessly welded together to form an object which resembles something of extraterrestrial origins – it’s like a UFO birthed a silver womb and one day E.T. will emerge with vague humanlike qualities after watching Chicago humans from the other side of the mirror for decades.
Cloud Gate is situated in Millenium Park which is just a portion of the green space known as the front lawn of Chicago. Combined with Grant Park this is one of the best places for families to unwind and get away from the hustle and bustle – the endless sky scrapers can get a bit claustrophobic after a while. Within the 319 acres are fountains, play parks, climbing walls, a skate and scooters ribbon, mini golf, shaded picnic areas and the interactive video sculpture at Crown Fountain. This is where I would spend my $100 – half an hour on the climbing wall, then a game of crazy golf – much better value for money when it’s the kids you’re trying to impress!
Tip – Download the Millenium Park app for up to date information on events and entertainment going on in the park.
Where to eat with kids near Millenium Park; Giordano’s is a Chicago based chain restaurant serving traditional deepdish pizza since 1974 and does a great kids menu for under $5, including a drink. You have to have deepdish pizza in the city of deepdish pizza at least once!
It’s in all the guidebooks, trip advisor and the lips of former Chicago visitors but I just didn’t get it! I guess you have to go to Navy Pier though, if only to see it. Honestly, it just seemed like a pier with a big wheel, carousel and a few overpriced restaurants – it probably saw more entertainment the summer of 1918 when it was used as a jail for ‘draft-dodgers’. Ok, Ok, it has fireworks. And, actually, it looks fantastic all lit up at night, plus there’s a bit of a buzz on an evening – but the fireworks are only displayed in Summer on a Wednesday and Saturday so, you know, if it’s your weekly chess night or bowls club, well then – you’re screwed! Live music too by some pretty decent bands, but again – only in the Summer.
Tip – If you’re visiting Chicago in the winter months (and by winter, they mean October to May), Navy Pier does have a few indoor attractions to get you out of the cold Chicago wind : The funhouse maze at Amazing Chicago gets a good report as does the Chicago Children’s Museum.
Day 2 In Chicago
You’re in Chicago – you have to ride the ‘L’ at some point! L, standing for Elevated, is the quick train system that gets Chicagoans from A to B. It’s a massive part of Chicago’s history and heritage. Chicago has always dreamt big and even after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, which obliterated 3 square miles of mainly wooden buildings, the city immediately got to rebuilding but skyscrapers rose so quickly that before they knew it, the streets below them were congested and stank of horse poo! (I made that last bit up) Real estate soared in price so the only reasonable answer was to build the tracks above the existing roads. Plus, they’d need it for when the day came to film ‘While You Were Sleeping’. (Incidentally, if you like scouring out film locations as much as me, it’s the Randolph/Wabash station you need.) Imagine a Catherine Wheel photographed slowly – from a birds-eye view the ‘L’ consists of a loop downtown which then shoots off branches in all the directions.
My advice would be to catch the Purple or Brown line at Merchandise Mart and head in the direction of the loop, complete a full circle to take in as much of downtown as possible just for the view, then retrace your steps up the line till you can get off at Sedgwick then walk a couple of minutes to the south west corner of the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Lincoln Park Zoo
Literally the wildest place you’ll visit in Chicago. Open 365 days a year and completely free, the zoo is an absolute must for families with any aged kids! Our visit was definitely one of the highlights of our stay and the beauty of it being free is that you don’t feel like you have to string it out to get your money’s worth – if you only have a penchant for polar bears and penguins then you only need to visit the polar bears and penguins. I challenge you not to linger though, and especially when you hear about the wonderful work the zoo are doing in partnership with the conservation and science programs that are ongoing. Scientists are using the zoo to study the animals and are working hard to combat threats to wildlife populations and develop strategies in animal management, so there’s no need to feel bad about the $20 you spent in the gift shop – it’s money funding a good cause. You even get to see some of the scientists at work. For us the best bit was watching the apes so close up, only a pane of glass between you and these beautiful primates – I think we spent half an hour in the monkey house, fully mesmerized.
It’s not just a zoo either, close to the south end of the park is a spot many choose to have their wedding photo’s taken at because, well take a look below at our photo’s and you’ll see what an epic city-scape you can fit in the frame.
And, once you’ve had your fill of wildlife you just so happen to be in a really upscale neighbourhood with some excellent choices for lunch or even just a quick snack. Lincoln Park area backs on to a neighbourhood called Sheffield which is also a great place to find unique gift shops and beautiful coffee shops. Take a walk up North Clark Street for a Firecakes donut, or an empanada at Lito’s. Or if you’re feeling brave, you may want to risk a few notoriously thrown insults when you order your Chicago dog at Wiener Circle. Failing that, the milkshakes at Five Guys are good for a takeaway too. This is definitely the area to find a few unique eateries with some infamous Chicago delicacies. You’re not a million miles away from Oz Park either, if you fancied collecting some food to go and want to enjoy it beneath some Wizard of Oz sculptures, just to bring a bit of randomness to your day.
Hop back on the ‘L’ over at Fullerton and take the brown or purple line again, back into the metropolis for your last evening in the windy city. Refuel with a sandwich from Al’s Beef; their wall of fame is a testament to how good they are – overstuffed Italian beef sandwiches are made from slow-cooked joints of beef then dipped in gravy and stacked into a sourdough bun. Honestly, the best food we tried in Chicago! (Ontario Street or Wabash Avenue)
Chicago Riverwalk At Night
You’ve seen the loop in the day, you’ve ridden it from your elevated throne, now all there is left is to see downtown at night and there is no better place to see it than from the Riverwalk. Six blocks of uninterrupted landscaped paths run alongside the Chicago River and it’s a fantastic position to view this magnificent twinkling skyline. FreeToursByFoot.com offer contribution based tours explaining all about the architecture that surrounds you and they even hold tours at night. Alternatively, just take a stroll and enjoy the view. If you would like to impress the kids with some cool facts about the skyscrapers you will see on your evening promenade along the River Walk then click through to my other post – Chicago Architecture Unwrapped For First Timers.
Other Tourist Attractions For Families In Chicago…
I think the joy of visiting a town or city somewhere else in the world is to see it through the eye’s of a local, to find the best little eateries, to see where people work and live, and to feel the history and culture as you explore. However, these aren’t always necessarily the kind of activities the kids want to do all the time, and let’s face it – it is their holiday too. Plus, being the Windy City and suffering from a tediously long winter some years, here are a few other suggestions for places to see in Chicago if the kids need a bit of entertainment, or even if rain has stopped play…
- See a baseball game at the world famous Wrigley Field
- Visit the Field Museum to meet Sue the T-rex and find out how mummies are made
- Watch the Dolphins and Penguins at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium
- Find out what it’s like to travel to outer space at the Adler Planetarium
- If you have a car and a bit of spare time before your flight, check out the precious stones and gems at the little free museum called the Lizzadro – well worth 30 minutes of your time
So, there you have it – my two day itinerary for families in the wonderful city of Chicago – no one will leave disappointed! Have you been? Can you recommend any more places that are good for families in the Chicago area or any more excellent food ideas? Do drop me a line below, I’d love to hear…
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