Much of Chicago is surprisingly easy to visit with children, maybe even too easy. There is an array of kid-friendly museums, shops, shows, trolleys and tours, centrally located and positioned so close that they require little transportation or street smarts. And you will get few dirty looks when someone spills something or throws a tantrum. Chicago is used to that.
But so much convenience makes it tempting to stay on the well-trod, family-friendly path downtown and miss the rest of Chicago, a city of distinctive and intriguing neighborhoods.
Sure, most children could spend a week happily playing beside the big steel Cloud Gate (known to locals as the Bean) in Millennium Park, this city’s front yard. But then you wouldn’t find time to get lost in the equally immersive fern room at the Garfield Park Conservatory on the West Side or the butterfly haven inside the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum on the North Side.
You don’t have to choose. There is a way to get a look at both Big Chicago and the city of neighborhoods with even the smallest of children.
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Some visitors worry about safety, and Chicago’s homicide rate has drawn national attention (more people were killed in 2012 in Chicago, the nation’s third largest city, than in New York or Los Angeles). But much of the violence has taken place in a small number of neighborhoods on the South and West sides and has been tied to gang disputes; it is not evenly spread across the city.
Given some guidance and common sense, you'll find that venturing to destinations beyond downtown can be safe and worth the train, bus or cab fare to get there. Here are some ideas culled from Chicago families about how to explore this city with children.
Downtown Chicago is stocked with museums that children will enjoy, and a trip to the nearby compact “campus” beside Lake Michigan makes sense for many families since it has offerings for all tastes: the Adler Planetarium (where young children can simulate their own space missions), the Shedd Aquarium (where an aquatic show includes jumping dolphins) and the Field Museum (which focuses on natural history).
Yet the lines can be long, especially at the aquarium, and the prices steep.
A different option, away from the museum campus but still centrally located downtown along Michigan Avenue, is the Art Institute of Chicago, a world-class museum. Children under 14 get in free, and a $7 audio guide, known as the Lions Trail Family Tour (available in English and Spanish) will help children 10 and younger truly appreciate the works before them. On the first level of the museum’s Modern Wing, too, there is an education center and family room aimed just at the youngest visitors, with puzzles, online stories, books and blocks. Admission is free.
This city’s museums beyond the Loop are worth a try, too. Head south and west by cab or L train to the Pilsen neighborhood, a predominantly Latino area that is home to another world-class museum: the National Museum of Mexican Art.
There are treasures to be found farther south from downtown by bus or by Metra train line in Hyde Park, the neighborhood where President Barack Obama maintains a home.
The stellar Museum of Science and Industry is there, with its trademark U-505 submarine, baby chick hatchery and a model train with enough track (1,400 feet) to captivate the youngest would-be conductors.
A short cab ride (or in gentle weather, a longish but pretty walk) away, you will find the DuSable Museum of African American History and the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, devoted to the history of the ancient Middle East, a draw especially for older children.
If you would rather head north from downtown, you can easily take a bus to Lincoln Park and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, where bugs and mud rule and the butterfly haven is also a peace-seeking parent haven.
A short walk away, the Lincoln Park Zoo is free and open every day of the year, and small children will be smitten for hours with a 20-foot-high climbing structure and carousel (there is a small fee for that). If you are in Chicago between now and Jan. 5, on some nights you will catch the zoo festooned with about two million decorative lights at ZooLights.
Even before they know Chicago, children tend to like its staple foods. Hot dog joints are everywhere, and despite what some Chicagoans claim, you may hold your head up high and ask for ketchup if your child prefers that to the Chicago style, piled with relish, pickle spears, onions, mustard and more.
Italian beef is another blissfully sloppy favorite, though you may want to hold the hot peppers for the youngest. Al’s Beef is a standby; so is Mr. Beef.
There is an ever-growing fleet of restaurants (and stores and nail salons and tea shops) aimed at children. In River North, a short walk from downtown, Ed Debevic’s, with its sass-as-shtick serving staff and paper hats to take home, entertains kids in addition to stuffing them with burgers and fries.
Afterward, stop down the street at Mitchell’s, once a South Shore standby, where the chocolate chip ice cream is overwhelming, especially when covered in homemade hot fudge.
Beyond downtown, try John’s Place in Lincoln Park, which offers slightly fancier cuisine, like an adobo pork tenderloin and a grilled shrimp and quinoa salad, but also a charming magician and balloon animal artist who strolls table to table early on Sunday evenings.
For dessert, go a few steps west to Sweet Mandy B’s, a bakery full of pastel frostings and endless treats with names like Dirt Cups and Double Doozies.
For more adventuresome palates, head west of the Loop to Ukrainian Village to try fare from that part of the world. Old Lviv, a small, out-of-the-way spot, welcomes children and will fill them with borscht and pirogi.
South of downtown, not far by L (or water taxi), the long line of restaurants in Chinatown has something for everyone. Some of these places (on and around Cermak Road) are more elegant than others, but most welcome children. And it is hard to imagine a child who could turn down the dumplings at Lao Beijing. Stroll through the shops and groceries afterward to burn off energy.
Thanks to a ton of foresight from Chicago’s early planners, this city is packed with park space — much of it right beside Lake Michigan. From Grant Park, which rolls along the heart of downtown past Buckingham Fountain and to the Museum Campus, and all along a ribbon of paths that lead both south and north along the lake for miles, there is space to play.
Not far from the Bean in Millennium Park is a grand spray pool that, on warm summer days, draws Chicago children and tourists alike to stand gleefully watching water “spit” at them from the mouths of enormous human images. Bring a towel and a change of clothes if it is wading pool weather. On cold days, a skating rink emerges not far from here. The line can be long, though, and the crowds often make the rink seem small.
Walk or, during the summer, take a trolley to Navy Pier, where a Ferris wheel emerges beside the lake. Much of Navy Pier is dizzyingly crammed with out-of-town visitors, overwhelming smells of fast food and cinnamon-sugar-roasted nuts, and corridors jammed with other strollers, but the Children’s Museum is worth a stop — and then a fast escape. Rent a family-sized bicycle (the kids can ride and never touch the pedals if they so choose) on the Pier, then pedal along the lake for the view.
Beyond downtown, try the Garfield Park Conservatory, an exquisite building opened in 1908 on the Far West Side. A Green Line L train or cab will carry you through tougher-looking neighborhoods to within a few steps of the conservatory, and especially on dreary winter days, it will be well worth it.
A waft of warm, humid air and the smell of plants will greet you. Children can roam the rooms learning about plants, and searching for items on scavenger hunts. Special projects for youngsters, including plantings, take place many weekends in a children’s garden area. Admission is free, though a donation is requested during special events.
Another park worth seeing: Oz Park, north of downtown near Lincoln and Webster Avenues, has playground equipment unmatched by many cities. Your children can search for statues of Dorothy and the others in this expansive neighborhood park.