Chicago Attractions: Downtown Plus Free Museum Days


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If you need to escape for a few days but don’t want to travel hundreds of miles, consider spending a weekend in The Windy City – Chicago! With Chicago being the third largest city in the United States, there are countless opportunities for fun activities, shopping and delicious food!   Plus, it is only an Amtrak ride away.

Below are some suggestions located in the downtown or Lake Shore Drive areas.


Visit this fun Chicago Kids website for a list of FREE admission dates for the major Chicago museums.

Purchase a “CityPass,” which will give you admission to the most popular of the downtown Chicago attractions. If you’re planning to go to all of the attractions, it can be very cost-effective.  The attractions below are noted if they are included as an option for the CityPass.

Museum of Science and IndustryLocated at 57th Street and Lake Shore Drive, this massive museum will take you through interactive exhibits, tours and demonstrations. From a submarine tour, to a fairy castle, to exhibits where visitors can learn more about their bodies – there is something at this museum for everyone! ***CityPass***

Shedd AquariumThis aquarium is located at 1200 South Lake Shore Drive. From rivers to oceans, this aquarium features animals from the very large variety (think whales and dolphins) to teeny tiny (jellyfish). ***CityPass***

Adler PlanetariumThis planetarium is located at 1300 South Lake Shore Drive. The planetarium features many interactive exhibits, observatories with telescopes and much more.    ***CityPass***

The Art Institute of Chicago – Families can explore, discover and enjoy art together at the Art Institute through art-making activities, exhibitions, self-guides, games and more.  Family classes available.  Thursday night admission is free 5:00 – 8:00 p.m.  Plus, amazing year-round exhibits to view.

Willis Towerformerly called Sears Tower, located at 233 South Wacker Drive. Voted one of seven “wonders” by the Chicago Tribune, the Skydeck at Willis Tower allows you to have a birds eye view of the Windy City. The tower is the largest building in the western hemisphere! There are interactive displays as well as children’s activities. ***CityPass***

chicago 4Millennium Park – located in the heart of downtown, Millennium Park is home to art (The Bean), music and many other events. It has 24.5 acres located within Grant Park. There are many sculptures, a fountain that kids can play in, beautiful landscaping and much more.

Museum of Contemporary Artlocated at 220 East Chicago, this museum is in the heart of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. Visitors to the museum can take in all of the traveling and permanent exhibits, from current artists to artists from years past.


Lincoln Park Zoo – located in the shadows of Chicago’s huge skyscrapers, this zoo is an oasis for animal lovers. Visitors can enjoy the children’s zoo, learning about farms, African exhibits, animal shows and much more.

chicago 5Navy Pier – located right on the shore of Lake Michigan, Navy Pier has something that will appeal to all ages. The pier features an amusement park, shopping, boat rides, restaurants as well as a great children’s museum.

John Hancock Observatorylocated in downtown Chicago, 140 stories above the Magnificent Mile (Michigan Avenue). Check out the open-air Skywalk which takes you to the edge – but don’t worry, you won’t fall! The tower also has telescopes and a wall with historical artifacts.

Peggy Notebaert Nature Museumlocated off Lake Shore Drive, across from Lincoln Park Zoo. This hands-on museum has lots of interactive exhibits including a butterfly observatory, wilderness walk, animal lab, bird walk and many others.

Field Museum of Natural Historylocated on Lake Shore Drive, near Adler Planetarium. This large museum has countless exhibits with artifacts from times past, rocks, fossils, plants. Currently, there is a temporary exhibit running through March 2010 featuring diamonds. ***CityPass***

The Magnificent Mileas the name implies, Magnificent Mile is the shopping destination in Chicago. Located on Michigan Avenue, visitors can find shops galore – over 460 shops and 50 hotels in the area, not to mention all of the dining options! Come for a visit in November and December to see all of the great decorations and festivities.  The Macy’s window displays are especially noteworthy (formerly Marshall Field’s).

The Museum of Contemporary Photography is the only museum in the Midwest with an exclusive commitment to the medium of photography. Reader recommended, plus it’s free!  Also located on 600 S. Michigan Avenue.



There are countless places to eat in the downtown area. Below is just a small sampling of those which are well-known and/or family-friendly.

Gino’s EastLocated in the pizza capitol of the world, people come to Gino’s East from all over to experience their famous deep dish pizza. There are many locations throughout Chicagoland. If you can’t check out the restaurant in person, you can also order their pizzas online and have them shipped to you.

American Girl PlaceLocated right on the Magnificent Mile, the American Girl Place is a haven for young girls to bring their A.G. dolls, buy new outfits, have their hair styled, and even enjoy a unique dining experience. The American Girl Place offers dining options from a bistro serving casual meals, a dessert counter, as well as a restaurant serving afternoon teas and brunches. And your child’s doll even has a spot at the table!

FronteraLocated a few blocks west of Michigan Avenue on Clark Street, this restaurant is owned by Rick Bayless (famous chef who has a cooking show on PBS). If you’re looking for something with a Mexican flair, this restaurant is sure to please.

Quartino – Located at 626 N. State Street. Thank you to Lisa Whelpley for the recommendation! Lisa says “It’s great for all ages because its always got a crowd and you never have to worry about your kids being loud or disruptive (but there is no room for strollers). Secondly, and more importantly, the food is wonderful. It’s Italian food but kind of like tapas. You order little plates and the food comes as it is ready, and you order as you go. We love it.”

Rainforest CafeThis is the ultimate in kid-friendly restaurants! Located at 605 N. Clark Street (with an additional location at Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg), this restaurant features an extensive menu, a rainforest theme complete with audio-animatronic animals as well as huge tropical fish displays. 

Hard Rock CafeLocated on Michigan Avenue, this restaurant is also home to many pieces of rock n’ roll and movie memorabilia.

Ed Debevic’sNo trip to downtown would be complete without a trip to Ed Debevic’s. Located at 640 North Wells, you get a great meal and some attitude from the wait staff. Their menu features classic diner fare, homemade desserts and ice cream treats.

Navy Pier RestaurantsThe Navy Pier features several sit-down restaurants, including the famous Bubba Gump’s and one location of the famous Billy Goat Tavern, the restaurant/bar that became famous when it served as inspiration for a Saturday Night Live skit featuring the late comic actor John Belushi. You are guaranteed to go away happy after ordering a ‘Cheezborger.’. There is also a food court which has close to 15 choices.

Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate ShopLocated at 830 N. Michigan on the Magnificent Mile. Buy some chocolate for later and enjoy an ice cream treat.

La MadiaLocated at 59 West Grand Ave. Thank you to Lisa Whelpley for the recommendation! Lisa says “The food is excellent, especially the salads and pizza. The staff is accommodating and will bring your child a ball of pizza dough to knead and play with while you wait for your food to be ready.”



Before you reserve your room, please be sure to check with the hotel for parking information. Most if not all hotels will charge a hefty nightly fee for parking onsite.

Fairfield Suites ChicagoLocated just one block from the Magnificent Mile, this hotel offers packages that include some of the popular Chicago attractions. (Thank you to reader Kate Rogers-Medley for the recommendation!)

Holiday Inn Express Magnificent MileLocated just off of the Magnificent Mile on Wabash Avenue, Holiday Inn Express locations are well-known for their family friendliness. (Thank you to reader Melissa Hostetter for the recommendation. She said “We recently had a great experience here. Tiny rooms but clean and across the street from a Trader Joe’s. We’re definitely going back.”)

Homewood Suites – Reader Favorite! Located at 40 East Grand Avenue, just one block west of the Magnificent Mile. This hotel features a welcome reception and free breakfast for guests.  www.homewoodsuites.comChicago Homewood Suites



Chicago Cubs Baseball

Chicago White Sox Baseball

Chicago Bears Football

Chicago Blackhawks Hockey

Chicago Bulls



Check out this Chicago Theater website for information on shows and Chicago area theaters.

ComedySportz Chicago – the longest running short-form improv show in Chicago. It’s not stand-up comedy about sports…it’s improv comedy played as a sport! Kid-Friendly fun.





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One Comment

  1. Lisa says:

    The Chicago Cultural Center is a treasure of free opportunities. You can walk through and see art, lectures, live music…one time we walked through and were welcomed into a Pirate Party!

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