Family travel tips for Chicago – how to eat a Chicago style hot dog, avoid long ticket lines for museums and attractions in summer, best water play areas, taking trains and buses, fun places to stay.
- Fun food –
Look for Chicago-style hot dogs at stands everywhere in the city, e.g. outside the Field Museum, Navy Pier, Gold Coast hot dogs at Union Station etc.
A Chicago hot dog comes with onion, relish, tomato, sport pickle (slightly hot), mustard, and big pickle spear on top. It’s fun to try the whole thing, but kids can also ask for only ingredients they want. Ketchup is usually not eaten with the Chicago-style hot dog – at one hot dog stand, a note said, “You must dance for ketchup.”
- Pre-paid museum & attraction passes –
On our last trip, we used Chicago CityPass for entry to Field Museum, Shedd Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Skydeck, Museum of Science and Industry, good for 9 days. Not only is it a cost saving, but the real advantage is no waiting for long ticket lines in hot summer sun.
Go Chicago also has a prepaid pass, where you can choose which attractions to include, e.g. rent bikes, Tall Ship Windy, museums etc.
- Get an early start –
Even with pre-paid tickets for the FastPass line, in summer, popular attractions such as Skydeck, and museums do get crowded. For Skydeck, we arrived when it opened, zipped up the elevator to the 103 floor for panoramic views all around without bumping into people.
Later in the afternoons, lines get quite long. After visiting the Shedd Aquarium when we left midday, even the FastPass line extended some distance.
- Museum going –
Although the Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium are located next to each other, don’t try to do both on the same day. Each has so much to see, kids will be frazzled continuing on to another biggie museum. Tip: Little kids can stretch their legs in the Children’s Garden across from the Field Museum.
The Art Institute of Chicago is huge – look at the museum map and decide what galleries to see. Relax in the North Garden (outside the museum on Michigan Ave.) with fun sculptures, benches, shade, grass, and a cafe.
- Water play areas –
In summer, a “must do” are water play areas such as Crown Fountain and Play Garden in Maggie Daley Park. Kids will get totally wet, which feels wonderful on a hot humid day. Bring water shoes, swim suits for Crown Fountain or extra clothes.
- Ride the trains and buses –
Chicago has a comprehensive train (subway) and bus system, and it’s what we use to explore the city. There’s even a direct bus that goes to the Museum of Science and Industry. Be sure to ride L elevated trains in the Loop, a unique experience. Here’s the transit map.
The Ventra day ticket is good for unlimited train and bus rides in 24 hours, and also for transportation from O’Hare Airport into the city. The Ventra card is also convenient for buses, which require exact fare. Purchase the Ventra card from vending machines in any train station, and reload as you go.
Children under 7 ride free, with a paying adult.
- Fun places to stay –
So many fun things to do with kids in Chicago, you’ll need a place to stay. Check out Travel for Kids hand-picked list of Chicago family hotels. Hotels are selected for their amenities for families, indoor swimming pools, breakfast is included in the room rate, mini-fridges in rooms, coin-operated laundry and more.
Where do we stay when we visit Chicago? Our favorite neighborhood is River North, an area couple of blocks east of Michigan Ave., north of the Chicago River. Just as convenient but less expensive than Magnificent Mile hotels, the neighborhood has restaurants, pizza places, cafes, large supermarket, fabulous gelato at Eataly, and is accessible by Red line trains.