Hiking and relaxation, plus deep dish pizza and skyscrapers

When planning a family vacation to Illinois, the easy answer is to spend your time in Chicago. It’s full of amazing architecture and kid-friendly eats, plus the walkability cannot be beat. The only way to make your Illinois visit that much better is by renting a car and adding on a visit to Starved Rock State Park. You’ll be amazed what a few days in nature can do to restore your family’s zen.

We have the perfect itinerary that will keep even your picky teens happy as it includes a stop at an epic aerial adventure course (with ziplining!) along the way. So block off your long weekend—we have it all planned right here!

Best Things to Do in Chicago with Kids

view of Maggie Daley Park in Chicago
Adam Alexander/Illinois Office of Tourism

1. Head to Millennium Park. There’s so much to do in Chicago’s Millennium Park that you’ll definitely want to devote at least an afternoon to exploring. Kids will love finding their reflection in Cloud Gate aka “The Bean” and splashing in the water of the Crown Fountain as the interactive art entertains them. [Note: The area around The Bean will be under construction through spring 2024.] Walk a bit farther into the park and you’ll see Zumba classes and musical performances in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Maggie Daley Park is a kid highlight with tons of play structures and gardens to explore. We loved that there was plenty of seating and shade for tired parents to rest. There’s a spot for mini golf nearby as well as a climbing wall and skating loop. In winter, Millennium Park hosts an ice skating rink.

2. Snag a Chicago CityPASS® to check out many of the city’s main attractions. Traveling can get expensive but a great way to see many of Chicago’s top attractions is with a CityPASS. The Chicago CityPASS will get you access to both the Shedd Aquarium and Skydeck Chicago, along with your choice of three additional attractions (available options: Field Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Science and Industry, 360 CHICAGO Observation Deck, Adler Planetarium, and Shoreline Sightseeing Architectural River Cruise). Some of the locations require advance reservations and you can use your CityPASS over the course of 9 days.

3. See all the architectural marvels from the Chicago River on an Architecture River Tour. Leaving from Navy Pier, this 75-minute tour is a must-do when you visit Chicago. We suggest you time your tour departure to leave close to sundown so that you’ll avoid the hot mid-day sun and you’ll get to see the city in all its glory as the lights turn on for the night. This tour is great for all ages as it gives some history of the city’s skyscrapers as you cruise by along the river.

4. While you’re at Navy Pier, ride the Centennial WheelSee the city from nearly 200 feet above as you ride these enclosed gondolas that are an iconic part of the city’s skyline. Below the wheel are a number of other rides that the kids will certainly want to try out. If you need to bribe the kids to get them to leave, there’s a stand nearby selling the Original Rainbow Cone.


WNDR Museum Chicago #wndrmuseum #chicago #choosechicago #travel #traveltiktok #travelwithkids

♬ Funk Mozart – MC Nau

5. Visit the WNDR Museum for some interactive and immersive art. Located in the West Loop, the WNDR Museum is a spot that the whole family will love as you can walk through art, dance with your image on hundreds of screens, and even contribute your words to art exhibits.

6. Sports fans will want to swing by the Chicago Sports Museum. Showcasing loads of memorabilia, video and radio clips, and photographs from Chicago sports history, this small museum located next to Harry Caray’s in Water Tower Place is a fun spot to visit. Compare your wingspan to Scottie Pippen and then try on a replica of the Super Bowl ring worn by William “Refrigerator” Perry. Delve into famous Chicago sports curses and then try your luck at Defending the Goal against Patrick Kane in VR.

Tilt at 360CHICAGO
Illinois Office of Tourism

7. For a view of the city like no other, ride the elevator up to the 360 CHICAGO Observatory and Tilt. The former John Hancock Tower is home to this 360-degree observatory where you can see out to Lake Michigan, north to Lakeview, and beyond. Grab a drink at the bar to relax for a bit or opt for the adrenaline-fueled Tilt experience where you can lean out 30 degrees over the city below for some heart-pumping fun!

8. Topping our list of favorite things to do in Chicago is seeing a Blue Man Group performance. You’ll truly feel like you are part of the show the minute you take your seat as the performers combine music, humor, and art. Items that you never knew could be instruments are used to make music while you laugh at the performers’ crazy antics up on stage. If you really want to get in on all the action, choose seats in the aptly named “Poncho section” and prepare to get wet! No two shows are the same so you should definitely add this show to your list even if you’ve seen it in the past.

Where Should You Stay When Visiting Chicago?


Loved our stay at the Loews Hotel Chicago #loewschicago #loewshotel #loewshotels #chicago #choosechicago #enjoyillinois #chicagotravel #travel #traveltiktok

♬ Little Things – Tiqta

We loved our stay at the Loews Chicago Hotel and know you will too. They eagerly welcome families with loads of conveniences available to make your stay perfect. Located just a short walk from the Chicago River, Mag Mile, and Navy Pier, this property is perfectly located for your Chicago stay. The Loews Loves Families program really takes into consideration everything you might need when traveling with little ones and offers baby bath kits, coloring books, iPads on loan, and even PS3s for when you really need some quiet time. We even saw board books behind the front desk.

The property has a large indoor pool where kids can play and adults can swim laps (ask at the front desk for pool toys!). They also have a coffee shop in the lobby along with a restaurant, and the rooftop Streeterville Social where you can order food for sharing alongside inventive cocktails with a view of the Chicago River and skyline.

Where to Eat in Chicago with Kids

You can’t visit Chicago without a taste of the iconic deep-dish pizza and we suggest you head to Giordano’s for the true experience. There are many locations in the Chicago area with one restaurant located just a block from Millennium Park. Here you can get the perfect cheese pull pic for Instagram as you enjoy this pizza that’s unlike the typical cheese-on-top creations. Insider tip: If you have room left after your meal, head to nearby Garrett Popcorn and try the “Garrett Mix,” a delicious combination of cheese and caramel corn. They also have a location at ORD if you need to take some home with you (you will).

Harry Caray’s is another Chicago dining establishment that you won’t want to miss when you visit. Dedicated to Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Caray, these restaurants are full of Chicago sports memorabilia and offer a menu full of kid-friendly options like burgers and pulled pork sandwiches, along with salads and a foot-long Chicago-style hot dog. We love the location on Navy Pier as it gives you an air-conditioned space to relax away from the crowds.

If breakfast is on the menu, swing by Lou Mitchell’s for some no-frills diner fare. Feeding hungry diners since 1923, Lou Mitchell’s starts your breakfast off with a donut hole and a sliced orange as you make your choice from the massive menu that includes every breakfast item you crave from pancakes to corned beef hash to huge, fluffy omelettes. Sit at the counter if you want the real diner experience and make note that the portions are HUGE so be sure to arrive hungry!

Related: Hot Diggity! Where to Find the Best Chicago-Style Hot Dogs


Have a Day of Adventure at The Forge at Lemont Quarries

people on a ropes course at The Forge Lemont Quarries

About an hour outside of Chicago, you’ll find this awesome aerial adventure course called The Forge at Lemont Quarries. Older kids (and parents!) can enjoy the Climb & Zipline experience where you’ll learn to clip and unclip your harness before you set out on your self-paced adventure. Choose the level of challenge you want and end your fun with a zipline over the lake. Rope bridges, spider webs, swinging platforms, and more will test your skills along the way.

Younger kids can grab the Kids Adventure Pass which includes climbing through a netted obstacle course that’s the ideal size for them. There’s also an inflatable obstacle course and a traditional bounce house. This pass also includes access to the water tag experience—perfect for cooling off on a hot day.

Those looking for a lower-adrenaline activity can check out the archery, kayaking, axe-throwing, mountain biking , and laser tag activities. Parking is free and it’s free to get on the property so supervising grown-ups don’t have to pay. They also have live music and other events throughout the season.


Head to Starved Rock for Some Outdoor Time

After the hustle and bustle of your time in the city, you’ll be craving some nature and Starved Rock State Park is ready to deliver. It’s just under two hours drive from Chicago (just an hour from The Forge) and you’ll want to book your stay at the Starved Rock Lodge so that you can spend a few days there. With just 90 private accommodations on the property, Starved Rock Lodge offers a quiet environment where you can relax as a family. We stayed in a historic lodge room that gave us easy access to the indoor swimming pool that’s the perfect way to chill after a day of hiking. There’s a mini fridge and microwave in these rooms, making it extra convenient for families. Other accommodations include private cabins and traditional hotel wing rooms.

You’ll love that Starved Rock Lodge offers many different dining options so you don’t have to drive off the property for meals. The Lodge Restaurant offers a traditional dining room setting with delicious options like fried chicken, walleye, and steak. If the weather is cooperating, head to The Veranda where you can dine outdoors. Live music is available on select Fridays and Saturdays. Don’t miss out on the treats offered at The Cafe, located just off the front desk. Here you’ll find homemade ice cream and fudge, Illinois beers and wines, along with breakfast sandwiches and coffee. This is the spot to go to purchase forgotten items like swimwear and first aid supplies.

Things to Do at Starved Rock Lodge

people on the viewing platform at Starved Rock State Park

There are plenty of outdoor adventures to keep you busy while you stay at the Lodge. Head down to the Visitor Center to learn about the history of Starved Rock State Park and find out what park activities might be offered during your stay.

Illinois Office of Tourism

Hike up to Starved Rock for a view of the Illinois River and then check out the hiking trails through French Canyon to make your way to the other overlooks where you can get a great view of the dam and the river beyond.

cruise on the Illinois River at Starve Rock State Park

If you want to get out on the water, sign up for a trolley tour and boat cruise. The tour begins with lunch followed by a narrated trolley ride and pontoon boat cruise along the Illinois River. It’s a great way to spot waterfowl and learn some history along the way.

two people standing in front of Cascade Falls at Matthiessen State Park

Just a short drive away is Matthiessen State Park where you’ll find waterfalls (during the wet season) along with hiking trails, rock formations, and picnic areas. Take the Dells entrance to visit the impressive Cascade Falls, especially after a rain. This entrance will also take you by the sunflower field (visit in early July for the best experience).

view of Lone Buffalo Brewery from above

Looking for a dining option off-property? We really enjoyed our meal at the Lone Buffalo by Tangled Roots Brewing Company in Ottawa, IL. The town is also home to their hops and barley farm, the crop of which is used to create their “farm to foam beers” served on-site. Breweries tend to be great for families because the buzzing, jovial atmosphere means that your kids won’t be heard above the low-level din. The Lone Buffalo proved this to be true and we really felt welcomed by the whole staff during our visit.

Start with a flight of your choice of beers if you don’t want to choose just one. Definitely try the Blueberry YUM if it’s on the menu when you visit. The lunch and dinner menu offers shareable options like the Bavarian pretzel which we require you to order. Bison chili will fill you up with slow-simmered goodness and the chicken schnitzel with white cheddar mashed potatoes was a meal we could eat again and again. You’re going to be full but we recommend you push through it to try the skillet cookie topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Yum yum yum.

If we have piqued your interest in a visit to Illinois, check out the following pages for more information on booking your trip!

Enjoy Illinois: enjoyillinois.com
Choose Chicago: choosechicago.com
Starved Rock Lodge: starvedrocklodge.com

—photos by the author

Editor’s note: This trip was paid for by Enjoy Illinois, Choose Chicago, and Starved Rock Lodge but all opinions belong to the writer.

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