The Ultimate Summer Bucket List for Chicago Parents

summer in chicago, World's Biggest Bounce House kids jumping World's Biggest Bounce House

Smile. Play. Giggle a ton. Hit up a street fest. Repeat. Good — you’ve got the basics of a perfect summer in Chicago. Now add a few activity highlights to your warm-weather bucket list. It’s prime time to explore all Chicago and the surrounding area has to offer, from large-scale outdoor art exhibits to cheering on dragon boats. Here are our top to-dos this summer with kids.


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EXHIBITS

Human + Nature at Morton Arboretum
The eight 15- to 26-foot-tall sculptures in Human + Nature use thought-provoking human forms paired with elements of nature to bring attention to the deep connection between humans and nature.

North Shore Sculpture Park
Walk. Bike. Run. Skip. Gallop. However you make your way down North Shore Sculpture Park’s two-mile trail, you’re sure to enjoy the sights. The paved path is lined with sculptures from artists across the world.

Mexican Art Exhibit at Cantigny Park
Alebrijes: Creatures of a Dream World features dozens of large-scale mythical animals inspired by Mexican folklore, on display Jun.-Oct.

Ice Age Giants at Brookfield Zoo
Brookfield Zoo has unleashed more than 30 life-sized animatronic re-creations of giants that roamed during the Ice Age. Adding to the lifelike effects of Ice Age Giants, parts of the animals such as the head, eyes, mouth, and tail move, making the experience even more realistic.

Art of Brick at MSI
Museum of Science & Industry’s The Art of Brick features intriguing works of art made exclusively from LEGO bricks.

Boats at Chicago Children’s Museum
Boats provides a nautical-inspired environment for unstructured play and taps into children’s natural fascination with boats. The experience features a dock and bait shop, an assortment of boats and equipment, authentic signage, a captain’s jacket, life vests, steering wheels, sails, buoys, fishing poles and Lake Michigan Fish.

IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCES & SHOWS

Bristol Rennaisance Faire
Grab a sword and shout, “huzzah!” The Bristol Renaissance Faire is a full-on homage to Elizabethan England complete with costumed characters, period music, jousting tournaments, acrobatic and comedy acts, rides, games and food.

Immersive Monet and the Impressionists
State-of-the-art video mapping and ground-breaking animation bring the art of the Impressionists to life like never before. Immersive Monet & The Impressionists bathes viewers in the brushstrokes and colors of Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt and many more.

The Lake House at Fairmont Chicago
Fairmont Chicago captured the magic of lake living with its summer Lake House experience. Their transformed lobby emulates the spirit of a Chicago summer spent on the lake with a built-in boat house surrounding the bar, lake-house-inspired games and food, and fun photo opps throughout.

Prince: The Immersive Experience
Take the family on a deep dive into the music and life of Prince in 10 multi-dimensional spaces. Prince: The Immersive Experience will also feature historic wardrobe pieces, recreations of iconic sets and spaces, photography, instruments and much more.

OLD-FASHIONED FUN

Weekly Fireworks at Navy Pier
Keep the kids up a tad later on Wednesdays (9 p.m.) and Saturdays (10 p.m.) to experience the fireworks display synchronized to music at Navy Pier.

Sharpen Your Tiny Pencils for Miniature Golf
Mini-golf. Putt-putt. Goofy golf. Adventure golf. Shorties. No matter what you call it, you have a blast playing it. Most of Chicago’s miniature golf courses are pure, kitschy fun and are only open for a limited time each year.

Make Friends with Fireflies at an Outdoor Movie
The best way to watch a flick in Chicago in the summer is at an outdoor movie theater. There are parks, nature centers, drive-ins and even rooftops reeling family favorites all summer long. (BYO chairs, blankets and maybe even your own popcorn.)

Family Time at Morton Arboretum’s Arbor Evenings
Unwind with family and friends on Wednesday evenings at Morton Arboretum’s Arbor Evenings. Listen to live music, play lawn games and enjoy food and drinks surrounded by the Arboretum’s beautiful trees.

Twilight Tunes at Brookfield Zoo
Every Friday and Saturday in July, the zoo welcomes guests of all ages to Twilight Tunes, an evening filled with music, food and drinks, animal encounters and a laser light show.

Attend a Street Fest
Chicagoans live for street fest season. Have a blast with art, cars, animals and music. . . and that’s just the start!

WATER PLAY

Beat the Heat at a Local Splash Pad
Lazy days at the pool are a summer must. Even better? Raging days at splash pads. From neighborhood gems to all-out amusement park-style destinations, you and your tot will be happy to cool off without taking a dunk or forking over much moola.

Have Gallons of Fun at Raging Waves
Treat the family to a fun day at Illinois’ largest waterpark, Raging Waves. You’ll find 32 water slides, a huge wave pool, three kiddie pool areas, a relaxing lazy river, 43 private cabanas and more.

Take a Family Boat Tour
Break from watering holes and splash pads and add adventure to your water play this summer with help from Chicago boat tour companies. You’ll learn a bit of city and architectural history and take in a whole lotta gorgeous views cruising Lake Michigan and Chicago River.

Eat Your Way Through Summer

Try a Fun New Restaurant
Infuse fun into your dining this summer with themed restaurants in Chicago that let kids’ imaginations run wild.

Hit Up a Hot Dog Stand
Love ’em or leave ’em, hot dogs are big in Chicago. And, if your kids haven’t begged for one yet, they will soon—and they get a pass on the sacrilege of using ketchup. Grab one at a legendary Chicago hot dog spot and turn eating into an adventure. Get creative with hot dogs at home by reading our story 33 Hot Dog Recipes You Need to Try.

CAN’T-MISS EVENTS

Navy Pier’s Pride Fest
Honor Pride Month at Navy Pier’s Pride Fest, Jun. 25. Celebrate equality, love and the LGBTQ+ community with a daylong celebration that includes live musical performances. For more ideas on celebrating Pride Month, read our story Pride Month Activities for Chicago Families.

Dragon Boat Race for Literacy
Experience a traditional Chinese Dragon Boat Race, Jun. 25, as 30 boats head down the Chicago River from Ping Tom Memorial Park. Take in the colorful sites, sounds, and smells as you learn more about the Chinese and Asian cultures.

Day Out with Thomas
Thomas is pulling up to the Illinois Railway Museum—and he’s big enough for kids to hop on for a ride. Along with a 20-minute train ride at Day Out with Thomas, Jul. 9, 10, 16 & 17,  there are themed games and activities, storytelling and the opportunity to meet Sir Topham Hatt.

Big Bounce America Tour
The World’s Largest Bounce House, Jul. 22-24, covers 13,000 square feet and towers 32 feet from the ground to the tip of the candy-colored turrets. It has basketball hoops, climbing towers, a giant slide that lands you in a ball pit, oversized couches and chairs and a 20-foot-tall rabbit to climb inside.

Ducky Derby
Watch as more than 50,000 yellow rubber duckies splash their way into the Chicago River during the Ducky Derby, Aug. 4. Put a duck in the game by adopting your own for only $5 and raise money for Special Olympics Illinois.

Chicago Air & Water Show
Daredevil pilots perform aerial stunts over the lake and downtown Chicago at the Chicago Air & Water Show, Aug. 20 & 21.

Pack a Bag for a Wee Break from Home

Staycation in One of the Best Cities in the World
Summer is not the time to be heading out of town, as it’s the best time to be a Chicagoan. But sometimes a break from your own four walls is needed and we found hotels in Chicago that are great for families.

Have a Sleepover with Mother Nature
Take your family on a glamping trip where making memories is the only agenda. Lock arms with Mother Nature while you camp in style with special touches like cozy beds, stocked kitchens and even air conditioning. Gather ideas that’ll impress the kids in our story The Best Backyard Camping Ideas to Try with Kids.

GET SPORTY

Go Adventuring at The Forge
The Forge: Lemont Quarries’ 300-acre adventure park includes the largest aerial adventure course in North America and gives you access to four over-water ziplines, 5 miles of hiking trails, mountain biking, paddlesports, and a dedicated kids’ zone. All summer long they have family programming like movie nights, camps and biking classes.

Watch a Chicago Dogs Home Game
As of last season, there’s a new baseball team in town and they’re paying homage to Chicago’s favorite street food, HOT DOGS! Catch a Chicago Dogs game with the family at the beautiful Impact Field in Rosemont.

Find a Bike Trail
Live every nice-weather day to the fullest, shall we? On the top of the list, dust off those bikes, grease the chains, strap on a brain bucket and get those legs pumping on a bike path. From the shores of Lake Michigan to the furthest reaches of the suburbs, here are our favorite spots to cycle as a family in Chicago.

Sign Up for a Walk/Run
On your mark. Get set. Go! Race season is in full swing and sprinting to the finish line isn’t just for grown-ups. You’ll find a host of fun runs and charity walks in Chicago for families looking to exercise together.

Play in the Cubs Front Yard
Gallagher Way at Wrigley Field has a full line-up of summer programming. From exercise classes and markets to family movies and music.

Do Cool Touristy Things

Be Mesmerized by Blue Man Group
Easily one of the most recognizable performance groups, the Blue Man Group performs high-energy percussive shows mixed with a little of their own brand of comedy. They’ll have you tapping your toes and laughing along as they go on a journey into sound.

Send Your Heart Racing at 360 CHICAGO
Shoot 94-floors high and lean (squeal and maybe cry a little) 30-degrees over the city with 360 CHICAGO and TILT.

“Just Don’t Look Down” at Skydeck Chicago
If you’re brave enough, walk the 4.3 feet into a glass box—The Ledge—at Skydeck Chicago, Willis Tower’s heart-pumping attraction. Before you head up, check out their new museum that’s packed with Instagramable photo opps and fun facts about this city we love.

Find a New Favorite Museum
When you’re craving something new and culture’s on the menu, check out a super-secret museum that’s just a mini road trip away.

Be One with Nature

Butterflies & Blooms at Chicago Botanic Garden
Immersive yourself in a habitat filled with hundreds of winged beauties and pretty petals at Butterflies and Blooms. 

Set Out on a Hike
Step out of the urban jungle for fresh air, unforgettable scenery and a chance to spy on animals in their natural habitat on one of our favorite hiking trails

Go Berry & Veggie Picking
Make summer a little sweeter by picking your way through Chicago’s best spots for homegrown berries and other fruits and veggies.

— Maria Chambers

RELATED LINKS:
A Pixar Pop-Up & Other Mini Golf Courses Big on Fun
Low-Key Thrill Seek as a Family at The Forge: Lemont Quarries
Our Favorite Summer Camps for Chicago Kids in 2022

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