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While Chicago is a cosmopolitan city, it’s also a great place for kids. It offers an abundance of family-friendly activities — and they’re just as interesting for adults as well. Our Forbes Travel Guide editors recommend bringing the family to these five spots, where you can do everything from teach your kids about the expansiveness of the universe to take a ride on an airplane:
1. Adler Planetarium. If a fear of flying took you out of contention for a career as an astronaut, head to Adler Planetarium, the Western Hemisphere’s first planetarium. Interactive exhibits like “Shoot for the Moon,” which features Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell’s fully restored Gemini 12 spacecraft and some of his effects, will let you envision what your life might have been like. Stargazers should make their way to the Doane Observatory for a look through the largest public telescope in the area, but to appreciate the heavenly Chicago skyline instead, step onto the north and south terraces.
2. Museum of Science and Industry. Opened in 1933, the Museum of Science and Industry is the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere — and it needs to be. It houses a full-size 727 airplane (board the plane and buckle up for a fake San Francisco-Chicago flight, complete with banter from an automated pilot); a full-scale coal mine, one of the museum’s oldest displays with a great simulated trip into the depths of the mine; a refurbished Burlington Pioneer Zephyr train with interactive exhibits; the U-505 German submarine, which was captured in 1944 and has been given a new indoor arena that brings that era of American history to life; as well as farming, Internet and fairy castle-themed collections among its 2,000 exhibits.
3. Navy Pier. Formerly a training area for naval aviators, Navy Pier is host to the Chicago Children’s Museum, which features an abundance of hands-on yet not-so-messy exhibits for children, including “Dinosaur Expedition,” which re-creates a fossil dig in the Sahara. Toddlers can practice shopping for groceries or driving a city bus in an urban neighborhood exhibit. The pier has plenty for parents, too, including restaurants, and outdoor beer garden, a 3-D IMAX theater, and the Smith Museum of Stained Glass (which is a lot cooler than it sounds).
4. Shedd Aquarium. Built in 1930, the Shedd Aquarium is both a historic landmark and a remarkable place to explore what lives in our oceans, rivers and lakes. After gawking at anacondas in the “Amazon Rising” exhibit and sea otters and dolphins in the “Abbott Oceanarium” exhibit, your kids will develop a whole new appreciation for fishes, reptiles and amphibians. Truth is, you will too, as there are five other sprawling exhibits, like “Jellies and Wild Reef” as well as an “Aquatic Show,” and they aim to amaze.
5. Lincoln Park Zoo. If you’re not in the mood to remain inside all day (i.e., the Shedd Aquarium), venture to the outdoor Lincoln Park Zoo, where you can visit 1,200 animals and 2,300 species. Open 365 days a year, this free cultural institution is a quintessential Chicago destination. Take your kids to the Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo, where they can get close to a black bear or a red wolf or participate in the Treetop Canopy Climbing Adventure.
When it comes to entertaining the kids, head to the Children’s Museum at Navy Pier; explore Grant Park, Shedd Aquarium, the Planetarium and the Museum of Science and Industry; or attend a sporting event.
The closest thing downtown Chicago has to an amusement park is Navy Pier, which is easy to spot from pretty much anywhere, thanks to its ginormous Ferris wheel. (Fun fact: It’s modeled after the original Ferris wheel designed by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., which debuted at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition on Chicago’s South Side.) Navy Pier has an IMAX theater, bike rentals and a lengthy arcade with carnival games and vendors, and is open year-round. Entry is free, with ticketed games and experiences.
During the summer, you can’t beat an old-fashioned splash in a fountain at Millennium Park, where towering Crown Fountain spouts water from LED-projected mouths of everyday Chicagoans into a shallow pool perfect for wee ones. It’s free, of course, and sits on the south side of Millennium Park adjacent to the Modern Wing entrance of the Art Institute of Chicago, which also has lots of kids and educational programming throughout the year. Another kid-pleaser? Free summer concerts at Millennium Park, which start around sundown during the week, but sometimes include a special kid-focused program at noon on select dates.
Of course, Chicago is also overrun with incredible museums catering to the pint-sized set. Just south of downtown is Chicago's Museum Campus with stunning views of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. The campus is home to the Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, and the The Field Museum where "Sue," the largest T-Rex skeleton in the world, is on permanent display.