A Local’s Love – Must-Know Tips for Traveling with Young Children in Chicago

Chicago may be one of America’s busiest cities, but rest assured, the Windy City has no shortage of opportunities for family fun. Its rich history and energetic pace make it one of America’s most rewarding vacation destinations. From experiencing one of the country’s oldest zoos at Lincoln Park, digging into a gargantuan deep dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s or Gino’s, or taking a peaceful pontoon ride on the Chicago River, there are endless options.

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A View of Chicago’s Skyline From Lake Michigan

Airport

It’s no surprise Chicago’s O’Hare Airport is one of the country’s biggest and most hectic. If you are flying in or out of O’Hare, be prepared for long lines. The airport itself is very large and can pose long walks from security to your gate, so make sure to arrive at least 2 hours prior to takeoff. Luckily O’Hare is also equipped with an expansive children’s play area known as the Kids on the Fly Exhibit, voted by Nickelodeon magazine as the country’s best. Grab a coffee and a newspaper if you’re early for the flight and relax while your children explore the jumbo jet toy structure and the mini helicopter next door.

Keep your eye out for flight options out of Chicago’s alternate hub, Midway Airport. It’s a smaller airport than O’Hare and much easier to navigate.

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O’Hare’s Kids on the Fly Play Area

Getting Around

The city of Chicago is one of the country’s most walkable cities, so make sure to equip your family with a high-quality stroller for your visit. One of the classic routes for those looking for a nice stroll is the Lakefront Trail on Lake Michigan. A quieter option is a visit to the Lincoln Park Conservatory where the plants are vivid and the air is fragrant.  

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Lakefront Trail on a Sunny Summer Afternoon

A creative option for getting around is the famous Chicago Water Taxi – kids always get a kick out of a ride down the Chicago River and the boat ride lets you completely bypass the busy Chicago traffic jams. If you decide to drive a car around the city, check out local parking apps like SpotHero or ParkWhiz, and definitely sign up for the ParkChicago app. It allows you to pay at metered spots and even reminds you when your meter is about to run out.

If you are looking for something fun and your kiddos enjoy trains, jump on the elevated L train, which runs all the way out to many of Chicago’s surrounding suburbs, or take the Metra around town. Both are quick and convenient options to get around the city and kids love them.

Heading Outdoors

Chicago weather can be surprisingly diverse in winter months, but chances are there will be a good breeze waiting outside your door. Prepare to dress warm, but don’t think the lower temperatures will put a damper on your vacation. There are still lots of fun winter activities in this fantastic city, indeed some of its most popular. Regardless, if you’re visiting Chicago in a more temperate season, make sure everyone brings along a little sweater or light jacket – you never know what might blow through.

Good Eats

Any parent knows the key to a happy child is a happy stomach, and in the hustle and bustle of Chicago this can be more difficult to achieve than expected. In Chi-Town, good restaurants fill up fast, so if you can be organized enough to plan your dinners with reservations, you will enjoy just walking in and sitting down. If not, plan on arriving early!

People usually want to try Chicago style pizza when they come to town, and when it comes to deep-dish Lou Malnati’s or Gino’s are the heavyweights. Remember, those pies are deep and take a while to bake so either secure an earlier reservation time than you normally would, or plan on ordering appetizers to keep little tummies happy in the meantime.

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The Side Profile of a Gino’s Deep Dish Pizza

When it comes to breakfast food, Walker Brothers is a very affordable pancake house with  several locations along Chicago’s North Shore. They have a large menu that is sure to make all happy. Another great choice for families is Eleven City Diner which has two locations, one in the loop and the other in Lincoln Park.

Excellent Excursions

Chicago sits on beautiful, blue and clear Lake Michigan. In the summer grab a bathing suit and check out the beaches all along its north and south shores. Leave the beach toys at home and rent them for 5 dollars a day. There are also boat tours galore, but if you’re family is the independent type, go for the pontoon rentals on the river. A great itinerary idea is to start with a cruise around the lake then continue down the Chicago River. If you’re a lucky visitor during late March, the city turns the river vivid green for Saint Patrick’s – kids love it. And during the summer there are can’t-miss firework shows every Wednesday and Saturday night on Navy Pier.

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Chicago’s Beaches are Spacious and Hot!

If you’re a winter visitor make sure to visit Maggie Daley Park and skate the figure 8 skating ribbon, an ice rink that operates during the winter months. The park also has picnic groves all over. If you’re up for a winter wonderland picnic, just want to make some snow angels, or are up for a good-natured snowball fight this is the pace to be.

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The Huge Skating Ribbon in Maggie Daley Park

Must-Visit Attractions

Lambs Farm is a lovely petting zoo in the town of Libertyville, situated about 45 mins north of Chicago. The farm features all kinds of child-friendly activities such as a mini train, carousel, bounce house, creative climbing structures with slides, pony rides, and of course, animals! Plus there’s a great cafe on site that donates all proceeds towards benefiting the developmentally disabled.

A sure-shot hit with the kids is Pirate’s Cove Children’s Theme Park. Unlike other attractions, Pirate’s Cove was constructed exclusively with small children in mind, so adults get in for free. It features fun attractions like a carousel, bounce house, boat rides, interactive pirate-themed plays, craft areas, and a picnic area that allows families to bring in their own meals.

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A View of the Water Structures at Pirate’s Cove

Baby Gear

Chicago poses a challenging situation from airport to hotel room due to its daunting size and thick traffic, so renting baby gear will lighten your load and reduce luggage fees time waiting in lines. It’s also a great move to bring a backpack along wherever you go to hold water, a blanket snacks, sunscreen, toys, and other baby care products for breaks if the kids get tired.

Many rental services even offer packages to make the stay feel more like home for infants. Things like baby toys, potty chairs, the exersaucer, and even bottle warmers. For older siblings keep an eye out for bathroom stools, arts and crafts supplies, and some fun books. The right gear can provide the perfect family relaxation after a long day in the energetic hustle and bustle of Chicago.

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Christina Raab Barker is a Babierge Independent Trusted Partner, renting baby gear to traveling families in Chicago proper. Christina has been living in Chicago for years and knows the Second City like the back of her hand. Find her at: http://www.babierge.com/chicago or follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/babiergechicago.

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