- Field Museum. Chicago's natural history museum, the Field Museum houses the world's most complete T-rex - sweetly named Sue - as well as exhibits on African animals, underground bugs and Native Americans. Every age group gets involved.
- John G. Shedd Aquarium. Beyond the standard fish tanks of most aquariums, the Shedd Aquarium stages dolphin shows in its Oceanarium pool and lodges a 400,000-gallon shark tank underground. Admission is steep -- $25 for you, $18 each for kids (3-11; younger free) -- but worthwhile. Don't expect to see everything; most pre-teens have the attention span for either the dolphin show or the shark reef--not both. Grab lunch at Bubble Net food court with local favs like Chicago hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches--everything trans-fat free with organic coffee for you. (Their Web site offers Fun Finds maps for your visit and special packages at the nearby Homewood Suites Hilton).
- Museum of Science and Industry. This south side institution specializes in immersive exhibits such as a ride down a coalmine shaft or a walk through a World War II submarine. Toddlers will like the model train exhibit, but most attractions here are best for five and up.
- Lincoln Park Zoo. The largest free zoo in the country is a favorite. Don't miss the ape house and the immersive African exhibit, both recent additions.
- Navy Pier. Chicago's most visited tourist attraction, the carnival-like Navy Pier juts into Lake Michigan, offering boat rides (power or sail), a Ferris wheel, the Chicago Children's Museum, Chicago Shakespeare Theater (which offers family shows in summer), restaurants and more. Admission onto Navy Pier is free--just being there is fun. However, each attraction charges separately, so prepare to say "no" often or spend freely.
- Wendella River Cruise. Hop a boat that plies the Chicago River to ogle the towering buildings that have made the city an architectural innovator, not to mention the home of the skyscraper. Little kids love the boat ride while those older than 10 will appreciate the scale of the buildings. It's not cheap -- $22 for adults, $11 for kids - but it's sure to be a memorable high point of your visit.
- Lake Michigan lakeshore. Fifteen miles of beach span the Lake Michigan shore. Play in the sand or rent bikes (at Navy Pier) and cruise some of the 18-mile lakefront recreational path.
- L train. Kids - and their keepers - love riding the Chicago elevated trains, known as the "L." Take the Brown Line, which circles downtown and takes a scenic route over the Chicago River, north from the Madison and Wabash stop, just a few blocks from Millennium Park. To return, simply get off at the end of the line or anywhere along the route once over the river, cross the tracks and return for no extra charge--the train will return you back to the same stop.
- Millennium Park. The reflective kidney-bean-shaped sculpture " Cloud Gate," video fountains that kids, from toddlers to teens, love to wade through make this downtown addition to Chicago's Grant Park a hit with families. There's a full calendar of family events.
Have more time to spend in Chicago?
You might want to also consider these fun family vacation ideas
- Sears Tower Skydeck. See four states on a clear day from the 103rd floor of one of the world's great skyscrapers--tallest in the western hemisphere. Print out the scavenger hunt list from the Skydeck Web site and take your binocs to see who in your crew can spot the most landmarks. ($12.95 for adults, $9.50 for kids (3-11; younger free).
- Adler Planetarium. School-agers to teenagers will marvel at the star shows projected on the planetarium dome.
- Art Institute of Chicago. This world-class art museum does a wonderful job with kids as young as toddlers in its large children's center. From here, staffers stage family programs that can include tours devoted to a specific artist such as Georgia O'Keefe then return to create crafts based on the artist's works.
- Buckingham Fountain. For family-friendly nightlife, check out the light show on this Grant Park landmark dating to 1927.
- Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Neighbor to the Lincoln Park Zoo, this nature museum hosts a butterfly room and an interactive waterway exhibit.
- American Girl Place. Owners of American Girl dolls, and those without, will love this shop on the Magnificent Mile , a strip of stores and shopping malls on North Michigan Avenue, which serves tea with your doll she gets her own chair clipped to the table.
- Wrigley Field. Try to score tickets if the Cubs are playing a home game. The "Friendly Confines" are as close to old time baseball as parks get, with a hand-operated scoreboard and ivy where most outfields have ads. But be prepared to see the Cubs', local, dedicated - and at times, rowdy - fans."