As a travelling mom with teens, I can vouch for the fact that it’s a world apart from travelling with kids of the pre-teen variety. One of the keys to success in traveling with teens is to find destinations with enough attractions and ‘cool stuff’ to keep them happily engaged. Cities like New York, Houston, Los Angeles and Chicago have all the ingredients needed for a great family getaway with teens in tow. In our lowdown of the best things to do in Chicago with teens, we’ve highlighted (in random order) lots of teen-friendly museums, shops, restaurants, parks and events, making for plenty of Insta-moments to share with friends, as well as treasured family travel memories.
Enjoying Family Fun in Chicago with Teens
Recently named the “Best Big City in the U.S.” by Condé Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards for the second consecutive year, Chicago is an amazing city. Full stop. As far as being an attractive destination to bring your potentially picky teenaged traveler, it hits all the high notes. There’s food, culture, music, history, architecture, entertainment, and Instagram-worthy selfie opps. And did I mention the food? Here’s what to do in Chicago with kids of any age, but especially teens and tweens.
1. Millennium Park and the Bean
The Bean, officially known as Cloud Gate, has become an iconic symbol of Chicago. Locals and visitors flock to see their reflections in the impressive bean-shaped public art structure by Anish Kapoor. Its reflective surface is perfect for selfies and creating cool photo effects. The Bean is one of the highlights of Millennium Park, which also includes the fun Crown Fountain. This interactive art-piece consists of two 50-foot glass block towers that loop a video reel of faces, and is a great place to cool off in summer.
2. Architecture River Tour
If you have a young budding architect, engineer or urban planner in the family, taking a Shoreline Sighting Architecture River tour on the Chicago River is an absolute must. The incredible skyline that is today’s downtown is a result of the rebuilding that took place after the Chicago Fire of 1871. Architects like Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Daniel Burnham changed the city with their buildings, and they tell a story about the history of Chicago. Seeing one hundred years of architectural styles and designs from the river is the best way to appreciate Chicago’s skyscraping landmarks. Enjoy a stroll along the revitalized Riverwalk after your tour finishes, and pop into the massive Apple Store on the north side. You can charge your phone for free, or just take a breather in their stadium seating overlooking the Chicago River.
3. Shedd Aquarium
Chicago’s museum campus houses several outstanding attractions that will interest teens and tweens alike. The Shedd Aquarium is home to more than 32,000 marine creatures, including enormous, gentle whale sharks. Dolphins and penguins are popular favorites, but don’t miss the magical jellies, the Giant Pacific Octopus or the dragon moray eel.
4. Art Institute of Chicago
One of the oldest art museums in the United States, the Art Institute of Chicago houses a treasure trove of artwork, including one of the largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art outside the Louvre. There are more than 300,000 pieces of art to view, including ancient Roman pottery, Greek sculptures, and modern art like Pablo Picasso’s The Guitarist. For something really cool, head downstairs to the Thorne Miniature Room. This intriguing hall is filled with tiny rooms that are copies of real interiors of churches to Tudor castles to one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses. It’s like the land of exquisite dollhouses.
5. Chicago Helicopter Tour
Seeing Chicago from the air is a real treat for family members of any age. Go up, up, and away for an unforgettable 15-minute tour of the city with the Chicago Helicopter Experience. Soaring across the skyline, get up close and personal with the city’s historic skyscrapers like the Willis Tower, Hancock Tower, Navy Pier, Lincoln Park and Wrigley Field.
6. Hamilton: The Exhibition
Got history buffs and Hamilton fans in the family? Hamilton: The Exhibition will premiere in Chicago on April 6, 2019. Created by Hamilton musical creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and producer Jeffrey Seller, this 360-degree, immersive exhibit is designed to take visitors deeper into the life and times of Alexander Hamilton, while at the same time chronicling the American Revolution and the creation of the United States of America. The exhibit will feature an audio tour narrated by Miranda. Following its Chicago premiere, the exhibition will travel to select U.S. cities.
7. The Field Musuem
The Field Museum is also located at the museum campus near the Shedd Aquarium. The newest and largest resident at the Field is Maximo, a gigantic titanosaur. This is one of the largest dinosaur fossils ever found, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who isn’t awed by seeing dinosaurs. The Field also has exhibits focused on wild animals in North America, as well as ancient cultures, geography, and evolution.
8. Navy Pier
Located on the shore of Lake Michigan, the historic Navy Pier has loads of attractions of interest to teens. While the Chicago Children’s Museum might skew to the young tween set, check out the Amazing Chicago Funhouse Maze, temporary indoor Beach Chicago exhibit, and ride the Centennial Wheel. Take a food tour (teens love to eat after all), or stop in to enjoy one of the family-family restaurants operating on the Pier.
9. The WNDR Museum
A museum too cool for school? Maybe. The mysterious WNDR Museum brings a Yayoi Kusama Infinity Room to Chicago. This pop-up museum features an immersive and experiential installation that merges science and art. Titled Infinity Mirrored Room: Let’s Survive Forever, the work is filled with reflective steel balls and a small, mirrored column that itself encloses an even smaller infinity room.
10. SkyDeck Chicago
Even if you’re afraid of heights like a certain travelling mom, the SkyDeck Chicago is a must visit. The high-speed elevators will zip you 1600 feet per minute up to the 103rdfloor of the Willis (formerly the Sears) Tower, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.
The 360-degree views are spectacular, with 40-50 miles of visibility, and you can see four states: Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan. Look, we’re learning geography! For those not afraid of heights, step out onto the Ledge, a glass box extending 4.3 feet out over Chicago streets way way down below. It is perfectly safe, and many teens will love getting selfies lying on the glass floor or posing over nothingness.
11. Chicago Theatre Week
If you’re in town in February, the city’s annual Theatre Week celebration will take place February 7-17, 2019. Over 100 theatre productions are expected to participate in neighbourhoods throughout the city and suburbs. And don’t miss the chance to see the spectacular, Tony award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen. It’s set to run at Broadway in Chicago’s Oriental Theatre February 12-March 10, 2019. Dear Evan Hansen is the deeply personal and profoundly contemporary musical about teen life, social media, parenting, and how we connect to each other.
12. Lincoln Park
The lakeside Lincoln Park is home to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, location of the popular and world-renowned Butterfly Haven. This 2,700-square-foot greenhouse is filled with ponds, flowers, tropical trees and more than 1,000 butterflies and birds. Other exhibits in the nature museum highlight different “wilderness” environments and eco-systems in Chicago.
For animal lovers – okay, that’s really everyone – Lincoln Park Zoo is a must-see when visiting Chicago with kids. Teenagers have favorite animals too, and won’t be able to resist locating their special creature among the many mammals, birds and reptiles they’ll spot at the zoo.
13. 360 Chicago
The 360 CHICAGO observation deck is located 1000 feet above the famed Magnificent Mile in the iconic John Hancock Building. It offers incredible 360 degree views of the city skyline and Lake Michigan. 360 CHICAGO observation deck is also home of TILT – Chicago’s highest thrill ride – an enclosed moving platform that literally tilts you out over Michigan Avenue from the 94th Floor. I can think of several teens who would love that! This attraction also has many interactive learning opportunities about the city’s history, its colorful neighborhoods and iconic architecture.
14. Blue Man Group
It’s almost impossible to describe this show, but trust me your teen will love spending a few hours with three blue, bald men. The Blue Man Group show is quirky, silly, and really really fun. It may even blow your mind, so leave your expectations at the door, okay?
Where to Eat with Teens in Chicago
Chicago is a foodie paradise, which is a good thing, as teens tend to eat, and eat, and eat some more. Here are some favourite spots to dine with teens in Chicago.
Terzo Piano – This is a beautiful rooftop dining spot with great city views, located in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago
DMK Burger Bar – Enjoy fantastic burgers and fries at this hamburger joint at Historic Navy Pier and at locations around the city.
Garrett Popcorn Shops – Through the creation of its world famous Garrett Mix popcorn, an irresistible blend of sweet caramel and savory cheddar cheese kernels, Garrett’s has solidified itself as a must-stop destination for anyone who loves popcorn. Scarf it down as you stroll past shops along the Magnificent Mile, but don’t forget to bring some home to loved ones. It makes for a perfectly edible souvenir.
Ozzie Pops and Pretzels – Located in the Navy Pier Family Pavilion, Ozzie’s is a sweet spot for all-natural popsicles, hand-twisted pretzels or fresh squeezed lemonade.
Gino’s East – Where to go for classic, deep dish Chicago pizza, with a variety of locations. If you’re a deep-dish newbie, please note that it takes about 45 minutes to prepare one of these filling, knife-and-fork pies. Order some appies for the hungry teen hordes while you wait.
Eduardo’s Enoteca – In Chicago’s Gold Coast neighbourhood. A classic Italian neighborhood eatery with rustic pizzas and handmade pastas.
Candyality – Yes! I’m including a candy store as a place to eat. Satisfy your teen’s, and your own, sweet tooth at the best candy store in Chicago, Candyality. This fabulous independent small business has the best sweet treats in town, including sour candies, Jelly Belly beans, Harry Potter candies, specialty licorice, and imported treats from Britain and Japan. Owner Terese McDonald and her staff are happy to give you a special Candy Personality reading to understand what your candy choices say about you.
How to save money visiting Chicago
Families looking to save money while sightseeing in Chicago should check out Chicago CityPASS. CityPASS saves you 51% on admission to 5 great Chicago attractions: Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum, SkyDeck Chicago, Museum of Science and Industry OR 360 Chicago, and the Adler Planetarium OR the Art Institute of Chicago. With the CityPASS mobile ticket feature, you can download your tickets onto your smartphone before you even leave home. And as always, with your CityPASS tickets, you can skip the main ticket lines and enjoy Fast Pass/VIP entry at all the attractions, saving you time and keeping your teens happy.
Just in time for the holidays, we’ve partnered with CityPASS to offer a fantastic giveaway to our loyal readers. All you need to do is enter to win and keep your fingers crossed!