Chicago is one of the top travel destinations in the world because of its great museums, restaurants, music scene, the arts and family-friendly activities. After you visit the well-known places most of the guidebooks tell you to visit, venture beyond the downtown area to find more hidden treasures, many of which are free or very affordable and accessible.
While Chicago might be a big city with big-town benefits, it’s also a small town at heart. Here are 9 things to do in the Chicagoland area with your family that you may not find in the guidebooks.
American Science & Surplus
If you’re looking for squishy eyeballs or test tubes for your next experiment, this quirky store is a mecca for all sorts of science gadgets. Seriously, kids of all ages (and by all ages, I mean from toddlers to adults) can find treasures here for well under $5 including butterfly yoyos to invisible ink or old rocks. The place is nestled in Chicago’s Old Warsaw community so after you’ve found your treasures, head to over to Red Apple Buffet for its all-you-can-eat Polish food buffet.
Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration at the Swedish American Museum
A small yet interesting museum located on the third floor of the Swedish American Museum in the heart of the Andersonville neighborhood, kids become part of the immigration story starting on a farm in 1871 Sweden and ending on the Minnesota prairie. Perfect for kids ages 3-12. After the visit, head down the street to Ann Sather’s for authentic Swedish cuisine.
Chicago is known for its dining scene so what better way to experience it firsthand than a cooking class in Chicago? The Chopping Block offers hands-on cooking classes for children as young as three. Separate classes available for seven to 11 year olds and young teens from 12-16.
Most people don’t know that the DuSable Museum in Hyde Park is the oldest, independent African-American history museum in the country. The museum includes several permanent exhibitions on the first floor including Africa Speaks and the second floor has a replica of Harold Washington’s mayoral office. Rotating exhibits make this a great place to visit regularly, too.
Forest Preserves of Cook County
The District’s six nature education centers are filled with things for children to discover. From live animal exhibits to programs and displays about the plants, animals and communities of the region, they are great places for kids to learn and explore. My kids love to watch the native wildlife housed at the Hal Tyrell Trailside Museum where they could see coyotes and owls up close and personal. While most of them only see squirrels on a daily basis, centers like these are a great way to expose them to the fact that we live among these creatures, too, even if we don’t see them on a daily basis.
Garfield Park Conservatory
A favorite of ours anytime of the year but especially during the winter months when we’re experiencing cabin fever and need reminders that spring is coming. The Garfield Park Conservatory is the largest public conservatory in the United States. Inside visitors will enjoy the Fern Room which transports you to a beautiful space complete with a waterfall and goldfish pond, the Palm House which is home to a rare Double Coconut Palm and a Children’s Garden among the many interior spaces. The outdoor gardens include a Monet Garden, a City Garden and a Demonstration Garden for year-round activities.
Nestled right off busy roads in Glenview is a quiet, preserved prairie complete with log cabins and a teepee on the 124 acres of land. The Grove’s Natural Science Classroom is a building that houses indoor creatures including “Big Al,” a 100+ year-old alligator snapping turtle that weighs more than 300 pounds. Little kids can spend hours in this place checking out all of the critters such as snakes and Madagascar cockroaches. Outside families can enjoy a two-mile walking path through the prairie, wetlands and oak woodlands. We were lucky on a recent visit that the Blacksmith volunteer was in The Blacksmith Shop. The volunteer shared details about the tools found in the functioning timber frame building and even gave us a demonstration of how nails were made from iron ore. My son still has that nail prominently displayed in his bedroom.
National Museum of Mexican Art
A beautiful, colorful museum dedicated to Mexican culture and art right in the heart of the Pilsen neighborhood. After enjoying the many permanent and rotating exhibits, venture to Nuevo Leon Restaurant for some of the best authentic Mexican dishes.
Located 45 minutes northwest of Chicago, the Volo Bog is a nature reserve that contains woodlands, savanna, marshes, prairie restoration areas, shrubland and old fields. In addition to hiking trails, the area provides educational naturalist-led programs for kids ages 4-94 which includes bog tours, prairie walks, insect and aqua safari’s, summer bat programs and more. Volunteer naturalists lead one-hour public tours on Saturdays and Sundays at 11am and 1pm while others lead astronomy nights and bird walks.
Photos: The Blacksmith Shop at The Grove, Glenview, Illinois (top); Big Al, the Alligator Snapping Turtle, at The Grove, Glenview, Illinois. Photos taken by Megy Karydes of Wandering Tastes.
Megy Karydes is a Chicago-based freelance journalist focusing on travel, dining, health, sustainable living and fair trade for both consumer and business-to-business media outlets. For her travel adventures, visit Wandering Tastes on Facebook and Twitter or find her online at WanderingTastes. She and her family can regularly be found hiking around the city via the “el” or dining at one of the many ethnic restaurants around the city.