Millennium Park is to Chicago what Central Park is to New York City: a place where locals come to play and visitors come to enjoy. The park is filled with free things to do, quiet places to sit and think. Here are the best things to do with kids in Millennium Park during a day-long visit.
Before you go, visit the Millennium Park website to find out what free concert or hands-on kid craft is planned for the day of your visit. Then you can build the rest of your day around that event. There’s something planned every day in the summer. In the winter, there’s always free ice skating at the McCormick Tribune Plaza and Ice Rink–provided you bring your own skates. The skating is free, but skate rental is a little pricey.
On warm days, dress the younger kids in swimsuits under their clothes and bring towels. You’ll need them. Tip: Follow this tour precisely so you end the day with the kids splashing in the Crown Fountain. Because once they see the water, they won’t stay dry for long. And they won’t care about any of the other park attractions.
Spending a Day at Millennium Park
Start your tour of the park at the corner of Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue near the Millennium Park Monument. Walk southeast toward the big shiny sculpture officially called Cloud Gate but affectionately known by locals as “The Bean.”
The sculpture was forged of 168 stainless-steel plates and weighs 110 tons. But your kids won’t care about that. They’ll just want to walk around and under this giant structure to see their reflections change like looking in a gigantic version of one of those fun house mirrors.
Don’t forget the camera. You’ll want to ask a fellow visitor to snap the iconic Chicago picture of your family reflected in The Bean with the city’s majestic skyline in the background.
Free Things to Do at Millennium Park
From The Bean, walk east toward the Frank Gehry-designed Chicago architectural masterpiece, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, an outdoor concert venue that presents rocking free evening concerts all summer long. Grab one of the 4,000 seats or plop down on the Great Lawn to listen to a concert (it could be anything from classical to hip-hop) while the kids run and play.
On the way, look north along the Chase Promenade for a tent with free family programming daily during the summer. Your kids can make crafts, dance and sign with children’s performers.
If you need a bathroom stop, use the ones underneath the pavilion, some of the newest and nicest public bathrooms in Chicago.
Continue walking east to the winding BP Bridge, also designed by Frank Gehry. While it is closed half-way currently, the gently sloping 925-foot boardwalk bridge is worth the trek for the view back to the architectural wonders that line Michigan Avenue, another worthy family photo op.
When the bridge reopens sometime in 2015, it will once again give visitors an easy and safe way to cross busy Columbus Drive. And it will be worth the walk for another reason: it will connect Millennium Park to Maggie Daley Plaza. A line here about the park.
Warning: Be careful what the kids touch when crossing the BP Bridge on hot summer days. Those 9,000 sheets of shiny stainless steel can get warm.
The Lurie Garden
When you walk back to Millennium Park, head for the 2.5-acre Lurie Garden. This serene spot celebrates Chicago’s motto, “Urbs in Horto,” Latin for “City in a Garden.” Chicago’s last Mayor Daley—Richard M., who ruled the city for 22 years before his retirement in 2011—embraced the motto. Known as the “tree hugger mayor,” Daley is credited with building flower boxes, planting trees and promoting green construction throughout the city.
The two sides of this garden represent the two sides of Chicago—the “dark” side represents Chicago’s past and the “light” side represents its vibrant present and future.
Next, walk under the Nichols Bridgeway, which connects Millennium Park to the new Impressionist wing of the famed Art Institute of Chicago.
Finally, it’s time for the Millennium Park coup de grace: the Crown Fountain. The fountain is bordered on the north and south ends by 50-foot-tall glass towers that display images of the faces of Chicagoans.
From mid-spring through mid-fall each year, a spray of water comes from the mouths of the faces on the tower, forming a shallow reflecting pool along the 200 feet of black granite that spans the space between the towers. Kids can’t resist running and splashing there. On a hot summer day, don’t be surprised to find the kids are joined by business men and women who roll up their pant legs and wade in during their lunch breaks.
In winter there’s no water, but you can continue north to skate at the McCormick Tribune Plaza and Ice Rink.
During the winter, this plaza is turned into a free ice skating rink (skate rentals are available but, sadly, rentals are not free).
During summer months, the space is used as outdoor seating for the Park Grill, a white tablecloth restaurant. It has a kid’s menu, but you won’t want to take the tykes in there if they’ve just been splashing in the Crown Fountain. The Park Grill offers a carryout menu so patrons can buy a sandwich and head over to eat on the Great Lawn of the Pritzker Pavilion.
If you’re just looking for a snack, look for a cart vendor around the park selling hot dogs, hot pretzels and other simpler fare.