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Chicago is the perfect starting place for road trips throughout the Midwest. These ideas for Illinois family vacations — from historical trips celebrating the life of Abraham Lincoln to nature hikes through beautiful state parks to rousing fun at an indoor waterpark — can work as weekend getaways or road trips of a week or longer.
There are lots of Illinois family vacation ideas and Midwestern family vacation options — all of them start in Chicago. These road trip ideas are all within a 6-hour drive of the Windy City and most of them are three hours or less.
TravelingMom Tip: Opening times and dates can change without warning. Always check the attraction’s website before heading there for a visit.
Family Vacation Ideas in Illinois
If you’re starting your Illinois adventure in Chicago, you want to spend a little time exploring one of the great cities of the United States. Must-dos here include a visit to the Museum Campus where you’ll find three of the city’s world-class museums — the Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum of Natural History, and the Shedd Aquarium — all sitting on the shore of Lake Michigan. Buy a CityPASS to save money on the admissions and, more importantly, to skip the long entry lines.
Head to Millennium Park on a hot summer day and, if you have younger kids, bring a towel and a change of clothes. They will want to splash in the Crown Fountain. Chances are there will be a free concert that night at the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion.
If you have a third day to spend in the city, spend it at Navy Pier, the home of the Chicago Children’s Museum, one of the best in the country, and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Older kids will want a ride on the Seadog, a rockin’ speedboat, and the whole family will want a ride on the Ferris wheel.
Before you leave town, grab a deep dish pizza at one of the famous spots — Lou Malnati’s, Gino’s, Uno’s or Duo’s. I recommend Uno’s. Or grab a Chicago hot dog. Just don’t ask for ketchup. We like to say that it’s illegal for people over 18 to put ketchup on a hot dogs in Chicago. That’s not true, but it is true that if you do, a native Chicagoan is likely to make a snide comment!
Close to Chicago
If you’re an architecture buff, hop on the Green Line elevated train for a fun-for-the-kids 20-minute ride west to Oak Park for a tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio and the many Wright-designed houses in the neighborhood.
The capital of Illinois is smack in the center of the state, about 3 hours southwest of the city. The must-dos here are the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and eating a horseshoe for lunch or dinner.
The museum celebrates the life and times of the 16th president, which Illinois claims as its own. The museum is divided into two parts. The early years are more appropriate for younger kids. The later years showcase some of America’s darkest history and can be a little overwhelming for little ones.
And, eating a horseshoe? Yep. It’s a sandwich concoction created in Springfield. Traditionally, it’s a hamburger and fries, but all piled on top of one another and covered in cheese sauce. The bread is on the bottom, the burger next, topped with fries and coated in sauce. Restaurants all over town serve it, but we had ours at the Dublin Pub. It was… interesting… and something you should try when you’re there to say you did. Burgers aren’t the only option any more. There are even breakfast horseshoes. This list purports to showcase the best places to get a horseshoe in Springfield.
Close to Springfield
On the way to Springfield, we always liked to get the Lincoln vibe started with a stop in New Salem. It’s about 20 miles northwest of Springfield and it’s where Lincoln spent his young adulthood. Twelve log houses, the Rutledge Tavern, 10 workshops, stores, mills and a school where church services were held have been reproduced and furnished as they might have been in the 1830s, when Lincoln lived there. It works as a history lesson for older kids and it’s a fun place to let little ones run around. In the summers, when the state budget allows, costumed interpreters are on site, tending the gardens and running the blacksmith shop.
Starved Rock State Park
This is one of the most beautiful spots in the state and it’s just 90 minutes from Chicago. The park has 18 sandstone canyons formed by glacial meltwater. It’s where my city kids learned the joys of hiking in Mother Nature. The are more than 13 miles of hiking trails, some of which end at majestic waterfalls and spectacular overlooks. There’s a visitor’s center, a campground and the 1930s-era stone-and-log Starved Rock Lodge, which offers luxury lodging, cabin rooms, and fine dining.
The Quad Cities
The Quad Cities — two Illinois towns, Rock Island and Moline, and two Iowa cities, Davenport and Bettendorf — straddle the Mississippi River. The don’t-miss spot among these small towns for families with tractor-obsessed kids is the free John Deere Pavilion in Moline. The kids (and their adults) can climb on giant tractors and drive them via simulators.
Before you leave town, take the family for ice cream at Lagomarcino’s. There are two locations, but go to the original in downtown Moline to get the real feel of the family-owned business that started in 1908. Work off the treats by renting bikes and biking along the riverfront.
Shawnee National Forest
The only national forest in Illinois, Shawnee is in the southern tip of Illinois, nestled between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Hike and fish on its 287,000 acres (a fishing license is required for anyone age 16 and older). Teach the kids some stark Native America history on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail and show them where slaves escaped via the Underground Railroad, which passed through southern Illinois. There’s a campground on site, but it’s more fun to spend the night in a treehouse.
Family Vacation Ideas: Chicago Road Trips Beyond Illinois
The self-proclaimed “Water Park Capital of the World” is just three hours northwest of Chicago. It’s the go-to vacation destination for family fun. The small town is jammed full of indoor waterparks and one of the best outdoor waterparks I’ve ever seen — Noah’s Ark Waterpark. But it’s also a beautiful natural wonder, with boat rides, gorgeous sandstone cliffs and horseback riding.
St. Louis, Missouri
Just across the Mississippi River from Illinois is one of the most affordable cities in the United States. Must-dos include a visit to the the fun and funky City Museum and spending a day at Forest Park, home of the free St. Louis Zoo. And, of course, no visit to St. Louis is complete without a visit to the world famous Arch. It’s fun to ride the single seat tram to the top for a view of the of the city. And don’t miss the recently refurbished Museum at the Gateway Arch. It’s one of the many fun free things to do in St. Louis with kids.
Indiana Dunes National Park
Designated the 61st US National Park in 2019, the 15,000-acre park runs for nearly 25 miles along the southern shore of Lake Michigan. In iconic Midwestern style, a steel mill marks its western border. The park includes an array of ecosystems — sand dunes, wetlands, prairie, river and forest.
This natural wonder is just an hour east of Chicago and it’s reachable via the South Shore train, which makes it an easy day trip from the city. Parking is limited, so if you plan to drive, go early. Bring a picnic lunch and plan to spend the day sun bathing, hiking, running up the dunes and exploring the area. You can swim, but know that Lake Michigan waters can be quite chilly, even at the height of summer. And mind signs warning of rip tides. Those of us who grew up swimming here learned to “respect the lake.” It can be dangerous.
Traverse City Michigan
This town in northern Michigan is consistently on my family’s favorites list. It’s a charming small town with a surprisingly yummy foodie vibe and a multitude of family-friendly dining options. The draw here is the incredible Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Soaring high above Lake Michigan, these massive dunes are meant for family play time. After working up an appetite, find a spot to eat a remarkably juicy cherry burger. That’s right, hamburger amplified by the cherries that grow in the region. Trust me on this.