In 2012, Chicago was Yahoo's second most searched for city and it was also the second most searched for city on Google maps. Though most people choose to visit the Windy City in the summer to take advantage of the warm weather, the city is just as enjoyable during the winter and spring months. There are better deals on flights and hotel stays, and families also can avoid the crowds that accompany the high-travel summer season.
Chicago offers many free and budget-friendly activities for families. The entire city is 234 square miles, and that can seem overwhelming when there are little ones in tow! But with some planning, the city is an ideal family destination and can be surprisingly affordable.
This list is focused on the city's downtown area. This part of the city is best explored on foot in order to take in the architecture and surrounding skyscrapers. Best of all, walking is free! Pack your walking shoes and head to Chicago for an experience packed with exploration, learning, shopping, and eating for the whole family.
For kid-friendly insider information about Chicago's history and most popular sites, download the free Chicago for Kids! walking tour before you go. Like a podcast, you can upload the tour to an MP3 player and listen while exploring. The tour includes stops at historic sites such as the Picasso Sculpture, Millenium Park and the Chicago Cultural Center. There's also a printable map to follow while listening, which includes the addresses and hours of each stop. With the exception of public transportation (a one-way ride is $2.25), all stops along the tour are free. If you have a photo or video iPod, download a photo-enhanced tour for an interactive experience.
One of the most popular winter and spring activities for locals and tourists alike is skating at the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink. Admission is free and skate rental is $10 for both children and adults. Though there are a number of free Chicago Park District ice rinks across the city, the McCormick rink offers a view of the surrounding skyscrapers because it's located in the heart of Chicago's downtown. The rink is open daily from mid-November through mid-March, weather permitting. It's part of Millenium Park and is located just below The Cloud Gate, one of Chicago's most unique public sculptures. After you've worn yourself out from skating, head over to the giant mirrored bean to snap fun family photos.
Learn While Having Fun!
Kids 10 and under will enjoy the Chicago Children's Museum at Navy Pier, where exhibits and activities center around learning through play. Thanks to sponsorships from Kraft and Target, admissions is free from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday nights and the first Sunday of every month (otherwise admission is $12 for both children and adults). The museum also offers several exhibits and experiences specially tailored for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. Other amenities such as the nursing room, plenty of changing tables, family bathrooms, and a bottle warmer make the Chicago Children's Museum especially accommodating for families with young children.
Open year-round, the Garfield Park Conservatory is one of the nation's largest conservatories and spans six greenhouses and two exhibition halls. Admission is always free, and the conservatory offers a wide range of family-friendly exhibits and workshops. Print the Eye Spy Conservatory Hunt to make the most of your visit, and make sure to visit the Elizabeth Morse Genius Children’s Garden. On Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays from November to April, the conservatory hosts Plant Party Play Dates and opens up the soil pit for digging and offers interactive stations for kids. Other free events for kids include live animal shows, tree ID walks, and origami workshops.
Snack and Shop!
If hitting the shopping on Michigan Avenue's Magnificent Mile is a must, enjoy some freebies along the way! The LEGO store at Water Tower Place is a kid wonderland with every surface and wall inviting kids to play. Once a month, kids 6 to 14 are invited to learn how to build a special model for free, then take it home. Each month's model is different and is specially themed for that month. And since it's nearly impossible to leave the LEGO store without buying something for the kids, look for the monthly LEGO pickable model, which is small, compact, and less expensive than some of the bigger LEGO kits.
For a larger than life “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” experience, visit the Hershey's Chocolate World on Michigan Avenue. With every Hershey candy under the sun (and a cupcake bar) it can be tempting to buy everything in the store. There are some items under $5, but since this store caters to tourists, the elaborate candy and gifts tend to be expensive. Visit Hershey's for the experience, then head across the street to the small Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop location for free samples of chocolate. The ice cream and hot drinks are on the pricey side, so try to stick to the samples. Or splurge and enjoy a sundae with the whole family to celebrate reaching the end of the Magnificent Mile!