While there is no shortage of fun things to do in Chicago with kids, not all are appropriate for that tricky toddler stage. Since we live in downtown Chicago, many of our favorite activities are also perfect for visitors looking to entertain their energetic and curious little tykes. Following are my favorite things to do in Chicago with my toddler. (Bonus: I avoid driving so everything is easy walking distance or a public transportation ride.)
1) Navy Pier
Before kids, I considered Navy Pier a tourist trap. Now, I see it as a convenient spot for my 2 year old to get his wiggles out. With activities for every season, Navy Pier is worth a visit.
The Children’s Museum is a great choice for rainy days. With multiple exhibits in different rooms, little ones are sure to be entertained for hours. Whether they like to splash, climb, tinker or explore, the museum will not disappoint. Stop by the Pritzker Playspace (hours are limited) with your baby, toddler, or preschooler if to meet other families or if the place is overrun with older kids. Keep in mind, many exhibits do have special infant and crawler play areas if you have a little one in tow.
2) Polk Bros Fountain and Plaza
Located at the entry point of the Pier, I have a love/hate relationship with this fountain. I love how happy it makes my water-obsessed toddler but I hate how long it takes me to coax him into leaving. The 12,500 square foot fountain isn’t just a regular fountain. It is basically a giant splash pad where your delighted kid can burn off some energy while you hide in the nearby shade. Bring a swimsuit if your kid, like mine, insists on getting completely soaked.
3) Boat Ride
Keeping a two-year old somewhat confined and entertained on a boat might not sound like the best idea but we’ve had nothing but great experiences with our super independent and wiggly son. The trick is to choose a sightseeing cruise (conveniently located at Navy Pier) that is short enough to avoid the dreaded meltdown. Our go-to includes the 40 minute Shoreline Classic Lake Tour or the 30 minute Seadog Speedboat Tour “The Lakefront Tour Experience” (do not mix up with their Extreme Thrill Rides).
4) Maggie Daley Park
Maggie Daley Park is THE park I take my toddler to when we have a good block of time for some serious fun. The 20-acre park really is a spectacular playground for toddlers. With plenty of green space to run around on, the best part of this park is the play garden. The set-up is completely different from a typical park or playground. It is charming, imaginative and conveniently separates areas for various age groups.
5) Millennium Park
Millennium Park is a lovely, well-kept green space where multiple events occur throughout the year. It is also home to two popular tourist attractions that absolutely delight my two-year old.
Cloud Gate, known as The Bean, is a big shiny bean-shaped sculpture that is perfect for a photo op but also for a toddler that is highly entertained by reflective surfaces. Catch the reflection of the Chicago skyline or just your kid pulling funny faces.
The Crown Fountain, an interactive work of public art, is quite the unique 50-foot sculpture. LED screens randomly flash the faces of 1000 residents while actual water spouts out of their mouths. This means that on a hot day, kids and adults get to cool off and splash around. I’m not sure if my toddler is most amused by the faces or the mouths spitting water but he is always entertained. The area can get slippery so make sure your kid has stable shoes and doesn’t run.
6) Chicago Riverwalk
The Chicago Riverwalk is basically steps from our home so this is definitely a go-to for us. From walking our beloved doggie to strollering our now toddler when he was a newborn, it holds a special place. My son often requests to come here to watch the boats and kayakers (if you see a kid pretending to paddle, it’s probably my kid). The mile plus route offers the opportunity to just walk and take it all in or hop on a bike, ride the water taxi, grab a bite to eat, catch some live entertainment, enjoy the floating gardens, etc. Plan your visit during one of the bridge lift days to really delight your toddler.
Don’t miss the the Water Plaza (La Salle to Wells) on a really hot day. There is a charming little fountain where little ones can splash in the water sprays.
7) Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
Located in Lincoln Park, the Peggy Notebaert Museum is dedicated to expanding knowledge of nature and environmental science. While this might sound advanced for a young child, the museum is actually very toddler-friendly with numerous hands-on exhibits. From an up close visit with critters to an obligatory “burn some energy” play space, the Peggy Notebaert is a gem in the city. Be sure to check out the signature Judy Istock Butterfly Haven (home to over 1,000 butterflies) and maybe even catch the daily First Flight Butterfly Release. The museum is accessible via several convenient bus routes and many visitors choose to combine it with a visit to the nearby Lincoln Park Zoo or Green City Market.
8) Garfield Park Conservatory
Rain or shine, the Garfield Park Conservatory is a FREE and lovely destination for families. It is especially lovely during bitter winter days when you just need to be surrounded by greenery and tropical temperatures. While toddlers will enjoy all the gardens, the Elizabeth Morse Genius Children’s Garden gives kids a chance to play while also learning about plants in a comfy setting. Warning: your toddler will want to try the giant slide on your visit. Check the calendar for current happenings (from goat visits to kid-friendly concerts) throughout the year. Parking is free or just hop on the Green Line to the Conservatory-Central Park Drive Stop.