Illinois is the Land of Lincoln, but most families come to this state to enjoy the modern city of Chicago. Luckily there are many fun things to do in Illinois, both in Chicago and beyond!
From the Cloud Gate in Millennium Park to the family-friendly Art Institute of Chicago, many of the best places to visit in Illinois are in the Windy City. However, if you come to the Prairie State and only visit Chicago, you’ll be missing out. Illinois actually it’s a wonderland of natural beauty, from the banks of the Mississippi River to the wooded hills of the Shawnee National Forest.
Have fun and stay at these family-friendly hotels in Illinois.
Top 10 Fun Things to Do in Illinois
10. Cheer for the Home Team at Wrigley Field
Chicago has its fair share of sports teams. Whether you want to cheer for “Da Bears” during football season, partake in the north side vs. south side baseball rivalry between the Cubs and the White Sox, watch some Bulls basketball, or Blackhawks hockey, you are sure to have a good time.
Not enough time to catch a game? Taking a stadium tour lets you go behind the scenes and access the normally inaccessible. In less than an hour you’ll learn secrets you’d never know about otherwise. Choose from a tour of the beloved Wrigley Field, Guaranteed Rate Field, or Soldier Field, the largest veteran’s memorial outside of D.C.
If you want something more low key and manageable, nothing beats the family-friendly atmosphere at the minor league games of the Kane County Cougars, Schaumburg Boomers, or Peoria Chiefs. In Freeport, little sluggers will get a kick out of the Little Cubs Field, a mini-replica of Wrigley Field with actual ivy, dirt, and seats from the original stadium.
Looking for lodging? Here are our picks for the best family hotels in Chicago.
9. Enjoy Some of Chicago’s Architectural Wonders
What do you get when you combine jaw-dropping architecture, beautiful landscaping, and year round entertainment? Why, Millenium Park, of course! Take a requisite photo by the world famous “Cloudgate” also affectionately known as the “Bean.” In the summer, listen to the sounds of music from a summer concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, participate in the Family Fun festival, or get splashed at the Crown Fountain.
In the winter, show off your ice skating skills at the McCormick Tribune Ice rink, or listen to Christmas carols at the “Bean.” One thing’s for sure – Millenium Park is truly a year-round destination that poses the perfect diversion from the normal. If you are visiting during the holiday season, be sure to read our guide on the top holiday events in Chicago.
If you have a burgeoning architect in your group, you must visit some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous works. Chicago classics include The Rookery, the Frederick C. Robie house, the Bach House, Unity Temple, and his own home and studio. Guided tours are offered through the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust.
Trekaroo tip: Make sure to stop and visit the Dana Thomas house when in Illionois’ capital city of Springfield.
8. Step Back in Time and Appreciate the Small Town Charm of Galena
For picture-perfect views and a step back in time, a visit to one of the many charming small towns in Illinois is just what you need. With an enchanting downtown lined with historic brick buildings, gorgeous scenic vistas with rolling hills, and a rich history, it’s easy to see why family-friendly Galena gets the national recognition it does.
Main Street is not to be missed with over 90 shops, boutiques, restaurants, art galleries and more – in buildings that date back to the 19th century. You may want to steer the kids away from most of the antique (read: fragile) shops, and divert them to more kid-friendly stores instead. Kids will have a blast riding down the alpine slide at the nearby Chestnut Mountain Resort.
History lovers will definitely want to make a stop at the Ulysses S. Grant home. Our 18th president was given this home by residents of Galena in 1865, as thanks for his remarkable Civil War service. Guided tours run Wednesday through Sunday.
Movie lovers, on the other hand, will love exploring Woodstock, the location of the film Groundhog Day. For those who relish Victorian architecture, cobblestone streets, or a historic square, you’ll realize why people choose to visit this Midwestern town.
7. Visit the Hometown of Superman
Do you have a Superman fan? If you do, a visit to Metropolis, THE official hometown of Superman, is a must! With names such as Superman Square and the local newspaper fondly named the Metropolis Planet, it’s clear that this small town of 6,500 people has embraced the Man of Steel. Don’t forget your camera – there are plenty of photo ops throughout town. Have your little superheroes pose by Metropolis’ famous 15-foot statue of Superman. You can also snap a pic at the new Lois Lane statue, a Kryptonite meteorite, or Clark Kent’s photo booth. For more fun pictures, find cut-outs of Superman and Lois Lane scattered throughout town.
Take a peek inside the Super Museum, the world’s largest collection of Superman, to find rare collectibles, props, costumes, and other memorabilia. Don’t forget to stop by the gift shop for a one-of-a-kind gift. A Metropolis visit would not be complete without a trip to the largest Dippin’ Dots ice cream shop on the planet where you’ll find super flavors like “Lois Lime” and “Clark’s Cookies n’ Cream.” Yum.
Mark your calendars for the annual Superman Celebration in June where over 100,000 people celebrate the Man of Steel. Don’t forget to wear your superman costume to win the best-dressed contest, participate in superhero game shows, enjoy (or participate) in a peanut butter and jelly eating contest, or meet actual movie stars. Sounds like a super fun time for the family!
6. Have an Animal Encounter at the Brookfield Zoo
It’s no secret that kids LOVE seeing animals. You find most of your favorite animals at the Brookfield Zoo, and it caters to families and children. Within the zoo is the Hamill Family Play Zoo, where kids are encouraged to do what they do best – touch, explore, build, and do.
Bring the whole family to the Zoo and book your hotel in Brookfield for your stay!
To see animals more in their natural setting in the Prairie State, look no further than the Wildlife Prairie Park. At the park, you’ll find bison, black bears, and other 50 native species to Illinois roaming around the grounds. For more of a wild time, catch a ride on their safari-like bus. It drives through the prairie where elk and bison wander freely or ride the train to view the surroundings from a different point of view. For an even more unique experience, spend the night on the grounds sleeping in a cabin, cottage, tent, a real caboose car, or stables.
Growling for more animal interactions? Check out this list of family-friendly animal outings around Chicago.
5. Spend a Day at Navy Pier in Chicago
Navy Pier, located on the shores of Lake Michigan, was once used for shipping and recreational purposes, but today it has become Midwest’s #1 tourist destination. There’s so much to do for families. Sure, there’s the iconic 15 story Ferris Wheel that you can ride, but the family fun doesn’t stop there!
Stop by the Chicago Children’s Museum where learning through play is the main agenda. Or catch a kid-friendly Chicago Shakespeare Theater show or an IMAX movie. Cruise on Lake Michigan with a scenic Shoreline cruise or a thrilling Seadog cruise. Enjoy seasonal offerings like Winter Wonderfest’s holiday happenings or fireworks on summer nights.
4. Walk in Lincoln’s Footsteps at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
As “The Land of Lincoln,” Illinois has more than its fair share of attractions and historical sites revolving around the 16th President. For all things Lincoln, the very first place on your list should be the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum that combines state-of-the-art interactive exhibits with history.
For a more authentic experience, walk in Honest Abe’s footsteps at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, a four-block neighborhood restored as it was in Civil War America that includes his actual home.
Ready to immerse yourself in more history? Look no further than the recreated working pioneer village of Lincoln’s New Salem where Lincoln worked. Period re-enactors are on hand for demonstrations, and you can even participate in activities from that era.
If you are in Springfield and need a break from history, visit during the Illinois State Fair. It is one of the largest agricultural fairs in the United States. From good but not-good-for-you foods to can’t-miss-attractions such as a cow sculpted from 500 pounds of butter, the fair is anything but ordinary. For other diversions, visit the Henson Robinson Zoo or the Knight’s Action Park & Splash Kingdom.
After a day of exploring Springfield, it’s time to rest. Check here for family-friendly Springfield accommodations.
3. Get your kicks on Route 66
Route 66 is THE ultimate road trip. Not only does it start in Illinois, but for 400 miles it boasts the largest concentration of The Mother Road’s kitschy roadside attractions, museums, and restaurants. Who can resist stopping to see the world’s largest catsup bottle or seeing a 19-foot Paul Bunyan holding a hotdog? Lucky for you, we have compiled a great Route 66 road trip itinerary.
While cruising down Route 66, pit stops to would not be complete without chowing down at Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket, indulging in ice cream at Rich & Creamy at Broadways, grabbing a blue-plate special at the original Palms Grill Café, or visiting the originators of the corn dog on a stick at Cozy Dog’s Drive-In. Experience a taste of Americana for yourselves! Not only will you find nostalgic attractions, but Route 66 has welcomed modern attractions such as a new automobile museum and a museum dedicated to all things Route 66 at the Hall of Fame and Museum in Pontiac.
2. Unleash Your Inner Scientist at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry
The Museum of Science and Industry’s mission is to inspire the creative genius in everyone. After exploring through 14 acres of world class hands-on exhibits, kids and adults will no doubt leaving being inspired. As the largest science museum in the western hemisphere, it is nearly impossible to see and do everything in one day.
Younger kids can spend the majority of the day playing at the Idea Factory with interactive exhibits perfect for the pint-sized science fans. Kids will be amazed at watching a toy created from start to finish at the ToyMaker 3000.
Young (and old) train fans will marvel at over 30 trains chugging through 1,400 feet of track and landmarks. They can even climb aboard a tour of the Pioneer Zephyr, America’s first diesel-electric passenger train. Older kids will be fascinated with Science Storms by making Mother Nature’s phenomena such as tornadoes, tsunamis, or lightning interactive. Talk about mind over matter! Adults will enjoy hopping aboard an actual U-505 World War II German submarine.
For more hands-on-fun, The Discovery Center Museum in Rockford is worth a visit. The exhibits may be loads of fun, but families should make time for its outdoor science park that combines a wooden playground with hands-on experiments.
Book your hotel in Rockford for more science fun!
1. Marvel at Illinois’ Natural Beauty at Starved Rock State Park and Shawnee National Forest
With five scenic byways, over 50 different state parks, and a plethora of nature centers, you won’t have to travel far to find fun things to do in Illionois is the great outdoors. Magnificent doesn’t begin to describe the massive 70-mile Shawnee National Forest with its rolling hills, lakes, and rugged bluffs. For an experience like no other, don’t miss the Garden of the Gods. Its massive sandstone rock formations and magnificent bluffs live up to its name.
At Starved Rock State Park, your outdoor adventure awaits as you explore 18 canyons, waterfalls, and unbeatable views of the Illinois River from 100 feet above. Hike over 13 miles of well-marked hiking trails with varying levels of difficulty. The park offers a variety of family-friendly programming that includes guided family hikes or even one-on-one time with animals.
Looking for a place to stay? Staying by these state parks doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice comfort. If you’re in the Shawnee National Forest, how about sleeping in a treehouse? At Starved Rock, stay at the Starved Rock Lodge, one of the Midwest’s finest park lodges.
Lead image by: Shutterstock/sorbis
From coast to coast, we’re determining the Top 10 Things to do with Kids in each state of our great nation.