Things to Do in Chicago in the Summer 2016

Chicago is the perfect city in the summer time. Hot sunny days, tempered by a nice lake breeze. Attractions with just the right balance of fun, education, and excitement.

Bike rides, Ferris wheels, ice cream cones, maybe even a cruise. And of course, an unbeatable lineup of delightful summer events for 2016!

If you’re planning a visit and looking for things to do in Chicago in the summer, check out our list of the top attractions and activities going on this year, including…

  • Sunset Series – 360 CHICAGO
  • Grant Park Music Festival
  • Ride the Centennial Wheel at Navy Pier
  • Architecture River Cruise
  • and more…

Heading to the area to celebrate Independence Day? Then check out our post on things to do in Chicago 4th of July Weekend.

Save on Attraction Admission

Regular admission to a number of of these popular Chicago activities are included on the Go Chicago® Card.

Choose as you go from dozens of top attractions and save up to 55% on combined admission vs paying at the gate.

See all available passes, attractions & prices – Learn more.

Please note, the special summer events taking place at these attractions may be separately ticketed and not included on the Go Chicago Card.

Festivals & Free Events

Sunset Series – 360 CHICAGO

Mondays, Tuesdays, & Thursdays throughout the summer

360-Chicago-John-Hancock-Tower-5Summer is the perfect time to visit the fabulous 360 CHICAGO observation deck.

In addition to awesome year-round attractions like TILT and their interactive displays, this summer they’re also hosting a series of special evening events that are fun for the whole family. All events take place on the 94th floor from 6-9 pm.

Monday is Photography Night, when visitors have a rare chance to bring in tripods to help capture that perfect skyline shot.

On Tuesdays, Chicago Architecture Foundation staffers come to be “guides in the sky” for interested viewers.

Finally, on Thursdays, DJs from Mode Events will provide lively entertainment.

The Sunset Series events are all part of regular 360 Chicago ticket admission, which is included on the Go Chicago Card.

Taste of Chicago – Grant Park

July 6 – July 10, 2016

This festival is a Chicago attraction that I’ve truly come to love over the years.

It’s perfect for foodies, culinary adventurers, or heck, anyone who just enjoys a good snack.

Enjoy samples from more than 200 different dishes, spanning every cuisine from American and Italian to African and Indian.

Plus, you’ll also enjoy live music, comedy shows, and special activities just for the kids.

Evening concerts will be held at the Petrillo Music Shell, and free daytime performances will be at the Bud Light Stage.

Concerts and entrance to the festival grounds are free, but food and beverages are available on a (very inexpensive) ticket system.

Grant Park Music Festival – Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park

mid June – late August, 2016

Image Credit: Christopher Neseman

Image Credit: Christopher Neseman

Millennium Park and the adjacent Grant Park are the outdoor spaces to be at this summer in Chicago.

You’ll find everything from free evening concerts to massive festivals for music, arts, crafts, and – my favorite – food.

Although there are dozens of music events throughout the city this summer, the Grant Park Music Festival has the attractive quality of being free.

You’ll enjoy dozens of professional performances and events, including: free evening concerts 3x a week (bring picnic food!); a choral performance of Shakespeare in the Park; and shows featuring the work of classical composers like Haydn, Mendelssohn, Handel, Beethoven, Mozart, and more.

You’ll also see jazz nights, mariachi nights, youth performances, and ballet, to name a few.

For a full list of performances, visit the Grant Park Music Festival website.

Summer Film Series – Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park

Tuesdays, June 21 – August 30, 2016

chicago-summer-film-series
Free film screenings each Tuesday!

The Pritzker Pavilion has been recently refitted with an awesome new high-tech outdoor screen.

Sound and image are crystal clear all the way to the back of the Great Lawn, so wherever you set up your chairs or blanket, you’ll enjoy the full movie experience.

For more information on specific films and show times, visit the Summer Film Series website.

Chicago Food & Wine Festival – Lincoln Park & Grant Park

official dates TBD (typically in August)

chicago-food-wine-festival
This festival is an awesome new addition to Chicago’s already stellar lineup of summer festivals and events.

You’ll find food tastings, wine and cocktail samples, interesting seminars, demonstrations, and more at this multi-faceted culinary delight.

Meet famous chefs, acclaimed winemakers, and experts in spirits from around the world.

You’ll see some of Chicago’s best culinary experts alongside international sensations, and you can expect nothing but the best out of all your samples and tastings.

Tickets to this event can be a bit pricey, so it’s definitely an investment.

Outdoor Summer Activities in Chicago

Navy Pier

Navy Pier

Navy Pier is full of family fun!

This family-favorite attraction is actually one of Chicago’s most visited places in the entire city, so it’s definitely worth checking out if you haven’t been before.

Stroll the pier and soak up the atmosphere for free, ride the Navy Pier rides, (like the newly renovated Centennial Wheel), play a round of mini golf at ‘The Links’, or explore the Chicago Children’s Museum.

For those looking for the ultimate dining and shopping experience, this is definitely the place for you.

With over 30 shops and plenty of restaurants including the famous Landshark Beer Garden, there is something for everyone at Navy Pier.

Check out their spectacular fireworks display that is going on all summer long.

The fireworks display can be seen every Wednesday night at 9:30 and Saturdays at 10:15 beginning in late May and continuing through early September, with a special display for July 4th.

Architecture River Cruise

Shoreline-Architectural-River-Cruise-pt-3If you’re looking for a refreshing thing to do in Chicago in the summer, we highly recommend the Architecture River Cruise.

The tour provides an exciting journey through the history of Chicago, featuring architectural sites that attribute to the tales.

Along the Chicago River, you’ll hear the dramatic story of Chicago’s rise from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1871 to become the home of the skyscraper.

You’ll learn about the many world-famous architects who built this skyline from the ground up.

Rent a Bike

bike-and-roll-chicago
What better way to enjoy the sights and the sun at the same time than with a Chicago bicycle tour?

Bike and Roll Chicago offers no-hassle bike rentals to help you create your own eco-friendly tour of Chicago’s streets and green spaces.

Ride north to Lincoln Park, with the Zoo and Chicago History Museum, or south to Grant Park and the Museum Campus.

Stick to the lakefront to discover beaches, gardens, and lagoons, or head into the streets to see some of the city’s most luxurious homes, cobblestone sidewalks, and beautiful parks.

Brookfield Zoo

brookfield-zoo-chicago
Animal lovers won’t want to miss Chicagoland’s biggest zoo, the Brookfield Zoo.

It has a wide variety of species both domestic and exotic, including some rare exhibits like the “Great Bear Wilderness,” which features grizzlies, polar bears, and more.

This summer, they’re introducing a fantastic lineup of new events, exhibits, and animal performances.

A bird show entitled “Festival of Flight” (running now through September 5) features more than 20 different species of birds engaging in exhilarating natural behaviors.

The 3-acre “Wild Encounters” exhibit offers opportunities to feed, pet, and otherwise interact with a diversity of creatures from red pandas to wallabies.

Adults may also want to check out the “Zoo Brew” event on August 26 & 27, 2016, which offers entertainment and craft beers for the 21+ crowd.

Please note, this event is separately ticketed and not included with the Go Chicago Card, as this event is not included with regular Brookfield Zoo admission.

Hit the Beaches

Lake Michigan - isn't it beautiful?

Lake Michigan – isn’t it beautiful?

Located on the shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago is home to many beautiful beaches with bright blue waters that stretch so far you may catch yourself wondering when you got to the ocean! Oak Street Beach is a stone’s throw from the magnificent mile and is an extremely popular people-watching venue.

If you want to get a little bit of a summer tan while lounging by the water, there’s no need to book a hotel with a pool.

Head to Oak Street Beach (or any of the other lakefront beaches in Chicago) for a chance to enjoy the sun, sand, and surf at one of the country’s largest lakes.

Oak Street Beach also features a fun restaurant and bathrooms for your convenience, so make an entire afternoon of it! There’s even a nice lakefront trail for those of you who enjoy a long walk or a beachside bike ride.

North Avenue Beach is the busiest in Chicago and is a great place for people of all ages. There are plenty of volleyball courts as well as shops, concessions, and a full service restaurant. If you’re planning on driving be sure to get there early as parking fills up fast.

Insider tip: Many of these beaches are also accessible by public transportation, so you can avoid the hassle of parking altogether!

Millennium Park

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Millennium Park is one of the city’s most popular destinations and is am amazing thing to do in Chicago in the summer time. Since its opening in 2004, this 24.5 acre park has been host to millions of visitors from around the world, and it’s no wonder why.

The award-winning architecture and landscape design make it a unique destination, not to mention the over 500 free events that the park holds every year! Millennium Park offers both a concessions tent as well as a full-service restaurant, Park Grill.

The park is open from 6:00 am until 11:00 pm daily and admission is free.

Check out Lurie Garden, a delightful mini-garden that is a favorite among locals, especially kids. It’s designed to be both aesthetically pleasing and educational, so it’s a great stop for the whole family.

If it’s really hot, feel free to dip your feet in the shallow water. Bring a camera to this charming locale!

Lincoln Park

Lincoln-Park-Zoo-Carousel-and-Children-s-Train-3If you want to venture out of the immediate downtown area, be sure to check out the beautiful Lincoln Park, located just north of the Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago, this park is full of fun, family-friendly activities everyone will love.

With its 1,200 acres and abundance of activities, it’s easy to spend an entire day in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. Bring a picnic lunch and enjoy the warm summer air.

The Lincoln Park Zoo (free!) is another welcome option, a surprisingly comprehensive collection of critters from around the world that offers free admission every day.

Meet a few of your favored animals, then ride the endangered animals carousel and children’s train.

The zoo gets very crowded in the afternoon so be sure to get there early. While you’re visiting, be sure to hit the Lincoln Park Conservatory and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

And don’t worry about hunger getting in the way of your trip, there are plenty of great restaurants to choose from in Lincoln Park.

Visit Wrigley Field

Whether you’re a baseball fan or not, no visit to Chicago is complete without a stop at Wrigley Field.

Wrigley is the second oldest ballpark in America (behind Fenway Park), and the highly-recommended park tours are offered daily.

For those visitors interested in catching a game, an afternoon spent watching the Cubs at Wrigley Field is sure to be a vacation highlight!

Splash Around Buckingham Fountain

Buckingham Fountain is one of the largest fountains in the world and one of Chicago’s most popular attractions.

The fountain runs from 8:00 am until 11:00 pm daily with a fantastic water display every hour on the hour.

Although the display runs all day, it is best seen after dusk at which time lights and music accompany the already amazing show.

The fountain is located in Grant Park and is a must-see for first time visitors and residents alike!

Museums & Aquariums

Shedd Aquarium & Museum Campus

Belugas at the Shedd Aquarium.

Belugas at the Shedd Aquarium.

It may seem counterintuitive to seek to spend time indoors just as the weather’s getting nice, but trust me, it’s worth your time to pop into this top-tier Chicago aquarium for a few hours to explore the magical and wondrous creatures that inhabit their exhibits.

A popular place to start is with a special, temporary exhibit called “Amphibians” (ticketed separately) that features more than 40 species of frogs, salamanders and more. Don’t forget about their classic touch tanks and popular Abbott Oceanarium.

Located right nearby and a part of Chicago’s Museum Campus is the Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium. All of these stops should find their way onto your vacation itinerary.

The Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago

This world-renowned art museum (voted the best museum in 2014 by Trip Advisor in an international poll) is a must-see for any arts and culture lover this summer.

While it offers exceptional programming year round, summer is a great time to take advantage of the family events calendar, which features special workshops and family gallery tours.

Home to some of the highest-quality works of art on Earth and its collection represents diverse artistic traditions from all over the world, from the famous Chagall windows to iconic paintings like “American Gothic” and “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” you’ll find so many instantly recognizable pieces and artifacts in this marvelous museum.

Don’t forget to check out their impressive and ever-changing array of special exhibits, including my favorite, “Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem.”

Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)

Faheem Majeed Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden, 2012 Hyde Park Art Center Photo: Tony Smith Courtesy of the artist

Faheem Majeed, “Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden,” 2012
Hyde Park Art Center Photo: Tony Smith, courtesy of the artist

Another one for the aspiring artists and lovers of all things beautiful and inspiring.

This cutting-edge contemporary art museum features striking and often thought-provoking pieces of art from current and modern artists from around the globe.

They, too, have frequent special exhibits, including this summer’s striking “Witness” exhibition. Check out their website to see what’s currently on!

Let’s Recap

So there you have it. Our picks for some of the top things to do in Chicago in the summer.

Please note, the summer events taking place at some of these attractions may be separately ticketed and not included with the Go Chicago Card.

Plan to visit some of these top attractions during your trip. Whether you are traveling with your family or a couple of friends, we’re sure you will have a great time.

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