Chicago is an amazing city, with plenty of sights to see and places to visit. We know that it may be overwhelming when first visiting as to what attractions to add to your itinerary.
If you and your family are looking for the top things to do in Chicago during your trip, check out our list of the best local attractions, including…
- Shedd Aquarium
- SkyDeck Chicago
- Architecture River Cruise
- Navy Pier
- Art Institute of Chicago
- and more…
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The Shedd Aquarium has been creating joy and wonderment in visitors for almost 100 years with its amazing collection is home to an amazing collection of fish, fauna, and mammals alike.
See non-native species like frogs hanging out in a tank designed to create their home habitat. Watch with delight as the sea otters zoom around their space. Stop at the wild coral reef at the center of the building in order to watch the divers descend into the tank and live feed the inhabitants.
Fun fact: The original owner of the aquarium, John G. Shedd, used to have tanker cars full of sea water shipped in from Florida on a regular basis until a method to turn freshwater into saltwater was created.
The Field Museum
The Field Museum of Natural History is Chicago’s premier natural history museum and one of the largest of its kind in the world.
Founded with an endowment from Marshall Field who started the famous department store of the same name, it has since gone on to house one of the finest collections of artifacts in the United States.
Everything from precious gems to Sue the T-Rex skeleton are found at the Field.
Major traveling exhibitions come through on a regular basis along with Chicago-themed special exhibitions.
Permanent exhibits range from “old fashioned” dioramas of animals in their natural habitats to interactive displays that are fun for kids of all ages.
The Adler Planetarium is an observatory that also functions as a museum, theater and research center.
It’s located near the Shedd Aquarium along the lakefront and commands an unblocked view of the skies above.
Visitors get to see antique instruments used to chart the night sky in the exhibition portion, then catch a show in one of the theaters.
The Doane Observatory is the largest aperture telescope in the area, and is open to the public.
The Grainer Sky Theater gives visitors an immersive viewing experience while the Samuel C. Johnson Family Star Theater presents shows in 3D.
The Definiti Theater uses a digital projection system for the sharpest possible images projected onto the screen.
A visit to the Adler is educational and popular thing to do, opening up the mind of the visitor to the space beyond our world.
SkyDeck Chicago is located at the top of the Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower.
Windows on all sides of the SkyDeck Chicago observatory give unparalleled views of the surrounding city and the environs beyond.
Watch planes land at O’Hare out to the west or Midway to the southwest on a clear day. Look north and south to view Chicago neighborhoods all the way up to the city borders and beyond.
Step out onto The Ledge and dare yourself to look down to the city below. The Ledge is a glass enclosure that lets visitors step out of the building and onto a glass floor to give the sensation of being suspended in the air. Talk about some scary fun!
360 Chicago is the observatory on the 96th floor of the John Hancock building.
Just like the SkyDeck, 360 Chicago it has windows on all sides for views of the surrounding area. It’s not as high as SkyDeck, but for those who want to see more detail of Chicago’s architecture, 360 is the place to go.
It’s possible to see the neighboring states of Michigan and Indiana on a clear day, and interesting weather patterns can be seen in the distance when the weather is not so nice.
A small cafe’ and bar offer refreshments, and seating is available for guests to use while looking out at the city and Lake Michigan.
Architecture River Cruise
The Chicago Architecture River Cruise is curated by the Chicago Architecture Foundation and takes guests on a tour of the Chicago river.
Docents talk about more than 50 buildings along the Chicago River and discuss their importance to the development of Chicago.
The tour takes about 90 minutes to complete, and the boat has a full-service bar and quality amenities. It’s a highly popular, interesting, and unique way to see buildings that might otherwise be missed during your trip.
Classic Lake Tour
The Classic Lake Tour travels out onto Lake Michigan with docents that discuss the buildings that make up the Chicago skyline.
Traveling north past Navy Pier to the Hancock Building, east out to the Lighthouse, and south towards the Sears Tower and Museum Campus.
The tour lasts about 40 minutes and runs daily from May to mid-October.
Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour
This hop-on hop-off Chicago bus tour allows you to explore Chicago at your own pace
Buses pick up and drop off passengers at popular destinations in the Michigan Avenue area, Streeterville, Navy Pier, and more.
Docents on the tour buses talk about important architecture and history of the area as the bus moves from stop to stop.
Ticket holders get on and off the bus at any of the stops while their pass is active, and can spend as much time as they like at each destination while the buses are in operation.
Navy Pier Centennial Wheel & Rides
Navy Pier, once known as Municipal Pier before World War II, is a pier that extends out into Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Chicago River.
It boasts a newly-redesigned Ferris Wheel (called the Centennial Wheel) and a handful of amusement park-type rides.
The pier is also home to the Children’s Museum, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, weekly fireworks, numerous eating options, live concerts and gardens.
Stroll around the pier to enjoy everything it has to offer or take a cruise on one of the many boat tour companies that moor at the pier during the warmer months.
Millennium Park & Cloud Gate
Millennium Park is located at the north end of Grant Park and features the famous sculpture by Anish Kapoor known as the Cloud Gate.
Locals call it The Bean due to its shape, but its mirrored finish and curves create fascinating reflections that captures the attention of everyone who passes by.
The park is also home to a fountain with two glass tower fountains. The tower fountains have faces projected into them to make it look as if the mouths are streaming water into the pool.
Stop at the peristyle to rest for a bit, or get a bite to eat at the outdoor cafe’ in the summer, or skate in the ice rink during the winter.
The Magnificent Mile
The Magnificent Mile, also known as Le Boul Mich, consists of the stretch of Michigan Avenue from the river at the south end and Oak Street at the north.
Restaurants and retail of all types are located on this tiny strip, making it a must-see destination for retail therapy.
Many universities and businesses are located here, giving the street a vibrant feel at almost all hours of the day.
Don’t miss the original Water Tower and Pumping Station, two famous survivors of the Chicago Fire of 1871.
Lincoln Park Zoo
Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the United States and has been free to the public since its inception. The zoo is located in the center of Lincoln Park and offers visitors an unparalleled experience year-round.
Explore the Reptile House to see all things that slither or head over to the outdoor exhibits for the polar bears to see them swimming in their pool.
Check out the waterfowl lagoon to see water-dwelling birds in an open habitat, or stop at the lion house and watch a pride of big cats enjoy the day.
Every winter the zoo puts on a light show that is a must-see.
Art Institute of Chicago
The Art Institute of Chicago rests in the center of Grant Park along Michigan Avenue.
Its entrance is flanked by two famous lion statues that were sculpted by Edward Kennys for the museum’s opening in 1893.
The museum has an incredible collection of functional, practical, and decorative arts from all around the world and of all ages.
The museum also houses an incredible collection of Impressionist paintings, and is home to George Seurat’s “Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte”, a large painting and the only one of its kind.
Museum of Science and Industry
The Museum of Science and Industry is a little off the beaten path in Hyde Park, but is worthy of the time it takes to get there.
The museum itself is a part of Chicago history, having been part of the Columbian Exposition of 1893.
The collection includes Colleen Moore’s Fairy Tale dollhouse is a wonderment made from precious gems and materials. See how German submariners had to live during WWII in the U-505 submarine, or how the age of fast train travel was born with the introduction of the Pioneer locomotive.
So there you have it. Our picks for some of the most popular and top things to do in Chicago for first time visitors.
Pick up a Go Chicago Card and save up to 55% on combined admission vs paying at the gate to many of these attractions.
Plan to visit some of these top attractions during your trip. Whether you are traveling with young kids, teens, or just adults, we’re sure you and your family will have a great time.