Top 10+ Things to Do in Chicago for First Time Visitors – Must See & Do Attractions

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
  • Shoreline Architecture River Cruise
  • SkyDeck Chicago
  • Hop On Hop Off Big Bus Chicago
  • Navy Pier
  • Art Institute of Chicago
  • 360 Chicago
  • Adler Planetarium
  • Museum of Science and Industry
  • and more…

Save on Admission to Top Things to Do in Chicago

Many of these popular attractions in Chicago are included on the Go Chicago Card.

Choose as you go from dozens of top attractions and save up to 45% off combined admission vs. paying at the gate.

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

Sign Up and Save an Extra 5%

*Valid for All-Inclusive and Explorer purchases

1. Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour

This hop-on hop-off Chicago bus tour is the easiest way to get around the Windy City and visit all the must-see spots.

Along the way, you’ll enjoy entertaining and informative narration about Chicago’s famous architecture, history, and more. Get on or off at popular stops like the John Hancock Tower, Willis Tower, the Shedd Aquarium, Millenium Park and more.

Getting in: Hop-On Hop-Off Big Bus Chicago: 1-Day Classic Tour tickets are included on Go Chicago Card.

2. Shedd Aquarium

The Shedd Aquarium has been the crown jewel of Chicago’s Museum Campus for years. The aquarium, which is home to over 32,000 aquatic species, is a one-of-a-kind, top-notch marine biology institution.

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 habitat. Stop at the wild coral reef in the center of the building in order to watch the divers descend into the tank and live feed the inhabitants.

From Waters of the World to the Amazon Rising exhibits, you’re sure to find your favorite animal floating in a tank somewhere. There are also touch tanks and shows throughout the day that create a completely interactive visitors.

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.

Getting in: Shedd Aquarium tickets are included on Go Chicago Card.

3. The Field Museum

The Field Museum 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.

Permanent exhibits range from “old fashioned” dioramas of animals in their natural habitats to interactive displays that are fun for kids of all ages. See the Cyrus Tang Hall of China, full of cultural testament’s to the world’s most influential civilization, Evolving Planet, a walk through 4 million years of human life, or the DNA Discovery Center where you can see actual research into the intricate science of DNA.

Getting in: The Field Museum tickets are included on Go Chicago Card.

4. Adler Planetarium

The Adler Planetarium is an observatory that also functions as a museum, theater and research center. It’s located right near the Shedd Aquarium in the Museum Campus along the lakefront and offers an unblocked view of the skies above.

The exhibits and shows at the Adler explore all 91 billion light-years of the universe. Search for the ninth planet at the Planet Nine exhibit, crawl, climb, and fly through Planet Explorers, and take a fast-paced tour through our cosmic backyard in Destination Solar System.

With an All-Access admission pass, you’ll be able to see unlimited shows, special exhibits, and all that the planetarium has to offer.

Getting in: Anytime All-Access Adler Planetarium tickets are included on Go Chicago Card.

5. SkyDeck Chicago

SkyDeck Chicago is located at the very top of the Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower.

Panoramic 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 thrill-inducing fun!

Getting in: SkyDeck Chicago tickets included on Go Chicago Card.

6. 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.

Architecture and building design are huge parts of Chicago’s artistic culture. Many of the world’s most famous architects have hailed from the Windy City and some of the most famous buildings stand tall in the Chicago skyline.

On this cruise, you’re expert guide will point out some of the most famous and unique buildings along the river. Learn more about the history and creation of over 50 Chicago skyscrapers.

Getting in: Architecture River Cruise tickets are included on Go Chicago Card.

7. 360 CHICAGO

Journey up to 360 CHICAGO, the observatory on the 96th floor of the John Hancock building.

Similar to SkyDeck, 360 Chicago offers 360-degree views of the city from above. While it’s not as high as SkyDeck, it offers in-depth views of some of the most architecturally advanced buildings in the city. For art-lovers, it’s a great view.

A small cafe’ and bar offer refreshments, and seating is available for guests to use while looking out at the city and Lake Michigan.

Getting in: 360 CHICAGO tickets are included on Go Chicago Card.

8. 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.

Getting in: Navy Pier centennial Wheel & Ride tickets and Chicago Children’s Museum tickets are included on Go Chicago Card.

9. Lincoln Park Zoo

Lincoln-Park-Zoo-Carousel-and-Children-s-Train-1

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.

The zoo also boasts an animal carousel that kids love.

Getting in: Lincoln Park Zoo Ride tickets are included on Go Chicago Card.

Art Institute of Chicago

Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago rests in the center of Grant Park along Michigan Avenue. Its iconic 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. A visit to the museum is a must for any art-lover, as the institution is home to an incredible collection of Impressionist paintings, namely George Seurat’s “Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte”, a large painting and the only one of its kind.

The Art Institute of Chicago is consistently voted the #1 Museum in the World by TripAdvisor. Some of its most famous pieces include the Chagall “America Windows”, Matisse’s “Bathes by the River”, and Georgia O’Keefe’s “Black Cross, New Mexcio”.

Getting in: Art Institute of Chicago tickets are included on Go Chicago Card.

Museum of Science and Industry

Museum-of-Science-and-Industry-Omnimax-5

The Museum of Science and Industry is a little off the beaten path in Hyde Park, but is absolutely worth 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. It was also recently named one of the Top 25 Museums in the United States by TripAdvisor.

The institution’s collection includes many unique artifacts and displays, including Colleen Moore’s Fairy Tale dollhouse, 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.

Getting in: Museum of Science and Industry tickets are included on Go Chicago Card.

Millennium Park & the Cloud Gate Sculpture

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. It’s mirrored finish and curves create fascinating reflections that captures the attention of everyone who passes by. It’s a Chicago landmark and absolute must-see when visiting.

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.

Getting in: Millenium Park & the Cloud Gate Sculpture are open to the public.

The Magnificent Mile

Photo via US Travel News

The Magnificent Mile, also known as Le Boul Mich, is the stretch of Michigan Avenue from the river at the south end to Oak Street at the north.

Restaurants and retail of all types are located on this expansive strip, making it a must-see destination for retail therapy. Many universities and businesses are located here as well, giving the street a vibrant and lively 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.

Getting in: Magnificent Mile is open to the public.

Let’s Recap

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 45% 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.

The information contained in this post, to the best of the author's knowledge, was accurate at time of publishing. We do our best to ensure and maintain the accuracy of this information.

Please leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

ERROR: si-captcha.php plugin: GD image support not detected in PHP!

Contact your web host and ask them to enable GD image support for PHP.

ERROR: si-captcha.php plugin: imagepng function not detected in PHP!

Contact your web host and ask them to enable imagepng for PHP.