Chicago is a city that has something for everyone. From the Willis Tower (the former Sears Tower) to the Art Institute of Chicago, world-renowned museums and gorgeous parks are just some of the many attractions that can be found in this amazing city. You’ll also find miles of stunning beaches, making Chicago a perfect destination for anyone looking for a vacation with plenty to do.
Are you traveling to Chicago as a couple or as a family with kids? If yes, the city is a great option for tourists in both cases. Here are some of the best attractions in Chicago listed for first-time travelers.
Chilly winter, delicious cuisine, stunning architecture, and baseball games are the things you might think of whenever someone mentions Chicago. However, did you know the 3rd-biggest city in the country has many thrilling activities, both indoor and outdoor, to offer?
With amazing landmarks such as Lake Michigan and the Chicago Riverwalk, Chicago is brutally underrated when it comes to adventure-filled vacations.
Whether you’re in love with the greenery and serene waters, or an enthusiast for art and architecture, Chicago can cater to all your adventurous whims. Without further ado, here’s my list of the best attractions in Chicago, to help you plan your next weekend trip.
Best Outdoor Tourist Attractions in Chicago
It’s highly unlikely for a hustling bustling metropolitan city to provide outdoor activity options. But, that’s not the case for Chicago. Chicago outdoor attractions are truly one of a kind, from sprawling parks to skyline river cruises to glacial lakes. This city is truly a haven for outdoor adventures.
1. Grant Park
I wouldn’t be wrong if I called Grant Park the face of Chicago city. Sitting between the high-end skyline of the metropolitan city and the lakefront, the park is 300 acres of recreational space for outdoor lovers.
Similarly, it has some of the most iconic Chicago attractions for kids, such as the Shedd Aquarium, and the Adler Planetarium. If you want to indulge in all its attractions, you should consider buying a Chicago CityPass to access all Grant Park attractions. Through their site, you can purchase your tickets beforehand with up to 9 days of validity to tour the park as you like.
Besides that, you can simply enjoy a peaceful outdoor excursion and feast your eyes on the unique greenery and majestic view. The star of the show is undoubtedly the Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain. Here, you can take memorable family photos and enjoy the lakefront view while sipping your favorite beverage.
See Related: Unusual Things to do in Chicago, IL
2. Lincoln Park
You’ve probably heard of the Chicago city motto, “urbs in horto,” meaning, “City in a Garden.” Nothing personifies the essence of this phrase better than the exemplary Lincoln Park. While the exuberant nightlife near the park is one of the best tourist attractions in Chicago, it has equally wonderful outdoor architecture.
The immense green park has many walking trails and a tranquil lakefront. This unique combination makes it an ideal place to enjoy outdoor activities, Chicago-style. For outdoor lovers, a walk through the 1200-acre park while experiencing Victorian architecture and rustic pathways is bound to be an Instagram-worthy excursion.
Furthermore, if you’re looking for Chicago tourist attractions for kids, you can take them to the zoo and the conservatory to spend a day from your itinerary. All of these attractions are found within the Lincoln Park vicinity.
Similarly, the park is a family-friendly area with wooded areas and trimmed vegetation so that you can enjoy a leisurely day out with your loved ones.
3. Chicago Lakefront Trail
Of all the outdoor activities Chicago is known for, Lake Michigan is the most celebrated attraction. Chicago’s Lakefront Trail further accentuates the renowned lake.
The 18-mile trail extends across multiple neighborhoods of the city, making it one of the most scenic routes that cover all of Chicago’s tourist destinations. You can use the trail to run, walk, or bike along the shore of Lake Michigan.
Moreover, you can catch views of the Navy Pier, the Museum District, Grant Park, and the distinct Chicago skyline while walking along the trail.
Similarly, if you buy the Chicago CityPass before venturing across the Lakefront Trail, you can get easy access to any of the tourist spots that appeal to you, and stop to take a look.
However, the trail can get quite crowded if you visit during the afternoon, and it doesn’t have many trees or shades to guard you against the sun. That’s why it’s not the ideal Chicago attraction for kids.
But, if you’re a morning person, this is one of the best attractions in Chicago for you. That’s because the midday sun won’t be out yet, and the trail isn’t too crowded during those hours.
See Related: Things to Do in Michigan
4. Chicago Botanic Garden
It is easy to get tired of the urban attributes and intimidating skyscrapers in a metropolitan city like Chicago. If you’re facing the same situation, the Chicago Botanic Garden is one of the best attractions in Chicago for nature lovers.
Visiting the Chicago Botanic Garden is like taking a breath of fresh air after the hustle of the city. You can simply take a peaceful walk or enjoy a family picnic in the garden while appreciating the natural beauty.
Besides that, if you’re traveling with the little ones, these gardens are the best Chicago attractions for kids. That’s because it is a preserved bird-watching area as well.
They can bring along their binoculars and watch spectacular and unique birds like scarlet tanagers, white-throated sparrows, and yellow warblers.
5. Oak Street Beach
Beaches are one of the best attractions in Chicago. But, they tend to become quite crowded, making them inconvenient for tourists looking for ideal Chicago attractions for kids.
These beaches are more peaceful and secluded as compared to the central city. You can spend your days relaxing on the sand and basking in the sun. Apart from that, you can indulge in fun outdoor activities like viewing the city skyline and witnessing the enchanting fireworks along the Navy Pier.
Also, you can rent speedboats, jet skis, kayaks, and paddleboards to enjoy thrilling water sports with your kids. One of the best outdoor activities Chicago offers is the paddleboard yoga class on the beaches. You can stretch out all your stress and worries on the sandy beach and head out on the paddleboard to continue your yoga ritual on the blue waters.
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6. Millennium Park
Whether you’re a tourist or a local, Millennium Park is one of the best attractions in Chicago for outdoor lovers. While you can have fun enjoying long walks and hikes across the park, it has many other outdoor activities to offer.
The city holds numerous performances and concerts at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion regularly. You can plan your vacation during the holiday season when the Pavilion has celebrity performances almost every week.
However, with hundreds of performances held throughout the year, you’ll most likely get a chance to join one whenever you plan your visit. Another fun aspect of The Millennium Park is ‘The Bean,’ which makes it one of the salient Chicago attractions for kids.
Officially named ‘Cloud Gate’ by its artist, Sir Anish Kapoor, the monument is a centerpiece of the Plaza at Millennium Park. Since it was unveiled in 2004, “The Bean” has become one of the best attractions in Chicago for tourists and locals alike. Simply said, your Chicago itinerary is incomplete without taking a selfie alongside ‘The Bean.’
Its shiny surface reflects the entire skyline of Chicago effectively. This means you can photograph yourself and your family with the city’s skyline in the backdrop and create memorable photographs for your travel album. Check out these best Chicago walking tours to see the city on foot.
See Related: Best Places to Visit in Illinois
7. Chicago River Tour
If you love cruising the waters while sipping drinks and enjoying the company of your loved ones, you should consider taking a boat cruise along the Chicago River. When you are done, visit the sneaky Chicago River Museum which is located right near Michigan Avenue. It’s an often forgot about museum. anto learn more about the history of the city and the importance of its relationship with the river.
The combination of the cruise and museum will make it one of your most enjoyable Chicago attractions for kids. You can also choose to take a nighttime tour where you can witness some of the best views in town. The illuminated skyline and spectacular bridges
If you are feeling more adventurous, you can hop on a kayak tour for around $20 per person. If you’re traveling in a large group, you can even rent your personal kayak and enjoy a leisurely time together.
First-time visitors can opt for guided tours to discover the historical architecture and quintessential bridges during the river cruise. Besides that, there are many places along the Chicago River where you can rent your kayak.
Regardless of your method of transport, a cruise on the Chicago River is an absolute must, you’ll get amazing views of the Wrigley Building, Merchandise Mart, and other skyline gems that make the Windy City skyline so special.
See Related: Hidden Gems in Old Town, Chicago
8. Jay Pritzker Pavilion
If you’re looking for a romantic night outdoors in Chicago, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion is a must-visit site for you. Located in the vicinity of Millennium Park, the Pavillion hosts free concerts with various genres of music. These include everything from rock to Pacific Afro.
It sports lawn-style seating designed by Frank Gehry. The construction creates an immersive experience for everyone around the stage. You’ll never feel as if you’re too far away from the stage, wherever you’re seated.
Besides that, the Pavilion offers one of the best outdoor dining in Chicago, combined with multiple outdoor movie screening areas. If you want to spend an eventful evening outdoors with your loved one, it has all the best attractions in Chicago for outdoor enthusiasts.
See Related: Best Day Trips from Chicago
9. The 606 Hiking Trail
For people who like to embrace the outdoors actively, hiking is the go-to adventure sport. But, did you know that you could find a hiking trail in a metropolitan city like Chicago?
The 606 is a unique hiking trail and one of the best outdoor attractions in Chicago. It is an elevated trail that’s built over run-down railway tracks.
The trail takes you through all the historical heritage of Chicago, along with its pleasant neighborhoods and peaceful gardens. You can use the paved trail to walk, run, or bike across the city.
The 606 begins from Walsh Park and ends at North Ridgeway Avenue. That’s roughly 2.5 miles. You cannot possibly hike through the whole track, but you can use it to access other popular outdoor attractions in Chicago.
If you buy the CityPass for Chicago before visiting the city, you can walk across the 606 trail and get off at well-known tourist attractions such as Humboldt Park and Wicker Park.
10. Lake Michigan
Lake Michigan offers lots of ways to cruise through its blue waters. But, nothing matches paddleboarding when it comes to experiencing the ultimate outdoor thrill.
Especially if you visit during the summer, you’ll find the lake water refreshingly cool to beat the heat. You can dedicate an entire day from your itinerary to paddleboarding and enjoying the lake with your family.
Many places have paddleboards available for rent, including Monroe Harbor and North Avenue Beach. Some of these places also let you take paddleboarding classes before stepping into the water.
So, even if you’re apprehensive about going paddleboarding with your family, you can have a learning experience together and then set out to have fun. Remember, paddleboarding can be quite exhausting, especially when it’s windy. But, if you plan your vacation during summer, this is one of the best attractions in Chicago for nature lovers.
See Related: Is Chicago Safe for Travelers?
11. Maggie Daley Park
Rock climbing is one of the best attractions in Chicago for those who crave adventure. Normally, you’d expect to find rock climbing options in national parks and rural areas. Surprisingly, you can do this activity inside the bustling city of Chicago in Maggie Daley Park.
The park has a 40-foot outdoor climbing wall, which has around 19000 square feet of climbing space in total. The best part is that the park offers climbing options for beginners to high-level climbers. This means you can have fun climbing with your family without any security hazards.
Besides that, the climbing area has crash pads and efficient safety staff to avoid unpleasant accidents that spoil your enjoyment.
You can try out bouldering and top-rope climbing. At the same time, children and beginning climbers can try lead climbing. You can rent the equipment you need from the park itself, in case you didn’t bring your own. The park has high-quality rental equipment like helmets, shoes, and belay devices for about $30-$50.
12. High-Speed Boat on Lake Michigan
There’s nothing like a high-speed cruise across the water to pump up your adrenaline levels. Speed boating is one of the best attractions in Chicago for visitors who love thrilling outdoor adventures.
You can take speedboat cruises lasting around 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the provider who arranges your tour. Many cruises begin at Navy Pier and move through the Museum Campus, ending at the Magnificent Mile.
Those who want the ultimate thrill can take extreme boat rides that include sharp twists and complete 360-degree turns. On the other hand, if you want a laid-back, relaxing experience, you can go for a leisurely boat tour and enjoy the picturesque views of the city.
13. Wrigley Field
Wrigley Field is an iconic landmark and one of the most popular attractions in Chicago. Wrigley Field, home to the Chicago Cubs, was built in 1914 and is the third-oldest baseball park in the U.S., following Boston’s Fenway Park. The park has witnessed several iconic baseball moments, including Babe Ruth’s ‘called shot’ in Game Three of the 1929 World Series.
Ballpark tour tours are carried during the season, where you have the chance to visit the press box, fields, or the dugout when there isn’t a game that day. Wrigley Field is also home to a variety of food options, from hot dogs to malt vinegar chips, so you can always find something to eat no matter how long the game goes or if you’re a fan of the Chicago Cubs or not.
It can be hard to get a ticket so check Wrigley Field tickets on Stubhub to ensure you get a seat at this historic stadium.
14. Magnificent Mile
The Magnificent Mile is a mile-long stretch of Michigan Avenue, one of the most famous streets in the United States. This popular shopping destination is home to some of the best department stores, restaurants, and attractions in the city. Known as “The Miracle Mile,” this neighborhood is home to many upscale stores and restaurants and has become one of Chicago’s top tourist attractions.
The Magnificent Mile runs from North Michigan Avenue between Oak Street and Wacker Drive, just south of Chicago’s Loop business district. It’s also home to some of the city’s most iconic buildings: The John Hancock Center, Water Tower Place, Wrigley Building, and Tribune Tower – which houses the Chicago Tribune Media Group.
Magnificent Mile offers plenty of great places to stay as well, including, some of the most luxurious hotels in the area such as the Park Hyatt, Four Seasons, and the Mandarin Oriental.
15. Lincoln Park Zoo
Lincoln Park Zoo is a great place to visit in Chicago. The zoo has a ton of animals, so it’s fun for both kids and adults. Lincoln Park Zoo also has a train that you can ride around the park on, which makes it easy to get around if your group has small children or doesn’t want to walk too much.
The zoo is open every day, so it’s convenient for people who have other things going on during the week but still want to check out an attraction during their stay in Chicago.
The Lincoln Park Zoo is a completely free zoo, so it’s a great attraction for people who are on a budget it’s one of the oldest zoos in the United States, so it has a lot of history. The zoo also features several educational programs and events, so it’s a great place to learn about animals.
16. Navy Pier
If you’re looking for a fun day out in Chicago, Navy Pier is definitely worth checking out. This iconic landmark offers a variety of shops, restaurants, entertainment venues, and more.
You can take a ride on the Ferris wheel, enjoy a show at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater or just stroll along the pier and take in the views. And if the weather’s nice and you’re traveling with kids, there’s no better place to be than Navy Pier.
The Navy Pier can get pretty touristy but it’s like that for a reason. You’ll get amazing views of downtown Chicago and Lake Michigan.
17. Chicago Water Tower
The Chicago Water Tower is a significant landmark in Chicago, Illinois. Located at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and North Wacker Drive in the Chicago Loop and the Magnificent Mile, it is part of a historic district that has been named a National Historic Landmark.
The tower is located on the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive. It was built to provide pressure for the city’s water supply system by gravity-fed water mains which drew water from Lake Michigan via a tunnel beneath the Chicago River at that point.
The building stands 147 feet tall with an observation deck that extends out over Michigan Avenue. The tower itself is constructed of Joliet limestone and is made up of multiple levels with a spiral staircase inside that leads to the observation deck. The tower is topped with a copper roof which is gilded in gold leaf. It’s one of few buildings to survive the Chicago Fire.
18. Buckingham Fountain
Buckingham Fountain is one of the most visited Chicago tourist attractions. The fountain is located in Grant Park and was built as a memorial to Kate Buckingham, the late philanthropist who helped beautify Chicago’s parks.
The fountain itself was designed by architect Edward Bennett and was dedicated in 1927. It features four sea horses that symbolize Lake Michigan, representing the four states that border the lake. The fountain is a stunning display of light and water show with over 1450 jets of water shooting to a height of 150 feet in the air.
The fountain operates from April through October in the late afternoon and evening hours when it’s lit up for an incredible spectacle of sound, color, and views of the city.
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Best Indoor Tourist Attractions in Chicago
If you need something to do in Chicago during the winter or on a rainy day, here are our favorite indoor sightseeing opportunities.
19. The Willis Tower
Formerly known as the Sears Tower, this 110-story skyscraper is a must-visit. The Willis Tower Skydeck is located on the 103rd floor of this iconic building. The Skydeck is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions and for good reason: you’ll see a beautiful view of Chicago from 103 floors above ground.
If you’re looking for an even more impressive view, consider walking out onto “The Ledge” — it’s only 1,353 feet high (or about five football fields), but it’ll give you a breathtaking experience that no other attraction can match.
The Ledge has glass barriers that are 4.3 inches thick with a glass bottom so that visitors can actually walk outside without any safety railings or guardrails to protect them from falling off. People come here in droves because they want an experience unlike anything else in Chicago—and it has been called “the most expensive thrill ride in America.”
20. The Art Institute of Chicago
The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the world’s premier art museums and one of the best in the United States. This incredible art museum houses some of the world’s greatest works of art, including pieces from Rembrandt and Monet. Also, you need to see Grant Wood’s American Gothic, which is featured here as well.
The Art Institute of Chicago has a permanent collection that includes over 300,000 works of art, making it one of the largest in North America. Its Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection is particularly impressive.
The museum has been located at its current location since 1893 when it was moved from its original home on Michigan Avenue (the building now houses part of the University Club). It was designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler who also designed the city hall, and Union Station, among others.
The new building features a series of five courtyards intended to provide light and air to each gallery while promoting circulation throughout the space.
21. Museum of Science and Industry
The Museum of Science and Industry is the perfect place to learn about science and technology. With more than 35,000 artifacts and interactive exhibits, it offers a unique and fun learning experience for everyone. Plus, it has the largest science museum on Earth, so you’re sure to enjoy a great adventure.
The Museum of Science and Industry has several interesting puzzle books that test your brain’s abilities. Or you could try stretching out on the human hamster or feeling the roar of the tornado. Either way, you’re sure to have a blast while learning about science and technology.
22. National Museum of Mexican Art
The National Museum of Mexican Art is located at 1852 W 19th Street, in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. The museum has a wide selection of exhibits, but what sets it apart from many other museums is its focus on contemporary art and artists.
In addition to galleries that display both historical and contemporary pieces by Mexican-American artists, the museum also hosts community events throughout the year.
23. Field Museum of Natural History
The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago is one of the largest and most well-known natural history museums in the world. The museum, which opened in 1893, features dozens of artworks spanning many different subjects. A trip to Chicago is a great place to visit for families, history enthusiasts, and curious travelers alike.
The Field Museum itself covers about ½ an acre and contains objects and displays that date back many different generations and come from many different locations. One of the most iconic skeletons on display at the Field Museum is that of SUE, a Tyrannosaurus rex. SUE measures an impressive 40 feet in length and has 58 teeth. Visitors to the Field Museum can’t help but be impressed by her size and majesty.
24. Adler Planetarium
Adler Planetarium is a public museum of astronomy, located in Chicago, Illinois. It is located in the Museum Campus area of Chicago on the shore of Lake Michigan. Adler Planetarium was opened on May 14, 1930, and named after Max Adler. The building was designed by architect Ernest Grunsfeld who also designed the original Field Museum campus buildings.
The planetarium includes a 23-foot Foucault pendulum that simulates Earth’s rotation to demonstrate how fast our planet rotates. Adler Planetarium is dedicated to exploring the universe and providing visitors with an out-of-this-world experience.
25. John Hancock Building
The John Hancock Building is home to the Chicago 360 Chicago observatory deck, which offers stunning views of the city skyline. The deck is located on the 94th floor in a sheltered space with a ceiling-to-ceiling window, and it provides a clear view of almost anywhere from 60 miles in virtually any direction.
The interactive displays allow for the identification and display of different buildings and attractions at your disposal. In addition, the deck is equipped with a new, high-tech technology called tilt that allows for tilt in a sloping position within its glass panels.
Whether you’re looking to take in the sights of the city or get a bird’s eye view of the action below, the John Hancock Building is the perfect spot for you.
26. Garfield Park Conservatory
Located in the heart of Chicago’s West Side, Garfield Park Conservatory is a great place for both kids and adults. The conservatory is open to the public, so there’s no fee to get in.
The conservatory has a wide range of plants and flowers, as well as indoor ponds for fish and turtles. It also has a cafe where you can grab lunch or coffee while admiring all their beautiful plants!
There are many things to do at this amazing tourist attraction—you could take part in one of their free programs such as yoga classes or nature walks. If you have kids with you, they can enjoy learning about bees and various plant species.
27. Chicago Children’s Museum
Chicago Children’s Museum has been one of the top picks for a family-friendly environment since its founding in the early 80s. The museum offers an extensive array of interactive displays that cater to children ages 3-14.
These exhibits are designed to encourage learning through play, and they cover topics ranging from science and history to art and culture. In addition to the interactive exhibits, the museum also features several areas for stimulating creativity and encouraging learning.
For example, the “Make Believe Chicago” exhibit allows children to role-play as different professionals, such as doctors, firefighters, and chefs. The Chicago Children’s Museum is a great place for families to spend a day exploring and learning together.
28. Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is a great place to spend time with family and friends exploring the wonders of nature. The museum is located in the heart of Lincoln Park, just a few blocks from the conservatory and the zoo. The multi-level learning space offers a variety of interactive educational activities, including an exploration of Illinois natural history, a butterfly-horse exhibit, and a hands-on learning center.
The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum also offers a variety of classes and programs for all ages, making it the perfect place to learn about nature and the environment. This is a great spot for a fun family outing or an informative educational experience.
29. Water Tower Place
Water Tower Place is a shopping mall located in Chicago, Illinois. It is located at 835 North Michigan Avenue, between East Chestnut Street and East Erie Street. The mall is part of a complex that includes the Water Tower and Chicago Place office buildings.
The complex was built on land formerly occupied by Montgomery Ward’s main mail-order warehouse, which opened in 1894 at Michigan Avenue’s intersection with Lake Shore Drive. It’s located in the heart of the Magnificent Mile.
The building was designed by Louis Sullivan to resemble an Indian temple and has been named one of America’s most important buildings. The interior features a large stained glass window picturing the Great Lakes with their connecting rivers represented as veins within the body of an American Indian woman standing upon them.
Where to stay in Chicago for Sightseeing?
In the center of Chicago the best shopping, restaurants, and most impressive architectural styles can be found. Its center includes an iconic Magnificent Mile and parts of the waterfront, most populous in summer. Here is an overview of some of our top hotels in the area.
Luxury Hotel: Park Hyatt
For the luxury traveler, Park Hyatt is the perfect place to stay. Located in the heart of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, this hotel offers world-class service and amenities with easy access to all of downtown’s attractions. Enjoy a spacious room overlooking the city or relax at one of its seven restaurants or bars.
Mid-Range Hotel: The Whitehall
The Whitehall Hotel / Booking.com
The Whitehall Hotel is a great option for budget-conscious travelers. Located in the heart of The Loop, it’s within walking distance of Millennium Park and iconic Michigan Avenue. Rooms are comfortable, clean, and affordable with many amenities provided such as free Wi-Fi and continental breakfast.
Concluding my list of the best attractions in Chicago, I am sure you’re ready to pack your bags right away. However, the secret to spending the best vacation alone or with your family is effective planning. Make sure you have a perfect itinerary mapped out. By doing that, you won’t end up wasting your days or missing out on the good stuff.
Also, try to book tickets for the events and places you want to attend. Most importantly, if you’re going for an outdoor adventure, you should have your safety and first-aid gear ready with you. This way, you can stay safe in case of an accident.