We have had the good fortune to spend a lot of time in the Windy City. For us, one of the biggest joys of visiting a metropolis like Chicago is the freedom to walk around and take in the urban vibes – something we can’t really do where we live. Our son has always enjoyed the simplicity of being pushed around in his stroller, taking in the sights, so we have always been able to see most of the attractions that interest us. But we always strive to strike a balance and ensure that we leave room in the itinerary for things that Skyler enjoys. Happy kid = happy life.
We also don’t want to spend an excess of money on his activities simply because small children can be unpredictable. You buy tickets for a children’s museum or pay for a timed event, and they are bored five minutes in. Or they have a poopsplosion. Or they throw a fit for some unknown reason. Or they get hungry. Or they get sick and you have to cancel. Or or or.
So our approach to planning child-friendly activities on our travels has been to find as many FREE activities as possible. We are always looking fore free things to do with kids when we travel. That way, if we DO have to leave urgently for any reason, we’re not losing any money in the process. If we don’t have to cancel, then our kid is entertained for free. Low stakes, high impact.
For that reason, I want to talk about one of the absolute best FREE things you can do with your kids in Chicago. Heck, you should do this *without* your kids because it’s such a beautiful and enjoyable place to spend time. I still can’t get over that it’s FREEEEEEEEE.
Without further ado, let me tell you why we always go out of our way to visit Lincoln Park.
Lincoln Park: One of the best free things to do in Chicago with kids
Lincoln Park is like a massive green lung for the city of Chicago, sprawling over 1,200 acres. It’s even bigger than Central Park in Manhattan (~800 acres)! Established in 1860, it’s one of the oldest and most iconic parks in the country. Forget manicured lawns – here you’ve got everything from baseball fields to lagoons, jogging trails, and even an 18-hole golf course. It’s a go-to spot for locals looking to escape the urban grind without actually leaving the city. Definitely one of my favorite things to do in Chicago for free with kiddos!
Warm up in the Lincoln Park Conservatory
If you’re into plants, the Lincoln Park Conservatory is your jam. Built in the 18090s, this Victorian-era glass building basically houses a jungle in the middle of the city. You’ve got tropical palms, ferns, flowers, and all sorts of plants from around the world. It’s a sensory overload – the humidity hits you like a wall, and the vibrant colors will make Instagrammers go nuts. The best part? Like the zoo, it’s freeeeeeeeeee. So, if you want a peaceful respite from the hustle of the city, this is your spot. Plus, in the winter, it’s a lovely place to come in from the cold and defrost.
Watch the animals at Lincoln Park Zoo
When I first found out that there was a FREE zoo in the middle of Chicago, I was shocked. I assumed it would be rundown and minimal, not very exciting. But the Lincoln Park Zoo is a zoo that doesn’t mess around. Opened in 1868, it’s one of the oldest zoos in the U.S. and is a Chicago institution. This zoo is well maintained, with lovely landscaping, plenty of shade and places to sit. It will always be on our itinerary when we visit Chicago. My favorites are the lions, the Primate House, and the polar bears in the Arctic Tundra.
Stroll the Nature Boardwalk
Right in the heart of Lincoln Park Zoo resides one of my favorite areas: the Nature Boardwalk. It’s not your typical stroll-around-a-pond situation; it’s like someone took a slice of the wild and dropped it in the middle of the city. Built-in 2010, it’s a relatively new addition. They enhanced the existing artificial pond into a lush garden full of wildlife. I think it’s stunning and would find any excuse to walk this stretch of the park if I lived in the city.
Stop by a monument
Certainly not the most exciting thing to do but who doesn’t pass up an opportunity to take a photo with a statue? (Me. It’s me.) I like walking past monuments on our walking tours, lingering for a few moments considering the history behind the art and why this person or moment was commemorated in stone. So don’t go out of your way, but if you happen to pass by them on your travels, then I encourage you to take a moment, take a photo, and think about the legacy of whatever it is we’ve built a monument to. What (if anything) does it mean to you and your family?
My three favorites in Lincoln Park are the monuments to Ben Franklin, Abe Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant. I find it particularly interesting that this particular statue of Lincoln is considered the most important statue of the man from the 19th century. I also love the surrounding gardens; it’s a lovely place to sit down for a few minutes, retie your shoes, rest your hips, or feed the baby.
Hopefully now you understand why I tell everyone who’s going to Chicago that they need to make some time for Lincoln Park. It is one of my favorite spots in the city and absolutely one of the best free things to do with kids in Chicago. Every time we visit, I discover something new – and we still havent seen it all!! The city is constantly tweaking and updating things, as well. There’s talk of more green initiatives, making it even more bike-friendly, and adding more events. Basically, they’re trying to keep Lincoln Park the cool kid on the block – which won’t be hard to do.
Have you been to Lincoln Park? Tell me about your favorite features, hidden pathways, or most interesting animals! I want to see it all 🙂 Also what are YOUR favorite free things to do with kids in Chicago? I need to add them to our next itinerary!