1) Museum Campus Plan a day or more to explore three top-notch museums.
- Shedd Aquarium houses 32,000 fresh and saltwater aquatic animals. Kids can touch sea stars and watch dolphins swim in Polar Play Zone. Divers hand-feed sharks and exotic fish in the Caribbean Reef exhibit’s 90,000-gallon tank. (312) 939-2438; sheddaquarium.org
- Adler Planetarium invites budding astronauts to “drive” rovers and conduct astronomical experiments in Planet Explorers. Celestial sky shows playing in the 360-degree, über-high-res Grainger Sky Theater launch viewers on exciting cosmic explorations. (312) 922-7827; adlerplanetarium.org
- Field Museum of Natural History Kids love toothy Sue, the largest complete T. rex ever unearthed, and Evolving Planet, a walk through Earth’s eons of life from single-celled organisms and dinosaurs to saber-tooth cats and homo sapiens. Young explorers learn about Native American Pueblo life, world music and insects in The Crown Family Play Lab. (312) 922-9410; fieldmuseum.org
2) Brookfield Zoo Chances are you can spot your favorite animal at this 216-acre home to more than 2,000 creatures. Watch polar bears swim underwater in Great Bear Wilderness, where grizzlies, bald eagles and 2,000-pound bison also live. Check out the Hamill Family Play Zoo and animal-keeper talks. After a lively dolphin show, take a quiet stroll (1/4 mile) and unpack your picnic basket by the lake in Salt Creek Wilderness. (708) 688-8000; czs.org
3) Millennium Park Free entertainment and outdoor beauty draw families to this park in the heart of Chicago. In summer, kids can’t resist splashing in Crown Fountain. The Jay Pritzker Pavilion hosts free outdoor concerts throughout the year. The Lurie Garden is a scenic spot to wander, but the top family photo stop is Cloud Gate, a giant kidney bean-shape sculpture reflecting Chicago’s skyline. (312) 742-1168; millenniumpark.org
4) Navy Pier Families come to the historical entertainment complex for the Chicago Children’s Museum (chicagochildrensmuseum.org), Ferris wheel, Sea Dog speed boat rides, bike rentals, Imax films and free, twice-weekly fireworks (Memorial Day through Labor Day). More to do: Wander under Crystal Gardens’ leaping fountains and ride an old-fashioned carousel. (312) 595-7437; navypier.com
5) Chicago lakefront beaches Access to the city’s 26 miles of lakefront beaches is free. One of the best is Lincoln Park’s North Avenue Beach, which has lifeguards on duty, free Wi-Fi and beach chair rental. Outfitters also rent bikes, stand-up paddleboards and kayaks. Built in 1940, the ocean liner-shape beach house has lockers as well as Castaways Bar and Grill. cpdbeaches.com
6) Museum of Science and Industry At the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere, visitors love programs about technology, transportation and more. Create simulated tornadoes, lightening strikes, avalanches and tsunamis in Science Storms; explore the German U-505 Submarine; see yourself age 30 years in You! The Experience. (773) 684-1414; msichicago.org
7) Blue Man Group Part rock concert, part comedy and part visual arts show involving the audience (think body slamming portrait painting), Blue Man Group mashes up a night out. Teens (and parents) enjoy this high-tech, crowd-rousing show at the Briar Street Theatre. (773) 348-4000; blueman.com/chicago
8) Chicago History Museum Kids experience the city’s sights, sounds and smells in the Sensing Chicago gallery. Family programming includes monthly Second Saturdays and Family Trolley Tours. Crossroads America covers all things Chicago from the city’s innovative skyscraper architecture to its music legacies and rabid sports team loyalties. (312) 642-4600; chicagohistory.org
9) Morton Arboretum The Children’s Garden nurtures curiosity about nature with themed gardens and activities in Backyard Discovery Gardens and Adventure Woods. One-hour tram rides take visitors throughout the west suburban Lisle’s 1,700-acres. Rent biking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing equipment on-site seasonally. (630) 968-0074; mortonarb.org
10) Naper Settlement Costumed interpreters greet guests daily (April through October) at 30 historical buildings, including a pioneer cabin, fort, blacksmith shop and one-room schoolhouse. In the visitors center, kids try on period clothing and view antique toys in The History Connection exhibit. Summer weekends at this Naperville living-history museum feature family activities and games as well as free ice cream. (630) 420-6010; napersettlement.org
Bison photo courtesy of Brookfield Zoo; Blue Man Group photo by Paul Kolnik.