Just when you thought you’ve seen everything Chicago has to offer, let us introduce you to these hidden gems and surprising city spotlights
There’s something energizing about living in a city for so long and still being surprised to discover how much you have yet to explore. Yes, even if you’ve checked off every last item on our list of 100 things to do with kids in Chicago, new—and some not-so-new!—hidden gems are still sprinkled around, well off the beaten path.
What’s more: this list also serves as the perfect guide for out-of-towners looking to experience more than those typical tourist destinations they’ve likely hit up on previous visits (as does this roundup of “secret museums” in the neighboring suburbs). So, if the grandparents are Field Museum’ed out and can’t bear another selfie at the Bean, this short list of activities—many of which are free—should keep them busy and earn them some serious street cred. Of course, we’d be shocked if even the most in-the-know locals, yourself included, have uncovered every one of these attractions.
Did you know that Chicago’s downtown district has a “pedestrian way system” of underground tunnels that link more than 40 blocks together? Known as the Pedway, it connects to public and private buildings as well as CTA stations and commuter rail lines and covers roughly five miles. Although it’s used by thousands of commuters, many people don’t know about this safe, quick, and convenient way to travel through the heart of the city—especially in the frigid winter months or during bad weather. Take it for a spin on your next rainy-day adventure. If you spot a black-and-gold compass-like sign, that lets you know you can get anywhere in the Pedway system without stepping foot outside.
Southbank Park Riverwalk
The main Chicago Riverwalk gets all the glory—and the tourists—but if you’d rather take your family to a more serene spot right along the river, pay a visit to the 2.5-acre park with a curving riverside walk, thriving plant life, and scenic skyline views. Plus, it’s got plenty of seating thanks to an amphitheater made of reclaimed limestone blocks that once formed the foundation of Chicago’s former Grand Central Station train terminal.
600 S. Wells St.
The Chicago Municipal Device
This “Y” shape inscribed inside of a circle is an actual symbol of the city and is designed to look like the meeting point of the branches of the Chicago River. Although this insignia was first introduced in 1892 as part of a Chicago Tribune contest and adopted as an official municipal device in 1917, many Chicagoans have forgotten it exists, and it now hides in plain sight on bridges, street lamps, and even within the marquee of the famous Chicago Theatre. But, once you know about the device, you’ll start to notice it everywhere—much like the ubiquitous Chicago flag with its four six-pointed stars. Consider reminding your kiddos about this symbol before long walks through the city: it’ll make for an awfully fun historically-minded scavenger hunt.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
This traditional Hindu temple is an awe-inspiring sight to behold. The largest mandir of its kind in Illinois, it showcases the stunning beauty of traditional Indian architecture. In fact, it was constructed according to the strict guidelines outlined in ancient Hindu texts of temple design. Because the complex is a sacred and spiritual place of worship, visitors cannot enter with sleeveless tops or shorts, and shoes must be removed before entering any building. Also, photography is not allowed inside any building—but the breathtaking exterior views encompassing nearly 30 acres are well worth documenting.
1851 Parmukh Swami Rd.
Baha’i House of Worship
Another awe-inspiring temple is located just north of Chicago’s city limits. The second Baha’i House of Worship ever constructed and the oldest one still standing, the principles of Baha’i faith teach that no one religion is better than another and aims to offer safe spaces to pray, reflect, and revitalize your sense of purpose. It’s the definition of “all are welcome,” and these grounds are no exception.
100 Linden Ave.
McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum
Beginning at river level and spiraling five stories up, this vertical, oft-overlooked attraction provides a unique opportunity to explore a landmark bridgehouse. Visitors can get a behind-the-scenes look at the massive gears of Chicago’s most famous movable bridge–and if they’re lucky, watch as the bridge is raised or lowered from inside. If that–or the exhibits on the river’s history–aren’t fascinating enough, the top of the bridgehouse offers magnificent 360-degree views of the city and the complex river bridge system.
99 Chicago Riverwalk
Art on theMART
Although it’s the largest permanent digital art projection in the world, Chicago locals often forget to take advantage of the free public art offering, right on the facade of the giant Merchandise Mart building. It may require delaying bedtimes a bit, but snag a front-row seat to the 30-minute installation along the Chicago Riverwalk between Wells and Franklin Streets. The colorful, contemporary collections rotate seasonally, with nightly viewings that run for approximately three months each.
222 Merchandise Mart Plaza
Garfield Park Conservatory
You can’t beat the price of this tucked-away botanical conservatory: it’s free and offers free parking. Bonus for parents of young children? The paved walking paths make the gardens more accessible with strollers. Although it’s an unexpected treat any time of year, the climate-controlled space serves as a much-needed tropical getaway during many of Chicago’s ice-cold months. And, it’s worth checking to see if the conservatory has a Agave guiengola approaching its “death bloom.” Twice in the past few years, these long plants grow upwards of 38 feet—almost to the building’s glass ceiling—in a matter of weeks and the flower spike becomes smothered with hundreds of tiny green buds. Reservations are free (yes, it bears repeating!), but they are still required to visit. Some walk-up reservations are available, but do yourself a favor and book in advance.
300 N. Central Park Ave.
Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary
Tens of thousands of migratory birds visit the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary each spring and fall. More specifically, within the sanctuary is a natural area known as “The Magic Hedge.” It is 150 yards of trees and shrubs that has attracted an extraordinary 300+ species at one time or another. In addition to some world-class bird watching opportunities, the area offers incredible views of the city skyline as well as refreshing breezes as it is right off the lake.
200 W. Montrose Harbor Dr.
Clifton Avenue Street Art Gallery
This unique outdoor art gallery features over 70+ different murals from 70+ different local and international artists. The public art is vibrant and diverse. It is a perfect reflection of the Uptown neighborhood in which it resides. Better yet, the free exhibition is open 24/7, rain or shine!
Clifton Ave. (between Leland & Wilson)
Chicago Cultural Center
The gorgeous interior makes this a site not to be missed when visiting downtown Chicago. From the Grand Army of the Republic Hall and Rotunda to the Preston Bradley Hall and its Tiffany Dome, you’ll have a hard time keeping from constantly looking up. However, you will want to force your head down to admire visiting art installations and to engage within the interactive Learning Lab. The Chicago Cultural Center also hosts many music and dance performances throughout the year. Admission is free.
78 E. Washington St.