Top 10 Things to Do with Your Family in Chicago this Summer

It felt like it took forever to summer to finally come to Chicago. And, now that it has, I feel like it’s already starting to slip away. Hot, summer days are a rarity in the Windy City, so I’m focused on making the most of our evenings, weekends and free moments to be sure we take full advantage of summer in the city. So, to make sure my family doesn’t meet a heat-filled beat, I put together my list of the top 10 things to do in Chicago – before fall starts to come our way. I hope it will prove to be a helpful resource to other local families and visitors too.

Here are my top 10 things to do with my family in Chicago this summer:

1. Summer Outdoor Festivals (Various dates and locations)
Chicago is a vibrant, dynamic city made up of a tapestry of neighborhoods and ethnicities. And, to me, nothing celebrates the beauty of the people and cultures that make up each neighborhood like a summertime street festival. I recently wrote about some of my favorite ethnic festivals in Chicago and nearby Milwaukee too.

At the top of my list of upcoming festivals are:

– July 13, Bastille Day Chicago 2013, Daley Plaza, Chicago

– July 18 – 21, Festa Italiana, Maier Festival Park, Milwaukee

– July 21, Chinatown Summer Fair, Chinatown, Chicago

– August 10 – 11, Chicago Korean Festival, Korea Town, Chicago

– August 24 – 25, Bucktown Arts Fest, Bucktown, Chicago

2. Millennium Park (201 E. Randolph Drive.)
photo 4Visitors and locals alike must make at least one trip to Millennium Park during the summer. While “the bean” (or Cloud Gate) is the shining star of all photos during most of the year, I may boldly say that it gets a run for the popular of most popular site during the summer when the “spitting” fountain (or Crown Fountain) comes alive.

The Crown Fountain features two 50-foot, glass-block towers at each end of a shallow reflecting pool. The towers project video images of Chicagoans’ faces. Periodically, the faces appear to “spit” water out of a person’s mouth – much to the delight of the crowd of children who yell with delight as they get soaked. The shallow water that lines the pool makes for a perfect spot for young children to splash, older children to kick up water, and adults to cool off their weary feet.

New for this summer, a whimsical formation of Tanuki by Japanese artist Jun Kaneko. The Tanuki is considered to be a devious trickster who causes trouble. But, in Millennium Park, the Tanuki, dressed in bright colors and adorned with stripes and polka dots, seemingly welcome visitors in to the northern edge of the park – with a mischievous gleam in their eyes.

While you’re at Millennium Park, be sure to head from the southern most end up the bridge to the new modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. I just went up there for the first time the other weekend, and I was blown away from the views. The bridge provides a unique vantage point of the city and Millennium Park below.

3. Navy Pier (600 E. Grand Ave.)
While some locals try to steer clear of Navy Pier given the number of tourists who visit it each year, I have to honestly say that my family is a big fan of Navy Pier – especially in the summer. It is one of the most gorgeous spots in the city to stroll up and down and gaze in awe at the beauty of the lake all around you – with the city skyline eagerly vying for your attention.

At 3,300-feet-long, there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the scenery, stop for a drink, pose for photos and take it all in.

In the summer, families can enjoy a seven-minute ride on the 150-foot-high Ferris wheel – and take in the views from high in the sky. There’s also a carousel, wave swinger, 18-hole miniature golf course, remote control boats and more. My sons are dying to take a ride on one of the Seadog Cruises that speeds off for a fun-filled ride from the docks at Navy Pier.

4. Farmers Markets (Various Locations and Dates)
Green City MarketI love to go to farmers markets in Chicago. From the time the first fruits of spring make their appearance until apples and squash take the stage in the fall, I’m hooked. And, I am thrilled that my sons love to go to farmers markets too.

I always enjoy when they beg me to try a new fruit or vegetable. Or, they can’t wait to sample a particular bread or cheese. To me, it’s a fantastic way to expose my sons to new foods – available right here in the Midwest.

Two of my most favorite markets are:

Green City Market (Wednesdays and Saturdays) – This popular market takes place right across from the Farm in the Zoo at the Lincoln Park Zoo. It is always crowded with people of all ages, anxious to stock up on all of the freshest local ingredients. Be sure to stop by Brunkow Cheese of Wisconsin for its Brun-uusto, a Finnish-style bake cheese that’s heated over a flame until crisp, buttery and impossible to resident, ask if Floriole Bakery has any merinque cookies (my husband’s absolute favorite), and sip a fruit smoothie from Seedless Enterprises.

Logan Square Farmers Market (Sundays) – This sprawling market is situated along the midway that runs along Logan Boulevard. It is a paradise for foodies, vegetarians and vegans alike. You can grab made-to-order crepes or a baguette from La Boulangerie, spicy tofu from Phoenix Bean, a jar of artisan fruit jam from Rare Bird Perserves and some local produce and grab a shady spot to enjoy your fare – and take in the people as they stroll past.

5. Tuesdays on the Terrace at the MCA (Weekly thru Sept. 24; 200 E. Chicago Ave.)
In Chicago, you can make Tuesdays your day to sit, back, relax and enjoy a leisurely summer evening at the MCA. Starting at 5:30 p.m., families can bring a blanket and purchase food from the MCA’s outdoor grill to enjoy while you listen to the featured musical guest.

Children will enjoy get hands-on with an art project in the MCA’s sculpture garden too. My sons spent many an evening engrossed in their own masterpiece, while I was able to enjoy good company, soothing music, and beautiful surroundings.

For any children that get a little antsy after sitting and listening to the music, you can head straight west to the playground at Lake Shore Park. There’s nothing like letting them run off some steam – and then get ready for bed.

6. Chicago Hot Dog from a Hot Dog Stand (Various Locations)
Chicago Hot Dog StandWhen it’s summer in Chicago, you need to take advantage of any and every opportunity to dine al fresco in the Windy City. For lunch, there’s nothing like grabbing a true Chicago-style hot dog (mustard, no ketchup) at one of the stands that pop-up out of nowhere to dot the city’s streets as soon as weather starts to warm up.

One of my family’s favorite hot dog stands is Kim and Carlo’s Chicago Style Hot Dog Store, which sits at the corner just east of the Field Museum. You can choose from a beef, turkey or veggie dog loaded with all of the fixings. We like to sit and eat it on the steps of the Field Museum looking out over Soldier Field.

You also can’t beat the view from the one on the eastern end of Lakeshore Park, where you can sit and enjoy your hot dog at one of the tables that offer you a breath-taking view of Lake Michigan and the many boats that cluster in the area just north of Navy Pier.

7. A Stroll Along the Beach (Various Locations)
Chicago LakefrontI’m a runner and, for me, there’s nothing like running along Chicago’s gorgeous lakefront paths. For families, you’ll enjoy strolling along the ever-popular North Avenue and Oak Street Beaches and taking in the beautiful scenery.

Children will love walking through the surf and the sand and stopping off to enjoy an ice cold treat. There’s also places you can rent bicycles and kayaks to get a different vantage point of the city’s lakefront.

Of course, you also can wade in to the often chilly Lake Michigan waters and build sand castles to your heart’s delight. For anyone looking for a calmer beach, you can head to Ohio Street Beach just west of Navy Pier to escape the crowds a bit. As an added bonus, since the inlet of beach faces north vs. east, on hot days, you can stand in the shadows of the nearby buildings and escape the sun for a bit.

8. Lincoln Park Zoo (2001 N. Clark Street)
The Lincoln Park Zoo is one of my favorite places in the entire city. It’s situated in the heart of Lincoln Park and offers endless delights for all ages – all for free.

It’s a great place to add to your itinerary for the day – rain or shine. You can simply meander around the grounds, admiring animals along the way. Or, you can stop into some of the animal houses and take a closer look at everything from giraffes to naked mole rats (my younger son’s favorite animal – for obvious reasons).

Children also will love to climb through the sloping treehouse-like maze found in the Children’s Zoo area, which is located just off the main entrance at the west side of the zoo. Be sure to look to your right as you walk east into the zoo from the entrance. You’ve missed the pathway into the Children’s Zoo if you made it to the seals without seeing it first.

A trip to the Lincoln Park Zoo just isn’t complete without a leisurely stroll along through the relatively new Nature Boardwalk, which also just so happens to be on your way from the main part of the zoo to the Farm in the Zoo. There are plenty of rocks for children to climb on and, if they’re like my two boys, they’ll love playing under the honeycomb-like shelter on the east side of the pond. Just be sure to have your camera ready since it’s ripe with amazing photo opportunities.

9. Tom & Wendee’s Italian Ice (1136 W. Armitage)
Tom & Wendee'sThere’s nothing like indulging in an ice cold treat on a hot summer day. For my family, that means a trip to Tom & Wendee’s Italian Ice in Lincoln Park.

Tom & Wendee’s scoops up homemade, natural fruit and chocolate Italian ices. They’re fat free and low in calories – so feel free to order one size up! My favorite flavors are Vanilla, Chocolate Toffee Crunch and Cappuccino Crunch.

Thanks to my husband, it seems like we’re always stopping into Tom & Wendee’s for an Italian ice. I think it’s due in part to the fact that he can’t get enough of it – and we know Tom & Wendee’s is only open during the warm weather months.

So, take it from me, that it’s definitely worth making your way there today – and any day possible before they close for the season.

10. Water Taxi (Various Locations)

Credit: Shoreline Sightseeing

Credit: Shoreline Sightseeing

A great way to see the city and beat the traffic – is by boat. That’s why tourists, residents and commuters alike flock to the city’s water taxis – especially during the summer months.

My family likes to hop a water taxi at Navy Pier – even if it’s for a short, wind-blown trip to where the Chicago River runs below Michigan Avenue – with NBC Tower rising overhead. But, this year, we’re feeling more adventurous and keep saying that we’re going to ride the water taxi from Navy Pier to Chinatown and back again.

We usually grab one of the Shoreline Sightseeing water taxis, which dock at the western end of Navy Pier’s Gateway Park. My sons love picking a seat, watching the buildings go by and seeing how much water splashes up and over us. It really is a quick, easy and cost-effective way to get a whole new vantage point of the city.

Are any of these activities, events and excursions on your summer “hot” list? What else would you say is an absolute summer “must do” in Chicago? Please share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.

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