I have said it before, and I’ll say it again — we live in an amazing area! As I continue to look for fresh ideas for field trips, family outings, and meetups with friends — I keep finding them. New places, new ideas, new experiences, and all within an hour or so driving time, which is a good thing. With gas flirting with $4.50 we need close to home and cheap. If you are looking to spend your summer mostly in the Chicago area but still want to vacation, keep reading for enough staycation ideas to keep you going through Christmas.
If you want my more complete list of where you can visit in the Chicago area check out the detailed listing of field trip ideas. If you want something a little less overwhelming, let’s break it down into some favorite fives. We’ll explore the Chicago area with my top five: outing genres, free spots, deal websites, city sites, suburban sites, on our agenda for this summer, and tips to save money while seeing the world (or at least Chicago). Remember, I can not share everything there is to do. Chicago is monstrous and I found over 100 places when I compiled my field trip listing, and I’m sure I missed plenty. So, I just want to share some family favorites to hopefully help you find something new.
Favorite Five Outing Genres
Alright, so I usually think of genres when it comes to books, but a lot of our favorites definitely fall into categories as well, and genres just sounds so much better than categories.
- Historical Farms — These seem to dot the landscape around here, and they each have something different to offer. Many hover around the mid-1800s and offer lots of free family fun on weekends throughout the year. Check out just a few of these around the area: Kline Creek Farm, Bonner Farm, Garfield Farm, Blackberry Farm, etc.
- Water related fun — (of course there is your neighborhood or park district pool, or . . .) Splash parks are a great, often free, fun.
- Tours – when it is too hot to enjoy playing outside we love to schedule a tour with a group of friends. Costco offers great tours with locations all around the Chicago area. Also check out nearby factories. We have enjoyed tours in nut factories, jelly bean factories, Oberweis, and other food related products.
- Nature Trails — If we are up for a drive we might head out to Starved Rock or White Pines State Park (gotta drive through the water at least once each summer), but there are plenty of closer places to enjoy as well. Check out some lesser known Forest Preserves in your area for a new look at the world around you. Many have little nature centers with enthusiastic volunteers staffing them in the summer.
- Non-professional sporting events — you probably have one not too far from you and they are way cheaper than driving into the city, paying for parking, and fighting the crowds. Our standing favorite is the Kane County Cougars. You can often get BOGO tickets on Mondays and with free parking it is one of the best sporting deals around. Lake County has a team as well, but I have not been to theirs yet to comment on it.
Favorite Five Free Spots
- Cosley Farm in Wheaton — Farm animals in a stroller friendly park. Great for younger kids or big animal lovers. My best memory there, my oldest was just a few years old and we stopped in there in March sometime. A baby cow just a couple hours old was there to greet us. An amazing experience. And, at the time we had the place to ourselves, but that is a rare occurrence nowadays. ***Edited to add: Apparently Cosley is no longer free for non-Wheaton residents. Kids are still free, but adults have a $3 admission fee. Thanks to Kate for letting me know!***
- Independence Grove — wonderful natural setting in Libertyville. Swimming lake, playground, lots of space to enjoy. There is sometimes a small fee if you are not a Lake County resident.
- Fermi lab – Science lovers should be sure to schedule a visit to Fermi Lab. They have an annual open house in the winter, but visitors are welcome during other times of the year as well. They have an educational center, a buffalo herd, walking trails, and more.
- Peck Farm — We discovered this beautiful place a few years ago and enjoy the old estate house with hands on fun for the kids, walking trails, an observation silo, and in the summer a little butterfly house (donation admission suggested).
- Air and Water Show — How could I almost forget this? Amazing! You can’t just do this whenever you want to, but it is worth the crowds and the heat to enjoy the impressive displays.
Favorite Five Deal Locators:
- Free Things To Do in Chicago — They list everything from concerts to paper shredding events to free food giveaways. Not always free, but at least once a week I find something worthwhile on this site. I get it sent to my inbox so I never miss a deal.
- Jill Cataldo — mostly about saving money on groceries, but look here for other great tips, like how we could get free Brookfield Zoo tickets
- Groupon — You’ve gotta know about groupon. Daily deals, buying in bulk with the rest of Chicagoland. Get your group-on . . .
- Ever Save — Another daily deal site (there are even more of these out there. If this is your thing, google for others). Fun activities, good food, discount prices.
- Smart Destinations — This site allows you to build on the tickets you want to well known attractions and by purchasing in bundles you get a better price (or you can buy their premade card). You only add the attractions you want, and the more you buy the more you save. It looks like they are useable for a year after purchase, too, but must be all used within 30 days of first use.
Favorite Five tips to save money while seeing the world (or at least Chicago)
- Museum Adventure Pass — if you have a library card you also have access to a whole host of great place for free or at a discount. Ask your library if they participate. Each week you can print up to one pass for a place of your choice. You then present the pass and your library card at the location you are visiting for free admission according to the terms of the particular place. Each deal is different, so make sure to read them carefully. Some are for a certain number of admissions, most don’t include any parking fees that might apply. Our favorites on here are the Chicago Botanica Garden (one car in free), and Cantigny (one car in free). Okay, so we have a lot of kids, so if I can get them all in for the same low price of free it’s going to be a favorite.
- Pack your lunches — Not a place, but we save a bundle by bringing our lunches along. If my aim is to have a great time on a budget I just can’t stomach shelling out $50 for everyone to eat lunch. Sandwiches in the car or at a playground — $5 for everyone. I need the other $45 for gas anyway.
- Reading incentives — If you homeschool you can sign up for these on your own and encourage your kids to read while earning great rewards for family outings. If your kids are in traditional school and they don’t do these, check into it. Great America tickets, Pizza Hut (during the school year), baseball tickets (Kane County Cougars have a great program), and more.
- Explore Chicagoland — a book that you can buy with admission to lots of places around the area. Kind of expensive up front, but if you will make use of one ticket every couple weeks you can easily make your money off of it.
- Think free — Brookfield Zoo may be one of the best in the world, but there are other great zoos in the area when all your money is going in your gas tank. Philips Park in Aurora, Lord’s Park in Elgin, Randall Oaks in Carpentersville (fee on the weekends), Cosley in Wheaton, Willowbrook Wildlife Center, and Lincoln Park in Chicago are a few. Not the same as Brookfield, but still lots of family fun and most with playgrounds nearby to keep everyone happy on a beautiful summer day.
Favorite Five on our agenda for this summer
- Believe it or not, I have never been to Millenium Park, stared up into the bean, and played in the giant water-spitting faces. I would really like to get down there with my kids this year.
- Another “one of these years” plans is to get to the Eyes to the Skies festival around Fourth of July weekend in Lisle. I can’t imagine much more breathtaking than watching a field of hot air balloons take to the skies. The morning lift off is free for viewing (but it is at 6:00 am . . .)
- Great America. Not cheap, I know, but my kids each have tickets from reading incentives, so it works out to not be too bad. Parking is all we pay and then we bring our food in a cooler in the car. Our kids absolutely love the water park there and stay there pretty much from the time they open until they close.
- Summer reading program. Free fun, better than free. Check out books, enjoy reading together with your kids, and then earn free tickets and passes. I could not imagine summer without the library’s summer reading program. Your library likely has a summer reading program with more goodies to outfit your staycation as well.
- Summer movies. Lots of theaters offer $1 movies, or even free ones. We love these, especially on a hot day or when we just need to get out of the house and don’t feel like taking a long drive anywhere. Classic Cinemas is one company with a number of theaters across the Chicago area. They have $1 movies every Wednesday morning during summer months. Check for times and locations, and they even have the movie listings up already.
A couple miscellaneous items that just didn’t fit nicely anywhere:
Explore Chicago — a website that has all the happenings in the city
Famplosion – lots of family fun all listed in one place.
Do you have a favorite that you don’t see here?
Please leave a comment and let us know your secret getaway in the Chicago area.
And, be sure to check back in here tomorrow when I will post about a hundred other links for other cities around the country. If you do have a chance to travel a bit you can find inexpensive activities in just about every state. Don’t miss the great staycation