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Lindsay Eagan

Top 10+ Things to Do in Chicago for First Time Visitors - Must See & Do Attractions

Chicago is an amazing city, with plenty of sights to see and places to visit. We know that it may be overwhelming when first visiting as to what attractions to add to your itinerary. If you and your family are looking for the top things to do in Chicago during your trip, check out our list of the best local attractions, including...

  • Field Museum
  • Shedd Aquarium
  • Skydeck Chicago
  • Hop On Hop Off Big Bus Chicago
  • Navy Pier
  • Art Institute of Chicago
  • 360 CHICAGO
  • Adler Planetarium
  • Museum of Science and Industry
  • and more...

1. The Field Museum

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The Field Museum is Chicago's premier natural history museum and one of the largest of its kind in the world. Founded with an endowment from Marshall Field who started the famous department store of the same name, it has since gone on to house one of the finest collections of natural artifacts in the United States. Everything from precious gems to Sue the T-Rex skeleton are found at the Field.

Don't miss the Field Museum's awe-inspiring new temporary exhibition: Wild Color (pictured above). Immerse yourself in color-packed rooms that display the wonderful variety of bold and brilliant hues from the natural world. You'll explore some of nature’s mysteries that are hidden in plain sight - creatures that change color, plants that give off an eerie glow, and shades of color that the human eye can’t even detect.

2. Shedd Aquarium

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The Shedd Aquarium has been the crown jewel of Chicago's Museum Campus for years. The aquarium, which is home to over 32,000 aquatic species, is a one-of-a-kind, top-notch marine biology institution. See non-native species like frogs hanging out in a tank designed to create their home habitat. Watch with delight as the sea otters zoom around their habitat. Stop at the wild coral reef in the center of the building in order to watch the divers descend into the tank and live feed the inhabitants.

From Waters of the World to the Amazon Rising exhibits, you're sure to find your favorite animal floating in a tank somewhere. There are also touch tanks and shows throughout the day that create a completely interactive visit.

Fun fact: The original owner of the aquarium, John G. Shedd, used to have tanker cars full of seawater shipped in from Florida on a regular basis until a method to turn freshwater into saltwater was created.

3. Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour

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This Hop-On Hop-Off Big Bus Chicago tour is the easiest way to get around the Windy City and visit all the must-see spots. Along the way, you’ll enjoy entertaining and informative narration about Chicago’s famous architecture, history, and more. Get on or off at popular stops like the John Hancock Tower, Willis Tower, the Shedd Aquarium, Millenium Park, and more.

4. Adler Planetarium

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The Adler Planetarium is an observatory that also functions as a museum, theater, and research center. It's located right near the Shedd Aquarium in the Museum Campus along the lakefront and offers an unblocked view of the skies above. The exhibits and shows at the Adler explore all 91 billion light-years of the universe.

Search for the ninth planet at the Planet Nine exhibit, crawl, climb, and fly through Planet Explorers, and take a fast-paced tour through our cosmic backyard in Destination Solar System. With an All-Access admission pass, you'll be able to see unlimited shows, special exhibits, and all that the planetarium has to offer.

Your Go Chicago pass gives you Anytime All-Access, so make sure to pay the Planetarium a visit. You won't regret it!

5. Skydeck Chicago

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Skydeck Chicago is located at the very top of the Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower. Panoramic windows on all sides of the Skydeck Chicago observatory give unparalleled views of the surrounding city and the environs beyond.

Watch planes land at O'Hare out to the west or Midway to the southwest on a clear day. Look north and south to view Chicago neighborhoods all the way up to the city borders and beyond. Step out onto The Ledge and dare yourself to look down to the city below.

The Ledge is a glass enclosure that lets visitors step out of the building and onto a glass floor to give the sensation of being suspended in the air. Talk about some thrill-inducing fun!

6. Architecture River Cruise

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The Chicago Architecture River Cruise is curated by the Chicago Architecture Foundation and takes guests on a tour of the Chicago River. Architecture and building design are huge parts of Chicago's artistic culture. Many of the world's most famous architects have hailed from the Windy City and some of the most famous buildings stand tall in the Chicago skyline.

On this cruise, your expert guide will point out some of the most famous and unique buildings along the river. Learn more about the history and creation of over 50 Chicago skyscrapers.

7. 360 CHICAGO

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Journey up to 360 CHICAGO, the observatory on the 96th floor of the John Hancock building. Similar to Skydeck, 360 Chicago offers 360-degree views of the city from above. While it's not as high as Skydeck, it offers in-depth views of some of the most architecturally advanced buildings in the city. For art-lovers, it's a great view. A small café and bar offer refreshments, and seating is available for guests to use while looking out at the city and Lake Michigan.

8. Navy Pier Centennial Wheel & Rides

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Navy Pier, once known as Municipal Pier before World War II, is a pier that extends out into Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Chicago River. It boasts a newly-redesigned Ferris Wheel, called the Centennial Wheel, and a handful of amusement park-type rides.

The pier is also home to the Chicago Children's Museum, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, weekly fireworks, numerous eating options, live concerts, and gardens. Stroll around the pier to enjoy everything it has to offer or take a cruise on one of the many boat tour companies that moor at the pier during the warmer months.

9. Lincoln Park Zoo

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Lincoln Park Zoo Ride is one of the oldest zoos in the United States and has been free to the public since its inception. The zoo is located in the center of Lincoln Park and offers visitors an unparalleled experience year-round. Explore the Reptile House to see all things that slither or head over to the outdoor exhibits for the polar bears to see them swimming in their pool.

Check out the waterfowl lagoon to see water-dwelling birds in an open habitat, or stop at the lion house and watch a pride of big cats enjoy the day. The zoo also boasts an animal carousel that kids love.

With your Go Chicago pass, you can also enjoy a ride on the Endangered Species Carousel and hop aboard the Lionel Train Adventure.

10. Art Institute of Chicago

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The Art Institute of Chicago rests in the center of Grant Park along Michigan Avenue. Its iconic entrance is flanked by two famous lion statues that were sculpted by Edward Kennys for the museum's opening in 1893. The museum has an incredible collection of functional, practical, and decorative arts from all around the world and of all ages.

A visit to the museum is a must for any art-lover, as the institution is home to an incredible collection of Impressionist paintings, namely George Seurat's "Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte", a large painting and the only one of its kind.

The Art Institute of Chicago is consistently voted in the top 3 Museums in the World by Tripadvisor. It served a long tenure in the top spot, but in recent years has been overtaken by the Met in New York. Some of its most famous pieces include the Chagall "America Windows", Matisse's "Bathers by the River", and Georgia O'Keefe's "Black Cross, New Mexico".

11. Museum of Science and Industry

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The Museum of Science and Industry is a little off the beaten path, down south in Hyde Park but is absolutely worth the time it takes to get there. The museum itself is a part of Chicago history, having been part of the Columbian Exposition of 1893. It was also recently named one of the Top 25 Museums in the United States by Tripadvisor.

The institution's collection includes many unique artifacts and displays, including Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale dollhouse, a wonderment made from precious gems and materials. See how German submariners had to live during WWII in the U-505 submarine, or how the age of fast train travel was born with the introduction of the Pioneer locomotive.

12. Millennium Park & the Cloud Gate Sculpture

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Millennium Park is located at the north end of Grant Park and features the famous sculpture by Anish Kapoor known as the Cloud Gate. Locals call it The Bean due to its shape. Its mirrored finish and curves create fascinating reflections that capture the attention of everyone who passes by. It's a Chicago landmark and an absolute must-see when visiting.

The park is also home to a fountain with two glass tower fountains. The tower fountains have faces projected into them to make it look as if the mouths are streaming water into the pool. Stop at the peristyle to rest for a bit, or get a bite to eat at the outdoor cafe' in the summer, or skate in the ice rink during the winter.

13. The Magnificent Mile

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Photo via US Travel News

The Magnificent Mile, also known as Le Boul Mich, is the stretch of Michigan Avenue from the river at the south end to Oak Street at the north. Restaurants and retail of all types are located on this expansive strip, making it a must-see destination for retail therapy.

Many universities and businesses are located here as well, giving the street a vibrant and lively feel at almost all hours of the day. Don't miss the original Water Tower and Pumping Station, two famous survivors of the Chicago Fire of 1871.

14. Ernest Hemingway Birthplace

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Literature fans will love this one. The magnificent home where Ernest Hemingway was born now serves as a museum to life and works of one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century.

You'll get an insight into Hemingway's early life and find out how his Illinois roots shaped his later work and your knowledgeable guide will provide expert insight and share unique facts as you journey through the home.

Save on Admission to Top Things to Do in Chicago

So there you have it. Our picks for some of the most popular and top things to do in Chicago for first time visitors. Many of these popular attractions in Chicago are included on the Go Chicago pass. Choose as you go from dozens of top attractions and save on combined admission vs. paying at the gate.

Plan to visit some of these top attractions during your trip. Whether you are traveling with young kids, teens, or just adults, we're sure you and your family will have a great time.

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