Best Places To Visit In Northern Illinois For Families

A mother and two sons riding a bike through a grassy path in Northern Illinois.

Take a wonderful family trip when you explore the best places to visit in Northern Illinois for families! Families searching for a road trip stop, a lovely day trip, or a weekend getaway with kids, will find something for everyone in Northern Illinois. Of course, when visiting Northern Illinois with kids, you will have a fair bit of planning to do. On this list, we’ve put together the best places to visit in Northern Illinois for families, including charming towns, museums, state parks, and more adventures. In case you need hotel suggestions, we’ve also included where to stay in Illinois with kids. Keep reading for our list of the Best Places To Visit In Northern Illinois For Families! 

We have kept information about Chicago limited in this article, to highlight other amazing parts of Northern Illinois for families. If you’re searching for information on Chicago, read Fun Things To Do In Chicago With Kids.

Best Cities to Visit in Northern Illinois for Families

Searching for a city experience all ages can enjoy? Look no further than the following cities on this list of the best places to visit in Northern Illinois for families, which has great options from Chicago to Galena, Woodstock, and more! 

Chicago

A young girl rides on her father's shoulders as the walk along the lakeshore with the skyline of Chicago in the distance, one of the best places in Northern Illinois for families.

Start your vacation to Illinois with a trip to Chicago, the state’s biggest and most popular city. From tasting deep-dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s to visiting museums, parks, or sports games, you’ll find endless ways to entertain your kids. Visit the Museum of Science and Industry, then stop by the Field Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, or the Chicago Children’s Museum. Or, enjoy a sunny day wandering Chinatown Square, Pilsen’s 16th Street Murals, and The Navy Pier.

Depending on when you visit, seasonal activities vary from booking a boat tour to spending the day at Chicago beach. Of course, if you want an animal adventure, don’t miss the Brookfield Zoo, Lincoln Park Zoo, or the Shedd Aquarium. Save time for Millennium Park, home to a famous sculpture, “The Bean,” aka Cloud Gate!

Save on Chicago attractions by using Go City or CityPASS!

Looking for somewhere to stay in Chicago with kids? Check out The 10 Best Family Hotels in Chicago!

Galena

An aerial view of a scenic drive near Galena, Illinois, featuring hues of red, orange, and yellow at sunset.
Photo Courtesy: Galena County Tourism

Galena is surely one of the best places to visit in Northern Illinois for families! Offering a mixture of historic attractions and family fun, it’s just a three-hour drive from Chicago. Wander Main Street to discover charming shops, including candy and ice cream parlors for kids. History buffs can’t miss the Apple River Fort, an important site during the 1832 Black Hawk War between settlers and the indigenous Sauk tribe.

Families can also visit the Chestnut Mountain Resort to ride the alpine slide, take a Segway tour, and more. Or, rent kayaks, paddleboards, or e-bikes at Fever River Outfitters. Thrill-seeking kids will love the canopy zipline tour with Long Hollow Canopy Tours or a unique goat trekking excursion with Hoof It!

Look here for a stay in Galena through Vrbo!

Peoria

A pier stretched out into the water at dusk in Peoria, Illinois.
Photo Courtesy: Scott McLeod

Peoria is one of the best places to visit in Illinois for families. Located in central Illinois along the Illinois River, this sprawling city combines historical attractions with culture, art, and scenic outdoor beauty. Downtown, families can explore the Peoria Riverfront Museum, home to rotating exhibits on math, science, and art.

Animal lovers can visit the Peoria Zoo or head slightly outside of the city to Wildlife Prarie Park to see animals native to Illinois. Next to the zoo within Glen Oak Park is the Luthy Botanical Garden, perfect for an afternoon stroll through the flora and fauna. Forest Park Nature Center, Laura Bradley Park, and Grand View Drive and Park also provide amazing views and hiking opportunities. 

Check out home stays in Peoria with Vrbo now!

Other Towns Worth Visiting in Northern Illinois with Kids

A view of the small lake, through the reeds, at Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo Courtesy: Raed Mansour
Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge

There are a few more cities we recommend adding to your Northern Illinois itinerary for families. Keep reading to find the best fit for your itinerary.

Woodstock

Located around 40 miles away from Chicago, spend the afternoon strolling around quaint Historic Woodstock, home to a Victorian town square with a cute gazebo to take pictures. It also showcases a selection of kid-friendly boutiques, restaurants, antique stores, and art galleries. Right outside of the city, families can visit the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, which straddles the border with Wisconsin. Or, head to the Illinois Railway Museum if you have train-obsessed kiddo in your family. In the summer, kids will love cooling down on the exciting rides at Woodstock Water Works! 

Rockton

Located in northern Illinois near the Wisconsin border, this charming city is located on the banks of the Rock River. Families can enjoy recreational activities at Hononegah Forest Preserve, a wetland area overlooking the river. Pack a picnic to eat lunch, bring a ball to play sports, or take advantage of the boat launch to see Rockton from a new perspective! Bird watchers also love the trails at nearby Carl and Myrna Nygren Wetland Preserve. To learn more about the history of Rockton, kids can also visit the Macktown Living History Education Center. This living history museum tells the story of one of America’s first settlements! 

Bartlett

Bartlett is a small village in Illinois with a lot of family-friendly things to do. When you visit in the summer, kids will love spending time at the Bartlett Aquatic Center, which features a zero-entry pool, lazy river, splash pad area, and more fun rides. Leiseburg Park is another popular destination in the summer since it has a playground with a splash pad. To get up close to nature, families can explore the Bartlett Nature Center inside James Pate Phillip State Park. The park is also a fantastic place for spotting warblers, waterfowl, beavers, and white-tailed deer. For an indoor activity, visit the Barlett History Museum or the Bartlett Depot Museum, housed in a former railroad station. 

Elmhurst

Elmhurst isn’t just any suburb of Chicago. Thanks to a bustling downtown area, countless city parks, and family-friendly things to do, this exciting destination offers a wonderful vacation with kids, especially in the summer. Walk around the city center to explore shops, restaurants, and vintage architecture, then stop by Wilder Park. In this beautiful green space, you’ll find two of Elmhurst’s best museums: the Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art and the Elmhurst Art Museum. Outdoorsy families may prefer strolling through the Illinois Prarie Path or the Great Western Prarie. Of course, when visiting Elmhurst with kids, don’t miss Safari Land. This indoor recreation center has a merry-go-round, roller coaster, and bowling alley! 

Best Outdoor Adventures in Northern Illinois for Families

Families looking to enjoy the great outdoors have their pick of the best places to visit in Northern Illinois for families. From stunning lakes to state parks, and more scenic spots, you’ll love the options on this list. Keep reading to learn more! 

Evergreen Lake 

A red kayak rests along the shore of Lake Evergreen, one of the best places in Northern Illinois for families
Photo Courtesy: Rita Zimmerman

Evergreen Lake provides a beautiful getaway for families in Central Illinois. Located within COMLARA Park, it’s removed from the hustle and bustle of nearby cities, plus it’s small enough to tackle with young kids without getting overwhelmed. From camping to hiking to swimming on the partitioned-off beach, there are several ways to enjoy the park during warmer weather.

Available to rent at the bait shop, the lake is also perfect for kayaks, canoes, paddleboards, and rowboats. In the summer, families can also enjoy scheduled events throughout the lake, including a summer fishing tournament for kids and several festivals. Need a rainy day activity? Consider the Children’s Discovery Museum in the nearby towns of Bloomington/Normal. 

Starved Rock State Park

A mom and her young child walk below the sparse waterfall at Starved Rock State Park, one of the best places in Northern Illinois for families
Photo Courtesy: Laura Refsland Horner

Experience the natural beauty of Illinois in one of the state’s most popular destinations, Starved Rock State Park. Located along the Illinois River less than two hours from Chicago, it’s easily accessible via car and is one of the best state parks in the Midwest for families.

In the summer, you can hike among the cascading waterfalls, gorgeous canyons, and rugged bluffs overlooking the Illinois River. Kids will love seeing dear, eagles, or migratory birds! A few kid-friendly trails include the Starved Rock Overlook Trail, which is occasionally steep, or the Saint Louis Canyon for beginners. If you want to spend more than a day, book your room at Starved Rock Lodge, which offers a daily roster of family-friendly activities. 

Matthiessen State Park

The lovely waterfall inside Matthiessen State Park, flows over large rock cut outs at one of the best places in Northern Illinois for families
Photo Courtesy: Tripp

Matthiessen State Park is lesser-known than nearby Starved Rock State Park, but it’s still worth the visit anyway! Located in LaSalle County, it features a typical Midwestern forest landscape, with trails winding through verdant trees, cascading waterfalls, and marshy ponds with resident warblers, herons, ducks, and geese. With over 5 miles of trails, it’s easy to get amazing views here.

Try the Matthiessen State Park River Trail, which loops around the Vermillion River and isn’t too steep for younger kids. Other activities for families include mountain biking and horseback riding, for which there are separate trails. You can also bring a picnic to enjoy a beautiful lunch. This is one of the best places to visit in Northern Illinois for families! 

Illinois Beach State Park

Shores of Lake Michigan at Illinois Beach State Park, with a sandy shoreline and clouds in the skies.
Photo Courtesy: Yinan Chen via Wikimedia Commons

Families exploring Illinois in the summer should add Illinois Beach State Park to their itinerary. Located along Lake Michigan, this sprawling state park stretches 6.5 miles along the sandy shore. It also offers several opportunities for swimming, boating, kayaking, hiking, and other outdoor activities. Kids will love splashing in the calm waters at Zion Beach while parents relax on the soft sand.

At the south and north end of the beach, you’ll also find calm water to swim and kayak. Or, go boating on Lake Michigan. With over 5 miles of trails, including the popular Dunes Trail and Dead River Trail, it’s also a perfect place to go hiking. Keep an eye out for rare migratory birds, like the Solitary Sandpiper! 

Buffalo Rock State Park

One of the American Bison who call Buffalo Rock State Park home.
Photo Courtesy: Richie Diesterheft

For a quaint state park experience in Illinois, a lot of families choose to visit Buffalo Rock State Park. Located on a bluff overlooking the Illinois River, this quaint destination was once its own island. Now, visitors can explore its many hidden treasures through a series of beginner hikes. This includes The River Trail, which travels along the Illinois River.

Then, in the center of the park, you’ll find the main attraction: an enormous outdoor sculpture. Clay mounds are meant to represent life native to the Illinois River, including snakes, turtles, catfish, and frogs. There are lots of wide-open spaces to walk around too, and depending on when you visit, you may even see wild buffalo grazing! 

Best Animal Encounters in Northern Illinois for Families

Animal lovers will be impressed by the abundance of wildlife in Northern Illinois. From animal protection centers and other wildlife parks, there are a variety of options in this Midwest state. Here are our favorite animal encounters in Northern Illinois for families! 

Wildlife Discovery Center 

A large lizard peeks through the zoo exhibit glass at Wildlife Discovery Center.
Photo Courtesy: Wildlife Discovery Center 

Wildlife Discovery Center in Lake Forest is surely one of the best hidden gems in Illinois for families! As an animal protection center and a natural history museum, kids can get up close and personal with their favorite animals. Inside, kids can browse the exhibits and see cool creatures like snakes, iguanas, etc.

Then, you can take one of the winding paths through the property to explore the outdoor exhibits. Be sure to look out for Boris the bobcat along the way! Alongside the animals, families can also hike on the adjacent Middlefork Trail. Or, visit Elawa Farm Park to eat a picnic in the pavilion, play soccer, and have fun in the massive playground.

Big Run Wolf Ranch 

Two wolves sit in the shade of an exhibit platform at Big Run Wolf Ranch, one of the best places in Northern Illinois for families
Photo Courtesy: Big Run Wolf Ranch 

Big Run Wolf Ranch is another one of the best places to visit in Illinois for families if you want an unforgettable animal experience. Located in Lockport, this wildlife education facility is dedicated to promoting the conservation of North American wildlife, particularly wolves.

Though it’s only open to the public on select days, called “Family Days”, families can enjoy an animal encounter with a rotating performance, for example, a bat exhibit or a reptile exhibit (performances will vary by month). When you visit, kids will get to learn more about these incredible animals and how they were rescued, plus say hi from a distance. Prepare to see anything from a cougar to wolves, a Siberian tiger, a black bear, and more! In addition to Family Days, you can also book a private tour or a wildlife education show for your family.

Wildlife Prairie Park 

Bison wander a penned area, lush with grass, at Wildlife Prairie Park.
Photo Courtesy: Wildlife Prairie Park 

See native Illinois animals in their natural habitat at Wildlife Prarie Park! Located south of downtown Peoria in central Illinois, this sprawling zoological park is home to over 150 animals across several exhibits. That means your family can see anything from wolves to bison, waterfowl, black bears, elk, otters, badgers, snakes, bobcats, and more!

What makes this wildlife park even more unique is its abundant hiking, biking, and fishing opportunities. Families with young kids who don’t want to walk much can also book an Adventure Trek. You’ll get to ride through restricted areas of the park for some behind-the-scenes access. Or, take an epic ride through the park on the famous ​​Prairie Zephyr train, where you’ll loop through the gorgeous forest! 

Best Museums + Attractions in Northern Illinois for Families

Travelers who want to fill their vacation with fun and educational attractions will love these options for the best places to visit in Northern Illinois for families. From thrilling rides at Six Flags Great America to celebrating Christmas in the summer at Santa’s Village Amusement & Water Park in East Dundee, here are our favorite options! 

Discovery Center Museum 

Several young kids play at a colorful exhibit at the Discovery Center Museum, one of the best places in Northern Illinois for families
Photo Courtesy: Discovery Center Museum 

Explore over 250 interactive exhibits at Discovery Center Museum! Located in Rockford’s Riverfront Museum Park, this family-friendly destination covers topics such as the human body, simple machines, agriculture, and more scientific-related themes for kids. It’s certainly one of the best places to visit in Northern Illinois for families!

Explore the Air & Flight section to find out more about gravity, including with an air cannon. Or, visit the career kiosk to help little ones figure out their future profession. For aspiring creatives, there’s also an art studio, plus a Color and Light section. Other exhibits include the Power Of Electricity, The Body Shop, and Figure It Out, a math-themed gallery. 

Santa’s Village Amusement & Water Park

A teen girl and Santa ride together on the lead car of a roller coaster at Santa’s Village Amusement & Water Park.
Photo Courtesy: Santa’s Village Amusement & Water Park

Summer in East Dundee means an obligatory visit to Santa’s Village Amusement & Water Park! As a theme park, water park, and zoo all in one, this extraordinary destination brings together the best Santa-themed rides, slides, and animals for kids to enjoy.

Little ones can take advantage of kiddie attractions like the original 1959 Santa’s Tree House Slide. Meanwhile, older kids can try thrilling rides like The Blizard, a pendulum that swings over 40-feet in the air! Cool down from the heat with water rides, from the Peppermint Twist to the Caribbean Curl, two massive slides. Lighthouse Harbor features zero-depth entry to a 10,000 square foot, 8-inch-deep wading pool with a two-story interactive water play structure. Finally, don’t forget about the petting zoo and barn and game alley, showcasing arcade and carnival games. 

Best Resorts in Illinois for a Family Getaway

A young girl plays in a cozy, pink in-room tent at The Langham, Chicago.
Photo Courtesy: Antonia Grant

Once you’ve discovered the best places to visit in Northern Illinois for families, it’s time to decide where to stay. Families visiting Chicago will adore kid-friendly hotels with a pool, including Palmer House, A Hilton Hotel, The Four Seasons Hotel Chicago, The Langham, Chicago, and The Ritz-Carlton, Chicago. Or, stay somewhere with an indoor water park, like the Great Wolf Lodge in Gurnee.

In Galena, stay at the Chestnut Mountain Resort to kill two birds with one stone, since a lot of activities are available there anyway. Or, book a room at the Worldmark Galena Resort, featuring an indoor pool, sauna, and game room. Finally, don’t miss Cypress Resort & Marine, nestled on Petite Lake.

Happy Travels!

We hope you found this list of the Best Places to Visit in Northern Illinois for Families helpful in planning your own adventures! Between history, recreational activities, and scenic views, this Midwest destination is fantastic for all ages. Enjoy Northern Illinois with your kids! 

*Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the attractions, accommodations, or things to do on this list may be closed. Please ensure availability before making your decision. 

*This post may contain affiliate links that may earn us a small commission, at no additional cost to you. Affiliate links in no way inform the hotels, sights, products, or other recommendations included in our articles. All opinions and recommendations expressed here are compiled from submissions submitted by the generous members of our Families Who Love To Travel community.

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Families Love Travel Team

The Families Love Travel Team has a zest for life and an even bigger passion for globetrotting! Comprised of real-life travel professionals, we work hard behind the scenes to provide dynamic solutions for adventuring with children. Our enthusiastic team understands the challenges that often accompany traveling with kids and is committed to making Families Love Travel an inclusive space to convey these experiences.