Blake Walsh

15 Best Things to Do in Cook County, IL

  • Published 2023/03/25

Cook County was established on January 15, 1831, beyond the limits of Putnam County through an act of the Illinois General Assembly.

It’s an urban county in Illinois’ upper northeastern section, containing over 800 local governmental units.

Named after Daniel Cook, one of Illinois’s pioneers and youngest politicians, the county has 134 communities in its region.

Chicago is its county seat.

It’s well-known for its attractive landscapes and outdoor recreation from its forest preserves, fishing, beaches, boating, amusement centers, historic places, and much more.

Check out the 15 best things to do in Cook County, Illinois.

Check Out the Cloud Gate

View of Cloud Gate in Millennium Park

Max Herman /

Cloud Gate, or “The Bean,” is in Millenium Park on East Randolph Street in Chicago.

This magnificent masterpiece by Anish Kapoor was constructed using computer automation.

They cut 168 massive stainless steel plates into accurate shapes, assembled them like a puzzle, and welded them shut.

People having a closer look at the Cloud Gate

Sharkshock /

It’s one of the planet’s biggest permanent outdoor art installations with a stainless-steel facade.

It also reflects the activity and the lights, including its neighboring city skyline.

You can approach and touch its mirror-like surface and see your image reflected from different ranges.

Cloud Gate stands 33 feet high, measures 42 feet wide, 66 feet long, and weighs 110 tons.

Visitors observing the Cloud Gate

voyata /

Meet the Animals at Lincoln Park Zoo

Entrance to Lincoln Park Zoo

Jay Yuan /

One of Illinois’s most well-known cultural havens and the only privately operated free zoo in the country is the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Also known as Lincoln Park Zoological Gardens, this 35-acre zoo was established in 1868, making it the fourth oldest in North America.

This amazing zoo is all things wildlife, teaching young people and adults how to love animals.

Gorilla at Lincoln Park Zoo

Christophe KLEBERT /

Almost 200 unique species from around the globe call this Chicago zoo home.

It is open all year round with no admission fee.

See the African painted dog, American black bear, Aruba Island rattlesnake, Bali myna, Canada lynx, Chinese hwamei, fairy bluebird, and African lion, among others.

You’ll also find a burr oak tree dating to 1830 at the Lincoln Park Zoo, three years before the organization of the city of Chicago.

Flamingos at Lincoln Park Zoo

Pamela Brick /

Discover Aquatic Animals at Shedd Aquarium

Exterior view of Shedd Aquarium

Henryk Sadura /

Do you want to touch or feed animals such as stingrays, starfishes, and primitive fish sturgeon?

Take the entire family to Shedd Aquarium and check out the Caribbean Reef teeming with diverse and colorful corals and fish.

Sharks, other predators, and their prey live in harmony in an interwoven and delicate but balanced habitat.

Interior view of Shedd Aquarium

James Kirkikis /

This vast indoor public aquarium on South Dusable Lake Shore Drive in Chicago opened its doors on May 30, 1930.

It currently houses nearly 32,000 animals.

Don’t leave without exploring the beautiful rain garden of flowers, shrubs, and trees.

It is a natural habitat for resident and migratory birds, bees, and butterflies.

A worker training a whale at Shedd Aquarium

James Kirkikis /

See Various Plants at Garfield Park Conservatory

Exterior view of the Garfield Park Conservatory

Thomas Barrat /

Also known as “landscape art under glass,” Garfield Park Conservatory is one of the city’s biggest botanical conservatories.

It exhibits thousands of different kinds of plants from around the globe across eight indoor display gardens.

The family can revel in the prolific flora and tropical conditions indoors and at the over ten-acre outdoor gardens.

Your kids can also spend time in the nature play area.

Statue at Garfield Park Conservatory

Thomas Barrat /

Visit different plant collections at the Outer Gardens, Palm House, Fern Room, Sugar from the Sun, Aroid House, Desert House, Show House, Horticulture Hall, and Elizabeth Morse Genius Children’s Garden.

Located in Chicago, Garfield Park Conservatory is the core of the three great original Westside parks: Garfield, Douglas, and Westside.

Plants at Garfield Park Conservatory

Nagel Photography /

Fly a Kite at Kasey Meadow Park

Kasey Meadow Park is in Hickory Hills, spanning 17 acres and featuring exciting amenities for the family.

This lovely and serene park has large trees that provide sufficient shade, shielding visitors from the sun.

Its vast open areas are great for children and dogs that love to run about and are also perfect for kite flying, throwing frisbees, or playing soccer.

Your kids will also love playing in the splash pad, skate park, and sled hill.

Meanwhile, adults can use the outdoor fitness equipment or walk at the half-mile outdoor walking track.

Kasey Meadow Park also features two playgrounds for young and older kids, basketball courts, and a picnic area.

Visit Maggie Daley Park

People enjoying their day at Maggie Daley Park

f11photo /

In 2014, this park was renamed Maggie Daley Park to honor Maggie C. Daley, co-founder of Gallery 37 and Chicago’s longtime first lady.

She succumbed to cancer in 2011.

Visit the Cancer Survivor’s Garden, designed to celebrate life and provide hope throughout an unforgettable garden setting.

Challenge yourself at the 40-foot-high Climbing Wall with a surface area of 19,000 square feet.

Otherwise, show off your skating ability at the Ice Skating Ribbon.

Bird's eye view of Maggie Daley Park

Paul Aparicio /

Kids will adore the Play Garden’s soft surface base and play elements surpassing ADA minimum standards.

However, ball playing, bikes, and dogs are not allowed.

Located in Chicago, Maggie Daley Park has a miniature golf course and a cafe that serves hotdogs, popcorn, ice cream, nachos, and beverages.

Ice skating at Maggie Daley Park

Hidalgo Visual /

Explore the Chicago Botanic Garden

Scenic view of Chicago Botanic Garden

elesi /

For the past several decades, the Chicago Botanic Garden has continued to evolve as a charming place to visit.

It has also developed into one of the world’s celebrated living museums and conservation science centers.

Nestled on a 385-acre property with around nine islands, this gorgeous botanic garden has a six-mile shore and a famous Bonsai Collection.

Explore its different gardens either by walking or joining a tram tour that provides a spectacular view of the gardens of the main island.

Japanese garden at Chicago Botanic Garden

elesi /

Visit the Heritage Garden, Japanese Garden, Native Plant Garden, Rose Garden, Sensory Garden, Bulb Garden, Circle Garden, Crescent Garden, Enabling Garden, English Walled Garden, Evening Island, Fruit, and Vegetable Garden.

Hike the McDonald Woods and see the surprising diversity of plants and animals.

Wander the 15-acre Dixon Prairie and check out over 250 species of native plants and various birds and butterflies.

Artificial waterfall at Chicago Botanic Garden

Ian Dikhtiar /

Also inside the Chicago Botanic Garden is the 12-acre Barbara Brown Nature Reserve.

Ecologists eliminated invasive plant species and replanted native ones to create a crucial environment for the region’s bird species.

See flycatchers, warblers, sparrows, ducks, and sometimes even eagles at the restored nature reserve.

Pedestrian bridge at Chicago Botanic Garden

elesi /

Let Your Kids Play and Learn at Chicago Children’s Museum

Exterior view of Chicago Children's Museum

rarrarorro /

Your children will appreciate you taking them to the Chicago Children’s Museum.

They can play and learn while exploring the life-size skeleton of Suchomimus.

They can dig for any bones in the excavation pit from the recreation of an authentic Saharan expedition.

During this expedition, Paul Sereno, a Chicago paleontologist, unearthed a new kind of dinosaur.

A kid playing at Chicago Children's Museum

Mariusz S. Jurgielewicz /

The Treehouse Trails allow your kids to climb, burrow, or camp while babies can explore, relax, and stretch in the new infant section.

The Kids Town isn’t just a cityscape designed for kids and promotes emerging literacy, problem-solving, and inventive analysis through fun and engaging activities.

Chicago Children’s Museum also has Michael’s Museum, Skyline, Tinkering Lab, Story Hub, Play It Safe, Art Studio, and more.

Kids playing in a fountain at Chicago Children's Museum

elesi /

Enjoy the Water at Montrose Beach

People enjoying their day with their pets at Montrose Beach

James Andrews1 /

One of the great ways to spend a day off work is to go to Montrose Beach, located on North Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.

See different migratory birds and tranquil dune habitats for endangered plants.

You can kayak, canoe, or paddle board at the Lake Michigan Water Trail.

Shoreline of Montrose Beach

AC Willett /

If you want more adventure, try kiteboarding at Montrose Beach.

Note that the beach doesn’t allow feeding the birds or wildlife.

Colorful flower along the trail at Montrose Beach

PeggyReillyPhotos /

Explore the Exploritorium

Children and adults can huddle and explore Exploritorium together through interactive play.

You can play pretend in their costumed dress-up area or run your fingers in the water play area.

The whole gang can climb the wall, have fun with trains, try new heights in their two-and-a-half-story tunnels and tubes, and much more.

Don’t miss the Engineering Megastation, Tic-Tok Ball Track, Imagination Playground, and Toddler Zone.

Located in Skokie, the Exploritorium has a vending machine and a seating area if you want snacks.

See the Stars at Adler Planetarium

Bird's eye view of Adler Planetarium

Robert Sarnowski /

Discover the beautiful night sky at Adler Planetarium on South Dusable Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, and visit different exhibits.

Astronomy and Culture allow you to travel back in time and understand their tools, including those who developed and used them.

Chicago’s Night Sky presents natural science and research from various Adler program procedures, including Zooniverse and Far Horizons.

Facade of the Adler Planetarium

Carlos Yudica /

Planet Explorers allow kids aged three to eight to become junior space explorers.

They can play, crawl, climb, and learn what it takes to be a part of an outer space mission.

Adler Planetarium also features youth STEAM programs, online citizen science, neighborhood skywatching events, and other outreach endeavors.

Model of the planets displayed at Adler Planetarium

Naeblys /

Learn the Nation’s History at Chicago History Museum

Outside view of Chicago History Museum

Mary at T-Comms /

The Potawatomi people used to care for the land where the Chicago History Museum stands.

However, they were evicted by European settlers.

The museum is a research center for inspiration, civic engagement, and learning through tours, publications, special events, programming, and dynamic exhibitions.

Its exhibits include Remembering Dr. King: 1929-1968.

Visitors can walk through a winding gallery with over 25 photographs depicting MLK’s critical moments in the Civil Rights Movement.

Lincoln's death bed at Chicago History Museum

Adam Jones from Kelowna, BC, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The museum presents various publications, programs, and online resources relevant to Chicago and American history.

Located in Chicago, the Chicago History Museum acknowledges significant city organizations and citizens with its Making History Awards.

Interior view of the Chicago History Museum

Michael Barera, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Check Out the Haunted Trails Family Entertainment Center

If you want to spend your family day, look no further than the Haunted Trails Family Entertainment Center.

The Center provides a choice of family-friendly fun and entertainment for all ages.

Play with your loved ones or friends to the latest video, skill, and redemption games, and then grab a bite at Charmin’ Charley’s Restaurant.

Experience the thrill at the Jr. Speedway Go-Karts or Trails Raceway Go-Karts, ride the Miner Mike Coaster, or master your batting skills at the Batting Cages.

Create happy memories with friends and loved ones at Haunted Trails Family Entertainment Center on South Harlem Avenue in Burbank.

Explore the Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve

Cascade at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve

Eddie J. Rodriquez /

Situated in Lemont, Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve is geologically significant.

It showcases wetland potholes, ravines, and glacier-carved rock ridges not found anyplace else in the county.

This 700-acre enchanting forest is a spatial wooded acreage interlaced with dolomite underneath a prairie habitat, sheltering rare plants.

Stunning view of Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve during autumn

Nejdet Duzen /

You’ll spot woodlands with prominent maple and oak trees, including prairie, planted pine groves, and grassland habitats.

The trail system makes a loop around the whole park, allowing you to see wildlife in its natural habitat.

Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve allows dogs on a leash but prohibits horseback riding.

Natural trail at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve

James Andrews1 /

Ride the Centennial Wheel

View of Centennial Wheel

Evgenia Parajanian /

Visit and ride the iconic Centennial Wheel on Navy Pier based on East Grand Avenue in Chicago.

It was named after its designer, Washington Gale Ferris Jr., from Pittsburgh.

Get breathtaking 360° views of Chicago and Lake Michigan from the wheel that stands 264 tall and is brightened by 2,500 Edison incandescent lights.

The enclosed gondolas and climate-controlled gondolas allow you to enjoy rides all year round.

Closeup of the cabins at Centennial Wheel

Robert Sarnowski /

The Centennial Wheel was inaugurated in 2016 to honor Navy Pier’s 100th anniversary.

Navy Pier is a great place to go if you want free public programs, excellent food, events, shopping, attractions, and more.

Final Thoughts

Spending time with your family or yourself would be better when going to Cook County.

Create a memorable experience you will cherish for the rest of your life by visiting the county.

Check out the best things to do in Cook County, Illinois.

© All rights reserved.