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Free Things to Do in Chicago

Free Things to Do in Chicago

Transportation and lodging often eat a big chunk of anyone’s vacation budget. Even if you’re a local, spending extra cash on tourist spots and activities is often not in the cards. Luckily, Chicago has a lot of free events and sites to explore throughout the city, whether you’re new to the area or a seasoned local in Windy City. 

Free Things to Do in Chicago

Millennium Park

It’s always free to go by the famous sites at Millennium Park. Snap a selfie with the silver Cloud Gate sculpture (AKA The Bean) and spend some time exploring the surrounding park. Get in some steps while walking around, or seek out specific sites in the area. The Jay Pritzker Pavilion often hosts free music and cultural performances, and the Boeing Galleries have outdoor art sculptures to view. Or just splash around Crown Fountain to cool off on a hot day.

The Chicago Riverwalk

Put on your walking shoes and head to the scenic Chicago Riverwalk! On a nice day, this is a good area for people watching and getting a view of the water and bridges. There are plenty of benches around to sit and rest, as well as a few noteworthy sites along the way. In the evening hours, Art on the Mart has a free immersive digital art show paired with music projected on the building exterior. 

Lincoln Park Zoo

One of the few free zoos in the country, the Lincoln Park Zoo has 38 acres of animal exhibits and gardens to visit. Self-guided tours can visit as many of the 1,200+ resident animals as possible. Swing by the Endangered Species Carousel with artisan-crafted wood animals to ride for a break off of your feet. Plan to spend a few hours here, especially if you have children in your group and the weather is pleasant.

Chicago Cultural Center

Experience art and architecture in this massive downtown building dedicated to all things Chicago. The Chicago Cultural Center is housed in a stunning historical building that is over 100 years old and features two stained-glass domes, and is the site of several free events throughout the year. The on-site art galleries here focus specifically on artists native to Chicago and the greater Midwest area. Check out their calendar of events online when planning your visit.

Lakefront Trail

Get active along the Lakefront Trail, a paved 18-mile path along the shores of Lake Michigan. Visitors can walk, bike, run or rollerblade along the trail or just use it to access other popular sites and beaches to explore. Traditional and electric bike rentals are available at several locations along the route. The waterfront view is a beautiful backdrop for an active family day or catching up with friends. Bring your binoculars for some bird-watching, or take some bread to feed the ducks!  

Chicago Museums

The city of Chicago has over 50 museums, spanning everything from arts and sciences to more obscure topics like the the Chicago Fed Money Museum. There is a museum for everyone here, and a handful of them operate for free year-round, including the Smart Museum of Art, the Design Museum of Chicago, the Clarke House Museum and the Mary and Leigh Block Museum. The DuSable Museum of African American History offers free admission on Wednesdays, and others offer free access to Illinois residents, educators or active military. Check online to see which museums catch your eye and see if you can go by when a discount is available. 

Garfield Park Conservatory

Regardless of the weather, you can head to Garfield Park Conservatory to take in colorful flowers and tropical foliage. The park’s 12 acres of gardens include indoor and outdoor spaces with lush displays of plants from around the world. There are several permanent exhibits as well as seasonal flower shows in both the winter and spring. Guided wellness walks and demonstrations about ecology and conservation are available, with a published schedule on the conservatory website. Admission is free, but donations are suggested. Note that reservations are required and can be made in advance online.

Navy Pier

It is a tourist hot spot, but Navy Pier is a waterfront destination ideal for summer afternoons. This green space is located along the water and offers several free public programs and cultural events, including live music and theater. The location has excellent views of the Chicago skyline and a perfect vantage point for summer fireworks displays, scheduled for Wednesday and Saturday evenings through Labor Day weekend.