While many think of travel and vacation as a luxury, we believe it’s a way of life. However, that doesn’t mean you have to break the bank every time you go on a trip. This rings especially true for those who want to travel to Chicago, but aren’t keen on shattering their budget. Luckily for them, there’s a ton of free things to do in Chicago. Thirty-two and counting to be exact.
When you head out to the Windy City, keep these absolutely free activities on your list of things to do.
1) Lincoln Park Zoo
In a city full of skyscrapers, animal lovers can go wild at the Lincoln Park Zoo. This free oasis features lions, tigers, and gorillas in an immersive setting ranging from savannahs to rainforests. The juxtaposition of modern marvels like Willis Tower with wildlife habitats makes the experience that much more engaging.
2) Millennium Park
The main attraction at Millennium Park is Cloud Gate, more commonly known as “The Bean”. This unique sculpture produces seriously cool reflections of the city, drawing a crowd even on the coldest days. However, the Park is also home to the famous Crown Fountain, two interactive video towers with digital faces as well as the charming Lurie Garden. During the summer season, the Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion and Great Lawn hosts free music concerts and film screenings. On the other hand, winter means the McCormick Tribune Plaza transforms in an incredible ice skating rink.
3) Chicago Cultural Center
Visitors and locals alike can take advantage of free art exhibits, music and dance performances every single day of the week. In addition, the Center hosts free weekly building tours covering the architecture and history of the building. The standout of this tour is the world’s largest Tiffany stained-glass dome in Preston Bradley Hall.
4) Museum of Contemporary Photography
This museum presents projects and exhibitions focusing on contemporary image-making through both camera and digital forms. Admission is always free.
5) Smart Museum of Art
Another one of the free things to do in Chicago is touring the Smart Museum of Art. This University of Chicago Art Museum houses over 15,000 objects. Each is dedicated to Asian art, European art, modern art and design, and contemporary art.
6) Garfield Park Conservatory
As one of the most stunning conservatories in the nation, the fact Garfield Park Conservatory boasts free admission is pretty impressive. During your visit to the Park, enjoy over 2-acres of historic indoor gardens as well as 12-acres of outdoor seasonal gardens. This is truly a tropical oasis right in the heart of the Midwest!
7) Chicago Festivals
When you’re searching for free things to do in Chicago, festivals are always a good bet. The following is a sample of festivals that are always free of charge:
- Grant Park Music Festival
- Chicago Blues Festival
- Chicago Jazz Festival
- Grant Park Music Festival
- Chicago Air and Water Show
8) Seasonal Events
Chicago loves any reason to throw a party or a parade. This certainly rings true during the holidays, with special events like the St. Patrick’s Day, during which the Chicago River is dyed green, and Christmas, which features the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival. Both holiday events are free to the public.
9) Lincoln Park Conservatory
For a big city, Chicago has a surprising number of places dedicated to all things green. For example, the Lincoln Park Conservatory, on the shores of Lake Michigan, has a botanical garden teeming with ferns, tropical flowers, and palms.
10) Chicago Botanic Garden
The green-themed free things to do in Chicago continue at the Chicago Botanic Garden. It houses over 27 gardens spread out over 385-acres across nine islands. For this reason, it’s a true sanctuary for any outdoor lover!
11) Museum of Contemporary Art
If you’re an Illinois resident, you can visit the lakefront Museum of Contemporary Art for free on Tuesdays. The museum houses post-World War II paintings, sculptures, photos, and videos.
12) DePaul University Art Museum
The list of free things to do in Chicago continues with the DePaul University Art Museum. Home to a diverse permanent collection, works range from photography to sculpture, paintings and more.
13) Chicago Greeter Program
Want an inside look at a Chicago neighborhood? Join a two or four-hour tour led by the Chicago Greeter Program. These tours are available throughout the city and the guides are locals. Accordingly, you’re sure to learn a lot about the ins and outs of this city.
14) Navy Pier
This iconic Chicago attraction is bursting with attractions. However, many of them charge a fee. Believe it or not, though, there are several free things to do in Chicago at Navy Pier. Tour the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows or simply stroll the 50-acre playground to take in the views and atmosphere. In addition, Navy Pier hosts free fireworks shows from Memorial Day through Labor Day every Wednesday and Saturday night.
15) Chicago Children’s Museum
The free activities at Navy Pier continue at the interactive Children’s Museum, with families admitted free on Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m. Plus, kids ages 15 and under free the first Sunday of every month.
16) Buckingham Fountain
From mid-April to mid-October catch a free water show every hour at the Buckingham Fountain. Go once the sun is setting so you can watch the spouting jets as they dance to a music and light display.
17) Chicago Architecture Foundation
Are you an architecture buff? If so, go here for an in-depth look at Chicago architecture. Take a free tour from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. The Foundation showcases exhibits on modern design, the city’s architectural history, and current Chicago projects.
18) Humboldt Park
Explore the 219-acres of Humboldt Park. It boasts a historic fieldhouse, fitness center and gymnasium (fee), island beach, lagoon, Boathouse Café and so much more.
19) Hancock Center’ Signature Lounge
If you want to see an epic view of the Chicago skyline, go here. From the 95th floor, the Signature Lounge is perched perfectly above Chicago. Plus, you’ll save the $20 admission for Sears Towers, so maybe you can spend it on a drink or two.
20) Lakefront Trail
Walk or bike the beautiful 18-mile Lakefront Trail. It stretches from Ardmore Street (5800 N. Sheridan Road) on the North Side to 71st Street (7100 S. South Shore Drive) on the South Side.
21) Promontory Point
Head to Promontory Point to enjoy some of the best views of Downtown Chicago.
22) Milton Lee Olive Park/Ohio Street Beach
During the summer season, this beach/park combo is a top-rated place to cool off. Plus, it offers excellent views of the city skyline.
23) Revolution Brewery
Wednesday through Friday, visitors can take in a free brewery tour at Revolution. First-come, first-served basis.
24) Hull House
For free things to do in Chicago with a historic perspective, visit Hull House. Once a settlement house, it is now a memorial to Jane Addams, the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She created innovative programs for immigrants. As a result, she was able to improve their lives and start an initiative that is still thriving today.
25) City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower
Specializing in photography, the City Gallery presents a unique way to learn about Chicago—all inside a 19th-century Gothic limestone landmark.
26) First United Methodist Church
Yes, going to church is always free. However, touring this neo-gothic church, known as “The Chapel in the Sky”, is certainly unique as it’s one of the tallest in the world.
27) National Museum of Mexican Art
In the Pilsen neighborhood, you can attend this museum. It is dedicated to the Latino arts, with everything from folk art to modern works on display.
28) Maxwell Street Market
Stroll the Maxwell Street Market every Sunday for free. Take note, though, you will be tempted to buy some of the local products and produce.
29) DuSable Museum of African American History
This museum features the “Freedom Now” mural, a wooden bas-relief depicting over 400-years of African-American history. Entry is free on Sunday.
30) Oriental Institute Museum
Plan visit to the Oriental Institute to learn about eastern cultures. Galleries focus on artifacts from Egyptian, Persian and Mesopotamian societies.
31) Magnificent Mile Window Shopping
With so many flagship stores and brands lining Michigan Ave., it’s worth walking to just window shop.
32) Newberry Library
In addition to perusing rare books and manuscripts at the Newberry Library, visitors can experience free exhibitions as well as public programs. Don’t miss this often overlooked gem!
Endless Free Things to Do in Chicago
The excuse “a vacation to Chicago is expensive” is no longer valid, especially with so many free things to do in Chicago. Pack your bags, book your hotel with Reserve Chicago, and visit Chicago today.
Ashley is Reserve Direct’s travel expert, visiting Chicago to find the best travel tips, money-saving deals and insider information. With over 10 years of experience in first-hand-travel adventures, she shares her stories, advice, and current events to help you stay in the know.