27 Free Things To Do In Chicago

April 23, 2015

Everyone knows that Chicago is a cool and vibrant sprawling apple bursting with iconic sights, eye-catching architectures, atmospheric restaurants, jazz bars and designer boutiques. But, did you that Chicago also has a cornucopia of delights and attractions that won’t cost you a penny? From prismatic festivals and electrifying concerts to world-class museums and laid-back parks, “The Windy City” truly has no shortage of freebies to offer to its visitors and dwellers.

Traveling to Chicago on a budget? Here’s a list of the best and most awesome free things to do in Chi-Town.

Free tourist attractions in Chicago

1. Lincoln Park Zoo

One of the oldest and most popular zoos in the United States, the Lincoln Park Zoois a celebrated Chicago institution that houses over a thousand of animals, including harbor seals, pythons, jaguars, giraffes, primates, birds, bears, and a whole lot more. What’s more, the zoo hosts festivals that you can experience for free, such as ZooLights.

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2. Elks Memorial

Elks Memorial, a hidden jewel in Chicago, is an exquisite neoclassical rotunda that dazzles with its ornate chandeliers, elaborate paintings and sculptures, marble floors as well as stained glass windows.

3. Chicago Cultural Center

From jazz concerts and contemporary photography to film screenings and lectures, the Chicago Cultural Center hosts a dazzling array of free events and programs. And, if there is nothing going on in Chicago Cultural Center, the building, with its stained-glass dome and stunning architectural design, is gorgeous enough to merit your visit.

4. Navy Pier

Deemed as one of the top tourist hot-spots in Chicago, Navy Pier is a can’t-miss playground filled with joys, bangs and attractions, including a couple of children’s museums and a 150-foot Ferris wheel. While most of its attractions and rides charge a fee, you can still have a blast in this pier without spending a fortune. After all, the entry to Navy Pier is free itself, and there are tons of beautiful views you can enjoy there. Plus, there are some attractions within the Pier that can be accessed for free, such as the botanical garden inside the Crystal Gardens and Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows.

By the way, there is a mesmerizing and captivating fireworks display every Saturday and Wednesday night during summer in Navy Pier. Furthermore, a concert series is held at the pier’s LandShark Beer Garden during this time of the year.

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5. Museums

Chicago is brimming with superb world-class museums that feature exhibits and collections to interest everyone. Most of Chi-Town’s treasure troves offer discounts and free admissions on certain days to active military personnel as well as K-12 teaches and residents in Illinois. But, there are other museums in Chicago that are always free, such as the National Museum of Mexican Art, Museum of Contemporary Photography and City Gallery.

6. Buckingham Fountain

Those who visit “The Windy City” from mid-April to October will be treated to an astonishing water show every hour at the world-famous Buckingham Fountain. We recommend that you see this spectacle during nightfall, when the 133 spouting jets of the fountain are wonderfully accompanied by a light and music display.

Free things to do in Millennium Park

Chicago’s Millennium Park is a 24.5-acre wonderland that boasts a chock-full of attractions and amusements that you can enjoy without shelling a dollar, including:

7. Be awestruck by “The Bean”

Cloud Gate, or also referred as “The Bean”, is an extraordinary public spectacle that will leave you in awe with its sheer size, incredible bean-like design and splendid reflection of Chicago’s beautiful skyline.

8. Marvel at the strange beauty of Crown Fountain

Praised for its artistry and cutting-edge technology, Millennium Park’s Crown Fountain is a visually stimulating modern mountain that will appease its spectators with its fascinating interactive display and water features.

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9. Relax and unwind in Lurie Garden

Lurie Garden is a tranquil 2.5-acre oasis where you can relax, unwind and get away from the city buzz while enjoying beautiful views of trees, shrubs, grasses, bulbs and perennials.

10. Take a selfie with the Millennium Monument

Make your way to Wrigley Square, and take snapshots as well as selfies with the striking Millennium Monument.

11. Free concerts at Jay Pritzker Pavilion

The Jay Pritzker Pavilion is not just a magnificent engineering wonder, but it is also a host to a number of free musical events and concerts from spring to fall, such as the Gospel Fest and Grant Park Music Festival.

12. Admire contemporary art at Boeing Galleries

Is contemporary art is your cup of tea? Millennium Park’s Boeing Galleries flaunt a collection of fabulous contemporary art exhibits that will surely please your taste.

13. Free ice skating

Visit Chicago during winter, and get to show off your ice skating skills on McCormick Tribune Ice Rink. Of course, you need to bring your own pair of ice skates, to enjoy this gratis experience. If, however, you don’t have your own skates, you may rent a pair for just 12 USD in the rink.

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Gratis entertainment in Chicago  

14. Free outdoor movies

During summertime, tourists and locals may choose from a wide range of new releases and classics like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory at any of the numerous free outdoor movie screenings in Chicago. You may catch these outdoor flicks at the city’s parks as well as at Pritzker Pavilion’s lofty 40-feet screen.

15. Laugh out loud at the Second City

Drop by the Second City, and get a chance to see America’s next big comedy star. Known for launching the careers of Steve Carell, Bill Murray and Tina Fey, this highly acclaimed comedy theatre lets you experience a one-hour hilarious and unforgettable comedy show for free. Except for Fridays, the Second City offers a free improv set every night, after its main stage performances.

16. Shakespeare in the park

Group members of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater get to showcase their theatrical talents by taking stage at over a dozen of parks throughout Chicago every summer.

Beaches, parks and gardens in Chicago with free access  

17. Chicago Botanic Gardens

Want some fresh air? Take a break from Chicago’s urban side, by strolling leisurely around the bucolic gardens and landscapes of Chicago Botanic Gardens. Home to 26 stunning gardens, this lush refuge also boasts over 200 species of bird as well as a delicate collection of sculptures.

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18. Garfield Park Conservatory

Your kids will certainly adore the children’s garden, bee-keeping demonstrations and gigantic animal sculptures at Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory. Fondly nicknamed as “landscape art under glass”, this marvelous conservatory has a plethora of exhibits, programs and free fun activities to offer to visiting families, such as story readings and scavenger hunts.

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19. Hit the beach

With more than 20 miles of shoreline, Chicago offers an array of great beaches that are open for free to the public from Memorial Day to Labor Day. As far as I’m concerned, the best beaches to hit in Chicago are Oak Street Beach, Loyola Leone Beach, Belmont Harbor, and North Avenue Beach.

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20. North Park Village Nature Center

Take a walk through the woods in North Park Village Nature Center, and snap some pictures of its flowers, bees, birds and deer.

Other cool freebies in Chicago 

21. Free city tours

In Chicago, you can pay big bucks for a tour guide to show you around its downtown area, or you can take advantage of the free options available, such as the Chicago Greeter Program. With the Chicago Greeter Program, you will be paired with an ultra friendly local volunteer, who is eager to show you the beautiful neighborhoods in Chicago during their free transit and walking tours.  But, if you prefer to tour the city on your own, you may download the cost-less self-guided tours offered by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.

22. A lovely overlooking night view of Chicago

You don’t have to go to Willis Tower, and pay 20 USD to get a lovely nighttime panorama of Chicago. Just go up to the Signature Room at Hancock Center’s 9thfloor, order a drink, and watch Chicago glitter at night.

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23. Free dance classes

Thanks to Chicago SummerDance, tourists and locals can learn the art of salsa, canjun and swing for free.

24. Colorful parades

Chicago always has a reason to celebrate and party, regardless of the season. From its vibrant St. Patrick’s Day Parade to its Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, the city of Chicago has plenty of parades available throughout the year.

25. Attend festivals

Chicago has a bevy of convivial and prismatic festivals throughout the year, including the Taste of Chicago, Printer’s Row Lit Festival and Chicago Blues Festival.

26. Witness the Chicago Air & Water Show

Every year, millions of spectators flock to Lake Michigan to witness the thrilling aerial performances and tricks during this two-day free event in August.

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27. Free readings and storytelling

Chicagoans are supremely talented talkers, and they have free storytelling events, monologues and poetry readings to prove it. To get updated listings of the city’s free readings, make sure to check out Guild Literary ComplexBookslut Reading Series and ChicagoPoetry.com.

Need some help planning a trip to Chicago? Make your vacation planning a breeze by grabbing a copy of this Chicago travel itinerary. Not only is it detailed and well constructed, but it also features all the top things to do in Chicago!

Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips & Tricks

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Find cheap flights using SkyScanner. This search engine is are our favorite, making sure you get the best deal for tickets all over the world.  They are great at aggregating flights from multiple providers.  

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Protects yourself against illness, injury, theft, and even cancellations with travel insurance. You're buying comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. We never recommend traveling without it. We’ve been using World Nomads, a great company, with great service and highly recommend them.

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Ashley Thompson
A fun size lass born in rock and roll who dreams to become a rock star, or a world traveler, or both.
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