Chicago is a fabulous place to visit, albeit not the cheapest. Luckily, there are many great free things to do in Chicago to experience our magnificent city and help you stretch your vacation budget:
FREE TOURS OF CHICAGO
A fantastic way to tour Chicago on a budget is Chicago Greeter Tours. These two to four-hour guided tours, which can accommodate up to six people, combine walking, buses and trains and are offered in over a dozen languages. The tours are not only free, but also highly customizable. Choose from 25 different neighborhoods or 40 interests such as art and architecture, food, city history, or family-friendly attractions. Based on your preferences, you will be matched up with one of the enthusiastic volunteers who all share a passion for the city. Note that you need to register at least 10 days in advance. However, if you decide to go at the last moment or want flexibility, you can still participate in the hour-long InstaGreeter walking tour of downtown Chicago, which requires no registration.
Chicago has two great zoos, but I personally prefer the smaller Lincoln Park Zoo. It is open 365 days a year, always free for visitors and very conveniently located in Chicago’s beloved Lincoln Park, just minutes north of downtown by a taxi or Uber. City buses (routes 151 or 156) will also drop you off right at the gate.
FREE CHICAGO MUSEUMS
Several Chicago museums are free to the public year round such as the Museum of Contemporary Photography, National Museum of Mexican Art, and exhibits at the Chicago Architecture Foundation and Chicago Cultural Center. Most others offer free admission on certain days. (And the free access programs are even more generous for residents of Illinois.) It definitely pays to check their websites, so you can plan your visit accordingly if you have flexibility.
Chicago boasts one of the most impressive collections of public art in the country, no admission fees required. Besides the most famous one in recent history, Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Millennium Park (also called “the Bean” by Chicagoans), here are some of the other famous examples of Chicago’s public art: Picasso at the Daley Plaza, Calder’s Flamingo at the Chicago Federal Plaza, Chagall’s Four Seasons mosaic at Exelon Plaza (Dearborn and Monroe) and Miró’s Chicago by the Cook County Administration Building. To learn about others, visit the City of Chicago Public Art Program.
During the summer months, Millennium Park hosts wonderful free classical and contemporary music concerts, known as the Downtown Sound, every Monday and Thursday evening at 6:30 pm.
The Chicago Cultural Center holds free concerts almost every day of the week. Parents of younger children will love their Juicebox series and those who like classical, jazz or ethnic music will appreciate Chamber Mondays. If your family likes to break into spontaneous mid-day dance parties, you should plan to attend Wired Fridays, featuring famous DJs and held every other Friday during lunch hour.
The city of Chicago offers many opportunities to enjoy free outdoor movie screenings. The Chicago Park District has been sponsoring Movies in the Park for well over a decade, showing both current and classic movies at various city park locations all summer long.
Conveniently located for city visitors staying downtown, Millennium Park features its Summer Film Series every Tuesday evening at 6:30 pm from mid-June through mid-August at the Jay Pritzker Pavillion. Grab a blanket and bring a picnic dinner to enjoy the giant 40-foot screen and state-of-the-art sound system.
Chicago is a city of festivals! From May through September there is something going on every week. Here are some of the biggest and most popular festivals, which also happen to be completely free:
- May: Chicago Kids and Kite Festival, Chicago Gospel Music Festival, Millennium Art Festival
- June: Chicago Blues Festival
- July: Taste of Chicago (while the food is not free, there is great free music and other entertainment and no entrance fees)
- August: Chicago Air & Water Show
- September: Chicago Jazz Festival, World Music Festival Chicago
Note that all of these are easy to access for out-of-town visitors who are staying downtown. However, many smaller, neighborhood festivals are well worth venturing out of the city center for a great, authentic Chicago neighborhood experience.
Chicago stretches out along 30 miles of lakefront and has many great beaches, all of which are free to the public. Some of the best ones that are closest to the downtown area are North Avenue Beach, Oak Street Beach and Ohio Street Beach. A great way to explore the Chicago lakefront and have access to its beaches is to rent bikes at Navy Pier and ride either north or south along Lake Michigan.
Aside from the 4th of July and New Year’s Eve, city residents and visitors can enjoy a great firework show, put on by Navy Pier, every Wednesday night at 9:30 pm and every Saturday at 10:15 pm from Memorial Day through Labor Day. You can see the fireworks from the pier, anywhere along the lake, or even some parts of the city. Two particularly great spots to watch are on the pier at North Avenue Beach or on the lakefront by the city marina in front of Buckingham Fountain.
FREE VIEWS OF THE CHICAGO SKYLINE
You can enjoy spectacular views of the city from the Willis Tower (formerly Sears), the Hancock Building, or from many of the lake cruises originating from Navy Pier, but they all come with steep fees. My favorite view of the city, however, is free! Head over to the Adler Planetarium. The Chicago skyline from in front of this venue is gorgeous during the day, and especially striking in the evening or night when the city is illuminated by millions of lights. As a bonus, the planetarium is also a great spot to watch Navy Pier fireworks!
This article was originally published by Hilton Mom Voyage.