Chicago, located in Northeastern Illinois on the Southwestern shores of Lake Michigan, is the third largest city in the US. Also known as the White City, the City that Works, the Windy City, and the City of Big Shoulders, it is the safest place. Tourists love visiting this magical city as they can find many things to do for free in Chicago.
So, if you are also looking for a getaway on a budget, these free activities make Chicago trips easy on the pocket.
Best Things to Do for Free in Chicago
Chicago is home to majestic museums, sky-rising buildings, cultural attractions, theaters, art centers, gardens, and zoos. Whether you go alone, with your partner, or with your family, you will find numerous free activities.
Visit the majestic museums, enjoy air shows, relax in the parks, view the city from skyscrapers, experience serenity by the river, participate in free festivals, welcome fall at the Lincoln Park Zoo, and a lot more – the choices are endless!
Let’s tell you all the things to do for free in Chicago this weekend and later:
Indulge in Art at the Museum of Contemporary Photography
It won’t be an exaggeration to say that Chicago is an art lover’s paradise. You can find art shows, museums, and exhibitions throughout the city. Thus making the Museum of Contemporary Photography an important mention on the list.
The Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College was founded in 1976. This museum is entirely devoted to photography by commissioned photographers or college collections. You will find both traditional and contemporary pieces exhibiting human expressions and life around us beautifully. Entry to the museum is free, with docent-led museum tours and exhibitions.
Hit the Lakefront Trail
The Michigan Lake is a favorite spot among Chicago locals and tourists, making the Lakefront trail a popular biking and running choice.
The Lakefront Trail is an 18-mile-long stretch along Lake Michigan where you can walk, run, bike, or rollerblade while treating yourself to spellbinding views. You will also find beaches, playgrounds, gardens, tennis courts, and more throughout the trail. This is especially a must-visit if you have kids with you, as they will love the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Moreover, if you are not a fan of walking or running, Divvy Bikes are an ideal pick. Bike your way through the most picturesque trail in Chicago.
Enjoy Free Shows at the Chicago Cultural Center
While the Bean at the Millennium Park is an iconic Chicago landmark, the Chicago Cultural Center is another famous free attraction in the city. Besides its place as a cultural center, it is known for its Tiffany glass dome, the largest in the world.
The Cultural Center opened in 1897 as a Public Library. But now, it welcomes art exhibitions, theater, music, dance, music screenings, and family events. The best part is that most of these are free. Check their schedule to see if you can enjoy a show or dance class during your visit there.
Here’s a little secret if you love museum tours: Visit the Cultural Center on the weekend for a long tour of the building and downtown – absolutely free of cost.
Otherwise, the volunteers and staff also give a walking tour of the building on Thursday and Friday at 01:15 p.m.
Explore the Clarke-Ford House Museum
The Clarke-Ford House is another interesting location you might want to add to your things to do for free in Chicago.
Located in the Prairie Avenue Historic District, the Clarke-Ford House is the oldest surviving house in the city. It was constructed in 1836 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. The house is an excellent place for history lovers who love to see life over the years. It tells you how houses were built pre-Civil War in Chicago and how families lived then.
Tour the City with the Greeter Program
Who knew a guided tour around the city would be on the list of things to do for free in Chicago, IL?
While many cities do not offer it, the Chicago Greeter Program is an excellent way to explore the city. This program pairs visitors with knowledgeable and friendly locals to tell them about the city from a local perspective. These tours and walks can be customized according to the participant’s choice. You can visit all tourist locations, including the parks, famous buildings, and free museums during the two- to three-hour tour. It is better to book the tour two weeks in advance to confirm your spot.
Celebrate Fall at Lincoln Park Zoo
Welcoming fall at the Lincoln Park Zoo is a top choice among the fun things to do for free in Chicago.
The Lincoln Park Zoo, founded in 1868, is home to over 230 species of animals, all big and small. It is the perfect activity for animal enthusiasts who love to see unique animals. This zoo has lions, beavers, otters, crocodiles, penguins, parrots, and lots more.
If you visit Chicago by the end of Summer, do not miss the start of autumn. Locals and tourists in Chicago gather at the Lincoln Park Zoo for the Fall Fest to welcome fall. This month-long festival lasts from September 29 to October 29. You get to see fall décor, lice chalk art, live pumping carvings, activities, and lots of treats. Besides the Fall Fest, you can enjoy the Zoo Ball, Zoolights during the holiday season, and Adults-only nights.
The park also offers a breathtaking view of the Chicago skyline. It is one of the oldest and fewest free-entry Zoos in the US now. So, do not miss the chance!
View Exotic Gardens at the Garfield Park Conservatory
The Garfield Park Conservatory is located on the west side of Chicago and is one of the largest indoor gardens worldwide. It opened in 1908 and had over 100,000 plants from hundreds of different species in its indoor gardens. The outdoor gardens spread over 10 acres have various sections comprising rainforests, gardens, and desert landscapes.
The cherry on top? You do not need to pay a cent to visit this marvel of nature.
You can also enjoy beekeeping classes, yoga, flower shows, and other events at the conservatory throughout the year. While some might require a paid ticket, most of these events are absolutely free.
Visit the park anytime between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. But remember to make reservations before visiting the Garfield Park Conservatory.
Take a Tour Along the Chicago Riverwalk
The Chicago Riverwalk is Chicago’s ‘Second lakefront,’ which gives you a gorgeous view of the city. It is a 1.25-mile pedestrian walkway where you can walk around or book a tour with the tour providers.
Besides strolling in the park and observing the city skyline for free, you can also take a kayak or boat tour. It also has restaurants, bars, stores, and breathtakingly gorgeous buildings. The Riverwalk provides an amazing view of theMART digital art projection. It is definitely among the most interesting things to do for free in Chicago.
Stroll at the Michigan Avenue
If you have not had the opportunity to visit the high street of Chicago, Michigan Avenue, get your bag and be ready to splurge!
Michigan Avenue connects the city across the river down to Millennium Park. You can find all the big brands and malls on this street where you can shop to your heart’s content. John Hancock is a popular Chicago building with an exquisite city view from the top floor.
Roam Through the Harold Washington Library Center
The Harold Washington Library Center is not any common library but one of the largest public libraries in the world, covering a whole city block. This library has over nine floors and is a work of exquisite architecture.
The library has book rooms, meeting rooms, and computer labs to facilitate users. You can find books on every topic among the 13 million published works available in the library.
Furthermore, you can also visit the Thomas Hughes Children’s Library, Harold Washington Museum, Winter Garden, or view the art by over 50 local and international artists in the library’s exhibit space.
Visit the library from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and Sundays 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Visit the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
You might be wondering why most of the things to do for free in Chicago comprise museum visits; it is because of their rich history. The Jane Addams Hull House is another such important part of Chicago’s history and cultural landscape.
Jane Addams became the first American woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize after founding this hull-house on the city’s Near West side in the 1800s. It initially served European immigrants and is now a museum associated with the University of Illinois. The museum also provides free programs and exhibits.
Entry to the museum is free, yet a $5 donation is suggested.
Visit the Adler Planetarium
Whether you are a science enthusiast or have kids who love to learn about science, the Adler Planetarium is a must-visit in Chicago!
The planetarium has the largest public telescope that lets you observe stars closely. Moreover, the dome roof’s shiny tiles look wonderful after the renovation. Enjoy activities in different rooms in the planetarium and observe objects.
However, this free facility is only for Illinois locals, and you must have an identity that shows you are an IL local to enjoy free entry.
Satisfy your Inner Poet at the Poetry Foundation
The Poetry Foundation is popular among locals and visitors who appreciate poetry and poets. It is the only place in the Midwest solely dedicated to poetry. It has a 30,000-volume library with audio and video recordings, an exhibition gallery, and a public garden.
Visitors can enjoy various free public events on their calendars; the events have American Sign Language interpreters and live captioners. Moreover, you might land an exclusive poet-led reading or lecture. It is indeed one of the best things for poetry lovers to do for free in Chicago.
Visit the Museum on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, as it is closed on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday.
Roam through the 606
The 606 is another trail in Chicago; it takes you through various neighborhoods, giving you a sneak peek into the local life in the city. It is perfect for a relaxing day when you do not want to visit the Riverwalk or museums. Walk around or bike through the 606 and see how people live in this city. It might not be the most entertaining activity in Chicago, but it is worthwhile and free!
Enjoy the ‘Bean’-Experience
We cannot begin this blog about free experiences in Chicago with anything, but The Bean!
The Cloud Gate, or The Bean, is Chicago’s most popular tourist attraction. It is a 110-ton bean or kidney-shaped sculpture with a mirror surface at Millennium Park; you will always find people taking photos around this humongous landmark. However, you might not know that it is also a free concert and movie location, where you can easily go by bus or train.
Take pictures, enjoy movies and music shows in the summer, or go ice skating in the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in winter. When at the park, visit the Lurie Garden, Crown Fountain sculpture, and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.
Experience Magnificence at The Ren
The Renaissance Society, also known as The Ren, is a magnificent building in the University of Chicago. It is another favorite among things to do for free in Chicago, especially if you enjoy contemporary, lesser-seen art pieces.
The Renaissance Society is the University of Chicago’s effort to broaden the definition of Renaissance beyond Michelangelo. You get to see the work of many rising European artists for the first time here.
Relax at the Maggie Daley Park
Parks are the best pick to relax after you spend your day exploring different museums. And we have just the right pick for you!
The next on the list of the best things to do for free in Chicago is enjoying some relaxing time at Maggie Daley Park. The park, located east of Millennium Park, was opened in 2014. It is spread over 20 acres to provide a garden and playing space for kids and adults. Most people visit the park to relax under a tree, read a book, and enjoy the views.
Maggie Daley Park has various activities for visitors of all ages, including a garden, playground, climbing wall, mini-golf course, tennis court, and an ice-skating rink. Moreover, you can also get scooters and rollerblades for rent in summer. However, these additional activities are not free, and you might have to pay a small fee.
Get Familiar with Timeless Artists at the Smart Museum Of Art
Have you ever seen the work of artists like Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Rivera? If not, get ready to check the work of the maestros!
The Smart Museum at the University of Chicago features the work of some timeless artists, including Rodin, Goya, Rivera, Frank Lloyd Wright, Matisse, Ansel Adams, and Picasso. The museum exhibits over 15,000 fine art objects, from ancient artworks to contemporary articles, European art, and modern art.
You do not need a ticket to visit this museum and can take your time to explore the different sections.
View the City from the Willis Tower
Have you ever wondered what it is to view Chicago from a 100-story high building?
If you have been looking at the tall, sleek building in the city and wondering what it is like, add it to your list of fun things to do for free in Chicago right away! The Willis Tower, previously known as the Sears Tower, was once the tallest building in the US and is still among the tallest. It was originally built in 1973 and is 100 stories tall.
You can climb to the top of the building to get a breathtaking view of the city.
Experience Chicago Life at Navy Pier
The Navy Pier is one of the busiest spots in Chicago, filled with bars, restaurants, a giant Ferris wheel, and other rides like a carousel and the drop-down tower. It is quite popular for the gorgeous views of the Chicago skyline and boat tours. You can also experience free fireworks on Wednesday at 9 p.m. and Saturday at 10 p.m. between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Chicago Live at the Navy Pier is undoubtedly one of the most happening shows in Chicago. The September 23 and 24 events comprise 80 acts on three different stages, including theater, music, dance, and more.
While you may have to pay for the Ferris wheel and Chicago Live, the pier hosts free events and shows throughout the year. So, check their official website to stay up-to-date about their latest programs, including movie screenings, music concerts, fireworks, etc.
Explore the Bahai Temple
The last one of the selected best things to do for free in Chicago is the Bahai Temple. The Bahai temple is an interesting attraction in Chicago for anyone who wants to explore beyond the lake and parks. The best part is that you will not have to push through the crowds, as this temple is a hidden gem.
Located on the outskirts of Lake Michigan, the Bahai temple is among the most serene locations in the city. The temple has a majestic white dome and a 9-sided structure that looks majestic. The temple is free to visit, and you can see different parts of it, including the gardens. But make sure not to disturb those praying within the temple; it is a beautiful display of respecting other peoples’ faiths and harmony.
Get Mesmerized by the Air and Water Show
August is undoubtedly the best time to visit Chicago if you love air and water shows. The annual air and water show in Chicago takes place in August, where you can observe a magnificent display of aerial magic by jets. You will also see people dropping from the sky with parachutes. This show is a mix of civilian and military performances to amaze the viewers and is the largest free event in the whole country.
The Bottom Line
Chicago is a beautiful city, and besides paid activities, there are numerous things to do for free in Chicago. This city has everything you look forward to, from museums to parks and trails. The most iconic monument in the city, The Cloud Gate, or The Bean, is absolutely free for visitors. Moreover, you can visit The Ren, Poetry House, Smart Museum of Art, Clarke-Ford House Museum, and Jane-Addams Hull House Museum to learn about art, culture, and history. The city is also home to iconic buildings like the Willis Tower, Harold Washington Library Center, and Chicago Cultural Center. Once you are in the city, there is no scarcity of fun things to do for free in Chicago.
Diana was an active fitness model in the past. She has had numerous shoots done at different locations and found out that her true interest was in exploring the world! Later on, this passion motivated her to write multiple tarvel blogs about whatever place she visited and discovered, and here it is! Enjoy reading a variety of blogs by Diana to get a lively experience of several places.