As one of the largest cities in one of the most expensive countries in the world, Chicago is probably not the first city that comes to mind when planning a budget trip. However, if you know where to go, there’s a lot you can see and do without spending a penny. From cultural museums to beautiful parks, Chicago has something fun for everyone. Here are 35 fun and free things to do in Chicago.
1. Take a free tour of the city with Chicago Greeter or Free Tours by Foot
My favorite way to start a trip to a new city is by taking a free walking tour. While free walking tours aren’t as popular in the United States as they are in Europe, you have a couple of options for free walking tours in Chicago. The first is to check out a new neighborhood or get an overview of the city from a Chicago local through Chicago Greeter. You will be matched with a local greeter who will take you on a 2-4 hour tour of the city for free. Groups must not be more than six people, and you are required to book a reservation at least 10 days in advance. Alternatively, if you have less time or are looking for more flexibility, you can hire an instagreeter for only one hour, and no reservation is needed. The best part about booking a tour through Chicago Greeter is that your itinerary is completely personalized. If you have a particular interest in Chicago history but less of an interest in Chicago sports, your tour guide can personalize your tour to see and talk primarily about Chicago history while skipping information on Chicago sports. As is the case with free walking tours in Europe, you’ll want to tip your tour guide for volunteering his or her time to show you around the city.
The other option is to book a tour through Free Tours by Foot. These tours are more structured and offer less personalization. Some options for tours through Free Tours by Foot include the North Loop and Millennium Park tour, the Riverwalk and History Tour, the Blues and Gangster Tour, the Chicago Ghost Tour, and the Architecture Tour. Most tours last approximately two hours, and you can see a complete list and detailed information for the tours here. As always, you will want to tip your tour guide at the end of your tour.
2. Go ice skating at one of the many public ice rinks
There are numerous outdoor ice skating rinks scattered throughout Chicago. The two most popular free rinks in the city center are the Maggie Daley ribbon and the ice rink at Millennium Park. If you have your own skates, you can enter the rink and use it for as long as you want for free. If you do not have your own skates, you can rent skates for $12 at Millennium Park and $12 on weekdays at Maggie Daley or $14 on weekends. The Maggie Daley ice skating ribbon is one of the newest additions to the city and looks similar to some of the courses on Mario Kart, with winding paths and even a few small hills. In the summer months, there is an outdoor rock climbing wall and playground for the whole family to enjoy. The rink at Millennium Park is a traditional rink that offers excellent views of the city and of the Bean (Cloud Gate), discussed more below.
3. Laugh at your own reflection in the Bean (Cloud Gate)
The Bean is one of the most iconic sculptures in Chicago. It is referred to as “the bean” because of how it is shaped like a big bean. Tourists and locals alike love looking at their own reflections through the bean, and it is common to find people in weird poses and positions there trying to get a unique looking photo.
4. Attend a concert at the Grant Park Music Festival in the summer
Grant Park Music Festival is a 10-week classical music series that runs from June to August each year and features the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra and Grant Park Chorus, along with featured guests. It takes place at the outdoor ampitheatre in Grant Park and is completely free to the public. Bring a picnic and enjoy the entire concert, or stop by and have a quick listen while visiting the Bean or Art Institute.
5. Take your date on a romantic walk through Lurie Garden in Millennium Park
Lurie Garden is a 2.5 acre garden on the south end of Millennium Park. There are walking paths that run through the gardens. Whether you’re a horticulture enthusiast or not, this is a great place for a romantic walk with your date or for some peaceful reflection time for yourself.
6. Window shop on the Magnificent Mile
If you enjoy shopping, you will find your heaven on the Magnificent Mile, a mile long section of Michigan Avenue lined with high end shops. While you may not be able to afford much from these stores or may not wish to blow your entire travel budget on clothes, window shopping is always free! Check out the newest styles and trends on this street. Who knows, you might even spot someone famous!
7. Escape the crowds on Michigan Avenue and enjoy photography and art at the Museum of Contemporary Photography
The Museum of Contemporary Photography (MOCP) is one of my favorite museums in the city but remains unknown to most locals. It is located inside the Columbia College building on Michigan Avenue right across from Grant Park and the Buckingham Fountain. The MOCP was founded by Columbia College in 1976 and showcases photography from top photographers in Chicago, nationwide, and throughout the entire world. Despite its status as the leading photography museum in the Midwest, it is rarely crowded, so it’s a great way to escape the crowds on Michigan Avenue and enjoy art and photography in a peaceful setting.
8. Say hi to the animals at Lincoln Park Zoo
Like most big cities, Chicago has a zoo called the Lincoln Park Zoo. Founded in 1868, it is one of the oldest zoos in North America, and it is one of the only zoos that offers free admission. The zoo occupies 35 acres in the heart of Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood and is steps away from Lake Michigan. Be sure to stop by and check out the newest arctic tundra polar bear exhibit.
9. Stroll around Navy Pier
Navy Pier is a 3,300 foot long pier that juts out into Lake Michigan. The pier is lined with shops, restaurants, and even a movie theatre, and there are events taking place there daily. From daily cruises to yoga classes to mini golf to the summer beer garden to performances by top musicians and artists, Navy Pier is always full of fun, energy, and excitement. While a lot of the activities cost money, it is free to walk around Navy Pier and take in the sights.
10. Get the best view of the city from Promontory Point
Another structure that juts out into Lake Michigan, Promontory Point offers the best views of the full Chicago skyline. It is located directly east of Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, home to the prestigious University of Chicago. In the summer, you’ll find sunbathers, swimmers, kayakers, and wind surfers in the water and on the nearby beach. Enjoy the lake breeze and the views here on your way to lunch at Hyde Park or an afternoon at the Museum of Science and Industry.
11. Get cultured at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen
The National Museum of Mexican Art is the first Mexican culture center/museum in the Midwest and the largest in the United States. It is located in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, a largely hispanic neighborhood bustling with culture and some of the city’s best Mexican cuisine. It is open Tuesday thru Sunday from 10 AM to 5 PM and offers free admission to the public. It also offers free public tours on certain Saturdays each month. You can check the event calendar here prior to your visit.
12. Attend a free event at the DANK Haus German American Cultural Center in Lincoln Square
The DANK Hause is a German cultural center and language school in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, a heavily German neighborhood. Be sure to grab a quick bite at one of the many authentic German restaurants in the neighborhood and experience the ways in which the German-American community has influenced Chicago with its culture and customs. The DANK Haus is open Monday and Wednesday thru Friday from 9 AM to 5 PM.
13. Walk or bike along Lake Michigan on the Lakefront Trail
The Chicago Lakefront Trail is an 18-mile long path that runs north and south along Lake Michigan. Whether you’re looking to go for a relaxing walk or trying to fit your daily run into your vacation schedule, the Lakefront Trail is where you want to be. There are also a few options for bike rentals near the Lakefront Trail so you can rent a bicycle and ride along the lake if that’s more your style.
14. Admire the landscape and artwork on the 606
The 606 is one of the newest additions to Chicago and one of my favorite places to be in the city when the weather’s nice. It is an elevated path built on an old railroad that has since been abandoned. Today, the 606 path is lined on both sides with greenery and parks, and you will find areas of artwork throughout the path as well. Take in the city from above all the traffic and congestion on the 606.
15. Explore the ancient world at the Oriental Institute in Hyde Park
Go back in history to the ancient Near-East world at the Oriental Institute in Hyde Park. The museum inside showcases the history, art, and archaeology of the ancient Near-East. This site is jam packed with history and culture, and it’s truly a wonder that admission is free!
16. Have a photo shoot at the Chicago Cultural Center
The Chicago Cultural Center is one of the most beautiful buildings in Chicago. As soon as you walk in, you will see an open lobby with an intricately designed ceiling held up by beautiful pillars. This is one place where you will not want to forget to bring your camera, and even better, the cultural center is free to enter and offers public tours at certain times throughout the week as well.
17. Take a dance break at SummerDance
Between June and September, the Spirit of Music Garden in Grant Park transforms into an outdoor open dance floor. There are regular performances by all sorts of dance groups, and of course you are always welcome to dance along!
18. Take in all the free smells at the Taste of Chicago
Another fun summer event is the Taste of Chicago, an outdoor food festival showcasing the diverse range of foods that make up Chicago. Although the food is not free, it is free to walk around and take in all the smells.
19. Take in more free smells at the Maxwell Street Market every Sunday
The Maxwell Street Market is located on Desplaines between Polk and Taylor and is an iconic Chicago market steeped in history and tradition. It is also one of the only places in the city where you can bargain for what you buy. The merchandise sold at the market include an eclectic mix of products ranging from clothing to collectibles to fresh produce to tires. You can also find some of the best Mexican street food in Chicago at the Maxwell Street Market. If you want to see and taste something interesting and unique, the Maxwell Street Market is for you.
20. Peruse Whole Foods for free samples
There are a number of Whole Foods markets scattered throughout the city, and you can often find free samples inside. After a long walk, duck into a Whole Foods and try your luck at scoring some delicious free samples.
21. Tour a brewery
Chicago’s brewery scene has been growing quickly in the last few years, and many breweries offer free brewery tours. My favorite is Lagunitas, a California based brewery that opened only a few years ago in our Pilsen neighborhood. Tours are offered every day of the week, but free samples are only given on weekday tours. Other Chicago area breweries that offer free tours include Revolution, Two Brothers, and 3 Floyds.
22. Eat free wings at Burwood Tap every Monday – Thursday at 8:30 PM
Every Monday thru Thursday starting at 8:30 PM, Burwood Tap offers free wings. Head on over for some free wings over a tasty beer and game of pool.
23. Admire the Chicago waterways from the newly renovated Chicago Riverwalk
The Chicago riverwalk is a brand new, beautiful pathway running along the Chicago river and connecting to the Lakefront Trail and Lake Michigan. There are bars and restaurants along the riverwalk that are bustling with people and energy in the warmer months, and the riverwalk is illuminated by lights at night. Plus, you can also capture great views of the bridge system in Chicago from the riverwalk. This is another spot where you do not want to forget to bring your camera.
24. Give your eyes an aesthetic recharge at the Chicago Design Museum
The Chicago Design Museum is located on the third floor of Block Thirty Seven, a collection of shops and restaurants in the heart of downtown Chicago. It is open Tuesday thru Saturday from 12:00 PM to 7:00 PM. Stop by here when you’re taking a break from shopping, and if you feel your sweet tooth acting up, check out Magnolia Bakery on the first floor of Block Thirty Seven for the best red velvet cupcakes and banana pudding.
25. Explore Chicago’s underground pedway system
There are over 40 blocks of underground pedestrian way (pedway) in downtown Chicago, linking many of the subway stops, restaurants, and shops, to make getting around in the winter a bit more bearable. If you’re traveling in the winter months, make sure to take advantage of this system to avoid the cold. Regardless of the weather, take a walk through the underground system and see if you don’t get lost in the maze-like tunnels!
26. Catch the sunrise or sunset at Humboldt Park
Humboldt Park is a 219 acre park on the west side of Chicago. Situated in the middle of that is an iconic field houses a fitness center, meeting rooms, an inland beach, and historic lagoons and a boat house. While a sunrise or sunset over Lake Michigan is beautiful, the view from Humboldt Park is much more unique and full of character.
27. Get smart at the Smart Museum of Art
The Smart Museum of Art is the fine arts museum of the University of Chicago. It houses over 15,000 unique art objects ranging from modern masterpieces to centuries old Chinese artifacts. It is free and open to the public Tuesday thru Sunday from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM (8:00 PM on Thursdays).
28. Read a book at the Chicago Botanic Gardens
Situated on 385 acres in the northern suburb of Glencoe, the Chicago Botanic Gardens are the perfect place to spend an afternoon relaxing with a book or taking a stroll through the beautiful gardens with a loved one.
29. Experience free theatre at the Free Street Theatre
The Free Street Theatre is exactly what it sounds like – a place for artists to freely express their ideas, for the public to freely view the shows, and for aspiring performers to take free classes. Click here for a calendar of upcoming events – any performance you choose will be interesting for sure.
30. Show off your dance moves at Beauty Bar
As your day’s winding down, head over to Beauty Bar for cocktails, dancing, and even a manicure. The 60s vibe is in full force here, and you will see people dressed to the times. Arrive between 7-9 PM for free admission.
31. Attend a free comedy show every 1st and 3rd Monday at 8:30 PM at Gman Tavern
Who can say no to free comedy? Gman Tavern is an old-school, local bar with a very low-key vibe. In addition to free comedy, you will also find pinball and pool at the tavern, as well as some of the area’s best craft beer.
32. Admire the architecture at the Harold Washington Library
Located in the heart of downtown, Harold Washington Library is the main library in the Chicago Public Libraries group. The library is named after Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African American mayor. The interior is beautiful – make sure you make your way up to the top floor to take in all the views. The library is open on weekdays from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM and operates more limited hours on weekends.
33. Let your kids run wild at Maggie Daley Park
Maggie Daley Park is one of the newest additions to Chicago and an energetic 20 acre park that includes an ice skating ribbon and outdoor climbing wall. This is a fun park for adults and kids alike, and with its prime location on the north end of Grant Park, you have no excuse not to stop by.
34. Enjoy local art at one of the city’s most treasured landmarks
The historic Water Tower on Michigan Avenue is much more than just a shopping mall. It is also home to the City Gallery, a rotating art exhibit showcasing the works of local artists. Make sure you stop by here on your shopping break and admire the wealth of artistic talent springing from the local Chicago community.
35. Watch a water show every hour at Buckingham Fountain
The Buckingham Fountain, located on the south end of Grant Park, is one of the largest fountains in the world. You can catch a water show here every hour, and the after dark shows are choreographed with music and lights. The fountain runs from April until October from 8:00 AM to 11:00 PM daily.
What are some of your favorite free activities to do in Chicago? Which of these 35 free things to do in Chicago stands out to you? Let us know in the comments below!
Author: Diana Chen
Full time attorney with serious wanderlust. I blog about traveling the world with a full time job, confronting your travel addiction, and pursuing your passions without going broke. Currently planning for a month-long trip to Southeast Asia.
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