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As one of the largest – and most expensive – cities 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 and what to do, you can find lots of free activities in Chicago. From cultural experiences to beautiful outdoor spaces, Chicago has something fun for everyone. Here are 35 free things to do in Chicago.
1. Take a free walking tour of Chicago
One of my favorite ways to start a trip to a new city is by taking a free walking tour. A few companies that offer free walking tours in Chicago are Chicago Greeter (or Instagreeter for shorter tours), Free Tours by Foot, and Free Chicago Walking Tours. Since free walking tours are all run by volunteer guides who are taking time out of their day to welcome you into their city, please remember to tip them at the end of your tour.
Chicago Greeter offers personalized tours ranging in length from two to four hours long. Groups must be six people or fewer, have confirmed accommodations in Chicago, and book at least 10 business days in advance. The best thing about Chicago Greeter tours is that you get to see exactly what you’re interested in. If you want to see a particular neighborhood in Chicago, your greeter can build a personalized tour of that neighborhood for you. If you want to focus on a particular area of interest, such as architecture, food, LGBTQ+, or family activities, your greeter can put together a personalized tour of Chicago, focusing on that particular area of interest.
If you don’t have time to spend 2-4 hours on a tour and just want a brief overview of Chicago, then the Instagreeter free walking tour might be the one for you. Instagreeter tours are one hour long and cover Chicago history, architecture, the Chicago River, and the Lakefront. You don’t need to register in advance, and tours are offered daily at 10:30am, 11:30am, 12:30pm, 1:30pm, and 2:30pm. These informal tours are one of my favorite quick free activities in Chicago.
Free Tours by Foot
Free Tours by Foot offers a number of free walking tours covering all aspects of Chicago. While each tour varies in length, most tours are around two hours long. Here is a list of the most up to date seasonal and year-round tours you can take through Free Tours by Foot:
- Regularly scheduled tours:
- Architecture Tour
- Riverwalk and Chicago History Tour
- North Loop and Millennium Park Tour
- Ghost Tour
- Magnificent Mile Tour
- Weekly tours:
- Gold Coast Tour
- Lincoln Park and Gangster Tour
- West Loop Tour
- Wicker Park Culture and Street Art Tour
- Winter tours:
- Pedway Tour
- Winter Loop Tour
- Winter Architecture Tour
Make sure you check online for the full Free Tours by Foot calendar before you visit.
Free Chicago Walking Tours
Like Free Tours on Foot, Free Chicago Walking Tours offers a variety of two hour long tours of Chicago. Tours offered by Free Chicago Walking Tours include the following:
- Loop Interior Tour
- Pedway Underground Winter Tour
- Crime and Gangster Tour
- Off the Grid Tour
- Riverwalk Tour
- Loop and Public Art Tour
- Lakefront Music and Arts Tour
- Millennium Park Tour
- Gold Coast Tour
Make sure you check online for the full Free Chicago Walking Tours calendar before you visit.
2. Go ice skating at one of the many public ice rinks in Chicago
A fun way to spend time outdoors during the winter in Chicago is ice skating. There are many outdoor ice skating rinks in Chicago, but the two most popular free rinks are the Maggie Daley ribbon and the McCormick Tribune rink at Millennium Park. While admission is free, there is a rental fee if you don’t have your own skates. Skate rentals cost $13 Monday – Thursday or $15 Friday – Sunday and on holidays.
The McCormick Tribune ice rink also offers free ice skating lessons on Fridays at 11am and Saturdays and Sundays at 9am.
Make sure you check online for the most up to date hours and zamboni times at each of the rinks, so you can plan your visit accordingly.
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 it shape, but its formal name is Cloud Gate. Tourists and locals alike love looking at their own reflections in the bean, and it’s not unusual to find people in weird poses and positions trying to get a creative looking photo there.
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 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. Spending time in Grant Park is one of our favorite things to do in Chicago!
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, so you can fully immerse in the natural environment. Whether you’re a horticulture enthusiast or not, this is a great place for a romantic walk with your date or quiet meditation time for yourself.
6. Window shop on the Magnificent Mile
If you enjoy shopping, you will find your version of paradise 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 the Mag Mile, and who knows? You might even spot someone famous!
7. 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 rare to find more than a few people in there at one time, so it’s a great way to escape the crowds on Michigan Avenue and enjoy art and photography in a quiet setting.
8. Say hello 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 one of the only to offer free admission. The Lincoln Park Zoo occupies 35 acres in the heart of Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood and is just steps away from Lake Michigan. Make sure you check out their bustling events calendar to see if you can catch one of the many fun events held there regularly.
9. Stroll around Navy Pier
Navy Pier is a 3,300 foot long pier that juts out onto Lake Michigan. The pier is lined with shops, restaurants, and even a movie theatre. There are also many fun free activities and events taking place there daily. From cruise outings to yoga classes to mini golf to the summer beer garden to performances by top musicians and artists, Navy Pier is always full of energy and excitement. Although some of the activities cost money, it is free to stroll 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 is Promontory Point, which offers the best views of the Chicago skyline. It is located directly east of Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, home to the prestigious University of Chicago. In the summertime, you’ll find sunbathers, swimmers, kayakers, and wind surfers in the water and on the nearby beaches. 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 cultural center/museum in the Midwest and the largest in the United States. Located in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, a largely hispanic neighborhood bustling with culture and some of the city’s best Mexican cuisine, this 10,000 piece permanent collection is sure to blow you away. Even though its pieces travel to museums all over the world, it is always free to view the collections in Chicago. The museum is open Tuesday thru Sunday from 10 AM to 5 PM and offers free admission to the public. 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
DANK Haus is a German cultural center and language school in Lincoln Square, a neighborhood with strong Germany roots. 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. DANK Haus is open Monday-Friday from 9am-5pm. Admission is always free, but there is a suggested $5 donation for those who are able to give back.
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. If you’re a photographer, you’ll want to come here during sunrise to capture some of the most stunning views of Chicago. You can also rent a bike, scooter, or take a segway tour if that’s more your pace.
14. Admire the landscape and artwork on the 606
The 606 is one of the newer additions to Chicago and one of my favorite places to be when I’m looking for some free things to do in Chicago on a nice day. Similar to the High Line in New York City, the 606 is an elevated path built on an old railroad that has since been abandoned. Today, the 606 path is lined on both sides with mini parks and unique artwork. Take a walk, go for a run, or load up on your IG content on the 606. As far as free activities in Chicago go, this is one of my go-to’s.
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. Here, you’ll find exhibits showcasing the history, art, and archaelogy of the ancient Near East. Some galleries you’ll find at the Oriental Institute include the following:
- Mesopotamian gallery
- Assyrian Empire gallery
- Syro-Anatolian gallery
- Megiddo gallery
- Egyptian gallery
- Persian gallery
- Nubian gallery
Admission is free, but there is a $10 suggested donation for adults and $5 for children ages 12 and under. The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10am-5pm and Wednesday until 8pm. Don’t forget to check their events calendar for fun events that are taking place during your visit.
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’ll see an open lobby with intricately designed ceiling details held up by beautiful pillars. Don’t forget to bring your camera here, and try to catch one of the free tours offered throughout the week. The Chicago Cultural Center is open on weekdays from 10am-7pm and on weekends from 10am-5pm, and free tours are offered every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 1:15pm. Admission is always free.
17. Take a dance break at SummerDance
From June 26, 2019 to August 24, 2019, the Spirit of Music Garden in Grant Park transforms into an outdoor open dance floor. The summer 2019 schedule features swing, house, salsa, folk dance, and much more! You can find the full schedule here. 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. The Taste of Chicago was held from July 10-14, 2019, and dates for 2020 have not yet been announced.
19. Take in more free smells at the Maxwell Street Market every Sunday
The Maxwell Street Market takes place every Sunday from 9am-3pm year round. Located on Desplaines St. between Polk St. and Taylor St., the Maxwell Street Market 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 Chicago’s 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 wings for free at Burwood Tap
When you started searching for free things to do in Chicago, you probably weren’t expecting to find free food – like, an actual meal and not just free samples at the grocery store. Every Thursday at 8:30pm, Burwood Tap offers free wings. If you find yourself in Chicago on a Thursday, head over to Burwood Tap for some free wings over a tasty beer and game of pool.
Burwood Tap is located at 734 W. Wrightwood Ave in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. They are open every day from 11am-2am (until 3am on Saturday nights/Sunday mornings).
23. Admire the Chicago waterways from the Chicago Riverwalk
The Chicago riverwalk is one of the newest additions to the city and most lively places to be in the summer. Bars and restaurants line the riverwalk and are always bustling with people and energy in the warmer months. At night, the riverwalk is illuminated by lights. If you want to feel fully immersed in a big U.S. city, find a seat at one of the restaurants on the riverwalk, and take it all in. Oh, and don’t 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. My favorite thing about the Chicago Design Museum is how versatile and relevant it is to modern day life. Some of my favorite past exhibits include the following:
- Keep Moving: Designing Chicago’s Bicycle Culture
- Great Ideas of Humanity: Out of the Container
- HEY! PLAY! Games in Modern Culture
- ChicagoMade: Great Ideas of Humanity
- Unfolded: Made With Paper
The Chicago Design Museum is open Monday-Saturday from 10am-6pm and Sunday from 11am-4pm. Admission is free, but there is a $5 suggested donation.
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 try not to 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 Humboldt Park is an iconic fieldhouse and cultural center that contains 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 at 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-Sunday from 10am-5pm (8pm on Thursday).
28. Read a book at the Chicago Botanic Garden
Situated on 385 acres in the northern suburb of Glencoe, the Chicago Botanic Garden is the perfect place to spend an afternoon relaxing with a book or taking a stroll through with a loved one. Its history dates back to 1965 when the groundbreaking took place and is now one of the best examples of a successful public-private partnership, with ownership belonging to the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and operations led by the Chicago Horticultural Society.
The Botanic Garden is open daily from 8am-7pm in the warmer months and 8am-5pm in the colder months. Make sure you check their full hours of operation here before visiting.
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. Make sure you check the online events calendar to see the theatre’s latest events – any performance you choose will be interesting for sure.
30. Show off your dance moves at Beauty Bar
As your day is winding down, head over to Beauty Bar for cocktails, dancing, and even a manicure. Manicures are available Wednesday-Saturday from 7pm-12am and Sunday from 9pm-12am. The 60s vibe is in full force here, and you will see people dressed according to the times. Arrive between 7-9 PM for free admission.
31. Attend a free comedy show 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. Gman Tavern is open Sunday-Friday from 3pm-2am, Saturday from 3pm-3am, and two hours before every Cubs game. Make sure you check the events calendar online to find out when the next free comedy show is taking place.
32. Admire the architecture at the Harold Washington Library
Located in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood, Harold Washington Library is the main library in the Chicago Public Libraries system. It was named after Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African American mayor, and has been open since 1991. 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 Monday-Thursday from 9am-9pm, Friday-Saturday from 9am-5pm, and Sunday from 1pm-5pm.
33. Let your kids run wild at Maggie Daley Park
Maggie Daley Park is one of the newer additions to Chicago and already bustling with life and energy. This 20 acre park includes an ice skating ribbon in the winter and an outdoor climbing wall in the summer. It’s a lot of fun for the whole family, 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 City Gallery, a rotating art exhibit showcasing the works of local artists. Make sure you stop by on your shopping break and admire the wealth of artistic talent springing from the local Chicago community. City Gallery is open Monday-Friday from 10am-7pm and Saturday-Sunday from 10am-5pm. Admission is always free.
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 20-minute water show here every hour, and the after dark shows are choreographed with music and lights. The fountain runs from May until mid-October from 8:00 AM to 11:00 PM daily.
Looking for more fun things to do in Chicago? Then you might want to check out these posts:
- A Local’s Guide to the 35 Best Restaurants in Chicago
- 7 Awesome Things to do in Chicago
- A Local’s Guide to the 15 Best Breweries in Chicago
- Kayaking in Chicago With REI
- 25 Most Instagrammable Restaurants, Bars, and Cafes in Chicago
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