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60+ BEST Free Things to Do in Chicago

Planning a trip to Chicago on a budget? Chicago can be expensive but fortunately many of the best things to do and see in Chicago are totally free! Here are my top picks for the best free things to do in Chicago.

Best Free Things to Do in Chicago

There are many more free things to do in Chicago but these are my top free attractions for first time visitors.

1) Visit Millennium Park and The Bean

what to do in chicago

If you have seen photos of Chicago on instagram or facebook, chances are you have seen photos of Cloud Gate (nicknamed The Bean), the mirrored sculpture in Millenium Park. The Bean is a bucket list attraction and one of the most instaworthy spots in Chicago if you want to take some selfies to remember your trip to Chicago. In addition to the Bean, other attractions at Millennium Park include the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the Crown Fountain sculpture and Lurie Garden.

2) Maggie Daley Park

If you are traveling with children, check out Maggie Daley Park, a large public park located between Millennium Park and Lake Michigan and connected to Millennium Park by the BP Pedestrian Bridge.  Features include a fieldhouse, climbing wall, an ice-skating ribbon in the winter, mini-golf and several different play areas for kids.

3) Chicago Riverwalk

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The Chicago Riverwalk is one of the best spots in Chicago for people watching and there are also restaurants, bars, stores and places to sit along the way. Walking along the Riverwalk is a free alternative to a pricey river cruise.

A cool attraction on the Riverwalk is Art on theMART, the largest permanent digital art projection in the world, projecting contemporary artwork across the 2.5-acre river-façade of theMART. Spectators can watch a free 30-minute program of projections nightly throughout most of the year from the jetty section of the Chicago Riverwalk on Wacker Drive between Wells Street and Franklin Street.

4) Lincoln Park

Lincoln Park

Lincoln Park is a large public park that lies along the lakefront. The park offers great skyline views of Chicago and is a popular instagram hotspot.

The park is home to Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the only zoos in the US with free admission.

The Lincoln Park Conservatory is another free attraction in the park.

5) Explore the Lakefront Trail

48 hours in Chicago itinerary

Chicago’s Lakefront Trail is an great way to see Chicago and enjoy incredible views. Chicago’s Lakefront Trail is a paved path on a 18-mile-long stretch along Lake Michigan. In the summer and especially on weekends, the lakefront is packed with locals and visitors walking, running and riding bikes.  Walking or biking all or part of the trail is a great way to see the Chicago skyline, people watch and get some exercise. Here is a map of the trail as well as its access points.

6) The Beaches

Most people don’t think of Chicago as a beach destination but Chicago has many public beaches along Lake Michigan. The most convenient beaches for visitors are Oak Street Beach and Ohio Street Beach, which are located downtown and close to the major tourist attractions. North Avenue Beach is located next to Lincoln Park and is a popular beach for both locals and visitors.

7) Buckingham Fountain

Buckingham Fountain in Chicago

Buckingham Fountain is a well known Chicago landmark in the center of Grant Park and one of the largest fountains in the world.

When the water is turned on (usually from May through October), Buckingham Fountain produces a major water display for 20 minutes every hour with a center jet that shoots water to a height of 150 feet into the air. Beginning at dusk, a spectacular light and music display accompanies the major water display. Major displays begin daily at 9:00 a.m. and continue thereafter, every hour on the hour, except for the final major display in the evening whch begins at 10:35 p.m.

8) Window Shop on the Magnificent Mile

The Magnificent Mile (or The Mag Mile), is an upscale section of Michigan Avenue, running from Oak Street to the Chicago River. Although some of the stores on Michigan Avenue are pricey, it is totally free to window shop. Landmarks on the Mag Mile include the 360 Observation Deck, the historic Chicago Water Tower and the Tribune Tower.

9) Take a Free Personalized Tour with a Chicago Greeter

If you enjoy tours, you can take a free tour with a Chicago Greeter. This website matches visitors with volunteers for 2-4 hour guided visits of Chicago. Best of all these tours are customized based on your interests. In honor of their 20th anniversary in 2022, this summer you can catch free pop-up walking tours from locals to discover different Chicago neighborhoods.

10) Chicago Cultural Center

Chicago Cultural Center is a free municipal cultural center. The stunning landmark building, opened in 1897, is home to two magnificent stained-glass domes, and presents hundreds of free cultural exhibits and performances annually. Free guided building tours led by volunteer docents and/or staff are offered year round on Thursdays and Fridays at 1:15pm.

11) Garfield Park Conservatory

Garfield Park Conservatory is one of the largest and most stunning botanical conservatories in the US. Often referred to as “landscape art under glass,” the conservatory showcases thousands of plant species from around the world throughout eight indoor display gardens. Visitors can enjoy the lush flora and tropical temperatures indoors even if it is still cold or rainy outside. In addition to their permanent displays, they also have a winter and spring flower show every year. Admission is free but donations are requested.

12) Walk The 606

The 606 is Chicago’s version of The Highline in NYC, an elevated trail goes through 2.7 miles of the city’s northwest side neighborhoods: Wicker Park, Bucktown, Humboldt Park, and Logan Square.  It is a bit off the beaten tourist path but it great place to walk, run or bike.  There are several access points so you can get off the trail to explore the various neighborhoods.

13) Look for Street Art

Moose Bubblegum Bubble by Jacob Watts one of the most famous street art murals in Chicago
Chicago is a great city for those that enjoy street art with new murals being constantly added. While you can find street art throughout the city, the best neighborhoods for street art include the Wabash Arts Corridor, Logan Square and Pilsen.

One of the most famous murals is “Moose Bubblegum Bubble” by Jacob Watts located at 33 E. Ida B. Wells Drive (formerly 33 E. Congress Parkway) which is part of the Wabash Arts Corridor. The Wabash Arts Corridor is the most convenient location for visitors to see street art as it is downtown and only a short distance from Grant Park and the Art Institute.

The Greetings From Chicago Mural is the most popular and photographed mural in Chicago. This vintage postcard-inspired mural can be found at 2226 N Milwaukee Ave, in the Logan Square neighborhood.

14) Have Fun at Navy Pier

Navy Pier is a must if visiting Chicago with toddlers or kids.  While there is an admission charge for the large Ferris wheel (click here to purchase a fast pass ticket and skip the long line) and rides, it is free to walk around and explore.  Navy Pier hosts free public programs and events throughout the year as well as free fireworks in the summer.

More Free Things To Do in Chicago

Below are more free things to do in Chicago.

Free Museums in Chicago

These museums always have free entry:

National Museum of Mexican Art
Museum of Contemporary Photography
National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture (NMPRAC)
Design Museum of Chicago
Oriental Institute Museum has free admission but donations are requested
Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago
DePaul University Art Museum
Clarke House Museum
Chicago Fed’s Money Museum (temporarily closed)
Mindworks: The Science of Thinking, a science museum where visitors can take part in research studies and earn prizes for participating.

The museums below offer free admission either on select dates or for select groups:

• The Art Institute of Chicago offers free admission for all children under 14, Chicago teens under 18, active-duty service members, Illinois educators.
• The Adler Planetarium offers free entry for Illinois residents every Wednesday with proof of residency.
• The Field Museum has free admission days for Illinois residents on select dates throughout the year.
• The Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) offers Illinois residents free entry on select dates throughout the year.
• Shedd Aquarium has free admission days for Illinois residents on certain dates
• The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) is free everyday for anyone 18 and under, visitors with disabilities and their caregivers and Illinois elementary and high school teachers. Illinois residents receive free admission on Tuesdays.
• The Driehaus Museum is free for children 12 & under and active military (with ID).
• The American Writers Museum in Chicago is free for children ages 12 & younger.
• The Chicago History Museum is free for all children 12 and under and Illinois residents 18 & under.
• The Art Institute of Chicago, Adler Planetarium, Chicago History Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art also offer free admission the first weekend of every month for Bank of America credit or debit cardholders under the Bank of America Museums on Us program.
• Chicago Public Library (CPL) cardholders who are adult residents of Chicago, may check out a Kids Museum Passport which allows a family of four (4) general admission to various museums during regular public hours. A group must include at least one child under 18 for the pass to be valid and a maximum of two adults are admitted with each pass.

Free Chicago Festivals, Events and Seasonal Attractions

Many of the best festivals, events and seasonal attractions are free.

• Navy Pier has free fireworks every Wednesday and Saturday night between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend
Grant Park Music Festival, a free outdoor classical-music concert series on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from June 15 to August 20, 2022.
Millennium Park Summer Music Series (Mondays and Thursdays from June 20–August 18, 2022).
Millennium Park Summer Workouts on Saturday mornings in the summer
Free cardio workouts on Tuesday evenings at 6:00pm followed by Sunset Yoga at 7:30pm at Navy Pier.
• Watch free movies in Millennium Park on Tuesday nights from July 12 to August 30, 2022.
• Watch free outdoor movies at Gallagher Way in Wrigleyville on select Wednesday nights from May to end of September.
• Watch free movies outside at Navy Pier on Mondays from July 18-August 29, 2022.
• Watch free movies in Chicago’s public parks with the annual Movies in the Parks in the summer.
SummerDance (on select dates July 6–September 17, 2022)
Tuesdays on the Terrace The Museum of Contemporary Art every summer.
Taste of Chicago is a free-admission food festival that takes place in the summer
Sundays on State
Chicago Air and Water Show (August 20 & 21, 2022)
Open House Chicago, a public festival hosted by the Chicago Architecture Center every October that offers behind-the-scenes access to architecturally, historically and culturally significant sites across the city.
Christkindlmarket is a popular and free authentic German-style Christmas market
Magnificent Mile Lights Festival in November kicks off the Christmas holiday season
• See the large City of Chicago Christmas tree at Millennium Park during the holiday season.
• Go sledding on hills in Chicago public parks and forest preserves when it snows in the winter.
• Go ice skating in Chicago public parks from mid-November through end of February.
• See the cherry blossoms in Jackson Park in the spring.

You can find even more free things to do in Chicago here.

Looking for more things to do in Chicago? Check out my other Chicago guides and itineraries:

savvyglobetrotter

4 Comments

  1. Chicago is on my bucket list for a long time now, I would like to go there. My favorite part are festivals I would like to attend them there and definitely I would like to do the walk on the 606.

  2. I would love to visit Chicago, It’s always been a city I’ve been drawn to and when I eventually do my USA road trip it will be one of the first places I visit and you’ve written a great list for me to start with. I can just see myself tucking into a pizza pie while sitting at the Riverwalk, listening to some Derick Carter (Chicago house DJ) and taking a wander around the city and I’ll definitely be taking in as many festivals as I can 😀

  3. I need to get myself to Chicago soon! I have friends who live there and an open invitation to visit them anytime! The bean is so iconic, you relate chicago to it, so its a must visit for me. Also, I would love the river walk, it’s the kind of thing I enjoy. Also, Chicago’s lakefront trail looks pretty appealing.

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