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
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 withseveral different play areas for kids which is connected to Millennium Park by the BP Pedestrian Bridge.
3) Chicago Riverwalk
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 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
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 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 mid May through mid 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 display accompanies the major water display.
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.
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
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 twice a week 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
• Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art (UIMA) has free admission but donations are requested
• 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
• 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. Admission is also free for Illinois residents on Thursday evenings (5–8 p.m.) through August 31, 2023.
• 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.
• Chicago Children’s Museum has free family days on the last Thursday of each month from September – October in 2023.
• 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.
• DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center is free everyday for military and to first responders (with valid ID) and free on Wednesdays for all Illinois residents.
• 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
• Watch free foreign films at the Chicago History Museum or Chicago Cultural Center as part of the Cinema/Chicago Summer Screenings every Wednesday evening through September 20, 2023.
• Watch free movies outside at Millennium Park, Gallagher Way, The Green at 320 and various Chicago parks in the summer.
• Join free group fitness classes at Millennium Park, Navy Pier, Gallagher Way and The Green at 320.
• Listening to free concerts at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park during the Grant Park Music Festival and Millennium Park Summer Music Series.
• Tuesdays on the Terrace at 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 takes place every August
• Open House Chicago is 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.
• Go ice skating in front of The Bean at Millennium Park and several Chicago public parks from mid-November through early March
• Christkindlmarket is a popular and free authentic German-style Christmas market in two locations in the city and one in the suburbs
• Magnificent Mile Lights Festival in November kicks off the Christmas holiday season
• See the giant City of Chicago Christmas tree at Millennium Park during the Christmas holiday season.
• Go sledding on hills in Chicago public parks and forest preserves when it snows in the winter.
• 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:
- 3 Days in Chicago: The Perfect 3 Day Itinerary By a Local
- The Perfect Itinerary for One Day in Chicago (According to a Local)
- The Best Time to Visit Chicago – A Month By Month Guide