Looking for fun outdoor activities in Chicago? Below are the best outdoor things to do in Chicago.
For a city known for its skyscrapers, museums and other indoor attractions, Chicago has a surprisingly large number of outdoor things to do.
Whether you live in the Chicago area or are visiting and looking to maximize your time outside, here are the best Chicago outdoor activities.
Chicago Outdoor Activities
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Outdoor Ice Skating
There are several places to go outdoor ice skating in Chicago. Most outdoor skating rinks in the Chicago are usually open from around mid-November until the end of February/early March.
Two of the best places to go outdoor ice skating downtown is the skating ribbon at Maggie Daley Park and the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in Millennium Park (right in front of The Bean).
Chicago usually gets a lot of snow during the winter. If there is snow on the ground (usually at least 3 inches), grab a sled and head to one of sledding hills found in parks and forest preserves in the Chicago area.
Where: Various. See Best Sledding Hills in Chicago.
Go Snowtrekking at Northerly Island
Explore Northerly Island and Burnham Nature Sanctuary on snowshoes in the winter while enjoying incredible views of Chicago and looking out for winter birds and various wildlife.
Snowshoes are provided for all participants (registration is required) on select Saturday mornings in January and February (weather permitting). There must be at least three inches of snow on the ground. Call (312) 745.2910 to verify weather conditions before you go.
Cost: $5 to check out a pair of snowshoes with a valid ID.
Take an Architecture River Cruise
Chicago has amazing architecture and the best way enjoy it is by going on an architecture river cruise.
Take a Lake Cruise
If you enjoy being on the water, a lake cruise is also a fun activity especially on a hot Chicago summer day. While you don’t get to see the buildings up close like on a architecture river cruise, you do get to enjoy skyline views and cool breezes. If your time is short, you can do a combination river and lake cruise. Lake cruises depart from Navy Pier or the Michigan Avenue bridge.
Watch Free Fireworks
Did you know that you can watch free fireworks displays in Chicago all summer? Navy Pier puts on a free fireworks show every Wednesday (9:00 pm- 9:10 pm) and Saturday night (10:00 pm- 10:10 pm) between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day.
While you can watch the fireworks show from Navy Pier, you can also watch it from various spots along the Lakefront.
Another great option for watching the fireworks is a lake or river cruise which will stop on the water for passengers to enjoy the show.
Hang Out on the Riverwalk
The Chicago Riverwalk located along the south bank of the Chicago River from Lake Michigan to west of Franklin Street, is one of the best spots in Chicago for boat and people watching. There are also restaurants, bars and other places to sit and relax along the way. You can find a map of attractions on the Riverwalk here.
Watch Digital Art at Art on theMart
Art on theMART is the largest permanent digital art projection in the world, projecting contemporary artwork across the 2.5-acre river-façade of theMART. Free 30-minute program of projections are shown twice every night. Spectators can watch the show from the jetty section of the Chicago Riverwalk on Wacker Drive between Wells Street and Franklin Street.
Have Fun at Navy Pier
Navy Pier is very tourity but this large pier is a must do if you are visiting Chicago with toddlers or kids. There are several fun outdoor attractions at Navy Pier including a large Ferris wheel (click here to purchase a fast pass ticket and skip the long line) as well as rides and games.
As mentioned above, Navy Pier puts on a free fireworks show on Wednesday and Saturday nights in the summer.
Navy Pier is also the starting point for various sightseeing tours, boat rides and cruises:
Look for Street Art
Chicago is full of street art and there are always new murals popping up. One of the most famous Chicago murals is “Moose Bubblegum Bubble” (pictured above) by Jacob Watts which located at 33 E. Congress. It is part of the Wabash Arts Corridor which is walking distance to Millennium Park, The Art Institute of Chicago and other well known tourist attractions. You can find more detailed mural walks in the Loop here.
Another famous mural is the Greetings From Chicago Mural at 2226 N Milwaukee Ave. You can see this mural and other street art on this street art tour.
Other neighborhoods that have a high concentration of street art include Pilsen as well as West Town.
A fun way to explore the city is to go kayaking in the Chicago River or Lake Michigan. There are several companies that offer guided kayaking tours and rentals in Chicago including Urban Kayaks, Kayak Chicago and Wateriders.
If you have your own kayak, you can find all the boat launches on the river and the lake here.
Please note that you will get a little wet when kayaking so bring a waterproof case for your phone and water-resistant or quick-drying clothing.
Watch the Water Displays at Buckingham Fountain
Buckingham Fountain, a well known Chicago landmark in the center of Grant Park, is one of the largest fountains in the world. When the water is turned on, it produces a major water display with a center jet shoots water to a height of 150 feet into the air.
The fountain is worth visiting both in the daytime and at night when there is a light and music display that accompanies the water display.
See The Bean in Millennium Park
Cloud Gate (aka “The Bean”), the famous bean shaped mirrored sculpture in Millennium Park, is a must on any Chicago bucket list. Although The Bean is touristy, don’t skip it.
Splash in Crown Fountain
On hot summer days, kids (and some adults) love to splash in the water from the Crown Fountain (which is also located in Millennium Park).
Play at Maggie Daley Park
Maggie Daley Park, a large public park connected to Millennium Park, is another must see outdoor attraction. Maggie Daley Park has play areas for kids of various ages. Other activities available here include an outdoor ice skating ribbon (open late fall and winter only), a climbing wall, tennis courts and pickleball courts, and a 18-hole miniature golf course.
Rent a Divvy Bike
If you are looking for a fun and affordable way to explore the city, you can rent a bike through Divvy, the city’s bike sharing program. You can pick up and drop off a bike at one of hundreds of stations around the Chicago area.
Run, Walk or Bike the Lakefront Trail
Chicago’s Lakefront Trail is a paved path on a 18-mile-long stretch along Lake Michigan. When the weather is good 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.
Spend Time at the Beach
Most people don’t think of Chicago as a beach destination but the city has many public beaches on the shores of Lake Michigan. Oak Street Beach and Ohio Street Beach are conveniently located close to the major tourist attractions. Popular North Avenue Beach, located close to Lincoln Park, is more of a party beach and has amazing skyline views.
If you are thinking of getting in the water to cool down in the summer, you can check the swimming conditions here. Don’t forget to pack your beach essentials!
In addition to sunbathing and swimming, some beaches have volleyball courts. You can also rent kayaks, jet skis and boats at various beaches to get out on the lake.
Standup Paddleboard (SUP) in Lake Michigan
If the weather is warm, you can rent your own paddleboard or join a standup paddleboard (SUP) class.
For an even bigger challenge, Epic Yoga Flow and Chicago Water Sport Rentals offer stand-up paddleboard yoga classes which combine SUP and yoga.
Watch a Baseball Game
Chicago is known for their love of their sports teams, so if you are visiting during baseball season you might want to attend a game. To those unfamiliar, historic Wrigley Field is home to one of the city’s baseball teams – the Cubs. Whether a fan of the Cubs, baseball in general or just a fun atmosphere, a day at the 100 year old ballpark is a must for locals and tourists alike. You don’t need to enjoy baseball to enjoy a Cubs game – it is fun to just soak in the atmosphere. You can find the Chicago Cubs schedule here.
Visit Lincoln Park
Lincoln Park is a large park with several outdoor and indoor attractions. The park is home to Lincoln Park Zoo (which offers free admission).
You can find two of the best Chicago photo spots inside the park including the bridge over the South Pond and the Peoples Gas Education Pavilion (aka the Honeycomb).
Listen to Free Outdoor Music Concerts
One of the best things to do in Chicago during a nice summer evening is listening to free concerts at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.
Grant Park Music Festival runs on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays during the summer.
Watch Free Movies in the Park
There are several places you can watch free outdoor movies in Chicago in the summer including Gallagher Way in Wrigleyville
and Millennium Park and Navy Pier.
Chicago Park District also shows family-friendly movies at several neighborhood parks as part of the Movies in the Parks.
Watch Movies on a Rooftop
Want to watch movies against the backdrop of the Chicago skyline? Rooftop Cinema Club is bringing its outdoor screening series to a rooftop in Fulton Market back in the spring.
Rooftop Cinema Club is located on the fifth floor terrace of The Emily Hotel (311 N Morgan St) and tickets will range from $20–$30. This will be a high end movie experience complete with tropical decor, lawn games, state-of-the-art LED screens, individual wireless headphones and a range of seating options including lounge chairs and loveseats. Guests can also order drinks and snacks.
Walk or Bike 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.
Hike the the North Branch Trail
The North Branch Trail System, which connects the northwest side of Chicago to the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, is one of the best places to go hiking in the city. The system offers paved and unpaved trails along approximately 20 miles of the North Branch of the Chicago River, with trail loops through ecological restoration sites with diverse native wildlife. You can find a few recommended hikes on their website here.
Eat or Drink on a Rooftop
Even if you are not particularly active, you can enjoy dining and drinking outdoors at one of the city’s many rooftop bars and restaurants. Some of the best rooftops in Chicago include
Cindy’s (12 S Michigan Ave) – Restaurant and bar on the rooftop of the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel located across Millennium Park which offers panoramic instagram worthy views of Millennium Park and Lake Michigan.
LH ON 22 (85 East Wacker Drive) – The outdoor LH terrace of LondonHouse Chicago offers great views of the Chicago River, Lake Michigan and the Magnificent Mile.
The J. Parker (1816 N Clark St), on the rooftop of the Hotel Lincoln, has great views of Lincoln Park.
Kennedy Rooftop (1551 W North Ave), on top of the Hyatt Place Wicker Par, has amazing skyline views.
Shop at Local Farmers Markets
You can find many farmers markets around Chicago. Most are usually open from May through October. Farmers markets are a great place to buy healthy, local, farm-fresh foods from local farms. Two of the best farmers markets in Chicago are the Green City Market in Lincoln Park and the Logan Square Farmers Market. You can see the list and schedule of all Chicago farmers markets here.
Shop (or Window Shop) on the Magnificent Mile
Join the throngs of visitors and locals shopping (or window shopping) 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.
Attend an Outdoor Festival
Chicago is home to many outdoor festivals and events – especially in the summer when you can find at least one or more festivals taking place every weekend. Some Chicago festivals are very well known and attract thousands of visitors, but there are many neighborhood festivals and events in Chicago where you will mostly find locals. If you enjoy food, music and people watching, check here to see if there are any festivals or events going on while you are in town.
Outdoor Activities Near Chicago
If you want to leave the city and want to explore more of the Midwest, there are more outdoor things to do in the Chicago suburbs. These outdoor activities near Chicago can be easily be done on a day trip from Chicago.
Walk Through a Tulip Field in the Spring
Walk through acres of tulips fields located near Chicago in the spring. Two nearby farms –Richardson Adventure Farm (in Spring Grove about 65 miles northwest of Chicago) and Kuipers Family Farm (in Maple Park about 57 miles west of Chicago) -are hosting a tulip festivals from approximately mid-April to mid-May. Here are more places to see tulips near Chicago.
Walk Through a Sunflower Field
Visiting one of the many sunflower fields near Chicago is a popular outdoor activity for Chicagoans in the summer and early fall.
Visit Morton Arboretum
Morton Arboretum (in Lisle about 26 miles west of downtown) is home to more than 4,000 different types of trees among 1,700 acres. In addition to enjoying flowers in the spring and summer, the Arboretum is a very popular spot to see fall foliage in the Chicago area.
The Arboretum is full of hiking and biking trails or you can just drive through by car. Kids will particularly enjoy the 4-acre Children’s Garden.
Don’t miss Human+Nature, an outdoor art installation by renowned South African artist Daniel Popper. The exhibition features 15- to 26-foot-tall sculptures in various locations across the Arboretum site to lead guests to areas they may not otherwise explore.
Visit the Chicago Botanic Garden
Chicago Botanic Garden (in suburban Glencoe about 24 miles north of downtown) is one of the world’s great living museums and conservation science centers with 27 gardens and four natural areas, situated on 385 acres on and around nine islands, with six miles of lake shoreline.
Their website has a list of suggested seasonal garden walks which maximize nature viewing opportunities.
As you can see there are many ourdoors things to do in and near Chicago.
Planning a trip to Chicago? Check out my Chicago guides and itineraries:
- Weekend in Chicago: 3 Day Itinerary (According to a Local)
- The Perfect Itinerary for One Day in Chicago
- Most Instagrammable Places in Chicago
- Best Free Things to Do in Chicago