Anyone here knows Chicago is full of things to discover; however, sometimes, it can get a little pricey. Luckily, there are many fun and free things to do in Chicago throughout the year.
If you’re in the Windy City and on a bit of a budget, check out these awesome things to do and, better yet, free of charge! From free entry to world-class museums to markets, shows, and special annual events, here is an itinerary of free things to do in Chicago without splashing the cash.
1. Gaze at the Art on theMART spectacles from the Chicago Riverwalk
Chicago’s award-winning Riverwalk has so much to offer. Stretching 1.25 miles through the city’s heart, the waterfront is always alive with restaurants, bars, and character. It’s the perfect place for people-watching and taking in the city’s sensational architecture. While the food along the riverwalk can be pretty pricey, you can always bring your own for a lakeside picnic.
One of the best free activities along the Riverwalk comes from the Art on theMART projections that light up the Merchandise Mart from spring through fall each year.
Holding the title of the world’s largest permanent digital art projection, Art on theMART attracts thousands to the Riverwalk every week by firing up 34 digital projectors and transforming the 2.5-acre river façade into stunning visual spectacles.
Spectators can watch two free 30-minute programs 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. From Sep 14 to Dec 30, it takes place at 7:30 pm – 8:30 pm
The Garfield Park Conservatory, located on the west side of Chicago, is an environmental marvel. As one of the world’s largest indoor gardens, you’ll find a constantly evolving experience free of charge.
Take a serene stroll through rainforests, desert landscapes, and rows and rows of magnificent flowers. While the Palm House and Desert House offer exceptional sights indoors, 10 acres of sprawling gardens await exploring outdoors.
The conservatory also puts on several events throughout the year, including yoga in picturesque environments, beekeeping classes, flower shows, composting demos, and more! Some of these events are free, others require a ticket or suggested donation, but admission to the conservatory is always free for the whole year.
3. Visit Lincoln Park Zoo for free
Visiting Lincoln Park Zoo is a fun and free year-round activity. As one of the only zoos in the country offering free admission, you can explore a “free world of wildlife” in the middle of the city and experience numerous exciting animal encounters.
As well as over 230 species of animals, there are often fun seasonal events such as the annual Zoolights, Fall Fest, the Zoo Ball, and frequent Adults-Only nights.
Home to primates, elephants, giraffes, sea lions, penguins, reptiles, and much more, if you’re an animal lover, there’s no place better for free activities than Lincoln Park Zoo. Many animals will be lounging in the sun in summer, so there’s no better time to say hello!
Another of Chicago’s famed attractions, The Adler Planetarium, recently reopened after a two-year hiatus and now boasts a brand new telescope in the Doane Observatory, which holds the title of the largest public telescope in the state.
As well as a new observation park, guests will notice the planetarium’s shiny new dome roof, restored with brand-new copper tiles, giving the 80-year-old dome an iconic new glow.
The best news, however, is that Illinois residents can enter for free every Wednesday evening from 4-10 p.m., provided they bring proof of residency.
One of the planet’s oldest and largest art museums, the Art Institute of Chicago is undoubtedly one of the city’s most renowned museums. Since its founding in 1879, the Art Institute of Chicago has flourished into one of the most recognized art museums in the world.
The museum is permanently home to over 300,000 works of art, including such masterpieces as American Gothic by Grant Wood, Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, The Bedroom, 1889 by Vincent van Gogh and The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso.
Illinois residents can enter for free on Thursday evenings through August 31, 2023.
As the only museum in the Midwest devoted to photography, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography offers unparalleled work from national and international photographers.
After beginning its collection in the early 1980s, it has grown to include over 16,000 objects by over 1,500 artists.
Entry to the museum is free year-round, as are exhibitions and docent-led museum tours.
Hike on a stunning trial near Chicago
One of our favorite free things in Chicago is hiking the Devil’s Lak State Park. It offers majestic views from 500-foot bluffs overlooking a 360-acre lake. Visitors have nearly 30 miles of hiking trails along the Ice Age Natural Scenic Trail. After a workout, you can head to the lakeshore picnic areas and beaches for a laid-back evening.
The National Museum of Mexican Art is another first-class museum that is always free. Home to 3,000 years’ worth of creativity from Mexican and Mexican-American artists, it is the largest museum in the United States and a fantastic free activity in Chicago.
Located in Pilsen, the heart of Chicago’s Mexican community, NMMA is a rich, immersive art experience with several incredible exhibitions and collections of Mexican culture.
The museum also hosts several special events throughout the year, such as the “Día de Los Muertos: Love Never Dies Ball,” “Sor Juana Festival,” “Mercado Navideño- Christmas Market,” and more!
The Maxwell Street Market has been a fixture in Chicago for over 100 years. Brimming with an eclectic array of handmade crafts, arbitrary items, and undetected treasures, the free market offers a wholesome Sunday Funday, browsing the bric-à-brac with friends or family. October 29 is the last week to head to Mexwell Street Market!
Expect everything from clothes to crockery, live music, and some of the best street food in the city.
Chicago’s street art scene is as revered as its collection of museums, and urban masterpieces are found all over Chicago.
Unique murals and public art pieces are continuously embedding themselves in the city’s fabric, with prismatic new pieces appearing all the time. Some of these fight for racial equality, some celebrate different heritages, and some honor the essential workers of our societies, but all offer a feast for the eyes, and you don’t have to pay to experience them.
We’ve compiled a list of the best street art murals in Chicago complete with information and addresses so you can arrange a tour of the most inspiring urban art without spending a penny.
If you’re the sort to delve into the science of thinking and analyze your personality and those of others, Mindworks might be the ideal day out for you.
Mindworks is the world’s first discovery center and working lab dedicated to behavioral science in the heart of Chicago’s cultural corridor. Hands-on exhibits showcase behavioral science’s powerful, real-world impact, and visitors are incited to participate in regular studies of human behavior.
Thanks to generous philanthropic support from PIMCO, Mindworks is also free all year round.
12. Check out the Smart Museum Of Art
Located within the University of Chicago, the Smart Museum of Art is a visual art collection examining complex issues. The museum offers a free space to explore, learn, discover, and create art that makes a statement in the modern world.
With many rotating exhibitions, newly remodeled facilities, and a team of knowledgeable, friendly staff, we can’t believe this place is totally free to visit.
You’ll also find iconic works from some of the most revered artists like Picasso, Rivera, Matisse, Goya, and Frank Lloyd Wright.
13. Visit the Chicago Cultural Center
This magnificent building located downtown once served as the city’s first public library. The building alone is reason enough to visit. Home to the world’s largest stained glass Tiffany Dome, there’s a ton of history in the expertly crafted walls of the CCC.
The building was completed in 1897 as both a public library and a civil war memorial. It was built with incredible materials such as rare imported marble, polished brass, mother-of-pearl, and colored stone.
The 38-foot-diameter Tiffany dome has over 30,000 pieces of glass and was restored in 2008. Today, it is open to the public seven days a week, always free!
Frequent exhibitions and public events are some of the best free things to do in Chicago. If you love culture, architecture, and history, this is a great free place to spend your day.