Because the best things in life are free.
There’s no doubt Chicago is full of fun things to discover, but sometimes it can get a little pricey. Luckily, there are tons of fun and free things to do throughout the year. So if you’re in the Windy City and you’re on a bit of a budget, make sure to check out these awesome things to do and see, completely free of charge!
From free entry to world-class museums to markets and special events, here is an itinerary of 15 free things to do in Chicago this summer without having to splash the cash.
Chicago’s award-winning Riverwalk has so much to offer. Stretching 1.25 miles through the heart of the city, 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 each spring and summer each year comes in the form of artistic projections that beam from the Merchandise Mart. 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.
Another fantastic free spectacle this summer can be found in the skies above. The Chicago Air and Water Show will return in August to wow spectators lined up along North Avenue Beach and the Lakefront from Fullerton to Oak Street once again. Presented by the City of Chicago it is the largest free show of its kind in the entire country and features a variety of military and civilian performances.
On the 20th and 21st of August the Navy Blue Angels, the Golden Knights Army Parachute Team, and multiple other performers will take to the skies from 10 am until 2 pm. Free on both days, it will be the first full-scale Chicago Air and Water Show since 2019 following a full cancellation in 2020 and a scaled-back version featuring a solo demonstration by the Navy Blue Angels in 2021.
One of the United States’ most popular tourist attractions, Chicago’s Navy Pier is located on Chicago’s scenic lakefront and is completely free to experience. Of course, if you wanted to you could spend a lot of money enjoying all the attractions the pier has to offer but simply exploring the pier itself and enjoying the sights of the skyline and Lake Michigan costs nothing.
Of all the things that forecast summer jubilance, the start of Navy Pier’s summer program of events is one of the most symbolic. Keep on the lookout for live music concerts, movie screenings, and fireworks shows which also offer fantastic free activities.
There are weekly firework displays every Saturday at 10 pm and every Wednesday at 9 pm through Labor Day weekend. Onlookers can find a spot anywhere on the pier to take in the dazzling display completely free of charge.
Chicago has one of the best collections of museums and attractions on the planet. Visiting all of them can get a little costly, especially if you’re taking the family. So it’s understandable why free admission days generate quite a lot of hype!
Luckily for us, the wonderful variety of museums and attractions in the Windy City love to announce random free days throughout the year offering locals the chance to see some of the world’s most awe-inspiring wonders regularly, for absolutely zero cost. Though usually, these free admission days are somewhat of a rarity during the summer months when Chicago’s tourism industry is thriving, some begin announcing free days in the later weeks of August.
The latest to do so is Chicago’s Field Museum, which ich will be completely free for Illinois residents on both Tuesdays and Wednesdays starting August 23 and August 24!
Another of Chicago’s famed attractions, The Adler Planetarium, reopened earlier this year after a two-year hiatus boasting a brand new telescope in the Doane Observatory which holds the title of the largest public telescope in the Chicago area.
As well as a new observation park, guests will notice the planetarium’s shiny new dome roof which has been restored with brand-new copper tiles giving the 80-year-old dome an iconic new glow. The best news, however, is that Illinois residents will be able to enter for free every Wednesday evening from 4-10 pm provided they bring proof of residency.
More information and tickets can be found at adlerplanetarium.org.
With the weather allowing outdoor fun to thrive, another fantastic summer plan comes in the form of catching an outdoor movie showing. Every Tuesday from July 12 through August 30, movies are shown on Millennium Park’s state-of-the-art, 40-foot LED screen. Guests may take a seat at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion or lounge on the Great Lawn and catch movies like Encanto and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
There are also free movies on Mondays from July 18 through August 29 at Navy Pier with a focus on families, and free movie showing at Gallagher Way in Wrigleyville on select Wednesdays through the end of September.
Last year, with the pandemic still lingering Chicago Loop Alliance announced an exciting project to “bring people safely back to the Loop”.
The project was an ambitious free weekly summer street festival that saw closed off State Street from Lake to Madison on Sundays throughout summer. Called ‘Sundays on State’, the event aimed to revive the Loop’s economy with a wide range of attractions and activities that would give pedestrians “a chance to experience arts and culture, active recreation, retail, restaurants, and bars against the backdrop of State Street’s iconic architecture.”
Dubbed as a trial last year, it is now back with an extended footprint, 250 artists, businesses, workshops, and more and will take place from 11 am – 6 pm on July 24, August 7, August 21, and September 4.
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. Having opened for the season on April 3rd, the market is now open every Sunday at 800 South Des Plaines Street from 9 am to 3 pm through December 18.
Expect everything from clothes to crockery, and, of course, live music and some of the best street food in the city.
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, completely 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 are waiting to be explored outdoors.
The conservatory also puts on a number of 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.
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. 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. In summer many animals will be lounging around in the sun so there’s no better time to say hello!
Chicago is no far friend from nature. With its lush parks, riverside excursions, the Lakefront, and incredible hiking trails, the city is abound with opportunities to get back in touch with Mother Nature. These offer wonderful paradises alive with growth and wildlife during the summer heat.
We’ve rounded up some of the most celestial secret gardens and parks around Chicago so you can take a look and choose one (or more) this summer for a euphoric day out in nature.
As the only museum in the Midwest devoted to photography, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography offers an unparalleled array of work from national and international photographers. After beginning its collection in the early 1980s it has since grown to include over 16,000 objects by over 1,500 artists. Entry to the museum is free as are exhibitions and docent-led museum tours.
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 of its kind in the United States and a fantastic free activity to do in Chicago.
Located in Pilsen, the heart of Chicago’s Mexican community, NMMA is a rich, immersive art experience with a number of incredible exhibitions and collections of Mexican culture. The museum also hosts a number of 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!
Every Tuesday through summer, the Museum of Contemporary Art hosts Tuesdays on the Terrace — a free musical event series for Illinois residents. It offers Chicagoans a chance to turn the average underwhelming Tuesday into a jubilant evening at the MCA’s Anne and John Kern Terrace Garden experiencing free music that highlights artists from Chicago’s internationally renowned jazz community.
Two sets of live music take place every Tuesday evening from 5:30 pm and run until 8 pm through August 31.
Talking of art here in Chicago, Chicago’s street art scene is as revered as its collection of museums and there are masterpieces found all over Chicago. Unique murals and public art pieces are continuously embedding themselves in the fabric of the city 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 more inspiring without spending a penny.
I know, I know. A walking tour? You’re yawning already, but give this one a chance. If you’re not keen on guiding yourself Chicago Greeter is a fantastic way to explore the city. First of all, it’s a free tour customized to what you’re interested in, so you can really get to know Chicago and how it relates to you. These tours are casual, informational, and fun ways to get a little exercise, see some of Chicago’s coolest attractions, and learn about the Windy City! Most walking tours require a reservation at least 10 days out, but if you’d rather have more flexibility in your schedule, you can book an Instagreeter, which is also free and can accommodate up to six guests.
This magnificent building located downtown once served as the city’s first public library. The building alone is reason enough to make a 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 and was built with incredible materials such as rare imported marbles, 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 also usually entirely free to attend. If you love culture, architecture, and history, this is a great free place to spend your day.
Located within the University of Chicago, the Smart Museum of Art is a collection of visual art that examines complex issues. The museum offers a free space to explore, learn, discover, and create art that makes a statement in the modern world. With a number of rotating exhibitions, newly remodeled facilities, and a team of knowledgable, 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.
19. Trek the 606
Chicago’s stunning 606 trail is another popular spot for walking, running, and biking. Built on an abandoned railroad line, this elevated multi-use trail is Chicago’s take on NYC’s The Highline. Running through Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Wicker Park, and Bucktown, the trail is full of murals, lookout points, and green spaces offering a unique trip overlooking some of Chicago’s busiest North Side neighborhoods.
Ok ok we know, this is the end of summer. But it is also one of the most stunning spectacles of the year and it’s a brilliant way to mark the end of summer and the beginning of fall.
Due to Chicago being built on a grid system and streets lining up near perfectly on compass north to south and east to west, the sun lines up with Chicago’s east-west facing streets and beams down the heart of the city during the spring and fall equinoxes.
The magic of nature and Chicago’s glorious architecture collaborate harmoniously to put on a breathtaking spectacle that people from all over come to witness.More information can be found here.
Bonus (Not free): Marvel at Morton Arboretum’s monolithic sculptures
Chicago’s Morton Arboretum will this year celebrate its 100th birthday. To celebrate such an occasion, the 1,700-acre tree museum and research center is kicking off a yearlong centennial celebration building up to its 100th birthday. One of the first things to celebrate is the announcement that the popular Human+Nature exhibition will continue for another year through March 2023 and has added two new large-scale sculptures and a commemorative centennial sculpture by artist Daniel Popper.
Though the Arboretum itself isn’t free, the incredible Human+Nature exhibition is free to experience with general Arboretum admission so we thought it was worth a mention!
We’re still building this list. Got a free thing in Chicago you think should be on it? Let us know by tagging us on social media with #mysecretchicago.
[Featured image from Shutterstock]