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 live gigs and special events, here is an itinerary of 15 free things to do in Chicago right now 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 to people watch and to admire 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.
Right now, the largest permanent digital art projection in the world is taking place. Art on theMART attracts thousands to the Riverwalk every week by firing up 34 digital projectors and transforming the 2.5-acre river-façade of the Merchandise Mart. 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.
The Chicago Air and Water Show is one of the largest air and water shows in the country and one of the most anticipated summer events here in Chicago. This year there will be a “new and reimagined” event that will feature the U.S. Navy Blue Angels perform along the lakefront, and of course, it’s completely free of charge.
The one-hour demonstrations will take place from 12 pm – 1 pm on both Saturday, August 21, and Sunday, August 22 and Sunday. According to the official news release the best viewing locations will be along the lakefront between Oak Street and Fullerton Avenue.
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.
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!
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.
The Garfield Park Conservatory located on the west side of Chicago is another 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 including yoga in picturesque environments, beekeeping classes, flower shows, composting demons, and more! Some of these events are free, others require a ticket or suggested donation, but admission to the conservatory is always free.
Chicago is home to over 600 parks with more than 8,800 acres of green space, all of which are totally free to visit. Many of the parks in Chicago have exciting attractions like playgrounds, ice skating rinks, pools, event spaces, and more!
If you’re looking for something free to do in Chicago, visiting any of these incredible parks is a great way to enjoy a euphoric day without spending a penny. You’ll often find events like film screenings, concerts, and festivals to take advantage of too. From the wildlife havens of Northerly Island and North Pond Nature Sanctuary to the iconic public art found in Millennium Park and the sprawling play space in Maggie Daley Park, Chicago’s parks offer so much free fun.
One of the aforementioned free park activities is Chicago Park District’s SummerDance in the Parks series. Dancers of all ages and skill levels are invited to take part weekly through August and September. Dance lessons led by professional instructors and live music from professional DJs will be inspiring different styles of dancing in various parks across the city. All free of charge!
The Lakefront Trail is one of Chicago’s most iconic features. Running for 18 miles from the south of Chicago up to the north it passes parks, harbors, museums, and beautiful beaches, with the cities sensational skyline on one side and the blue waters of Lake Michigan on the other. Running, biking, or rollerblading along the Lakefront Trail makes for a great way to see Chicago while enjoying incredible views, getting some exercise, and breathing in the fresh air.
11. Chicago Greeter
I know, I know. A walking tour? You’re yawning already, but give this one a chance. 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.
14. Visit Navy Pier
One of the United States’ most popular tourist attractions, Chicago’s Navy Pier is located on Chicago’s scenic lakefront and 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.
With the Ferris wheel, the Pepsi Wave Swinger, the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and frequent boat cruises, there is a lot to observe, and the atmosphere is even more electric in the evening when the pier is fully illuminated. Keep on the lookout for live music concerts, movie screenings, and fireworks shows which also offer fantastic free activities.
15. 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.
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]