Chicago, Illinois is a big city with lots to do, and the good news is — its got lots of FREE things to do!
Often called, “The Second City,” Chicago is a cultural hub that is second to none. Home to world-class theater, dining, beaches, museums, parks, gardens, and more — a visit here doesn’t have to break the bank.
Looking for budget-friendly ideas for your next visit to The Windy City? Here are 39 free things to do in Chicago that guarantee you’ll have a great time.
ART ON THE MART
Art on the Mart is the world’s largest permanent digital art exhibition in the world. This contemporary light show is projected onto a 2.5-acre building known as theMART.
The light show is an art project that has featured both local and international artists while welcoming over 30,000 visitors to Chicago’s iconic Riverwalk. Art on the Mart is performed every evening, with various showtimes depending on the season.
Details: 222 W Merchandise Mart Plaza Suite 470, Chicago, IL 60654 | Website
Buckingham Fountain remains one of the world’s largest fountains since its dedication in 1927. The fountain operates between May and October and offers varying water shows throughout the season.
The fountain is located in the heart of Chicago’s Loop, considered the “front door” of the city. You can’t miss this iconic Chicago landmark when wandering through the city’s incredible downtown.
CHICAGO CULTURAL CENTER
The Chicago Cultural Center is one of the city’s most popular free attractions. It presents over 700 arts and cultures programs per year, many of which are free of charge.
The building was first opened in 1897 as the first permanent home of the Chicago Public Library, and as the headquarters for the Grand Army of the Republic, the Civil War Union Army veterans association.
In addition to its programs, guests can enjoy free guided tours of the building’s stunning architecture or simply walk around and explore by themselves.
If you want to get a taste of some of Chicago’s best attractions and still save a little dough, then consider the Chicago CityPASS.
It’s good for 9 consecutive days and saves you up to 50% off select attractions.
Attractions include Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, Skydeck Chicago, plus 2 of the following, your choice: Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Science and Industry, or 360 CHICAGO Observation Deck.
Get your discount here: Chicago CityPASS
CHICAGO GREETER TOURS
Chicago Greeter Tours is run by passionate and friendly locals who love their city. Visitors can register for a free tour that will be customized to meet their interests.
Whether you are interested in Chicago’s superb architecture or the unbeatable food scene, a greeter will personalize this experience to exceed all expectations.
Details: 72 E Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60601 | Website
CHICAGO NEIGHBORHOOD WALK
Chicago is made up of 77 different neighborhoods. Each of these incredible areas has a unique personality. Chicago Neighborhood Walking Tours will get you out of the touristy North Side, and introduce you to where the other 95% of Chicagoans live.
You can explore the unparalleled food scene in Chinatown and gape at the Pilsen public art in Chicago’s Mexican neighborhood. If you want a real taste of Chicago life, engaging with a walking tour like this is the way to do it.
The new and improved Chicago Riverwalk opened in the fall of 2016. The riverwalk is made up of 6 coves, but the area that is most popular with tourists is the Marina. This area is home to numerous world-class restaurants and bars, as well as pickups for boat tours.
The walk offers incredible internal views of Chicago’s famous skyline. Taking a stroll through this one-of-a-kind riverwalk is an absolute must-do when visiting Chicago.
Details: Riverwalk, Chicago, IL 60601 | Website
CHINESE AMERICAN MUSEUM OF CHICAGO
The Chinese American Museum opened its doors in 2005. The museum presents free programs and events that are aimed toward promoting the education of Chinese American culture and preserving the memory of their past and future.
Details: 238 W 23rd St, Chicago, IL 60616 | Website
CITY GALLERY AT THE HISTORIC WATER TOWER
Along the city’s famous Magnificent Mile is the City Gallery at the Historic Water Tower. The Water Tower is a historic landmark of the city, being built between 1867 and 1869. It is one of the few surviving buildings of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Today, it houses a beautiful art gallery that features pieces by local Chicago photographers and artists.
Details: 806 Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611 | Website
CLARKE HOUSE MUSEUM
Constructed in 1836, the Henry B. Clarke House is the oldest surviving home in Chicago. It was constructed in a classical Greek Revival design, and has survived numerous Chicago fires, moves, and conversions.
Today, it serves as a museum demonstrating typical life as a family in historic Chicago.
Details: 1827 S Indiana Ave, Chicago, IL 60616 | Website
DEPAUL UNIVERSITY ART MUSEUM
The DePaul Public Art Museum (DPAM,) built in 2011, is home to a collection of over 3,500 objects and art pieces. It presents three to five public art exhibits per year.
Details: 935 W Fullerton Ave, Chicago, IL 60614 | Website
ED PASCHKE ART CENTER
The Ed Paschke Art Center is dedicated to preserving and providing public access to its namesake’s artwork.
In addition to presenting Paschke’s work, it provides resources for up-and-coming artists and provides a gallery space for artists to present their own work.
Details: 5415 W Higgins Ave, Chicago, IL 60630 | Website
FREE TOURS BY FOOT
Free Tours by Foot offers free or “pay-as-you-like” tours for all interests and budgets.
Tours are offered multiple times a week, including themed city walking tours, boat tours, and architecture tours. Topics include ghosts and gangsters, the pedway, skyscrapers, and much more.
GARFIELD PARK CONSERVATORY
Garfield Park Conservatory is one of the United State’s most extensive botanical gardens. As it is a covered garden, guests can visit year-round.
Today, the garden is home to over 2,700 plants and provides numerous educational programs. Additionally, special events, like concerts and yoga classes, are hosted here throughout the year.
Details: 300 N Central Park Ave, Chicago, IL 60624 | Website
Grant Park spans 319 acres in downtown Chicago. Located in the city’s central business district, it houses the world-famous Art Institute, Millennium Park, Museum Campus, and Buckingham Fountain.
In addition, visitors can enjoy an extensive stroll through the park’s impressive North Rose Gardens, ice skate in the winter, play at the children’s playground, see the statue of Abraham Lincoln, view public art, and enjoy numerous free events like Music in the Park.
Details: 337 E Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60601 | Website
HANCOCK CENTER’S SIGNATURE LOUNGE
The Hancock Center’s Signature Lounge is a free alternative to the (paid) view from Sears Tower (now called the Willis Tower).
The Hancock may be the second tallest building in Chicago, but it offers just as impressive views as the Willis Tower. You can ride the elevator to the 96th floor to the Signature Lounge. You can take a look at the view for free or sit down and enjoy a cocktail overlooking Chicagoland.
Details: 875 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60610 | Website
HAROLD WASHINGTON LIBRARY CENTER
Harold Washington Library Center is not only a place to check out books, but a gathering space for the community. It was dedicated in 1991 in honor of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor.
Today, the library is a premier example of late 20th century American architecture in addition to its service as a cultural hub.
Details: 400 S State St, Chicago, IL 60605 | Website
HYDE PARK ART CENTER
The Hyde Park Art Center is a cultural hub in Chicago’s vibrant southside. For over 80 years, the center has provided classes for kids through adults, and featured a rotating array of art exhibitions.
Details: 5020 S Cornell Ave, Chicago, IL 60615 | Website
INTUIT: THE CENTER FOR INTUITIVE AND OUTSIDER ART
The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art is an incredibly unique establishment. Since 1991, the center has featured art created by people from marginalized communities who did not have access to traditional training.
Its mission is to build a bridge between self-taught artists and their audiences. They offer scholarships, events, and educational courses.
Details: 756 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60642 | Website
JANE ADDAMS HULL HOUSE MUSEUM
The Hull House was created by Jane Adams (who later became a Nobel Peace Prize winner,) and other Chicago figures as a place for immigrants to gather. The home was a place of education and community to help recent immigrants adjust to American society.
The museum consists of two buildings: the Hull Home, which features exhibitions about the history of Hull House, and the Residents’ Dining Hall, which holds an event space.
Entrance to the museum is free, but a $5 donation is appreciated.
Details: 800 S Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60607 | Website
Chicago’s Lakefront Trail is an 18.5-mile stretch for walking, running, and biking. Along the way, visitors will see iconic views of Chicago’s beloved skyline and stunning views of Lake Michigan.
The famous trail passes landmarks such as the Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, Buckingham Fountain, and Navy Pier.
LINCOLN PARK CONSERVATORY
Located next to Chicago’s famous Lincoln Park Zoo, the Lincoln Park Conservatory is a surprisingly large indoor botanical garden. The conservatory was commissioned between 1890 and 1895, and today houses over 25,000 natural species.
Tickets are free, and reservations can be made online.
Details: 2391 N Stockton dr., Chicago, IL 60614 | Website
LINCOLN PARK ZOO
The Lincoln Park Zoo spans 35 acres and has housed over 1,000 animals since its opening in 1868.
The zoo is the fourth oldest zoo in North America and one of the very few zoos that remain free today. The zoo is home to over 200 species of animals, and is the perfect, free place to visit in Chicago!
Details: 2001 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60614 | Website
MAGGIE DALEY PARK PLAY GARDEN
Within the southeast corner of Maggie Daley Park is a unique 3-acre play garden. The play area draws inspiration from Alice and Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to inspire unconventional creativity in visiting children.
The site has various sections, including an enchanted garden, slide crater, watering hole, and more whimsical space.
Details: 337 E Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60601 | Website
Since 2004, Millennium Park has been one of the most iconic spots in Chi-town. It is home to the famous Cloud Gate sculpture, affectionately known as The Bean.
There are numerous free events throughout the year like Music in the Park, Dancing in the Park, festivals, and much more during the summer months. Millennium Park is also home to a “secret garden” — Lurie Garden. Make sure you stop by.
If you’re visiting during colder months, try the ice rink in wintertime in the heart of Chicago’s Loop.
MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHY
One of Chicago’s most popular educational institutions, Columbia College, founded the Museum of Contemporary Photography in 1976.
Today, it is considered the world’s premier college art museum. Since its opening, the museum’s collection has grown to over 16,500 objects from 1,500 artists.
Details: 600 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60605 | Website
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF MEXICAN ART
The National Museum of Mexican Art aims to showcase 3,600 years of Mexican culture and artwork. The museum is home to one of the country’s most extensive collections of Mexican art, with over 18,000 pieces.
In addition to its art exhibitions, the museum presents programs based on Mexican culture, including dance, music, authors, and guest speakers.
Details: 1852 W 19th St, Chicago, IL 60608 | Website
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF PUERTO RICAN ARTS & CULTURE
Located in Humboldt Park, the heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community, this museum is the only museum in the United States dedicated specifically to Puerto Rican culture.
The museum offers three galleries, a performance space, and educational classrooms.
Details: 3015 W Division St, Chicago, IL 60622 | Website
NATIONAL VETERANS ART MUSEUM
Veterans of the Vietnam War, and others, have found an artistic home on the famous six-corners spot in Chicago’s Wicker Park.
The museum is dedicated to displaying artwork created by veterans, and studying the artist in connection with their time serving in a war.
Details: 4041 N Milwaukee Ave 2nd floor, Chicago, IL 60641 | Website
Perhaps Chicago’s most-known tourist location, Navy Pier is also free to visit. The 3,300-foot long pier was formerly used as a military training center, but reopened to the public in 1995 as a center for entertainment.
Today, visitors can eat at world-class restaurants, ride the famous Ferris wheel, or see renowned theatre.
Details: 600 E Grand Ave, Chicago, IL 60611 | Website
The Newberry Library is an independent research library that opened its doors in 1887. It is one of few public libraries dedicated to research, that is free and open to the public.
All of its 1.6 million books, 600,000 maps, and 5 million manuscript pages are dedicated to the collective understanding of ourselves.
Details: 60 W Walton St, Chicago, IL 60610 | Website
ORIENTAL INSTITUTE MUSEUM
The Institute was founded in 1919 as part of one of the prestigious University of Chicago’s research centers. Today, it houses over 350,000 artifacts from the Middle East.
Guests can visit galleries devoted to Egypt, Nubia, Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Anatolia, and the Levant.
Details: 1155 E 58th St, Chicago, IL 60637 | Website
PLAY IN THE WATER
Chicago may be in the landlocked Midwest – but the great Lake Michigan makes getting active on the water as easy as if you were visiting an ocean.
Ohio Street Beach is one of the most popular swimming spots in the city, as the famous Hancock Building sits right behind it. Northerly Island is a 91-acre island and nature preserve that the Chicago Lakefront Trail passes through.
Another beloved north-side spot is the 12-acre North Pond Nature Sanctuary in Lincoln Park, which protects the Illinois wetlands and aquatic life. Nearby is the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool, built initially as part of an 1889 Victorian garden.
If you’re looking to get away from Chicago’s north side, take a boat ride in the Humboldt Park lagoon or from the Ping Tom Memorial Park boathouse.
The Poetry Foundation is the first space in Chicago to be dedicated exclusively to the art of poetry. Additionally, it is the first home of the magazine Poetry in its 100-year history.
Visitors can view the 30,000-volume poetry library, an exhibition gallery, and performance space for public events.
Details: 61 West Superior Street, Chicago, IL 60654 | Website
Promontory Point is a manufactured peninsula on Chicago’s south side that extends into Lake Michigan. It is a quiet area where locals turn to get away from the city’s hustle and bustle.
Details: 5491 S Shore dr, Chicago, IL 60615 | Website
REVOLUTION BREWERY TOURS
Chicago is a beer city, and one of the best spots in town is Revolution Brewery.
Located on the city’s northwest side, guests can enjoy free 45-minute tours of the 60-barrel facility across 90,00 square feet.
Details: 3340 N Kedzie Ave, Chicago, IL 60618 | Website
SMART MUSEUM OF ART
The Smart Museum of Art sits at the prestigious University of Chicago in the Hyde Park neighborhood. Its permanent collection boasts over 15,000 objects.
The museum first opened in 1974, with the intention of providing a space of rigorous inquiry that forces visitors to tackle challenging social questions.
Details: 5550 S Greenwood Ave, Chicago, IL 60637 | Website
STONY ISLAND ARTS BANK
The original Stoney Bank Building opened in 1923. Today, the building has been transformed into a vibrant arts center in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood.
It includes a hybrid gallery, media archive, community center, library, and art center. It is an artist-led institution with goals of cultural development and community transformation.
Details: 6760 S Stony Is Ave, Chicago, IL 60649 | Website
The 606 Trail, also called the Bloomingdale Trail, is a 2.7-mile elevated trail. The trail runs east to west along a former Chicago rail line.
It is a popular spot for local Chicagoans to enjoy runs, bike rides, or a stroll through Chicago’s scenic west side.
Details: 1805 N Ridgeway Ave, Chicago, IL 60647 | Website
THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO
The Art Institute of Chicago was founded in 1879 and remains one of the world’s oldest and most expansive art museums. They welcome 1.5 million visitors annually.
The Institute presents pieces from Ancient Egypt to Contemporary. The Art Institute generally requires paid entry, but they offer many free days throughout the year. Keep an eye on their calendar to snag a ticket for free admission.
Details: 111 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60603 | Website
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WHERE TO STAY IN CHICAGO
Best for Families. Embassy Suites Chicago Downtown Magnificent Mile is two blocks from Navy Pier and a 7 minute walk to the beach. And of course the Embassy Suites promise of free breakfast (and happy hour for tired parents) make this a great location for families.
Downtown Luxury. The Ritz-Carlton, Chicago Everybody know that if you want to be pampered with the best customer service, stay at a Ritz-Carlton. This one is in the heart of Chicago and less than a mile from Navy Pier.
Best Budget Option. River Hotel is a boutique accommodation on the river front and a 14 minute walk to the beach. The price is right on this property without sacrificing quality.
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