Trips to big cities often break the bank. But what if you could organize a trip of fun and free things to do in Chicago? You’d have a blast without having to worry about your budget. While Chicago can be a pricey trip, it’s also known for its many more affordable attractions. All you need is a hotel and some food, and you’re good to go! So, here are some ideas for your exciting and affordable Chicago visit.
#1 – Lincoln Park Zoo
The Lincoln Park Zoo is an incredible size for being a free zoo. It has over 1,200 animals, including lions, apes, and flamingos. It has about 35 acres of attractions with animals of all sizes from all around the world. This zoo was founded in 1868, making it America’s oldest free zoo and still one of the only large free zoos in the country. It’s open year-round, and by looking at its beautiful sights, you’d never be able to guess that it’s completely free. The only downside is that the parking lot isn’t free, but if you drive around for long enough, you might be able to find free street parking nearby.
#2 – Millennium Park
Millennium park is a must-see, and luckily, it’s also one of the many fun and free things to do in Chicago! Being an outdoor park, there’s no admission fee required, so you can walk through and explore it at your leisure. This park is most known for the Cloud Gate sculpture, which visitors simply refer to as “the Bean”. The Crown Fountain is also a popular sight because it’s a shallow fountain you can walk in, but giant screens with faces on them spit out water at you. Additionally, you can visit the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, which often hosts free outdoor shows. The park is also a beautiful opportunity to get a view of the Chicago skyline.
It’s likely that you’ll want to spend a lot of money on Navy Pier, but many guests just stop by to take in the sights. The pier is situated right along Lake Michigan, and it’s filled with shops, restaurants, bars, boat tours, and the famous ferris wheel. There’s no entry fee, so you can walk around on your own terms. Luckily, there are few free things on the pier, such as the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows and a playground. The pier sometimes hosts free events too, such as a fireworks show in the summer.
#4 – Chicago Cultural Center
The Chicago Cultural Center provides plenty of free activities for both visitors and residents. This gorgeous structure was once a library from 1897 to 1991, but now it’s a more diverse attraction. Its stain-glass domes and mosaic designs alone are enough to make visitors want to stop by. But it also houses free art exhibits, music and dance performances, and tours of the building’s history. So, whether you’re attending one of its many free activities or just taking a look at its beauty, it’s an essential stop during your trip.
#5 – Garfield Park Conservatory
The Garfield Park Conservatory is a beautiful structure that was built in 1908. It’s often referred to as “landscape art under glass.” The site has 2 acres of indoor gardens and 12 acres of outdoor gardens. However, the outdoor gardens are only seasonal. This attraction is home to over 120,000 plants and at least 600 different species. It’s a tropical paradise right in the Midwest, and it can be a relaxing break after spending time around so many skyscrapers.
#6 – Chicago Riverwalk
Driving down the busy city streets isn’t for everyone, so some prefer to take in the sights on the Chicago Riverwalk. It’s a 1.25-mile path that stretches from Lake Street to Lake Shore Drive. It’s situated right along the river, which is famously dyed green every year for Saint Patrick’s Day. Along the river, you’ll find plenty of shopping and dining options, and there are several attractions along the way, including The Marina, The Cove, The River Theater, and The Water Plaza. If the weather is nice out, this can be the perfect way to travel from one place to the next.
#7 – Museum of Contemporary Photography
The Museum of Contemporary Photography is a free museum at the Columbia College Chicago. It has been collecting art pieces since the 80s, which now make up its large permanent exhibit. Today, it has over 1,500 works of art, which were made through both camera and digital forms. It’s the perfect stop on a rainy day or for anyone that adores looking at quality art.
#8 – Smart Museum of Art
If photography isn’t your preferred art style, you can also check out the Smart Museum of Art. This is a beautiful art museum located at the University of Chicago. It’s home to over 15,000 works of art, including modern art and design, Asian art, European art, and contemporary art. It showcases much more variety than you would expect from a college art museum, so it’s surely worth a visit. The name of the museum is not an attempt to brag, but instead, it was named after brothers David and Alfred Smart, who were the original publishers of the Esquire magazine.
#9 – Chicago Botanic Garden
The Chicago Botanic Garden has completely free admission, but since it’s located closer to the suburbs, you should expect to pay for parking. This 385-acre landscape is surrounded by water, and encompasses 27 unique gardens across nine different islands. It has many unique sights, including aquatic flowers, fruits and vegetables, and prairie plants. On certain occasions, this place hosts family-friendly events, including learning experiences for kids and plant sales for adults. It’s the perfect outdoor oasis for any visitors.
#10 – Chicago Greeter Program
The Chicago Greeter Program is one of the fun and free things to do in Chicago because it allows you to get a tour of the city without paying a penny. These tours range from two to four hours, and they’re hosted by Chicago locals. They’ll show you all the ins and outs of the city while also teaching you some of the lesser known history. You’ll get to see old neighborhoods and gorgeous churches. If you have specific interests, those can even be accommodated on the tour route. These tours are available in 10 different languages with 25 different neighborhoods and 40 different interest areas that you can choose from. So, they’re sure to fit your expectations as closely as possible.
#11 – Ohio Street Beach
Along Lake Michigan, you can find the serene Ohio Street Beach. It’s the perfect place to take a swim on a hot day with no additional fees. Plus, it has the most beautiful views of the Chicago city skyline. It’s even located right beside Milton Lee Olive Park, which is a gorgeous little park that’s free to walk through. Its views of the lake and city are popular photo spots, and have even been popular locations for marriage proposals.
#12 – National Museum of Mexican Art
If you haven’t seen enough art yet, then the National Museum of Mexican Art is another one of the fun and free things to do in Chicago. It’s dedicated solely to Latino arts, showcasing everything from folk art to modern works. The most popular exhibit is the Day of the Dead display that pops up once a year. It’s full of incredible altars and sugar skull sculptures, honoring the dearly departed in the most beautiful ways. There are over 10,000 works of art to view, and the museum also hosts many live performances and events. If you’re feeling hungry after visiting this museum, there are plenty of delicious restaurants nearby with authentic Mexican food.
#13 – Lincoln Park Conservatory
Like the Garfield Park Conservatory, the Lincoln Park Conservatory is another attraction dedicated to everything green. It’s located near Lake Michigan, and it’s full of lots of beautiful nature sights, such as ferns, tropical flowers, and palms. It’s smaller than the Garfield Park Conservatory, but it’s said to have a more exotic collection. It has both indoor and outdoor sights, so guests can enjoy this tropical getaway year-round.
#14 – Chicago Children’s Museum
While the Chicago Children’s Museum isn’t always free, it has lots of free days and free events. On the first Sunday of every month, guests 15 and under can visit the museum for free. Veterans and active military are also allowed to visit for free on any day with proper identification. On Thursday afternoons, everyone can visit the museum for a discounted price as well. This is the perfect attraction for families visiting Chicago because it has a wide range of interactive exhibits that all ages can enjoy. This includes exhibits related to space, art, and dinosaurs.
If you’re looking for a vacation that’s both enjoyable and affordable, then finding fun and free things to do in Chicago is the perfect way to go. Illinois has plenty of exciting attractions, but they can add up quickly if you’re not careful. So, by choosing some of these events for your itinerary, you can help make your vacation a little more cost-efficient.