Explore the Windy City With These 45 Free Things to Do In Chicago
Hanging out in Chicago can get pricy, depending on what you do.
If you want to jam out at Lollapalooza, see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field and take a dinner cruise along the Chicago River, expect to drop hundreds of dollars over the course of a couple days.
If your budget is tight, however, there’s still plenty of fun to be had in the Windy City.
We’ve rounded up 45 free things to do in Chicago so you can enjoy yourself while saving money.
45 Free Things to Do in Chicago
Editor’s note: At the time of writing, several of these free attractions are temporarily closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic. Please contact individual attractions for information on re-opening.
Must-See Attractions in Chicago
These top tourist attractions won’t cost you a thing.
1. Millennium Park
Millennium Park is a 24.5-acre park in the downtown Chicago Loop district. It’s home to Cloud Gate, the iconic mirrored public art sculpture commonly known as “The Bean.” If it’s your first time in the city, you’ll want to snap a pic for Instagram. Other notable features of Millennium Park include the Crown Fountain, the Lurie Garden and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.
2. Jay Pritzker Pavilion
The Jay Pritzker Pavilion is an entertainment hotspot at Millennium Park. The outdoor amphitheater hosts free live music concerts and free movie screenings in the summer.
3. Grant Park
Grant Park is known as “Chicago’s Front Yard.” The nearly 313-acre space includes Millennium Park at its northwest corner and is also home to the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum of Natural History, Buckingham Fountain, Maggie Daley Park, the Petrillo Music Shell and Congress Plaza. Many festivals and events are held in Grant Park. There’s also a skate park, public art and plenty of greenspace.
4. The Magnificent Mile
Check out all the flagship stores and high-end brands along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile — a 13-block stretch of retail, restaurants and hotels along North Michigan Avenue from Oak Street to the Chicago River. It’s the perfect place to window shop and people watch. You might also spot some interesting street art along this tourist strip.
5. Navy Pier
Dubbed the People’s Pier, Navy Pier is a popular tourist destination off Lake Michigan on Grand Avenue. Check out the giant Ferris wheel and the view of the Chicago skyline. All summer long, Navy Pier puts on a free fireworks show every Wednesday and Saturday night. The pier also hosts about 250 free public programs each year.
6. Chicago Riverwalk
Enjoy waterfront views of the Chicago River on the 1.25-mile Chicago Riverwalk. Take in the public murals, sculptures and banners along this scenic walkway. If you’re out at night, the Chicago Riverwalk has the best views of Art on theMART, one of the largest permanent digital art projections in the world.
For Art and History Lovers
Immerse yourself in culture and knowledge with free admission to the many Chicago museums and galleries.
7. Chicago Cultural Center
This cultural hub is located in one of Chicago’s landmark buildings. Take a free tour of the Chicago Cultural Center and check out the art exhibits and the stunning stained-glass domes. The center also hosts free movies, lectures, musical shows and dance performances.
8. Smart Museum
The Smart Museum, named after Esquire magazine founders David and Alfred Smart, is an art museum with a focus on complex issues and diverse ideas. It is part of the University of Chicago and is located on the north edge of the campus in Hyde Park. Admission is always free to the public. The Smart Museum is open Thursdays through Sundays.
9. National Museum of Mexican Art
The National Museum of Mexican Art showcases Mexican art and culture from folk art to modern works. The museum is located in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, which is the heart of the city’s Mexican community. It is open Tuesday through Sunday, and admission is free for all.
10. DePaul Art Museum
The DePaul Art Museum is located in Lincoln Park on the campus of DePaul University. The museum features a permanent collection of over 3,500 pieces of art and welcomes four to nine temporary exhibitions each year.
11. Oriental Institute Museum
The Oriental Institute Museum is part of the University of Chicago and includes a vast collection of ancient Middle Eastern artifacts. Admission is free but donations are suggested. Reservations are currently required to visit the museum.
12. Wabash Arts Corridor
The Wabash Arts Corridor features over 40 street murals and includes a handful of art galleries and sculptural installations. While you’re there, check out Jacob Watt’s “Moose Bubblegum Bubble” mural.
13. 16th Street Murals
See dozens of murals along the 16th Street railroad embankment. This is a great place to admire public art from various street artists. Be sure to snap some pics.
14. Hyde Park Art Center
The Hyde Park Art Center is a hub for contemporary art located on the South Side of Chicago. Each year the center hosts about 200 free public events.
15. The National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture
The National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture celebrates the richness of Puerto Rican life and history. The museum features free art exhibits and hosts events and workshops throughout the year. The museum is located in Humboldt Park, which is a hub for Chicago’s Puerto Rican community.
16. Design Museum of Chicago
The Design Museum of Chicago showcases design elements across a variety of mediums — from architecture to calligraphy. Exhibits regularly change throughout the year.
17. City Gallery at the Historic Water Tower
City Gallery at the Historic Water Tower is a Chicago landmark, which showcases local art and photography. The gallery is located along Magnificent Mile. While admission is free daily, this attraction is currently closed to the public due to the pandemic.
18. First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple
First United Methodist Church is Chicago’s oldest church, founded in 1831. It’s also one of the tallest churches in the world, housed in a 23-story neo-gothic skyscraper downtown. Tours of the Sky Chapel on the building’s top floor, as well as church services, are free. However, all tours and services are currently virtual.
19. Harold Washington Library
The Harold Washington Library is the main branch of the Chicago Public Library System. The 10-story building includes a maker lab, a winter garden (both which are temporarily closed due to the pandemic) and distinct spaces for kids and teens. If you have a Chicago Public Library card, you can get a Kids Museum Passport which gives free passes for at least 15 different local museums and attractions. The library also hosts free events and workshops throughout the year.
20. Chicago History Museum
The Chicago History Museum showcases the stories of the city’s past. While the museum is not a free attraction for all, it offers free admission to Illinois residents ages 18 and under and free admission to non-residents ages 12 and under. Members of the Chicago History Museum, activity-duty military personnel and veterans, Chicago police, Chicago firefighters and Illinois teachers also get totally free admission.
21. Chicago Architecture Foundation
The Chicago Architecture Center, previously named the Chicago Architecture Foundation, is where you can learn all about the city’s skyscrapers, historical landmarks, housing types and diverse neighborhoods. The center features the largest scale model of Chicago and has details about future building projects. While the center is not free for all, it offers free admission to children 5 and under, activity-duty military personnel and Chicago Architecture Foundation members.
22. Museum of Contemporary Art
The Museum of Contemporary Art exhibits the work of living artists, including new artists. While the Museum of Contemporary Art is not a free attraction for all, it offers free admission to visitors ages 18 and under, museum members, activity-duty military personnel and veterans, Chicago police, Chicago firefighters, Illinois teachers and visitors with disabilities and their caregivers. Admission is also free for Illinois residents every Tuesday.
23. Art Institute of Chicago
The Art Institute of Chicago is a downtown art museum that features a collection of work from artists all over the world throughout various eras in time. Though this attraction does require tickets for the general public, it is free for Chicago residents under 18, all children under age 14, students of partner colleges and universities, active-duty military personnel, Illinois teachers, WIC or LINK cardholders and employees of companies in the museum’s corporate partner program.
24. Money Museum
Check out old currency and see a million-dollar display at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s Money Museum. The museum is currently closed due to the pandemic.
25. Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
The Jane Addams Hull-House Museum celebrates the history and impact of social activist and feminist Jane Addams. The museum is currently closed due to the pandemic but virtual tours and programs are available.
Enjoy Chicago’s Outdoor Spaces
Explore Chicago’s parks, gardens, trails and more — all at no cost.
26. Lincoln Park Zoo
Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the oldest free zoos in the nation. It is home to about 200 species of animals from around the world. Lincoln Park Zoo also hosts free things for families throughout the year.
27. Lincoln Park Conservatory and Gardens
The Lincoln Park Conservatory and Gardens has four indoor display rooms in addition to outdoor gardens, which include a variety of plants from around the world. Due to Covid-19, the conservatory is only offering pre-registered, time-accessed admission for a limited number of guests. Admission is free, but donations are suggested.
28. Garfield Park Conservatory
Garfield Park Conservatory features eight indoor display gardens, including one room dedicated to desert plants and another to tropical palms. The conservatory also has over 10 acres of outdoor gardens. While the programs and events at Garfield Park Conservatory are currently on pause due to the pandemic, admission is open with reservations. Admission is free but donations are suggested.
29. Chicago Botanic Garden
The Chicago Botanic Garden is set on 385 acres and includes 27 gardens and four natural areas. The garden is located in Glencoe about 20 miles north of Chicago. Due to the pandemic, this attraction is asking that non-members register for timed entry. Garden members do not have to register. While admission is free, there is a fee for parking.
30. Buckingham Fountain
Buckingham Fountain is an elaborate fountain in Grant Park. It is known to be one of the largest fountains in the world. The fountain runs from May through October with a 20-minute water display at the beginning of every hour. At night, the water displays are accompanied by music and lights.
31. Maggie Daley Park
Maggie Daley Park is a great place to visit if you’ve got young kids. It’s located in the northeast corner of Grant Park and includes multiple playground options for children up to age 12. There’s also space to roller blade or ride on scooters. Other park features — like the climbing wall and mini golf — come with a fee. The park hosts free things for visitors throughout the year.
32. Humboldt Park
Humboldt Park is located on Chicago’s West Side and includes various sports fields, tennis courts and playgrounds. Humboldt Park is also home to the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture.
33. Jackson Park
Jackson Park takes up over 550 acres of space in the Chicago neighborhood of Woodlawn in the South Side. This park includes a Japanese garden where you can see the cherry blossoms bloom in the spring. Also, make sure to see Yoko Ono’s public art installation “Sky Landing.”
34. Lake Michigan Beaches
Chicago’s waterfront along Lake Michigan includes about two dozen free public beaches. Popular spots dotting Lake Shore Drive include North Avenue Beach, Oak Street Beach and Ohio Street Beach. Fullerton Beach is the most family-friendly, being near the Lincoln Park Zoo.
35. Chicago’s Lakefront Trail
The Lakefront Trail runs for 18 miles along the western edge of Lake Michigan from Ardmore Street to 71st Street. It’s the perfect area to go walking, running or cycling while taking in a great view.
36. The 606
The 606 is an elevated, 2.7-mile trail that runs through several Chicago neighborhoods on the northwest side of the city. It was formerly an abandoned rail line that was repurposed for recreational use. Walk, run or cycle along the trail and view the public art installations.
37. Walking Tours with the Chicago Greeters
Take a free guided tour through different Chicago neighborhoods. Chicago Greeters are locals who volunteer their time to show visitors what they love about the city. If you sign up 10 business days in advance, you can take a free two-to-four hour tour. However, even without advance notice, Chicago Greeters can take you on free tours of downtown for an hour on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays.
38. Maxwell Street Market
Maxwell Street Market is a farmers market currently held every first and third Sunday of the month from 9 a.m to 1 p.m. The market is a long-standing tradition, which started in 1912. There’s live music and plenty of artwork to take in if you’re looking to keep your trip to the market free of cost.
Free Festivals and Annual Events
Whether you’re a resident or a visitor, you ought to put one (or more) of these free events on your calendar.
39. Chicago Blues Festival
This annual music festival features blues legends and up-and-coming artists alike. The Chicago Blues Festival is typically held in early June at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Due to the pandemic, the city will instead host a series of free music festivals at the pavilion in September 2021 featuring gospel, jazz, house music and blues.
40. Chicago Gospel Music Festival
The Chicago Gospel Music Festival showcases gospel artists from all over the country, featuring a variety of styles from traditional choirs to hip-hop-inspired gospel. The festival is usually held at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion during the last weekend in May. Due to the pandemic, the city will instead host a series of free music festivals at the pavilion in September 2021 featuring gospel, jazz, house music and blues.
41. Chicago Jazz Festival
The Chicago Jazz Festival is an annual event that takes place in Millennium Park on Labor Day Weekend. Due to the pandemic, the city will instead host a series of free music festivals at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in September 2021 featuring gospel, jazz, house music and blues.
42. Grant Park Music Festival
The Grant Park Music Festival is a series of classical music concerts that take place throughout the summer at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Free seating is available to the public.
43. SummerDance in Grant Park
SummerDance is an annual series of music and dancing events that takes place in Grant Park in the summer. In 2021, the festival will be held during August and September in parks throughout the city.
44. Open House Chicago
Open House Chicago is an annual festival that takes place every October and celebrates historically and culturally significant sites around the city. It is organized by the Chicago Architecture Center.
45. Christkindl Holiday Market
Christkindl Holiday Market is a German-style holiday market held from November through December at Daley Plaza. See the lights, hear the Christmas carols and get in the holiday spirit.
Nicole Dow is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.