Find ALL the free things to do in Chicago!
Exploring Chicago doesn’t have to cost a fortune. It can actually be cheap if you know where to look, and we’re here to help you save as much money as possible while still having FUN.
You’ll be surprised at how many attractions, galleries and museums are free, as well as the number of free events in Chicago. Even the city’s world-class museums offer free museum days for Illinois residents.
These free attractions and activities can help keep you on a budget. Speaking of budget, you might want to check out our guide on how to save money in Chicago.
Millennium Park is a veritable playground with its collection of sculptures, the acoustically-sound Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Lurie Gardens, and other amenities.
There’s free ice skating in the winter and loads of free concerts and workouts in the park during the summer. It’s now the #1 attraction in Chicago. Millennium Park, 205 E Randolph St
Want to learn more? Check out our complete guide to Millennium Park.
Lincoln Park Conservatory has been a beautiful getaway since the 1890s. Inside, you’ll find tropical palms, ancient ferns, and plenty of other exotic plants. Lincoln Park Conservatory, 2391 N Stockton Dr
Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the United States, and one of the last remaining free zoos. It’s open to all 365 days a year and features animals from every climate. It’s also dedicated to conservation and science, with one of the largest programs in the country. Lincoln Park Zoo, 2200 N Cannon Dr
Know before you go: check out our guide to Lincoln Park Zoo
The Chicago Cultural Center was the nation’s first free municipal cultural venue, and today its free programming in the arts makes it one of the most popular attractions in the city. Be sure to check out the largest Tiffany dome in the world. It’s breathtaking! Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E Washington St
Know before you go: check out our guide to the Chicago Cultural Center
Navy Pier is one of Chicago’s most popular attractions, and one of the most popular destinations in the Midwest. While there are fees at many of the attractions at Navy Pier, there are some that are free.
One of the best reasons to visit is the view, which is (of course!) free! The Pier extends half a mile into Lake Michigan, giving you some of the best views in the city. Navy Pier, 600 E Grand Ave
This peaceful respite north of Chicago is free, although you will have to pay for parking. If you ride your bike there, however, you’ll get some exercise and won’t have to pay anything to wander this 385-acre attraction.
Get the inside scoop on the Chicago Botanic Garden with our complete guide to this free Chicago attraction.
Grant Park is home to many free events. Chicago has several free summer festivals like Taste of Chicago, Chicago SummerDance, and more, and they take place in Chicago’s “Front Yard.”
Be sure to check out all of the year-round public art and the summer lights show at Buckingham Fountain. Grant Park, Columbus & Balbo
The northeast corner of Grant Park has been turned into a GIANT playground. (Seriously – it’s giant!) The lakefront recreation center also features a climbing wall and a skating ribbon. Maggie Daley Park, 337 E Randolph St
Visit one of the largest conservatories in the world. Open since 1908 and featuring “landscape art under glass,” Garfield Park Conservatory, like Lincoln Park Zoo, is open 365 days a year. Garfield Park Conservatory, 300 N Central Park Ave.
The Harold Washington Library Center is one of Chicago’s treasures. Inside its nine stories are books, of course, as well as music practice rooms, meeting rooms, extensive geneology databases, and a Maker Lab.
Be sure to head to the top floor and soak in the sun in the Winter Garden (pictured above). Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S State St.
The Newberry Library is a world-renowned independent research library with an extensive noncirculating collection of rare books, maps, music, manuscripts, and other printed material spanning six centuries.
Free tours are offered Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10:30am. They host several free events throughout the year that are open to their public, and any bibliophile will not want to miss their annual sale. Newberry Library, 60 W Walton St.
Free Museums in Chicago
There are several free museums in Chicago, plus many free days at museums that charge admission.
Free museum days:
- All free museum days in Chicago
- Adler Planetarium Free Days
- Field Museum of Natural History Free Days
- Free Days at the Museum of Science & Industry
- Free Days at the Shedd Aquarium
Located in Pilsen, the National Museum of Mexican Art is the only museum dedicated to Latino culture that’s a member of the American Alliance of Museums. The museum has over 9,000 examples of Mexican art from ancient Mexico to the present as well as special exhibitions.
While technically free, they do ask for a donation if you can spare it. National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W 19th St
Founded by Columbia College Chicago in 1976, the Museum of Contemporary Photography presents works that reflect a wide range of aesthetics and technologies. It’s the leading photography museum in the Midwest, and is continually searching for new talent to exhibit.
The museum is particularly interested in how photography impacts society, culture, and politics. Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 S Michigan Ave
This free gallery is located within the historic Water Tower and features a rotating gallery of works by Chicago photographers and artists. City Gallery, 806 N Michigan Ave
Related: Museums on the Magnificent Mile
Built in 1836, the year before Chicago was incorporated, the Clarke House Museum is inside the city’s oldest house.
Get the scoop on what it was like for the earliest settlers of Chicago and learn the story behind this building that moved not once, but twice.
You can take a free tour of the Greek Revival mansion on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 1pm and 2:30pm, and can explore the outside at any time since it’s in the Chicago Womens Park in the South Loop. Clarke House Museum, 1827 S Indiana Ave
What began as a pop-up exhibition became a full-fledged museum in 2014 thanks to a crowdfunding campaign. The museum features exhibitions that are geared towards starting a conversation about how design can improve the human condition.
Admission to the Chicago Design Museum is free and it’s open Tuesday through Saturday from 12pm to 7pm. Chicago Design Museum, Block 37, 108 N State St 3rd Fl
Modern and contemporary art fans will love the free DePaul Art Museum. They’ve got more than 3,500 objects in their permanent collection housed in a LEED-certified building. DePaul Art Museum, 935 W. Fullerton Ave
Hyde Park Art Center is more than a gallery; it’s also a community center that offers a production space as well as studio art classes, exhibitions, artist talks, and residency programs. Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S Cornell Ave
The Oriental Institute is not just a museum, but is a working research laboratory at the University of Chicago with some of the premiere archaeologists of ancient Near Eastern civilizations.
The objects on display were primarily uncovered during expeditions in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The Oriental Institute, 1155 E 58th St
Social reformer Jane Addams was one of the most influential people of her time. Her work helped immigrants and to shape national and international policy.
The museum preserves the Nobel laureate’s legacy and helps further her vision through research, education, and social engagement.
The museum is free with a $5 suggested donation, and they offer free tours on Wednesdays and Sundays at 1pm. Jane Addams Hull House Museum, 800 S Halsted
Ever wanted to see what a million dollars looks like? Or see inside a cash processing center? You can, and it’s free!
The Federal Reserve Bank Money Museum even offers a free guided tour every weekday at 1pm. Federal Reserve Bank Money Museum, 230 S LaSalle St
This museum and memorial tells the story of Khmer Rouge and the Killing Field through multimedia displays, archives, narratives, and a collection of monumental and authentic artifacts.
Guided tours are available so you can learn more about what happened during the Cambodian Civil War. National Cambodian Heritage Museum, 2831 W Lawrence Ave
The National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture is the only national museum that’s focused on Puerto Rican arts. It’s located in historic Humboldt Park stables and receptory.
In addition to arts exhibits, the center also hosts festivals and community education events. National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture, 3015 W Division St.
Founded in 1974, the Smart Museum of Art is part of the University of Chicago and is home to acclaimed special exhibitions and a permanent collection that spans five thousand years of artistic creation. Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S Greenwood Ave
This center dedicated to the famous artist is located in Jefferson Park, and with its bright mural you can’t miss it.
You can check out an iPod at the front desk for a self-guided tour, or visit the first Thursday of the month at 2pm for a thirty-minute guided tour. Ed Paschke Art Center, 5415 W Higgins Ave.
The museum is open Monday through Friday from 1pm to 5pm, and the cultural center offers several events. There are cooking classes, film screenings, and a monthly “Stammtisch.”
This is a communal event featuring games, live music, dancing, dining, and drinking. DANK HAUS German Cultural Center, 4740 N Western Ave
Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Learn to speak German
Free Things to Do Outside
There are tons of things to do outside. There are free festivals and free concerts in Chicago almost every day during the summer, including the Grant Park Music Festival, and free ice skating during the winter.
Break out your dancing shoes for Chicago SummerDance.
If you’re a movie buff, you’ll love Movies in the Park. This takes place at neighborhood parks throughout the city, and the Millennium Park Summer Film series is a highlight each year.
Of course, we can’t forget Chicago’s beaches. There are 28 miles of shoreline on Lake Michigan with several beaches along the way. They’re all connected by the Lakefront Path, one of the true Chicago gems.
Speaking of Chicago beaches, the Chicago Air & Water Show is one of the most fun things to do in Chicago every year, and show central is North Avenue Beach.
More favorite free festivals include the Taste of Chicago, Chicago Blues Festival, and Chicago Jazz Festival, just to name a few.
TLTip: If you’ve got a Chicago Public Library Card, you can check out the Kids Museum Passport, which gets you into several attractions for free.
The Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool is a hidden oasis just west of Lake Shore Drive and north of the Lincoln Park Conservatory – and unless you know about it, you’ll never find it.
Landscape architect Alfred Caldwell was hired by the Works Progress Administration to fix the Victorian-era lily pond after years of neglect. Enter the wooden gate from Fullerton Avenue, and you’ll see he did an excellent job. Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool, 125 W Fullerton Pkwy
TLTip: This is a lovely spot for a picnic! Check out this handy picnic tote for two, complete with plates and flatware.
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