If you're putting off a visit to Chicago because you think you can't fit it into your budget or you already have a trip planned and are trying to save some money, you're in luck. This amazing city has plenty of things to do that don't cost any money at all! Whether you want to explore the outdoors, learn more about the city's history, or watch the Chicago River turn green, there's a lot to do to stay busy without spending a dime.
The Magnificent Mile is 13 blocks of shops, hotels, restaurants, and seasonal events stretching between Lake Shore Drive and the Chicago River. While this is the upscale shopping destination in the city, there are plenty of ways to enjoy yourself for free. Eleven Chicago landmarks line the street, including the Wrigley Building, Drake Hotel, Tribune Tower, and the Historic Water Tower that survived the Chicago fire of 1871.
The Navy Pier features a variety of games, rides, and activities. While most of them do charge a fee, the pier hosts some free events and is a great way to see the city. Walk by the beer garden for live outdoor music from May to October or head down in the evening for the free fireworks displays. They happen every Wednesday and Saturday night from Memorial Day until Labor Day.
The Lake Front Trail is an 18.5-mile paved path connecting Chicago's four lakefront parks. It's ideal for walking, skateboarding, cycling, and jogging and provides stunning views of both the city and Lake Michigan. The path passes some of the biggest attractions in the city, including the Navy Pier and several museums, but there are plenty of free things to enjoy, too. Beaches, dog parks, and three skate parks are accessible from the trail.
Humboldt Park is one of the best outdoor recreational centers in Chicago. Covering nearly 200 acres, it's home to an island beach, fishing lagoon, soccer fields, baseball fields, tennis courts, and several playgrounds. The park also hosts several free community events, including Shakespeare in the Park performances and movies in the park in the summer.
The most recognizable thing about Millennium Park is probably The Bean or, as it's officially called, Cloud Gate. After you take the obligatory selfie in front of this sculpture, stick around for some free entertainment. Take a tour of the Lurie Garden, walk through the open-air Boeing Galleries, enjoy an outdoor concert on the Great Lawn, or sign up to participate in a Chicago Greeters tour where a local teaches you about the history, architecture, and art in the park.
The Garden Park Conservatory aims to explore the relationship between people and plants and has been doing so for more than 100 years. There's nowhere else quite like this urban oasis. Admission is free and allows you to explore seven different rooms, including the Fern Room for a glimpse of what Chicago may have looked like millions of years ago and the Show House where they put on gorgeous seasonal flower displays. There are also 12 acres of outdoor gardens and a children's garden to keep you busy.
When in Grant Park, make sure to stop by the Buckingham Fountain. You can't miss it. The design was inspired by fountains at the Palace of Versailles in France, only this one is twice the size of the original. The best time to visit is at dusk. Every hour on the hour, the fountain puts on a performance featuring light and music. The daytime show is pretty impressive as well and features the center jet on the fountain shooting a stream of water 150 feet into the air.
The Chicago Botanic Garden is made up of 27 display gardens and four local habitats, which cover 385 acres over nine islands in the Cook County Forest Preserves. They include a Bonsai collection, a children's garden, an English walled garden, a fruit and vegetable garden, a waterfall garden, a model railroad garden, a sensory garden, and a rose garden, just to name a few. Note that, while admission is free, parking fees apply.
There's a strong Irish influence in Chicago, so it's no surprise that the city is the place to be on St. Patrick's Day. One of the most famous traditions in the country takes place at 9 a.m. when the Chicago River is dyed green. It's free to watch the process and the color only holds for about five hours, so don't miss it. In addition to having one of the largest St. Patrick's Day parades in the U.S., there are also several free community parades around the city celebrating their Irish heritage.
Another beautiful place to experience nature in Chicago is the Lincoln Park Conservatory. It's made up of four display houses: the Show House, Orchid House, Palm House, and Fern Room. There's also a Lily Pool which was recently restored and named a National Historic Landmark. Drop-in tours are available for visitors all year round, even on holidays, and guided tours of the Lily Pond and surrounding wildflowers are available seasonally.