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.
The Chicago Cultural Center, often referred to as the "People's Palace", stands as a testament to the city's rich architectural and cultural heritage. Nestled in the heart of downtown, this neoclassical marvel offers free tours that unveil its intricate mosaics, marbles, and the world's largest stained glass Tiffany dome. As you wander through its grand halls, you'll be transported back in time, all while enjoying a plethora of art exhibitions, music events, and lectures that the center hosts throughout the year.
Stretching along the Chicago River, the Riverwalk offers a serene escape right in the heart of the bustling city. This pedestrian-friendly trail is lined with charming cafes, art installations, and lush green spaces. As you stroll, you'll be treated to panoramic views of the city's iconic skyline, historic bridges, and passing boats. Whether you're looking to relax by the water, indulge in some local cuisine, or simply soak in the city's vibes, the Riverwalk promises a delightful experience.
Why explore Chicago on your own when you can have a local guide show you around? Free Tours By Foot offers walking tours led by passionate Chicagoans eager to share their city's stories, secrets, and sights. From historic landmarks to hidden gems, these tours provide an immersive experience that brings Chicago's rich tapestry to life. And the best part? It's all on a "pay-what-you-like" basis, making it accessible for everyone.
Chicago's arts scene is as diverse as its population. Throughout the year, the city comes alive with a plethora of free concerts, festivals, and cultural events. Whether you're grooving to the soulful tunes at the Chicago Blues Festival, indulging in culinary delights at the Taste of Chicago, or being mesmerized by the vibrant performances at the Grant Park Music Festival, there's always something happening in the Windy City. So, mark your calendars and join in the festivities!
Beyond its iconic landmarks, Chicago's true essence lies in its neighborhoods. Take a leisurely stroll through areas like Wicker Park, where historic brownstones meet trendy boutiques and cafes. Each neighborhood, with its unique character and charm, offers a glimpse into the city's diverse cultures, histories, and lifestyles. From vibrant murals to bustling local markets, every corner tells a story waiting to be discovered.
Chicago is a treasure trove for culture enthusiasts, boasting an array of museums that cater to varied interests. Dive into the vibrant arts of Mexico at the National Museum of Mexican Art or travel back in time to the Oriental Institute Museum, exploring ancient civilizations. The best part? Many of these institutions offer free admission, ensuring that art, history, and culture are accessible to all.
Chicago's skyline is a testament to its architectural prowess, and there's no better place to delve into this legacy than the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Through its exhibits, tours, and programs, the foundation offers insights into the city's iconic buildings, historic neighborhoods, and the brilliant minds behind them. Whether you're an architecture enthusiast or a curious traveler, this foundation promises a journey of discovery.
Tucked inside the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, the Money Museum offers a fascinating journey through the world of currency. From ancient coins to modern-day banknotes, the museum showcases the evolution of money and its role in shaping societies. Interactive exhibits, rare artifacts, and engaging displays make it a must-visit for both kids and adults. And who knows? You might even leave with a bag of shredded money as a souvenir!
Elevate your Chicago experience, quite literally, by visiting the Signature Lounge at the John Hancock Building. Perched on the 96th floor, this lounge offers unparalleled views of the city's sprawling skyline, shimmering Lake Michigan, and beyond. As day turns to night, watch the city lights dance and shimmer, all while sipping on a cocktail. It's an experience that's bound to leave you spellbound.
Step into a world of nostalgia at the Game Room in the Chicago Athletic Association. This vintage-inspired space is decked out with classic games like shuffleboard, chess, and bocce. Whether you're challenging friends to a game of pool or simply soaking in the old-world charm, the Game Room promises hours of fun and laughter in a setting that's straight out of a bygone era.
Headquarters Beercade is not just a bar; it's a time machine transporting you back to the golden era of arcade games. With a vast collection of vintage games, from Pac-Man to pinball, this bar promises endless fun. And the best part? All games are on the house! So, grab a drink, hit the arcade, and let the good times roll.
Nestled in the heart of the city, the Design Museum of Chicago is a haven for design enthusiasts. Through its exhibits, workshops, and programs, the museum delves into the multifaceted world of design, spanning graphics, products, interiors, and more. Whether you're a professional designer or someone with a keen eye for aesthetics, this museum promises a wealth of inspiration.
Housed in one of Chicago's most iconic landmarks, the City Gallery at the Historic Water Tower is a celebration of local art. The gallery showcases the works of Chicago-based photographers and artists, offering a window into the city's vibrant arts scene. From evocative photographs to contemporary installations, every exhibit tells a unique story of the Windy City.
Located in the heart of downtown Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Photography is a mecca for photography enthusiasts. The museum celebrates the art of photography in all its forms, from traditional to avant-garde. With a rich collection of prints, films, and digital images, it offers a deep dive into the world of visual storytelling, capturing moments, emotions, and narratives from around the globe.
The Hull-House Museum stands as a testament to the pioneering work of Jane Addams, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and social reformer. Once a hub for social activism, the museum now offers a glimpse into the lives of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through its exhibits, artifacts, and programs, the museum sheds light on the struggles, triumphs, and contributions of Chicago's diverse communities.
Dive into the rich tapestry of Cambodian culture at the Cambodian American Heritage Museum. This museum, the first of its kind in the U.S., celebrates the art, history, and traditions of Cambodia. From ancient artifacts to contemporary art pieces, the museum offers a comprehensive look into a culture that has withstood the test of time and adversity. Whether you're of Cambodian descent or a curious traveler, this museum promises a journey of discovery and enlightenment.