There are plenty of world-famous attractions in Chicago that are worth every penny, but you don’t have to dig deep into your pockets to enjoy an array of wonderful and affordable experiences. Here's the lowdown on free things to do in Chicago and cheap ways to get the most out of your visit.
Three amazing Chicago favorites are always open and always free. Animal lovers will enjoy a visit to Lincoln Park Zoo, which offers incredible views of the city’s skyline from Chicago’s expansive Lincoln Park. On winter evenings, the seasonal favorite ZooLights illuminates the zoo grounds with colorful displays of light, and offers activities, rides and crafts for all ages.
Check out the mind-bending reflections of the city skyline from Cloud Gate (the “Bean”) in Millennium Park. Be sure to snap a photo at this year-round beauty — it's just one of the city's eye-catching pieces of public art. The summer season brings free outdoor music concerts, film screenings and workouts to the park's Jay Pritzker Pavilion and Great Lawn. To cool off, splash around the open pool of water that collects at the base of the famous Crown Fountain, two interactive video towers that spout water from their digital faces. The winter months are just as enchanting, as McCormick Tribune Plaza transforms into a picturesque ice skating rink. It is free admission for those with their own skates, otherwise rentals are a budget-friendly $10/person all day.
With 50 acres filled with gardens, amuseument rides, shops, eateries and attractions, it's no surprise that the colorful playground Navy Pier remains a top Midwest tourist destination. There's no cost to enter and just a stroll along the waterfront boardwalk to see the downtown skyline is worth a trip. On top of that, free fireworks at Navy Pier fill the sky each summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day so stick around each Wednesday and Saturday night.
Chicago Neighborhoods: Worlds to Explore
If you want to see the world without leaving the country, just visit Chicago. With more than 200 unique neighborhoods representing more than 100 countries, there’s a little something for everyone. Celebrate diversity and our multicultural histories at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, the DANK-HAUS German American Cultural Center in Lincoln Square, Oriental Institute in Hyde Park and the Southside Community Art Center in Bronzeville.
Looking for some direction? Register in advance for a private, guided walk of the Chicago neighborhoods of your choice. Chicago Greeter is a free program that pairs you with a local volunteer who can show you around town and give their own insider's orientation. Customize your visit based on language spoken and subjects of interest: from history, nature or sports, to architecture and public art.
Food for Less
If your tastebuds are your guide, make sure to check out local neighborhood eateries for ethnic fare that is sure to spice up your visit. Fill up with a bowl of Vietnamese pho along Argyle Street in Uptown, grab a Puerto Rican jibarito sandwich along Division Street in Humboldt Park or go the taco/chips and salsa route in the Mexican community of Pilsen. And that's just a sampling of the low-cost delights. Between Greektown, Chinatown, Little Italy and beyond, flavorful gems await just outside of downtown.
Browse Chicago restaurants online and check to see if any are BYOB (bring your own bottle) to save even more by picking up your wine/beer ahead of time.
And several of the city's famed local specialties — the Italian beef, Chicago-style hot dog and Polish sausage — are sold at restaurants and casual fast-food stands across the neighborhoods. Stuff yourself with what is essentially a full meal between a bun and you'll not only get a true taste of Chicago's classic foods, it will only set you back a few bucks.
Chicago is a treasure trove for arts and culture, and many sites and institutions turn free into an art in itself.
In the heart of the Loop, the landmark Chicago Cultural Center is the nation's first and most comprehensive free municipal cultural venue. Every day you can walk in and check the calendar of free art exhibits, music and dance performances, film screenings and lectures, while free weekly building tours cover the architecture and history — the highlight being the world's largest Tiffany stained-glass dome in Preston Bradley Hall.
Other incredible cultural offerings can be had at City Gallery at Historic Water Tower, Hyde Park Art Center, the University of Chicago's Smart Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Photography — just a few of the always free Chicago attractions.
If you're looking for free museum days, a number of Chicago institutions offer Community Discount Days for Illinois residents. For those traveling from within the state, Illinois residents only are eligible for these free days so make sure to check the museum admission policies and bring proper identification. Otherwise check out the list of free museum day offers open to all visitors on select days of the month.
Chicago's neighborhoods are home to several vibrant arts districts, each filled with working studios and galleries free and open to the public. Chicago Gallery News is the go-to source for listings of free exhibition openings, gallery maps, and a full calendar of art walks and monthly events like 1st Fridays in Wicker Park's Flat Iron Arts Building or 2nd Fridays in Pilsen. Or go gallery hopping throughout creative hubs like River North and West Loop on free guided CGN walks (offered seasonally).
Free Festivals, Parades & Special Events
Chicago packs a full calendar of free annual festivals, parades and special events, with summer being the high season.
Major lakefront music festivals include the Grant Park Music Festival (June-August), Chicago Blues Festival (June), Chicago Gospel Music Festival (June) and Chicago Jazz Festival (August). More free music comes to town at venues citywide during the World Music Festival (September) and during SummerDance (June-September), free dancing lessons combine with the live music on the alfresco stage.
Thrill seekers catch high speed stunts at the Chicago Air and Water Show (August). Food lovers pack Grant Park during Taste of Chicago (July) for local eats priced as tasting portions.
For a lively weekend, head to one of the hundred street festivals that pop up in the neighborhoods. Celebrating everything from LGBT pride to ethnic heritage to various musical genres, these outdoor parties offer food, drink, shopping and entertainment — generally for just a small donation of $5-10 to enter.
Parades and holidays add to the festive mix, from St. Patrick's Day traditions of dyeing the Chicago River Green (March) to the Christmas kick-off event on Michigan Avenue, the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival (November).
Consider an attractions pass from Chicago CityPASS or a Go Chicago Card for discounted access to Chicago’s most famous
sights. With Chicago CityPASS, one ticket booklet saves you 49% on VIP admission (within a nine-day timeframe) to five of the city's must-sees, including The Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Skydeck Chicago. With the Go Chicago Card, multi-day card options include admission to 25 different Chicago attractions, from museums to tours to amusement rides to bicycle rentals.
And if your idea of sightseeing involves architecture — and really, every trip to Chicago should! — then add the Chicago Architecture Foundation to your itinerary. In addition to the plethora of tours offered at a range of prices, the gallery spaces at their headquarters (224 S. Michigan Ave.) constantly rotate free exhibitions that will inspire you to look at the built environment in new ways.
Another sightseeing option that is wallet-friendly is Free Tours by Foot, an association of independent tour guides that have brought a pay-what-you-want model to 8 different cities since it started in 2006. In Chicago, the walking tours include Loop highlights (namely public art, architecture and history) as well as themed routes like blues music and literary sights. With no upfront costs, you decide on a value at the end value based what you thought the tour was worth or based on your budget.
Hot Tix offers half-price theater tickets online, as well as at three convenient downtown ticket booth locations:
- 72 E. Randolph St. (across from Chicago Cultural Center Visitor Center)
- 163 E. Pearson St. (inside Water Works & Pumping Station at Michigan Avenue)
- 108 N. State St. (inside Block Thirty Seven at Guest Services, 1st Floor)
Get great deals for great performances every day of the week, including blockbuster Broadway in Chicago musicals, daring dramas from independent theaters and improv from the biggest names in comedy. Hot Tix hours vary by location. Half-price tickets are for select performances affiliated with the League of Chicago Theatres.
Fresh and so Green
Chicago goes green all year long — thanks in part to Lurie Garden in Millennium Park and Chicago Botanic Garden in nearby Glencoe. The outdoor landscapes surround you in natural beauty no matter the seaon, and like all Chicago parks, are free to the public.
Or stay inside: Garfield Park Conservatory and Lincoln Park Conservatory are two stunning greenhouses set in neighborhood parks that boast free admission every day. See what’s blooming in these historic indoor gardens, from massive tropical ferns and delicate exotic flowers to native prairie grasses, or plan a visit around one of the many free flower shows that brighten up the calendar.