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.
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. And make sure to check out the mind-bending reflections of the city skyline from Cloud Gate (the “Bean”) in Millennium Park, which is also home to the famous Crown Fountain that spouts water from its digital faces and transforms into a picturesque ice skating rink in the winter.
And no trip to Chicago would be complete without a visit to Navy Pier. With 50 acres of parks, gardens, shops, eateries and attractions, it’s no surprise the Pier remains a top Midwest tourist destination.
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.
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. Greektown, Chinatown and Little Italy are just a sampling of the flavorful gems that 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.
Chicago is a treasure trove of great art, architecture and photography. Explore some cultural sites that make free into a fine art. 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, concert performances, movie screenings, lectures and special events.
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.
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 Visitor Center 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, Chicago Botanic Garden in nearby Glencoe, Garfield Park Conservatory and Lincoln Park Conservatory. See what’s blooming in these free gardens and greenhouses, from beautiful ferns, exotic flowers and native prairie grasses.