Welcome to a summer of free things to do in serene green spaces throughout the bustling city. Morning yoga? Movie under the stars? Perhaps a concert at sunset? Whatever you love to do, you’ll find it in Chicago’s great outdoors.
You could spend an entire day doing free things in Lincoln Park. A few of the highlights include Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the oldest zoological gardens in the United States; Farm-in-a-Zoo, with cows and goats to pet; the Nature Boardwalk, championing ecology and wildlife preservation; the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool, which is serenity itself; the Bill Jarvis Migratory Bird Sanctuary, where you can spot elusive winged wonders; and a farmer’s market on Saturdays from June through October, 7 a.m. – 1 p.m. All these sights and events are surrounded by Lincoln Park’s landscaped gardens, tree-shaded green spaces, and picturesque ponds.
Movie, music, and fitness fanatics will never run out of affordable things to do at Millennium Park during Chicago’s summer months. The park’s famed art and architecture — Cloud Gate, aka “The Bean,” the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, and interactive Crown Fountain, to name a few — create a fabulous backdrop for a year-round schedule of free outdoor events and activities, including the Summer Music Series, the Summer Film Series, and lots of festivals — the Chicago Blues Festival, Chicago Jazz Festival, World Music Festival, and Grant Park Music Festival included. (Check out more free summer festivals in Chicago.)
There are even morning workouts on the pavilion’s Great Lawn, including yoga, Pilates, tai chi, and Zumba — and all for free. For something a little more sedate, take a free guided or self-guided tour of Lurie Garden, a masterpiece of landscape design and a haven for birds, bees, and butterflies.
Maggie Daley Park
Whether you’re a kid or a kid at heart, Maggie Daley Park, part of Millennium Park Campus, is all about fun. The park’s Skating Ribbon provides a curvy course for roller skaters and scooters, while over the winter months it transforms into frosty fun for ice-skaters. The Play Garden is filled with whimsical whales, colorful lighthouses, and upside-down trees in the spirit of Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There are also tennis courts, a mini golf course, and a climbing wall, although fees do apply for these particular activities.
A city centerpiece much like New York’s Central Park, Grant Park is over 300 acres of beautiful green space in the heart of downtown Chicago. The park’s focal point is Buckingham Fountain, built in 1927 and inspired by the Palace of Versailles’ Latona Fountain. Catch the free nightly water, light, and sound show from spring to fall, with the fountain’s center jet shooting 150 feet into the sky.
Grant Park is also home to baseball diamonds, tennis courts, a skate park, breathtaking gardens, and some of the city’s largest free summer festivals, including Taste of Chicago, where local cuisine reigns, and Chicago Summerdance, featuring a 4,900-square-foot open-air dance floor in Grant Park’s Spirit of Music Garden.
Jackson Park was the site of the famous 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, one of history’s most celebrated landscape architects, who also design Central Park in New York City. After the monumental fair, the area was returned to parkland for the public to enjoy. Today, you’ll still find remnants of the historic event in Jackson Park — the Midway Plaisance that connects Jackson Park with Washington Park; the nearby Museum of Science & Industry in the last remaining fair building; and the beautiful Garden of the Phoenix where the Japanese fair pavilion once stood.
Located in the heart of the Humboldt Park neighborhood, this scenic park is home to a historic fieldhouse, the city’s only in-land beach, tennis courts, soccer fields, a baseball field, and beautifully manicured grounds. Visit the tranquil lagoon, where you can rent a vintage-style swan paddleboat. Or explore the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, housed in the park’s landmark stable building.
Run, walk, rollerblade, or bike along nearly 19 miles of Chicago’s Lakefront Trail, a paved pathway with dramatic waterfront and city skyline views. You’ll pass by a number of parks — including Lincoln Park, Grant Park, and Jackson Park — and free public beaches as you make your way from the South Shore up to Edgewater.
Historic Washington Park was designed in 1871 by the legendary landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted & Calvert Vaux for the Chicago World’s Fair. The park was originally an open meadow, where fairgoers would go to roam and watch sheep graze. Today, Washington Park is home to a lagoon, aquatic center, three playgrounds, basketball and tennis courts, athletic fields, the renowned Fountain of Time sculpture, and the DuSable Museum of African American History.
A former industrial rail line is now the 2.7-mile elevated park and trail known as The 606, featuring biking and running paths, an observatory, street-level parks, public art, and scenic look-out points. The 606 connects four of Chicago’s hip northwest neighborhoods — Wicker Park, Bucktown, Logan Square, and Humboldt Park — which are fun stops for art lovers, shoppers, and bar hoppers.
Garfield Park Conservatory is a great reason to visit Garfield Park. Not only is it one of the largest conservatories in the country, but the fact that it’s referred to as “landscape art under glass” tells you everything about the experience in store. Visit the conservatory for free and find yourself surrounded by koi ponds, gurgling waterfalls, and exotic plants in spaces like the Palm House, Fern Room, Desert House, and Aroid House. You’ll also find the historic Golden Dome field house at Garfield Park, which holds a gymnasium, auditorium, dance studio, fitness center, boxing center, grand ballroom, and meeting rooms. Outside, you’ll discover a swimming pool, baseball fields, athletic fields for football or soccer, a fishing lagoon, tennis courts, floral gardens, and playgrounds.