Want to get the most out of summer in Chicago — without breaking the bank? We’ve got your back. The city is full of free events, activities, and festivals, so you can fill up your weekends while sticking to your budget.

Here’s just a few of the best free things to do in Chicago this summer:

Chicago beaches

It’s not summer without a day at the beach. Chicago’s stunning lakefront is dotted with more than two dozen free beaches, where you can find paddle boarding, kayaking, boat rentals, waterfront bars and restaurants, and more. Plus, there’s plenty of space to sprawl out in the sand and enjoy the sounds of the water and views of the city skyline.

Millennium Park events

Each summer, Chicago’s iconic Millennium park hosts a full schedule of free events. Relax on the grass, enjoy a picnic, and catch a live performance by a local artist. Or get your heart racing with a scenic summer workout. Check out all the free events at Millennium Park this summer:

Theatre and more in the parks

Shakespeare in the Parks
Photo by Julie Stanton

One of the best ways to explore different areas of Chicago is through the gorgeous green spaces tucked away in every neighborhood. Each summer, these parks come to life with free arts and culture events, including outdoor film screenings, performances from local theatre groups, star gazing, live music, poetry readings, and beyond. Check out the full Night Out in the Parks summer schedule.

Also coming to a park near you, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre is bringing outdoor shows to green spaces all around the city via Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks. These free, all-ages events bring a fresh spin on classic works, featuring local artists, musicians, and dancers. Shows begin this August.

Navy Pier events

Summer means a whole slate of fun (and free!) events on the Pier. Whether it’s a live concert in the beer garden or a yoga class with waterfront views, there’s something for everyone this summer. Check out the Navy Pier events calendar for the full schedule.

  • Wave Wall Moves dance series, May 29 – Sept. 4 on Saturdays
  • Wave Wall Wax DJ sets, May 29 – Sept. 4 on Saturdays
  • Live on the Lake! concerts, May 29 – Sept. 4 on Saturdays and Sundays
  • Skyline Sessions concerts, June 3 – 25 on Thursdays and Fridays
  • Water Flicks movie screenings, July 8 – Aug. 30 on Mondays and Thursday
  • Water Colors jazz concerts, July 2 – Aug. 27 on Fridays

Free summer festivals

Paseo Boricua during the annual Puerto Rican parade. Photo by Adam Alexander.

Chicagoans know that fest season is the best season, and every neighborhood gets in on the fun. Check out these free neighborhood festivals, featuring everything from traditional Chinese lion dances to live music from up-and-coming reggae artists.

Explore more festivals and events in neighborhoods across Chicago

Free museum days

Maximo at The Field Musem

Chicago has some amazing museums, from palatial spaces filled with world history to intimate art museums home to modern masterpieces. Many of these acclaimed institutions offers free admission days for Illinois residents and the public throughout the summer. Here are the free museum days so far for 2021. Or check out the free and cheap museums that are open to the public all year round.

Taste of Chicago To Go

Taste of Chicago

This annual extravaganza is the largest free admission food festival in the world. This year, the iconic fest has been reimagined as Taste of Chicago To-Go with pop-up events throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods. Check out the full schedule for free food, music, and dance events, plus food available from nearly 40 local vendors, from July 7 – 11, 2021.

Bud Billiken Parade

Bud Billiken Parade

With an eye on summer’s end and the start of the school year, the annual Bud Billiken Parade has been going strong since 1929. A celebration of African American heritage and culture, the parade marches down two miles of Martin Luther King Drive with bands, floats, drill teams, dancers, and lots of joy. This year’s parade will take place on Aug. 14, 2021 at 10 a.m.

Blue Angels air show

Chicago Air and Water Show

The largest air and water show in the country, the Chicago Air and Water Show is one of the most anticipated events of the summer. In place of the traditional Air and Water Show this year, there will be a special solo demonstration by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels along the lakefront on Aug. 21 and 22 from 12 – 1 p.m.

Go to the zoo

Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the oldest zoos in the country, is free to the public every day of the year. And summer is an excellent time to visit. The historic zoo, situated along Chicago’s gorgeous lakefront, is bookended by two lush parks with overflowing plant life and skyline views. Inside the zoo, you’ll find fascinating exhibits with critters and creatures from all over the world.

Chicago SummerDance

Chicago SummerDance-1

Learn to dance (or just watch the show) at SummerDance, where you can take a free outdoor dance lesson on an open-air dance floor in parks all over the city. The lesson is followed by live music, so you can try out your new moves. The schedule has dates and locations for August and September 2021, so you can pick and choose when you want to get your groove on.

Art on theMART

If you’re looking for a reason to check out the Chicago Riverwalk (in case the boat tours, waterfront restaurants, and stunning views aren’t enough), don’t miss this breathtaking art experience every evening during the summer. Art on theMART, the world’s largest video art display, features mesmerizing projections created by local artists, museums, theatres, musicians, and more.

Explore a city park

Chicago is home to more than 600 parks, with open space in just about every corner of the city. Millennium Park’s free Lurie Garden is an urban oasis in the heart of the Loop. Also nearby, you can let the kids climb, skate, and play at the sprawling Maggie Daley Park. Head to our neighborhoods for even more green space — work up a sweat with a bike ride or jog along The 606, take in lakefront views at the 31st Street Beach, and meander down the boardwalk at Lincoln Park’s South Pond.

Free walking tours

Chicago Greeter tour in Chinatown
Photo by Adam Alexander

Chicago Greeter offers free tours of Chicago’s vibrant neighborhoods, led by the friendly locals who know the area best. This summer, there are more ways than ever to experience Chicago with a Greeter. Take a fast flexible tour of downtown’s greatest hits, join an immersive tour led by a community group, or get an in-depth, customized tour of the neighborhood of your choice. All for free!

Grant Park Music Festival

Head to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion for the nation’s only free, outdoor classical music series of its kind. During the Grant Park Music Festival, the Grammy-nominated Grant Park Orchestra, along with the 100-plus-member Grant Park Chorus and special guest performers and conductors, bring the sounds of Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and more to Millennium Park.

Explore neighborhood art galleries

3rd Fridays at Bridgeport Art Center
Photo courtesy Bridgeport Art Center

Every third Friday, the Bridgeport Art Center’s artists open up their studios for the public to explore. All manner of art forms are represented: sculptors, photographers, painters, painters, fashion designers, ceramic artists, woodworkers and more. Come chat with the artists, enjoy refreshments, and see their ever-changing work. Other free open gallery nights include 3rd Fridays at Zhou B Art Center and Friday Gallery Nights in Pilsen’s Chicago Art District.