Visiting the Windy City this summer? Chicago is a must-visit destination every season of the year, but in the summertime, it truly shines. From our beautiful, Lake Michigan beaches to our playful, imaginative parks, there is something for every adventure-loving family under the sun. Budget-wise moms and dads will be happy to learn that the best things to see and do this summer in Chicago are totally free!
Here are our family's picks for the top seven free things to do this summer in Chicago.
The 35-acre Lincoln Park Zoo, located along the lakefront in Chicago's North Side Lincoln Park neighborhood, has been delighting visitors since it was founded all the way back in 1868—it's one of the oldest zoos in the US! It's a true green oasis in the city of Chicago, and an excellent spot to connect with nature: kids can explore tropical rainforests, hike through a dry-thorn forest or wander a savanna... all in one afternoon.
One of the best free indoor playgrounds in the city is located in the children's zoo within the zoo: At the Pritzker Family Children's Zoo, families can take a walk in the woods, where you'll find North American creatures out and about, then head into the main children's zoo building where kids can climb a giant tree-like sculpture that will take them up into the treetop canopy of a forest. Throughout the year, the Lincoln Park Zoo plays host to an exciting array of educational programs, from sleepovers with the animals to twilight safaris. Try to plan your visit to coincide with one of the many interesting hands-on learning adventures for kids and families.
Everybody loves the ice skating loop at Maggie Daley Park, but in the summertime, make a beeline to the southeast section of park, where an imaginative, 3-acre Play Garden invites children of all ages to swing, slide and soar. A series of interconnected spaces offer surprises around every corner, and the swings, slides and climbing equipment here promise more thrills than your average play park. Bring your trikes and roller skates, too: in the summertime, kids can scooter around the Ribbon and watch climbers ascend the climbing walls.
All 28 miles of Chicago lakefront are free and open to the public. From the north to the south side, Chicago's beaches promise wide stretches of sand, cool, refreshing water and the occasional wave.
Before you hit the beach, check out the Chicago Park District's Beaches web page, which lists important beach info, including swim status, water quality, weather data, location information, amenities, directions and historical details about each of the 24 beach locations. You can also text to easily find out the swim status of a beach: simply text the name of your beach to (312) 715-SWIM. Here are our family's picks for the kid-friendliest beaches.
Most Chicago museums offer free admission one day each week. The Museum of Contemporary Art is free for Illinois residents on Tuesdays, year-round, and children under 12 are always free.
Dig into the history of Chicago at the Chicago History Museum, where admission is free every Tuesday for Illinois residents, and children under 12 are always free: We love the exhibit Sensing Chicago, which re-creates the experiences of riding a high-wheel bicycle down a wood-paved street, hearing the Great Chicago Fire and catching a fly ball at Comiskey Park.
Kids under 14 are always free at the world-class Art Institute of Chicago; Illinois residents can enjoy extended hours every Thursday evening from 5 to 8 p.m. for free, too.
Insider Tip: Sign up online for the Museum of Science and Industry's Summer Brain Games and you'll receive weekly emails with detailed instructions on eight different superhero-themed science activities that can be easily done with some sidekick (adult) supervision using items found around the house or inexpensively purchased, as well as a FREE Museum Entry voucher! This year’s Summer Brain Games runs June 15 through August 13, 2017; register at msichicago.org/summerbrain.
Why go to the boring old movie theater when you can spread out a big blanket and sit down for a flick under the stars in a Chicago park... for free?! The Chicago Park District screens free, family-friendly films outdoors at dusk starting in June in parks across the city. Look for updates to the showings by checking their website.
Millennium Park's Crown Fountain wasn't designed to be a water park, but kids have claimed the black-granite, water-soaked expanse between the two interactive, glass-brick towers as a splash-worthy play space of their own. When the digital faces on the towers “spit” water from their lips every five minutes or so, you'll see kids clamoring to find a spot in the waterfall cascade. Even parents will want to cool off in the 3–4 inches of water—bring a change of clothes just in case you get soaked!
The Chicago Riverwalk is a pedestrian-friendly trail that runs along the river, offering a truly unique view of Chicago’s magnificent architecture. Along the route, expect live performances from local musicians, public art exhibitions and more; Check the calendar of events for upcoming performances and events.Though you can walk along this urban pathway, it's also fun to bike: bring your own bikes or rent cruisers, tandems or tag-alongs from Bike and Roll Chicago.
Save 50% on premium admission to Chicago’s top attractions with CityPASS tickets.
Includes prepaid admission to 5 must-see attractions:
- Shedd Aquarium
- Skydeck Chicago
- Field Museum
- Adler Planetarium OR Art Institute of Chicago
- Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, OR 360 CHICAGO Observation Deck
Valid for 9 consecutive days, Chicago CityPASS tickets cost $108 for adults (value $214) and $89 for children ages 3-11. Buy online at CityPASS.com or at any CityPASS attraction.
Spend less, experience more.
If you have a little train lover on your hands, hop aboard Chicago's 'L' for a tour around the Loop. Though it's not exactly free, a $2.75 train ticket will give you a view of the city of Chicago like no other. Step up and onto the Brown Line at Adams and Wabash for a timeless perspective of Chicago from its elevated tracks.