Chicago is renowned for its amazing cultural sites and attractions. But did you know that many of them are free? We’ve put together a list of six of the top free things for groups to do in Chicago. From architecture tours and live music to visiting an acclaimed Mexican art museum, there’s something for everyone in your group.
1. Chicago Cultural Center
There are loads of free things to see and do at the Chicago Cultural Center. Experience the magnificent architecture of this historic landmark during a private Chicago Cultural Center Building Tour. The guided tour will take your group beneath the world’s largest Tiffany stained-glass dome and through rooms with exquisite details like marble arches and coffered ceilings.
The Chicago Cultural Center offers a variety of free arts programs, including the lunchtime Dame Myra Hess Concerts held every Wednesday at 12:15 p.m. in the grand Preston Bradley Hall. These 45-minute classical music concerts feature a lineup of emerging artists, from violinists to pianists. Chamber Mondays, held on the fourth Monday of the month at 12:15 p.m. in Preston Bradley Hall, present some of Chicago’s most talented classical, jazz, and global music instrumentalists and vocalists.
Theatre, dance, and film presentations are also regularly scheduled at the Chicago Cultural Center. And you’ll discover a number of rotating art exhibits in galleries throughout the building. See the Chicago Cultural Center’s events calendar to find out what will be happening during your group’s visit.
2. Millennium Park
Millennium Park is Chicago’s free playground for the arts. Intriguing larger-than-life public art includes the multimedia Crown Fountain featuring projected faces of everyday Chicagoans and Anish Kapoor’s reflective Cloud Gate sculpture, affectionately known as “The Bean” and a favorite backdrop for the quintessential Chicago selfie.
Make a reservation to take a Chicago Greeter tour of Millennium Park with a local who will customize a free tour for groups of up to six guests, in more than a dozen different languages. Or arrange for a free private group tour of the beautiful Lurie Garden from May through September. In the evening, grab a spot on the lawn and see a free concert at the stunning Jay Pritzker Pavilion.
Seasonal happenings at Millennium Park include the summertime Grant Park Music Festival, Millennium Park Summer Music Series, and Millennium Park Summer Film Series. In the winter, skate at the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink and join in Caroling at Cloud Gate.
Don’t miss Maggie Daley Park, located right next to Millennium Park. It features a Play Garden for little visitors and a Skating Ribbon that winds through the park, with rollerblading from spring through fall and ice skating in the winter.
3. Chicago Riverwalk
The scenic Chicago Riverwalk is dotted with attractions and waterside restaurants. Take your group for a stroll along the promenade and view vibrant public art that ranges from colorful murals to sculptures. You can’t miss the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza, a tiered plaza and waterfall that honors Illinois soldiers.
The free one-hour Chicago Riverwalk InstaGreeter Tour, offered Thursday through Sunday afternoons from May – October, is led by a friendly and informative local. In the evening, catch Art on theMART, the world’s largest digital art projection, featuring colorful images by various artists displayed on the giant Chicago River-facing facade of theMART.
4. Navy Pier
Navy Pier is home to thrilling attractions like the sky-high Centennial Wheel, The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare, and a myriad of Lake Michigan cruises. But there’s also plenty of free things for groups to do. Besides providing a welcoming entrance to Navy Pier with a dramatic plaza and fountain, Polk Bros Park features Performance Lawns that host free outdoor arts and cultural presentations. Be sure to stop in at the Peoples Energy Welcome Pavilion, which greets guests in several different languages and offers timely information on Navy Pier activities.
Enjoy live music and special performances at the Fifth Third Bank Family Pavilion. The free entertainment continues with live music coupled with sweeping lake and skyline views at the outdoor Miller Lite Beer Garden from May through October. Or head upstairs to Offshore Rooftop & Bar, the largest rooftop bar in the world (open year round). Navy Pier’s spectacular summer fireworks light up the lakefront on Wednesday and Saturday nights from Memorial Day (the last Monday of May) through Labor Day (the first Monday in September).
5. National Museum of Mexican Art
The free National Museum of Mexican Art is located in the heart of the Pilsen neighborhood, which is steeped in Latino history. Wander the halls of this dynamic museum and you’ll find a collection of more than 10,000 works that bring to life the richness of Mexican art and culture. Also, look for special events held throughout the year. Docent-led tours for groups of 10 – 40 people must be reserved in advance, and are offered in English, Spanish, or bilingual.
After visiting the museum, lead your group on a self-guided walk through the Pilsen neighborhood and marvel at the more than 400 brightly colored murals that adorn the sides of buildings, railway overpasses, and homes. The 2.5-mile stretch of 16th Street features one of the largest concentrations of street art in Chicago.
6. Lincoln Park Zoo
Animal-loving groups will want to spend the day at Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the few free zoos in the country. See hundreds of animals, including polar bears, gorillas, snow monkeys, black rhinos, penguins, and more. The historic lion house is currently under renovation and will reopen in the near future as the modernized Pepper Family Wildlife Center.
Time your group’s visit with various free daily zoo activities, such as feeding the cows at the charming Farm-in-the-Zoo, seal training, ape cognition and care, and free-flight tropical bird feeding. Seek out the serene Nature Boardwalk winding along a prairie pond that’s a haven for wildlife, including birds and fluttering butterflies. During the holidays, don’t miss the dazzling ZooLights, featuring animated lights displays that transform the zoo into a glittering winter wonderland.