As a travel enthusiast and someone who has been captivated by the windy city’s magic, I’m thrilled to be guiding you on a journey through “40 free things to do in Chicago.” Did you know that Chicago, despite being one of the US’s largest cities, is filled with free activities that cater to a variety of interests?
Whether you’re a local looking for a weekend activity or a traveler on a budget, Chicago has something for you.
Now, let’s dive into this treasure trove of cost-free experiences in the heart of Illinois.
1 Millennium Park’s Cloud Gate
Also known as “The Bean,” this iconic structure offers a unique reflection of the city’s skyline. Take a selfie and marvel at its surreal design. Source
Millennium Park’s Cloud Gate is an iconic feature of the Chicago skyline. Often referred to as “The Bean”, it is a large, curved reflective sculpture created by British artist Anish Kapoor.
The structure is made up of 168 stainless steel plates welded together in a seamless form. Its unique design offers visitors an unorthodox view of the city, with its polished surface reflecting the surrounding skyscrapers, trees, and people who come to admire it.
2 Navy Pier’s Fireworks Show
During the summer, the Navy Pier offers free bi-weekly firework displays that light up the sky with vibrant colors.
Navy Pier is a premier destination in the heart of Chicago, offering guests an unforgettable atmosphere of entertainment, shopping, and dining all year round.
During the summer months, this beloved attraction comes alive with its free bi-weekly firework displays, which take place every Wednesday and Saturday evening at 10:15 PM.
In celebration of Independence Day and summer holidays, each dazzling show features a vibrant spectacle of colors, lights, and sound that can be enjoyed from miles away.
3 Lincoln Park Zoo
One of the oldest zoos in the US, the Lincoln Park Zoo doesn’t charge an admission fee. Visitors can view over 200 animal species. S
Established in 1868, the Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the United States. Located in Chicago, Illinois, the zoo offers free admission to visitors who wish to explore its grounds.
This facility boasts an impressive variety of animals, showcasing more than 200 species from around the world.
4 Chicago Cultural Center
Home to stunning architecture and two beautiful glass domes, this center offers a variety of free public events. Source
The Chicago Cultural Center is a stunning oasis in the center of the Windy City. Home to two exquisite glass domes, and breathtaking architecture, the center serves as an epicenter of the city’s cultural activities.
Visitors have the opportunity to attend a myriad of free public events, ranging from classical music concerts to art exhibitions.
5 Chicago’s Lakefront Trail
A scenic 18-mile stretch that offers breathtaking views of the Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan. Source
Explore the timeless beauty of Chicago’s Lakefront Trail, a spectacular 18-mile stretch that provides stunning views of the city skyline and shimmering Lake Michigan.
Take in the sights as you traverse this picturesque route along the lake’s shoreline, where peaceful greenery and shorebirds abound.
6 Grant Park
Referred to as “Chicago’s front yard”, this park hosts numerous events like festivals, sports, and public art displays. Source
Grant Park is a beloved destination located in Chicago, Illinois. Known affectionately as “Chicago’s Front Yard,” this park has become a destination for those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of city life.
The park offers a variety of activities, such as festivals, sports events, and public art displays. Visitors can also take in the sights and sounds by walking along Lake Shore Drive or simply soaking up the sun on the Great Lawn.
7 Attend Free Festivals
Chicago hosts several free street festivals throughout the year, showcasing music, food, and arts. Source
If you’re looking for a unique and exciting way to explore Chicago, attending one of the city’s many free street festivals is an ideal choice.
From summertime blues festivals to outdoor art markets in the winter, these events provide a great opportunity to experience the best of what the Windy City has to offer.
8 Chicago Architecture Center’s Free Lectures
Held periodically, these lectures delve deep into Chicago’s rich architectural heritage. If you’re interested in learning more about the captivating architecture of Chicago, then the Chicago Architecture Center’s free lectures are just the place for you.
Held periodically, these lectures offer a unique and immersive look into the city’s long-standing architectural history.
9 Garfield Park Conservatory
Spread across 4.5 acres, it’s one of the nation’s premier conservatories with lush gardens and exquisite plant displays.
Garfield Park Conservatory is a breathtaking oasis in the heart of Chicago. Featuring a four-and-a-half-acre span, this impressive conservatory showcases luscious gardens and exquisite displays of plants from around the world.
Visitors to the Garfield Park Conservatory can lose themselves in the tranquil beauty of their surroundings, with over 300 diverse plant species represented in its carefully curated exhibitions and collections.
10 Explore the Magnificent Mile
While shopping might cost you, window shopping and enjoying the vibrant atmosphere of this famous stretch is free.
The Magnificent Mile is an iconic stretch of road located on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Spanning from the intersection of Oak Street to the banks of the Chicago River, it’s renowned for being one of the most upscale shopping and entertainment spots in the city.
The area is home to many luxury retail stores and high-end restaurants, offering shoppers a chance to splurge on whatever they desire.
11 North Avenue Beach
Relax, play volleyball, or just people-watch at this popular city beach with beautiful skyline views. Source
North Avenue Beach is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike, offering something for everyone. For those looking to relax, the beach features stunning views of the Chicago skyline and provides plenty of opportunities for sunbathing and peaceful reflection.
12 Chicago Riverwalk
Stroll alongside the scenic Chicago River and enjoy public art displays, benches, and urban nature spots.
The Chicago Riverwalk is a unique and vibrant experience that offers visitors a chance to explore the city in a whole new way.
Located along the banks of the Chicago River, the Riverwalk provides spectacular views of the skyline, as well as plenty of enjoyable amenities.
13 The Smart Museum of Art
Located at the University of Chicago, this museum offers a diverse collection of art from different cultures and eras. Source
The Smart Museum of Art is one of the oldest and most esteemed art museums in the United States. Housed at the University of Chicago, it has been a leading institution for the preservation and display of international art since its inception in 1974.
The museum hosts an extensive and varied collection of artwork spanning different cultures, eras, and styles.
14 Free Museum Days
Several of Chicago’s museums, like the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium, offer free admission on specific days for Illinois residents.
Visiting museums in Chicago can be an exciting and educational experience, especially if you take advantage of free museum days offered by some of the city’s popular attractions.
The Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium both offer free admission to Illinois residents on certain days throughout the year, giving everyone a chance to explore these amazing spaces without breaking the bank.
15 Chicago Greeter
Experience the city through the eyes of a local. Sign up for a free guided walking tour with Chicago Greeter.
Are you looking for an authentic Chicago experience? Then look no further than Chicago Greeter. This unique service offers guided walking tours of the city, free of charge and led by knowledgeable locals who are passionate about sharing their city with visitors.
16 Harold Washington Library Center
Marvel at the architecture and explore the vast collection of books and digital media at this beautiful library.
The Harold Washington Library Center is a stunning testament to the timeless beauty and power of literature.
Located in the heart of Chicago, this majestic library is home to an impressive collection of books, periodicals, and digital media that span centuries of thought and knowledge. With multiple theatres and galleries, it provides visitors with engaging opportunities to experience a variety of cultures right in the city center.
17 Maxwell Street Market
A historic market offering a mix of bargains, food, and live music every Sunday. Source The Maxwell Street Market is a Chicago institution, that brings together a diverse collection of vendors and customers each Sunday.
Located in the heart of the city’s historic Little Italy, the market has been in operation for over a hundred years, offering an eclectic mix of second-hand goods, delicious food, live music, and much more.
Though most popular with locals, the market draws visitors from across the greater Midwest region. Here shoppers can find one-of-a-kind items at unbeatable prices, whether it be vintage clothing, old furniture, or even unique artifacts.
18 Free Comedy Shows
Venues like the Laugh Factory sometimes offer free comedy nights. Check their schedule. Source
For any comedy fan looking for quality entertainment at an affordable price, the Laugh Factory offers free comedy shows several nights a week.
These shows feature some of America’s best comedians and up-and-coming talent, offering hilarity at no cost.
19 Movies in the Park
As the days of summer heat up, city parks are becoming the prime spot for movie nights and a great way to enjoy the season.
With free movies playing in parks around the city, locals can grab their blankets, some snacks, and settle in for a night under the stars.
20 Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s Money Museum
Learn about the country’s economy and even leave with a bag of shredded money as a souvenir. Source
The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Money Museum offers visitors a unique experience, providing insight into the country’s economy and financial systems.
With interactive displays and engaging exhibits, patrons can explore the history of currency from around the world, see how money is made, and learn about banking practices.
21 Buckingham Fountain
One of the world’s largest fountains, it offers a dazzling water display from April to October. Source
Buckingham Fountain is one of the world’s most iconic and impressive fountains. Located in Chicago’s Grant Park, this colossal monument has delighted audiences for over 85 years with its majestic water display.
Spanning an area of about 1.5 acres, Buckingham Fountain gushes some 14,000 gallons of water per minute at its peak performance.
22 Chicago’s “Magic Hedge
A birdwatcher’s paradise located at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary. Source Located on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago, Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary is an incredible oasis for bird-watchers and nature lovers alike.
The sanctuary is a paradise for over 300 species of migratory and native birds, boasting one of the highest concentrations of birds in the Midwest.
Composed primarily of shrubs and trees, the Magic Hedge provides shelter for an impressive array of birds throughout the year.
23 Explore Wicker Park
Known for its hipster culture, vintage shops, and beautiful murals. Source
Wicker Park is a veritable microcosm of hip culture in Chicago. Located near the Blue Line train on the north side of the city, this small area boasts vintage boutiques, eclectic restaurants, buzzing bars, and one-of-a-kind art galleries.
Stroll through its leafy streets and you’ll find yourself surrounded by charming brick buildings featuring brightly-colored murals painted by local artists.
24 Poetry Foundation Library
The Midwest’s only library dedicated to poetry invites visitors to explore its vast collection. Source
Nestled away in a small Midwest town, the Poetry Foundation Library stands tall and proud. It is the only library of its kind, filled with endless books of verse, crafted into lines so sublime.
Entering this haven of words, one can easily feel the wonder of stepping into an entirely new world. Here, anyone can explore the rich history of poetry, discovering the stories that have been told through the ages.
25 Humboldt Park
A 219-acre park featuring gardens, lagoons, and a boathouse. Source Humboldt Park is an oasis of natural beauty and tranquility in the heart of Chicago.
Spanning 219 acres, this urban park features lush gardens, serene lagoons, and a majestic boathouse that reflects its rich history. Visitors can explore the charming pathways lined with willow trees and take in views of the nearby skyline.
26 Chicago’s Chinatown
Experience a slice of Chinese culture through its architecture, monuments, and vibrant shops. Source
Chicago’s Chinatown is a vibrant, exciting district that offers an immersive experience into the culture of China. From traditional Chinese architecture to monuments honoring important historical figures, it’s easy to get lost in the sights and sounds of this unique neighborhood.
The area is full of wonderful shops selling a wide variety of goods from all over China, ranging from jade jewelry to authentic teapots. You can even find delicious restaurants serving up traditional Chinese cuisine.
27 Promontory Point
Offers a unique view of the city’s skyline and is a popular spot for picnics and bonfires. Source
Promontory Point is a scenic spot in the heart of the city, offering stunning views of the skyline, as well as peaceful picnic areas and bonfire sites.
It has been a popular destination among locals for many years, serving as an escape from the hustle and bustle of urban life.
28 Chicago Botanic Garden
Though parking has a fee, walking into this 385-acre living plant museum is free. Source
The Chicago Botanic Garden is one of the world’s premier living plant museums, boasting 385 acres of lush gardens, meadows, and trails for visitors to explore.
This oasis in the middle of bustling Chicago offers a variety of activities, making it a popular destination for both locals and tourists alike.
29 National Museum of Mexican Art
The museum showcases 3,000 years of art from both sides of the border. Source The National Museum of Mexican Art is a remarkable institution that celebrates the vibrant culture and history of Mexico.
Located in the heart of Chicago, the museum displays art ranging from pre-Columbian artifacts to contemporary works, showcasing 3,000 years of Mexican artistry on both sides of the border.
30 Window Shop on Oak Street
High-end boutiques and beautiful window displays make this street a sightseer’s dream. Source
Oak Street has long been considered a destination for luxury shopping and fashionable style. People flock to the street from around the world, enticed by its finely crafted window displays that showcase the latest designer clothing and accessories.
31 Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool
A hidden oasis in Lincoln Park, perfect for relaxation and nature viewing. Source
The Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool is a hidden gem located in the heart of Lincoln Park. It offers visitors a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, allowing them to sit back and enjoy the wonders of nature in peace.
32 Chicago History Museum
While normally there’s an entrance fee, Illinois residents can enjoy free admission on specific days. Source
For residents of Illinois, the Chicago History Museum is a remarkable opportunity for exploration and discovery.
On certain days throughout the year, admission to the museum is completely free, enabling locals to access all that this incredible history-focused establishment has to offer. The museum features collections from as far back as 1673, so there is something for every type of visitor, no matter their interests.
33 Chicago’s Mural Walks
The city has numerous beautiful murals and street art spots, especially in neighborhoods like Pilsen. Source
Chicago is a city rich in art and multiculturalism, and nowhere is this more evident than in its stunning murals.
From the vibrant colors of Pilsen’s streets to the intricate and captivating images in Wicker Park, Chicago’s murals offer something for everyone.
For those looking to explore the city’s street art offerings, Chicago’s Mural Walks are the perfect way to discover the unique beauty of each neighborhood.
34 Loyola Park
Located in Rogers Park, it offers beaches, fields, and a lovely walking path. Source
Loyola Park is an oasis of beauty located in Rogers Park, Chicago. Spanning 35 acres of serene landscape, this park offers a multitude of recreational activities suitable for all ages. Visitors are welcome to take advantage of its two beaches, expansive fields, and a charming walking path, perfect for taking in the area’s stunning views and connecting with nature.
35 DePaul University Art Museum
This museum features contemporary and historical art and has free admission. Source The DePaul University Art Museum offers visitors a chance to explore the rich history of visual arts. Its collections range from contemporary works to more traditional pieces, all of which are free to view.
Chicago isn’t just about its towering skyscrapers and deep-dish pizzas; it’s a city teeming with free experiences waiting to be explored.
Did this list inspire you to explore Chicago without breaking the bank? Remember, the best things in life (or at least in Chicago) can indeed be free! We’d love to hear about your favorite free Chicago activities in the comments. And if you found this list beneficial, don’t forget to share it with your friends!