Thinking of heading to the windy city on your next trip? Hold onto your hat! Chicago has so much to offer and is truly a one-of-a-kind adventure. We’ve got 20 free things to do in Chicago for your budget. Check out the latest flight deals to Chicago, Illinois and book your dream vacation.
1. Visit the penguins at the Lincoln Park Zoo
This stunning park is home to a variety of different species and visitors come from all over the world to pet farm animals and interact with lions, tigers, and bears. Oh my! There is plenty to do and see at this park. Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the oldest free zoos in the nation and not only has animals galore, it also has a lot of history. Definitely a must-see to add to your list of adventures to have in Chicago.
2. Overlook the city at the Signature Lounge
Want a breathtaking view overlooking the city without the cost of the iconic Willis Tower? Head over to the 875 N Michigan Observatory (formally the John Hancock Observatory) and take in beautiful views of Lake Michigan and the rest of the city from the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor for your free view. Admission is free so you might be able to buy an appetizer or drink or two. Located right along the Magnificent Mile, you’ll also get the chance to see a 360 degree view of four different states!
3. Plan a picnic at Humboldt Park
Want to spend the day with friends relaxing in the shade? Humboldt Park is the perfect place. Nestled in the heart of the Humboldt Park Community, this sprawling park takes up almost 200 acres and has so much for you to do to keep busy. There’s a field house with a fitness center, two gymnasiums, an inland beach and a historic boathouse. Throughout the year there are a number of different music festivals and events. Take a picnic with you and you’ll be set for the day!
4. Watch fireworks at Navy Pier
You can catch a fireworks show for free from Memorial Day to Labor Day every Wednesday and Saturday night at Navy Pier. You can also check out the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows which offers free entry. If you want to explore the pier during the day and early evening hours, check out the gardens, amusement rides and shops!
5. Stop by the National Museum of Mexican Art
Take a step into the past when you visit this museum. There are plenty of exhibitions to visit and stunning pieces of art by famous painters. The museum is free for visitors and is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm. The museum is the largest of its kind in the nation, and each year brings more than 160,000 visitors from all over the world! In fact, if you’re looking for a free museum to go to, you might find it difficult, the National Museum of Mexican Art is the only museum in Chicago that’s free to the public each day.
6. Stare in awe at the Buckingham Fountain Water Display
One of the largest in the world, this amazing fountain water display is located right in Grant Park. Visitors can witness a major water display for 20 minutes every hour starting at 9am. The fountain usually runs from early May to mid-October, so during the summer and early fall months may be the best time to visit. Take a trip at sunset for a beautiful view of the fountain and lights display against the Chicago skyline.
7. Run along the 606
At one point, this 2.7 mile stretch was a railroad that ran along the northwest side of Chicago. In 2015, the city converted it to a trail where visitors can now bike, walk or run across the old railroad. Similar to the High Line in New York City, this trail also has various pieces of art that locals have created for the park. There are multiple access ramps along the route so that you can wander off and explore different parts of the city.
8. Take a tour of the Chicago Cultural Center
The Chicago cultural center gives visitors the chance to look at free art exhibits, music and dance performances. There are weekly building tours held at 1:15 pm from Wednesday to Saturday that dive into the history of the building as well as a focus on the stunning stained-glass dome. The dome is the largest Tiffany dome in the world and brings in visitors from all over to look at the stunning glass. If you’re looking to explore even further, you can check out the Pedway which is an underground pedestrian walkway system that connects buildings all over Chicago.
9. Walk the streets of Chicago on a free tour
If you’re trying to see all of Chicago at once, this is the way to do it. Chicago Greeter tours are one of the most highly rated things you can do in Chicago, and for good reason. Not only will you learn a lot about the history of Chicago, you’ll also be able to see all the local spots and restaurant recommendations for later in your trip. Chicago Greeters are led by local people and are free to go on.
10. Visit the gardens at Garfield Park Conservatory
Take a day trip to this stunning conservatory and you’ll find yourself surrounded by beautiful flowers and plants from all over the world. It is one of the largest botanical gardens in the U.S. and it’s completely free to visit! There are more than 10 acres of outdoor gardens so it’s a great place to go if you need a break from the city life. Programs and events are also held at the conservatory throughout the year.
11. Make buttons at the Busy Beaver Button Museum
If you’re looking for some thing unique to do while you’re in Chicago, head to the Busy Beaver Button Museum. This quirky museum is the only pin-back button museum in the world and has over 30,000 pins! It is free and open to the public Monday – Friday from 10 am to 4 pm. If you want to, you can also stop by their store online or in person and create your very own button to wear.
12. Stop by the City Gallery at the Historic Water Tower
Looking to learn a little bit more about the history of Chicago? Stop by the City Gallery and check out beautiful photos of Chicago taken by local photographers. The gallery is in the Historic Water Tower which is known for being one of a few buildings left standing after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Visitors can view the beautiful architecture of the old building as well as take a peak at some amazing art.
13. Look out at the Chicago skyline at Promontory Point
To see one of the best views of Chicago, head to Promontory Point. This man-made peninsula juts out into Lake Michigan and offers a brilliant view of the Chicago skyline. Located in Burnham Park, this stretch of land is an oasis away from the city and a great spot for Instagram pics. Pro tip: Head to the waterfront early in the morning so you can beat some of the crowds that arrive during the day.
14. Go on a walking tour of the Chicago Riverwalk
After an evening dinner at one of Chicago’s many restaurants, take a walk along the beautiful Chicago Riverwalk. The river stretches all the way from downtown to Lake Michigan. On Sundays, you can tour the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum for free. The Riverwalk is always bustling with people going in and out of little shops lining the streets, and it’s a great place to go if you need somewhere to spend the afternoon.
15. Tour the Smart Museum of Art
Check out the Smart Museum of Art which showcases over 15,000 pieces of art. The gallery is open every day of the week beside Monday and is always free to the public. The Smart Museum is a part of the University of Chicago and is located right in historic Hyde Park. With various collections of Asian, European and modern art, you’ll find yourself spending the day wandering through the museum in awe of all there is to see.
16. Take a bike ride on Lakefront Trail
Grab your bike, walk or run along the beautiful Lakefront Trail which stretches along 18 miles of Lake Michigan. On your journey, you’ll pass a number of different parks including Hyde Park and Lincoln Park. There are also gardens, playgrounds and concession stands. Visitors like walking along this stretch because there is plenty to stop and do all while taking in a glimpse of Chicago’s skyline.
17. Play arcade games at Replay Lincoln Park
Looking for a fun night of games? Head over to Replay Lincoln Park, an arcade bar full of vintage arcade games and pinball. Although you’ll have to pay for drinks if you want them, the games are completely free! They also hold various events throughout the year with discounted drinks, themed game nights and prizes to win. Definitely a great place to head to after a long day of touring the city!
18. Grab a book at the Harold Washington Library Center
Head to this massive library if you happen to be in Chicago on a rainy day. Open every day of the week and free to the public, this library can keep visitors busy for hours. Take a walk up to the 3rd floor and visit the award-winning Maker Lab. This lab allows visitors to take free workshops and drop-in demonstrations. There are also free music practice rooms with pianos and printed music.
19. Listen to live music at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion
If you’re visiting Chicago this summer, you’ll definitely want to grab a blanket and head over to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. From June to August, there are a wide variety of concerts that happen throughout the week. Usually held in the evening hours, it’s a great place to go and relax after a long day touring the streets of Chicago. Did we mention it’s free? The Pavilion is open daily from 6 am to 11 pm and concerts welcome to everyone who stops by.
20. Take selfies with the Bean at Millennium Park
Last, but certainly not least: The Bean. One of the most touristy things you can do in Chicago. Take a few selfies at Cloud Gate and you’ll have memories of Chicago forever. This cool sculpture shows various reflections of the city and is a tourist hot spot. If you’re looking to take the best pics, try going in the early morning when there aren’t as many people. Millennium Park also has a variety of gardens and even a skating rink.
Chicago is the place to be with so many parks and free attractions to explore, it’s hard not to fall in love with this city. Planning on staying in this beautiful city? Check out the latest hotel deals in Chi-town for your vacation.