Chicago is an awesome city with a distinct culture, tasty hometown food, and friendly people who manage to bring a Midwestern hospitality to a busy metropolis. From their famous comedy clubs like Second City, to the legendary sports teams like the Chicago Cubs, all the way to the big city glam of the shops on Michigan Avenue you’ll find something that anyone can enjoy in the Windy City.
Like any travel destination, though, it can be easy to get sucked in to expensive and sometimes unnecessary purchases and attractions. To help you travel in a thrifty way, I’ve assembled this list of things to do for FREE while traveling in Chicago.
Yup, this would be the park the infamous “bean” (technically called Cloud Gate) that has become an icon of Chicago in just a little over a decade. That’s not the only free thing to do here, though. Throughout the year, particularly in the warmer months, there are events and music festivals housed under the Jay Pritzker Pavilon from the country’s only free outdoor classical music series of its size to the Chicago Blues Festival, Chicago Gospel Music Festival, Jazz Festival, World Music Festival, and the Chicago Air and Water Show that are all completely FREE! If it’s the winter time, don’t fret! They also offer a free ice skating rink.
Chicago Cultural Center
The Chicago Cultural Center, which just so happens to be in walking distance of Millennium Park, can be something of a best kept secret for travelers to Chicago. It’s a large, historic municipal building that is not only beautiful to look at but filled with a number of arts and cultural events that are completely FREE. If you like art exhibits, there are a number of exhibits from many renowned artists at the Center, in addition to free film screenings, kid’s events, and music performances. You can also catch a free daily tour of the building (great if you are an architecture buff) and check out the world’s largest Tiffany-stained glass dome that is quite the sight to see!
Lincoln Park Zoo
A trip to the zoo can be a great outing for families (or a group of scrappy 20-somethings!), but what can make it even better is if its free. The Lincoln Park Zoo happens to be free 365 days a year for each and every visitor. There are exhibits that are open in both the warmer months and colder seasons. During the holiday season, make sure to check out ZooLights- a fun Christmas light display.
Navy Pier is a famous shopping and entertainment district with beautiful views of Lake Michigan. Now this one comes with a bit of a disclaimer- technically it is free to walk around it but this heavily visited attraction has all of the typical markings of a tourist trap. The parking is expensive, the food and souvenirs are pricey, and if you aren’t careful you can end up spending quite a bit of money on things like boats tours and riding the ferris wheel (which costs $12 a person). I’d recommend taking public transit to Navy Pier rather than parking directly near it and maybe even packing a sack lunch to save money on food. If you walk far enough down the pier you can also normally find some cheaper priced boat tours. Plus twice a week during the summers they do a free fireworks show.
Get a Free Guided Tour
There are a number of tours in Chicago that charge money but there are still PLENTY of options if you want a free tour run by volunteers. Tours by Foot offers walking tours of Chicago for a range of themes from a movie and television filming location tour (if you want to see places where famous movies were shot) to a ghost tour of allegedly haunted places in Chicago if you want to get your ghostbusting on. In addition you can get an individual tour from Chicago Guide, but make sure to reserve a spot at least 10 business day in advance.
There a number of free museums in Chicago ranging from the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago, and the Hyde Park Art Center. There’s also the Money Museum, which happens to also be free (go figure!). Plus you can take a free tour of a brewery.
Check out the Beach!
A great thing about a lakeside city is that there are a number of beaches to visit for free. If it’s the summer, go ahead and pack a swim suit so you can soak up the sun! And if it’s the winter, seeing a snowy beach with a frozen lake makes for a very surreal Instagram-worthy photo-op.
Watch a Free Improv Show
There are a number of improv theaters to see in Chicago, but most cost money (side note- at Second City you can tickets that have a view “partially obstructed” by a pole at a discount FYI). There is one improv troupe that offers shows completely free of charge, though. The aptly named “Free for All” show is every Sunday at 7:30PM at The Playground Theater.
Watch Some Free Theater Shows
The Free Street Theater was one of the first racially integrated theater companies in Chicago when it was founded in the 1960’s and aims to create theatrical productions that highlight a diverse range of experiences. True to their name, they offer free shows!
Take a Stroll Through the Botanic Garden
The Chicago Botanic Garden offers free admission and is open year-round (yes, including winter). Whether you are looking for a pleasant stroll or a tram tour, this can be a great place to check out if you’re looking to unwind and enjoy the scenery in this 385-acre destination. There’s also the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park or for something indoors, there’s the Lincoln Park Conservatory.
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