Planning a trip to Chicago on a budget? Chicago can be expensive but fortunately many of the best things to do and see in Chicago are totally free! We have put together a list of 60 free things to do in Chicago.
Free Things to Do in Chicago
Free Chicago Attractions
- The Chicago Riverwalk has steps, benches and other spots where you can sit for free and relax while watching the boats, kayaks and other activity on the Chicago River.
- Watch a free 30-minute program of digital art projections at Art on theMART, across the 2.5-acre river-façade of theMART, twice nightly.
- Chicago Cultural Center offers many free cultural exhibits and performances annually as well as free guided building tours of the beautiful landmark building.
- Cloud Gate (nicknamed The Bean), the famous mirrored sculpture in Millennium Park, is one of Chicago’s top tourist attractions.
- Cool down and splash in the water spouting from the mouths of faces projected on LED screens at Crown Fountain in Millennium Park.
- Enjoy the beautiful skyline views and flowers at Lurie Garden, a 2.5-acre garden located at the southern end of Millennium Park.
- If you are traveling to Chicago with toddlers, check out Maggie Daley Park, a large public park with several different play areas for kids, which is connected to Millennium Park by the BP Pedestrian Bridge.
- While there is an admission charge for the rides and Centennial Wheel at Navy Pier (click here to purchase a fast pass ticket and skip the long line), it is free to visit and enjoy the free public programs and events year round.
- Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park is one of largest fountains in the world. A light and music display accompanies the water displays in the evening.
- Garfield Park Conservatory is a large and beautiful botanical conservatory with free admission (although donations are requested).
- Walk, bike, run or just hang out along the Lakefront Trail, a 18-mile-long stretch along Lake Michigan.
- Enjoy one of Chicago’s many public beaches along Lake Michigan.
- Have a picnic or enjoy the views from Lincoln Park, a large public park close to the Lakefront and popular North Avenue beach.
- Lincoln Park Zoo offers free admission.
- Lincoln Park Conservatory is another free conservatory.
- The Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool is a 3.14-acre natural area in Lincoln Park with a combination of perennials, bulbs, grasses, shrubs and trees and offers great skyline views.
- Garden of the Phoenix is a peaceful Japanese garden in Jackson Park.
- Walk or bike The 606, an elevated trail that goes through Chicago’s northwest side neighborhoods.
- Instead of paying for admission to the 360 CHICAGO Observation Deck at 875 North Michigan Ave (formerly the John Hancock Center), you can enjoy similar views for free at the Signature Lounge (although you have to purchase a pricey drink).
- Look for street art throughout the city, including the Wabash Arts Corridor in the Loop.
Free Chicago Museums
These museums always offer free entry:
- National Museum of Mexican Art.
- Museum of Contemporary Photography.
- National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture (NMPRAC).
- DePaul University Art Museum.
- Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago.
- Design Museum of Chicago.
- Oriental Institute Museum (but donations are requested).
- National Veterans Art Museum (but donations are suggested).
- Chicago Fed’s Money Museum (temporarily closed).
- Hyde Park Art Center.
- Clarke House Museum.
Free Chicago Museum Days
The museums below are not usually free but regularly offer free admission on select dates or are free for children, teens or other select groups:
- Art Institute of Chicago always offers free admission for all children under 14, Chicago teens under 18, active-duty service members and Illinois educators. Admission is also free for Illinois residents on weekdays (Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays) until March 24, 2023.
- Field Museum has free admission days for Illinois residents on select dates throughout the year.
- Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) offers Illinois residents free entry on select dates throughout the year.
- Adler Planetarium offers free entry for Illinois residents every Wednesday is with proof of residency.
- Shedd Aquarium has free admission days for Illinois residents on certain dates.
- The Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier has free family days on the last Thursday of every month from January through May as well as September & October.
- Chicago History Museum is free for all children 12 and under and Illinois residents 18 & under year round. They also offer select free days for Illinois residents.
- American Writers Museum in Chicago is free for children ages 12 & younger.
- Driehaus Museum is free for children 12 & under and active military (with ID).
- Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) is free everyday for anyone 18 and under, visitors with disabilities and their caregivers, Illinois elementary and high school teachers and active members of the military and veterans, police, and fire departments with ID. All Illinois residents receive free admission on Tuesdays.
- The DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center is free for Illinois residents on Wednesdays. They also give free admission to military and to first responders with valid ID.
- Chicago Public Library (CPL) cardholders who are adult residents of Chicago, may check out a Kids Museum Passport which allows a family of four (4) general admission to various museums during regular public hours.
- Art Institute of Chicago, Adler Planetarium, Chicago History Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art offer free admission the first weekend of every month for Bank of America credit or debit cardholders under the Bank of America Museums on Us program.
Free Chicago Activities
- Take a free personalized tour with a volunteer Chicago Greeter, which are customized based on your interests.
- Navy Pier has free fireworks every Wednesday and Saturday night between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend.
- Listen to free music outdoors at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park during the Grant Park Music Festival.
- Enjoy free concerts on Tuesdays on the terrace at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
- Watch free movies in public parks around the city as part of its Movies in the Parks series in the summer.
- Ice skate at the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink which is right in front of The Bean.
- Go outdoor ice skating in Chicago public parks.
Free Chicago Events and Festivals
Chicago has many free events and festivals that take place annually, including the following.
- See the river dyed green and St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day.
- Catch one of the many free parades in Chicago throughout the year.
- Taste of Chicago is a free-admission food festival that takes place in the summer.
- See rubber ducks racing in the river during Chicago Ducky Derby, which benefits Special Olympics Illinois.
- Chicago Air and Water Show takes place every August.
- Open House Chicago, hosted by the Chicago Architecture Center every October, offers behind-the-scenes access to architecturally, historically and culturally significant sites across the city.
- The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival is a nighttime parade in November that kicks off the Christmas holiday season
- City of Chicago Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony every November.
- Christkindlmarket, the popular German-style outdoor market that takes place in the holiday season, is free to visit.
What is your favorite free thing to do in Chicago?